the weblog of Alan Knox

Rethinking the assembly

Posted by on Dec 21, 2007 in books, definition, gathering, scripture | 13 comments

In his book Making a Meal of It, Ben Witherington makes an interesting observation about God’s initiation of the Passover. He says:

Notice, first of all, that Exodus 12:1-3 suggests from the outset that this is not something celebrated in a cultic context but rather in a family and home context… In verse 3 we have the crucial term edah. It refers to the “gathering” or congregation of God’s people. We do not find the more usual term qahal here, which some have seen as the origin of the New Testament term ekklesia since both terms refer to a special assembly of some sort. The term gathering or congregation does not refer to an abstraction here but rather to an actual physical meeting or coming together of God’s people for a religious purpose. This celebration was not optional but was to involve the whole people of God. It took place house by house, and the head of the house was responsible for supplying the sacrificial animal. (pg 5-6)

Here is the passage to which Witherington refers:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. (Exodus 12:1-12 ESV)

This is a very interesting passage for me, and it may help me understand how the church can be both large (3000 believers in Jerusalem) and small (meeting house to house).

Apparently, when God initiated the Passover, the instructions were given to the entire people of God – the edah, or congregation. This was one people – one congregation. However, the instructions were not carried out together, nor were the instructions carried out by one person on behalf of the entire congregation. Instead, each family was responsible for carrying out God’s instruction. Thus, the instructions were given to the large group but carried out by the family. In fact, the congregation as a whole did not do anything as a group. The large group was obedient only through the obedience of each family.

This sounds very similar to what we read about in Acts 2:

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… (Acts 2:46 ESV)

Apparently there were times when large groups of believers met together. In this passage we see them meeting in the temple. Similarly, there were times when believers met together in their homes in smaller groups, sharing meals and fellowship with one another. Which one represents the church? Both. Which one represents the church in Jerusalem? Both.

Just as the Passover instructions to the whole congregation of Israel were carried out family by family, the new people of God assembled as the church house by house.

Similarly, when Paul spoke to the elders from Ephesus, he reminded them of his practices:

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house… (Acts 20:20 ESV)

It seems that, for Paul, the church in Ephesus existed as a whole and as individual units. These units were not parts of the church or subsections of the church, but they were the church living out the fellowship they had in the Spirit.

Thus, the God’s people assemble in large groups when they can, and they assemble in smaller groups when they can. Each group is a valid representation of the church and can allow the believers to encourage, teach, care for, love, admonish, shepherd, etc. one another. When the believers gather in one location, they are the church. When believers gather in small groups in different locations from house to house, they are the church.

There are problems with either of two extremes: 1) only viewing the larger group as the church or 2) only viewing the smaller group of people as the church. Primarily, the thinking of most Christians today falls between these two extremes. They do not see the larger groups – think city-wide – as the church, nor do they view the smaller groups – think cell-groups, small groups, etc. – as the church. Instead, they see the “local church” as the only valid representation of the church.

If my view of the church is correct, then how can we help ourselves and others to recognize all believers in an area as the church, and the smallest meeting of believers as the church? What are the major questions and concerns that this view raises for you or others?


13 Comments

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  1. 12-21-2007

    Alan. Good post (as usual). I think that ekklesia, the church, in the NT, refers primarily to the gathering of believers, not to an institution, and not to a people. I prefer to use “God´s people” for all christ-followers. I also think that EVERY TIME we gather we should do it in a way that takes 1 kor 12-14 seriously. No meeting in Jesus name should be put up as a show, with just a few speaking and singing. For me, this excludes must of our present time large gatherings. A large group could, if they have enough time, meet and decide something together, but all should participate. I could also imagine a large group hanging out, maybe eating, together. But we should not have a normal meeting, since we then had to disobey the teachings of Paul (1 Kor 14_26-) – only a few would participate. I think we should not think of something church-like when we read that they met in the temple. They were not sitting in rows, listening to Peter preaching. The jewish temple was not a church building!! Probably they were more “hanging out”, and/or preaching the gospel to non-believers. I think of God´s people as more like a loose network of house churches than “a local church” or a city- or nation-wide institution.
    /Jonas Lundström

  2. 12-21-2007

    Alan,

    You said,

    There are problems with either of two extremes: 1) only viewing the larger group as the church or 2) only viewing the smaller group of people as the church. Primarily, the thinking of most Christians today falls between these two extremes. They do not see the larger groups – think city-wide – as the church, nor do they view the smaller groups – think cell-groups, small groups, etc. – as the church. Instead, they see the “local church” as the only valid representation of the church.

    I agree that this is a problem. Folks who are burned-out by the market-driven mentality of seeker churches tend to gravitate toward something more intimate like a house church because they’re sick of consumerism in the church whereas others who are tired of the lack of funds available for missions, etc. in a smaller church use such notions to justify attending larger fellowships.

    I personally don’t have a problem with the church meeting in huge groups for conferences, seminars, or lecture-style teaching (that is certainly necessary at times), but I do think that when it comes to our individual congregations, in order for us to fulfill the command of 1 Cor. 14:37 (namely, that everyone should have the freedom to participate and use their spiritual gifts to edify the rest of the body in the Sunday church meeting), that a local congregation ought be constituted in such a way that everyone has the freedom to use their gifts for edifying that body and also for the purpose of practicing the 58 “one-anothers” of the NT.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to try to numerically limit the size of such a thing, but do think it is important to recognize that the regular gathering of the saints on the Lord’s Day is an opportunity for mutual encouragement, fellowship in the breaking of bread, the apostle’s teaching, and prayer. However, there are times when it would be appropriate for some Sunday (or weekday) gatherings to have more of a lecture-style format with larger numbers in attendance for the purpose of detailed doctrinal teaching or whatever.

  3. 12-22-2007

    Jonas,

    You said: “I also think that EVERY TIME we gather we should do it in a way that takes 1 kor 12-14 seriously.” My thoughts exactly!

    Dusty,

    I agree with what you’re saying here, as long as that larger meeting is also an opportunity of mutual encouragement. This would be difficult, but not impossible.

    -Alan

  4. 12-22-2007

    The real solution of the assembly, ecclesia, or church is to realize that the Christ’s example shows it to be a body, that is the body of believers, all are individual members of that body. All members are gifted with the Holy Spirit. There is one head Christ. All the rest of us are mere members. Each individual member of the body is part of the whole (a Member in particular) fully self sufficient. So whether two meet together or two thousand, they remain individual members. Each member will receive his own Spiritual body when Christ returns. 1 Cor 15:50 -58.
    The big problems occur when you start putting some members over others or making members answerable to other members or an institution, a Church or church body or minister or elder.
    Jer 31:31-34. v34 and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour and every man his brother, saying Know the Lord: for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest of them (no separate ministry or priests), saith the Lord Fr I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Heb 8: 10 -13.Heb 10 : 15-16.
    Vic.

  5. 12-22-2007

    Vic,

    I agree, especially this statement: “The big problems occur when you start putting some members over others or making members answerable to other members or an institution, a Church or church body or minister or elder.”

    -Alan

  6. 12-22-2007

    I agree with what you’re saying here, as long as that larger meeting is also an opportunity of mutual encouragement. This would be difficult, but not impossible.

    I have difficulty understanding how larger congregations could do this. As much as I love and appreciate the ministry of Dr. John MacArthur, pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, how that church could successfully fulfill the command of 1 Cor. 14:37 is beyond me. There is no way that everyone would have the freedom to use their spiritual gifts during the church meeting for the edification of everyone else because there are 2,000+ people in attendance at their three services each Lord’s Day.

    This is the problem I’m getting at and its a problem I think is rooted in an American fascination with “bigness.” We like all things “big”. Big trucks, big guns, big meals, big drinks, and big churches. There is a kind of dynamic and powerful experience you get from being part of a large crowd . . . and large crowds tend to naturally attract more people because of this dynamic. I think this is the case with many large churches and sadly, by design, it prevents this kind of mutual participation because everybody is looking at the back of each other’s heads listening to one guy “perform” in the oratorical show by giving a 45 minute lecture. I don’t have a problem with this occurring infrequently, but a weekly occurrence creates pew potatoes.

    Again, I have no problem with infrequent conferences, seminars, lectures, etc. with large crowds for the purposes of instruction from a noted bible teacher or expert. But how can a church meeting be interactive and participatory when you’ve got 2,000+ people involved? Yes, I realize that 3,000 were converted in Acts 2, but that wasn’t a regular, weekly church meeting, it was outdoor, open-air street preaching.

    Form follows function. If the function of the church is to allow for mutual participation during the church meeting in order to provide edification of the entire church body (per 1 Cor. 14:37), then weekly church gatherings that are so numerically large they can’t practically fulfill this function have a flawed form/structure that prevents what Paul lays down in Scripture. Again, I wouldn’t put a number on how many people should attend a regular weekly gathering of the saints, but if it is so many that they can’t mutually carry out 1 Cor. 14:26-37, then they need to consider forming a new church body. And in my view, this would be a good thing because the more churches, the better!

  7. 12-23-2007

    Dusty,

    There are serious implications to what you (and I) are saying. I think many people will refuse to consider what we are saying because of those implications. However, God always surprises me.

    -Alan

  8. 12-23-2007

    There are serious implications to what you (and I) are saying.

    Yes, like (1) the inability to pay a pastor’s exorbitant salary, and (2) having costly church buildings that serve as financial sinkholes of God’s money; things that I believe have no basis whatsoever in Scripture. That money would be better served going to church planters and missionaries/indigenous apostolic-type workers and helping the poor and orphaned (James 2).

  9. 12-23-2007

    Dusty,

    Yep. Very serious implications indeed. Of course, I think the implications of the normal church meeting are even more serious and hazardous.

    -Alan

  10. 12-23-2007

    Great post, Alan. I think the biggest problem will be when people think that certain people shouldn’t be there because of their beliefs. I do not have to travel far into blogdom to see the word heretic thrown about. Some denominations come with great pride in their distinctives, and that could make it difficult.

    I, like you, however, have great hope for unity in and through Jesus and believe that this may be our future, especially as persecution may become more commonplace.

  11. 12-24-2007

    Bryan,

    Yes. Its easier to call someone a “heretic” than to actually love them and learn from them. I’m glad that I’ve come across more and more believers from many different traditions and with many different belief systems who “have great hope for unity in and through Jesus”!

    -Alan

  12. 12-25-2007

    Alan,

    This is an interesting post that indeed has me thinking and “rethinking” about the assembly.

    I am curious as to whether you intentionally posted this shortly after your post on Old Testament structures. Is Ex. 12.1-3 a model to be followed? Or does it illustrate some transcontextual principles that we might apply in NT models?

    If we are talking about transferrable models, I think the modern-day cell church may come close to replicating what is depicted here.

    I personally think the cell church is a pretty good contextualization of the general principles taught here.

    What also needs to be taken into consideration, though, is the “city church” aspect of NT ecclesiology. One autonomous “cell church,” if it is not in fellowship with the entire “city church,” may not be a faithful NT model either.

    What I am still trying to think through is how this fellowship with the “city church” should be defined.

    Any further thoughts?

  13. 12-26-2007

    David,

    Thanks for the comment. Actually, even though I published the two posts within a few days of one another, I wrote them a couple of weeks apart. I did not intend to write the “Rethinking the assembly” post as a prescription for how to assemble. Instead, I tried to use it to describe how the terms “congregation” and “family” were used in this context and to project that onto the NT assembly. To me, this is different than justifying modern practices by looking back at OT structures. However, perhaps I am too close to this. If it seems that I am doing this, then please let me know.

    -Alan