Is It Possible to Meet as a New Testament Church Today?
A Word of Explanation
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to meet with the first Christians?
One of the greatest blessings this side of heaven is to gather with others who take God and His Word seriously. We are a group of believers saved by grace through faith in Christ and His finished work (Ephesians 2:8-9) who meet simply around the Lord Jesus, seeking to follow only the directions given in the New Testament. We believe that the church is God's idea. Christians do not meet in congregations merely because it is desirable or helpful, but because the Lord has ordained it (1 Thessalonians 2:14).
Our Lord Himself first spoke of the church when He declared that He was its builder and would establish it on a sure foundation (Matthew 16:18). He also first spoke concerning the local gatherings of believers (Matthew 18:17).
There may be some things about a local church like this that would be different to you. We would appreciate a few moments to explain how we meet and why.
By the way, there are many who meet like this.
You may have heard of names like George Muller, the great man of faith; H.A. Ironside, the famous Bible expositor; Jim Elliot, the intrepid martyr of Ecuador; or W.E. Vine, author of the well-known Dictionary of Expository Words. These met simply according to the pattern found in the New Testament, as thousands do worldwide. There is no division between "clergy" and "laity" in our meetings, because there is no such division in the New Testament. We want to gather simply as Christ's ones in His name (Matthew 18:20; 1 Corinthians 5:4; Matthew 23:8), recognizing no names that would divide God's people (1 Corinthians 1:10-15; 1 Corinthians 3:3-5). To be gathered in His name is to meet by His authority, submitting to His Lordship, and following His Word.
Does the New Testament provide a pattern?
If you suggested changing any other doctrine - salvation by faith in Christ, the deity of the Lord Jesus, or the inspiration of Scripture, for example - it would invite strong reaction from Bible-believing churches. But somehow many feel we are free to redesign the church any way it suits us. Yet we have no more right to make a new way of meeting than a new way of salvation.
"At the very outset of the New Testament it is striking that the Lord Jesus and the apostles labored to establish only one institution - the local church (1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33-34). Paul stated, 'As a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon' (1 Corinthians 3:10). The local church lies at the heart of God's program today. Indifference to the doctrine of the church is certainly indifference to the plan of God."
- Uplook, January 1998, pp. 27-28
Francis Schaeffer writes, "The church did not sit there as a group of believers with no form. The New Testament form is commanded by God. These norms are not arbitrary - they are God's form for the institutional, organized church and they are to be present in the twentieth century as well as in any century" (The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 1970, p. 66).
A New Testament assembly takes the Bible as authoritative and complete.
We believe firmly in the historic doctrines of the church. However, rather than subscribing to man-made creeds, rules, and constitutions, we find the Word of God to be the only infallible statement of Christian faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). The Scriptures should be appealed to directly in a gracious and humble spirit (2 Timothy 2:25) to settle all disputes, give directives to the assembly, and provide the basis for all public and private ministry.
A truly scriptural assembly should be composed only of true believers.
By this we mean people who, believing the gospel, have experienced the miracle of new birth, and know themselves to be "children of God by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 3:26). We are "not ashamed of the gospel" (Romans 1:16) and seek to share it with others.
Unconverted people cannot truly participate in worship or other holy activities of the church, nor could they be expected to support its testimony by holy living. Christians are exhorted not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), although we should do good to them and show them by our lives that we belong to the Lord Jesus.
Christ is the gathering center.
Although a local church is a gathering of like-minded believers, no fellowship based on people will work. "Truly our fellowship," said John, "is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). Matthew 18:20 states: "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them."
It is so easy to be distracted from Christ, to find ourselves gathering to a preacher, a set of doctrines, a sacrament, or form of church government. This is very different from being gathered to Christ. We want to recognize His headship (Colossians 1:18) in our assembly practically. We believe He deserves this, for it is His church: "Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25).
The Lord's Supper occupies a central place.
As the early Christians did, we come together on the first day of each week to "break bread" (Acts 2:42; 20:7). Being a divine appointment, it should never be relegated to a secondary place, or treated as a matter of occasional obedience. It is to be a time of calling our Lord to mind and declaring His death for us. It is observed not as a sacrament administered by a clergyman, but celebrated as described in 1 Corinthians 11. The prime purpose of this time is not to minister the saints, as in other meetings of the church, but to minister to the heart of God through appropriate reading of scriptures, worshipful hymns, and prayers expressing to God the worthiness of our Savior.
What about baptism?
The word "baptism" is the English form of the Greek word "baptizo", which means to submerse or immerse. All converted people in the New Testament times were baptized before taking their place in a local church (see Acts 2:41; 8:12). Christ had commanded that this should be done (Matthew 28:19). The same pattern is observed by scriptural assemblies today. Converts should be taught that baptism is the symbol of their being buried with Christ, and rising (as He rose) to walk "in newness of life" (Romans 6:1-11).
The Holy Spirit represents Christ on earth.
Of course, it is not enough to recognize the truths of Scripture if we do not act on them. May claim to be Bible-believing churches, and we thank God for that. But we must seek also to be a Bible-obeying church by the work of the Spirit of God in us. It is of the utmost importance that the Holy Spirit be given His place in the local assembly. His power is the only power for worship, ministry, or evangelism. It is easy to displace Him by substituting human arrangements. It is common in many congregations to have one man to preside as minister or pastor, with activities under his control. However it is the Spirit who is to direct the saints in their meetings (1 Corinthians 12 and 14).
For the guidance of the assembly, elders are appointed by the Spirit.
From Acts 20:17-38, we see that the terms "elders" (v.17) and "overseers" (bishops, see margin, v.28) are used of the same individuals and are applied to those who "take heed...to the flock" (v.28). In other words, elders, overseers (or bishops), and pastors (or shepherds) are all describing the same workers in the church. Elders emphasizes their maturity; overseer emphasizes their responsibility; shepherd emphasizes their ministry - to heed, lead, and feed the local flock. These men (the words are always used in the plural) are to fulfill the qualifications given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Our elders are to be respected, prayed for, and obeyed (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
There is no difference in value between men and women, but there are distinct roles.
The work of Christ has removed all human distinctions of privilege (Galatians 3:28). And every believer, whether male or female, is a priest to God (Hebrews 13:15). As holy priests (1 Peter 2:5) and royal priests (1 Peter 2:9), we can worship and witness all we desire.
But as in the home, men and women are given distinct roles in the church. Church order, like chronological or alphabetical order, has nothing to do with importance. it has been established by God so "all things [are] done decently and in (according to the) order" (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Men are to come to church meetings prepared to function publicly as the Spirit leads, representing God to the assembly in the ministry of the Word (1 Peter 4:10-11) or representing the assembly to god in prayer and praise. This is to be done carefully so everyone can add "Amen" (1 Corinthians 14:16). The women are free to speak to the Lord all they wish, however they must do it silently. (They are only silent as far as we are concerned - God hears them, as he does the men who are praying silently). Thus the women have free access to pray and worship as the men do, but are not to usurp authority from the men or act in the church as a representative (1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:11-12).
Why do the women wear the head covering?
God's glory is to be seen alone in the assembly of the saints. In order to do this, the men remain uncovered by not having long hair and by removing any head coverings, because the man is "the image and glory of God" (1 Corinthians 11:7). Any covering on the man would veil God's glory. The women, however, are the stewards of the coverings.
There are two competing glories in the church. "The woman is the glory of the man" (1 Corinthians 11:7). And "if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her" (1 Corinthians 11:15). Because there are two symbolic glories to be covered, there must be two coverings. The first covering (Greek "peribolaion") is the woman's long hair (v.15b) to hid the glory of the man (the woman herself). The second covering (Greek "katakalupto") is to hide her glory - her own hair. In this way, God's authority is declared in the church. By it the men are reminded that, in their ministry, their glory is to be hidden. The angels are also instructed by it (1 Corinthians 11:10).
What about membership?
Strictly speaking, the only church membership spoken about in the New Testament refers to the act of placing a new believer into the Body of Christ. This happens the moment one is saved (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 5:30). We have no member's list, but do receive into fellowship those whom Christ has already received (Romans 15:7; 16:1-2). The whole assembly is happy to receive all who: i) confess Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord; and ii) have a consistent Christian life and testimony.
Being received into this fellowship means you are ready to embrace the privileges of local church life and willing to accept your responsibilities with us. These include regular attendance at the meetings of the church (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25), the exercise of your gift for the upbuilding of others (1 Peter 4:10), submitting to one another, especially in obedience to the elders (Hebrews 13:17), and sharing as the Lord enables you in the financial needs of the assembly (1 Corinthians 16:1-2: 2 Corinthians 9:7) as an act of worship (Hebrews 13:16). You will notice that funds are not solicited, especially not from unbelievers (3 John 1:7).
But there is so much more!
Obviously in a paper like this it is not possible to deal fully with all the issues involved in church life. But as we seek the truth in God's Word, the Holy Spirit delights to show us more. The Apostle Paul stated the two-fold wonder of God's blessings to the human race: "To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 3:8-9). May the Lord help us all to enter more fully into these twin treasures: what we have in the cross of Christ and what we have in the church of Christ.
The preceding is taken from the pamphlet "Is It Possible to Meet as a New Testament Church Today? - A Word of Explanation," published by Gospel Folio Press. Used by permission.
Much of this material adapted from "A Scriptural Assembly" by Andrew Stenhouse.