the weblog of Alan Knox

The Church in the New Testament

Posted by on Sep 22, 2009 in edification, gathering, scripture, spiritual gifts | 24 comments

In my previous post (“A Megachurch in Jerusalem?“), I concluded that Acts 2:46 cannot be used to justify a meeting of a large group of believers. In other words, Acts 2:46 does not indicate that 3000 believers in Jerusalem met together for a “worship service and sermon.”

But, I honestly don’t care how many people meet together as the church. Whether there are 2 brothers or sisters who meet together or 20,000 brothers or sisters who meet together, the number of people meeting is not the issue. There are many more important questions besides how many believers should meet together as the church.

For example, why should the church meet together? This question considers the purpose of the church assembling. Paul tells us that whenever the church gets together and whatever is done, everything should be done for the purpose of edification (1 Cor 14:26). Similarly, the author of Hebrews (Paul again?) says that believers get together in order to provoke one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24-25).

Importantly, the purpose is not for the individuals of the church to be separately edified. Instead, the purpose of the church assembling is for the church as a whole to be mutually built up. Unfortunately, mutuality is lacking in many church meetings, whether large or small.

When we look at the New Testament descriptions of church meetings, we see the church taking part in certain activities.

What activity does the church take part in most often? Meals. That’s right. In almost every instance when the church meets together in the New Testament, they are sharing meals together (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20-21; Jude 12). In fact, the “theological” problem surrounding the Lord’s Supper which Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 11:18-34 concerns HOW they are eating together, not what they believe about the elements themselves. Eating together was extremely important to the early church. Unfortunately, meals have not been given the same importance in much of the church today, whether “large” churches or “small” churches.

Believe it or not, you also find discussion in the church meetings in the New Testament. Interestingly, in Acts 19:8-9, we see Paul using the same method to teach disciples in the School of Tyrannus that he used to teach the Jews in the synagogue. The verb used is one that conveys the idea of dialog or discussion. In fact, this same verb is used to describe what Paul did “until midnight” when conversing with the church in Troas (Acts 20:7-11).

Also, just as interestingly, you will not find anyone lecturing the church in the New Testament. Similarly, neither the verbs “preach” or “evangelize” are used to indicate what happened when the church met. Instead, we see several people taking part in speaking and serving when the church met (Acts 13:1; 15:32; 1 Cor 14:26-40). This observation corresponds with the biblical idea that the church grows and God is glorified when the whole church works together through both speaking and serving (Eph 4:16; 1 Pet 4:10-11).

The idea of discussion or dialog has also lost its place in the church meeting. Whether the meetings contains only a few believers or many believers, usually only one or two trained speakers are allowed to take part in teaching. This is not the kind of teaching that we find in the New Testament.

We also find the church giving to those who are in need, both individually (James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-18) and corporately (Acts 4:34-37; 1 Cor 16:1-2). In fact, the only examples of corporate contributions in the New Testament are taken up for others who are in physical need. Unfortunately, for many individual Christians and church groups, the needy are placed near the bottom of the list when it comes to contributions.

Of course, there are many other things that could be said about church meetings in the New Testament. For example, on a positive side, the church did meet to pray. On a negative side, we don’t see any examples of modern day “worship times” with “worship ministers,” “choirs,” or “worship bands.”

Now, certainly, there is nothing wrong with choirs or worship bands. There is nothing wrong with someone choosing some songs to sing. Unless, of course, these practices take the place of what we do find in Scripture – the believers coming to the church meeting with a song for the group to sing (1 Cor 14:26).

There is nothing wrong with a lecture (“sermon”). In fact, some people can learn from a lecture. However, there is a problem when the lecture replaces any other types of speaking and/or teaching.

Thus, the purpose of my previous post (“A Megachurch in Jerusalem?“) and this post is not to say that all of these things are wrong, just as it is not wrong for 3000 Christians to meet together.

Instead, I encourage all churches to consider what they are doing and compare that to Scripture. If you are doing things that are not even described in Scripture… why? If you are not doing things that are described or prescribed in Scripture… why not?

Why focus on things that may be allowed by Scripture while ignoring things that are modeled for us in Scripture?

If Scripture is important to us for our beliefs, why not for our practices?


24 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-22-2009

    Excellent post, Alan.

    I did jump the gun in response to yesterday’s post. Overall your presentation is balanced and biblically sound. Kudos.

    Tracey

  2. 9-22-2009

    Alan,

    This has got to be the best summation of what we need to be as the Ekklesia I have seen. Thanks brother!

  3. 9-22-2009

    i’ve was taught in Bible College that the greek that Hebrews is written is just too good for it to be Paul so i’ll go with someone else. how about Aquila? who knows eh?

  4. 9-22-2009

    Great post. I would agree that some of the extra-Biblical traditions we have are not bad in and of themselves except when they interfere with what IS in the Bible.

  5. 9-22-2009

    Tracey and Jack,

    Thank you.

    shallowfrozenwater,

    Ok.

    Arthur,

    I agree completely.

    -Alan

  6. 9-22-2009

    Amen and amen and “So say we all!”

  7. 9-22-2009

    Instead, I encourage all churches to consider what they are doing and compare that to Scripture. If you are doing things that are not even described in Scripture… why? If you are not doing things that are described or prescribed in Scripture… why not?”

    Excellent questions here!

    Yet, I still feel like I’m left wondering about a lot of things… I mean, I totally hear you on the point that the early church gatherings were centered around eating meals, and mutual dialogue/discussion for the edification of everyone, and they even sang songs together sometimes. I get that sermons/lectures were not commonplace like they are now. Those are all good points.

    But what about the underlying questions of turning the church into a business? ? ?

    If we are serious about weighing ourselves against what is and isn’t described/prescribed in scripture, then what about the fact that the NT believers never resorted to any of our modern day business approaches, whether it had to do with where they met, or how they were “led”, or how they interacted between different groups spread around the Roman empire?

    Isn’t this issue just as much a part of our “practice” as the matters of eating meals together or how we go about teaching?

    The NT describes the early church as taking collections of food/money for the purpose of distributing it to those in need. There was no “overhead”, there were no financial obligations that the church itself had to meet first. Giving was something that was done entirely freely, and for the sake of others, and never because there was some unspoken pressure in the back of everyone’s mind to pay the bills. Aren’t these things to be considered as equally descriptive/prescriptive as the all the other things we can glean from the NT?

  8. 9-22-2009

    To add to (or perhaps to rephrase) your final questions, Why do we specifically exclude things that are modeled in scripture as “descriptive” not “prescriptive”?

    In my analysis, Prescription/Description is just a fancy way for people to say, “We don’t *want* do do things like they did.”

    Excuse me for shouting but, WHY WOULDN’T WE???

  9. 9-22-2009

    Amen Bill, (I was just using those terms cuz they were already being tossed around…)

  10. 9-22-2009

    Leighton,

    Thanks.

    Daniel,

    I would place meeting locations in the same category as lectures and other things that are not described or prohibited by Scripture. As long as they don’t interfere with what Scripture does describe, then they’re okay. Now, you bring up some very good points that churches should consider before they pay to meet anywhere.

    Bill,

    “Why wouldn’t we?” I don’t know.

    -Alan

  11. 9-22-2009

    Daniel, I meant my comment in reply to the “final questions” of Alan’s post and (embarrassingly) I hadn’t scanned your comment before I typed mine. Sorry to be unclear.

    I also liked your points. :-)

  12. 9-23-2009

    I agree that everything a church does needs to be scrutinized through the lens of the Scriptures. In addition, I agree that any tradition that causes a church to violate Scripture or devalue commanded aspects of worship should be discarded. Only those traditions that are consistent with the Word of God should be used; however, I would add that they should be used in a manner that does not oblige all Christians to follow them.

    However, I was just wondering. Do you folks fill vacant church offices by prayer and casting lots? Meet together daily in the temple and homes? Hold all your material possesion as common? Pray at appointed times? Sell all of your property for the church treasury? Provide food regularly for widows? The list could go on and on.

    WHY DON’T WE DO THEM? Because they are described not prescribed. We may want to argue about what is prescribed v. described, but they are valid distinctions. If they weren’t, all of you would be doing the above activities as the Apostolic Church did in Acts. Or, you would be in disobedience to God.

  13. 9-23-2009

    Jeremy,

    Why does Scripture describe these things and not others? Why does Scripture describe (several times) the church eating meals together in homes, but never describes what happens (apart from prayer and proclaiming the gospel) in the temple courts? Why do we follow some scriptural descriptions (meeting on Sunday is only described in Acts 20:7) but not others?

    By the way, in answer to your rhetorical questions, yes, we attempt to do the things you listed in our own cultural context. Yes, we are recognizing elders by praying and voting (a form of casting lots). Yes, we meet together daily – or as close to daily as possible – and we proclaim the gospel publicly (not in the temple, since there is no temple here for people to gather in). Yes, we share our possessions with one another. Yes, we pray together – not at appointed times. Yes, we sell our property in order to help others in needs. We have not provided food for widows, but we have provided other necessities. The list could go on and on.

    The point is not to follow to the letter what is described in Scripture (I don’t think Scripture is a rule book). The point is to follow the spirit of what we see in Scripture by following the Spirit that God has given us. Also, the point is to question everything that we do – especially those things that were handed down to us but are neither prescribed nor described in Scripture. What we’ve found is that many of those traditional practices actually hinder us from following what we do see prescribed and described in Scripture.

    -Alan

  14. 9-23-2009

    Very well said. Blessings to you!

  15. 10-21-2009

    I agree with much of what you wrote, but I do think a few statements were . . . well . . . overstated.

    It is clear that ALL were gathered on the day of Pentecost. It is possible that this was the 120 mentioned in Acts 1:15. When Peter stood up and addressed them – it was not dialogue.

    Now I realize that the word, kerysso, is not used in that passage, but it certainly was in Acts 9:20 – where the word is preached in the synagogue.

    So the argument may still be, that is not in a church, but rather in other public gatherings. Well, what about Romans 1:15? Paul is writing to believers in Rome and he longs to go preach to them. Paul tells Timothy “preach the word.” This is contained in one of the pastoral epistles. Would you suggest that this is only outside of the church in which Timothy had been sent to guide and help?

    Preaching is certainly supported in converting the lost and edifying the church. A church (Not to be confused with THE CHURCH) consists of both the lost and the saved. So preaching most certainly is emphasized in scripture.

    I would say in churches that have Sunday School, both methods are utilized. They dialoge between members of a Sunday School class coupled with the preaching of a sermon is a great way to communicate to the lost the saving grace of God and a great way to build up the church.

    As far as giving goes:
    Does Paul address taking care of ministers? How were the Temple and the Synagogues maintained? In the beginning of Israel, there was no Tabernacle or Temple and therefore no need to pay for such an item. God then changed that. The same is true for Synagogues. These buidlings existed for the meeting of God’s people and the people built and kept these buildings. There is no mention of gathering offerings to keep church buildings up because the NT was simply the beginning of Christianity.

    I really enjoyed much of your article, but I believe you missed the mark of these two items.

  16. 10-1-2011

    awesome post! glad I found this one today!!

  17. 5-16-2012

    Hi,
    good article. One thing I would mention is that the tree is known by it’s fruits. If the fruit is of man, then maybe the tree is of man? When the tree is out of heaven then the fruit is of heaven also. I have found that those who are truly born of water and the spirit are blown by the spirit. Those with a theoretical salvation; the result of a gospel that is of man; can’t be expected to be blown by the spirit. Look to the roots.
    All the best, Colin Thompson, Gateshead, England.

  18. 5-17-2012

    Colin,

    There are those who are in Christ who bear fruit of the Spirit in some areas of their life but not in others. We see several examples in Scripture, for example in the Corinthian church. Hopefully, we can continue to point all of our brothers and sisters in Christ toward Jesus, trusting him, and allowing the Spirit to teach and guide through one another.

    -Alan

  19. 6-2-2012

    Great article!
    The write asks the question: “If you are doing things that are not even described in Scripture… why”

    I have a book recomendation:

    Pagan Christianity ~ By Frank Viola and George Barna

    It addresses this very thing and how most of our church practice today derives from pagan practices during constantine times, not from the Bible.

  20. 6-2-2012

    Paul writes:
    As far as giving goes:
    Does Paul address taking care of ministers? How were the Temple and the Synagogues maintained? In the beginning of Israel, there was no Tabernacle or Temple and therefore no need to pay for such an item. God then changed that. The same is true for Synagogues. These buidlings existed for the meeting of God’s people and the people built and kept these buildings. There is no mention of gathering offerings to keep church buildings up because the NT was simply the beginning of Christianity.

    How do we know that the change is God’s will and not mans?

  21. 6-2-2012

    All this talk about prescribed/described

    Just because it is merely decribed and not prescribed does not mean that we should not do it that way.

    We must remember the purpose and that is the eification of believers so that they can grow and bear fruit. So if we ignore that which is described and not prescribed we may not be in disobedience however we may not be achieving the desired end. A clear evaluation of the church of God in this western culture is in order. Do we find that they are growing? Do we find that they know how to handle difficulties in life? Do we find that they’re minds are being renewed and they are being transformed in character?

    We can come up with alot of man made ideas for how church chould be practiced but we need to ask ourselves what is our motive for doing it this way or that way.

  22. 6-4-2012

    Jamel,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, I’ve read Pagan Christianity and several of Frank’s other books. I think my favorite book of his is Reimagining Church. Motives are often difficult to check, even honestly. I can tell from experience with myself and others, that we often do things a certain way simple because that was the way were taught and raised, so it seems right and good.

    -Alan

  23. 5-14-2013

    This is a great post Alan. I think this hits the nail on the head in terms of a lot of discussions i’ve had with people who are heavily invested in traditional churches. One thing i’d like to ask is, what is your understanding of James 3:1?

    “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

    I ask this because I have had this verse thrown at me saying that not everyone should be teaching or sharing in a church gathering. I have my own thoughts on it, but i’d like to hear yours. Perhaps you’ve already written a post on it?

    Blessings brother.

  24. 5-14-2013

    Nathan,

    I don’t think I’ve written specifically about James 3:1 before. There’s nothing in James 3 to limit his warning to a particular context, role, gathering, or “office.” I think to understand James 3:1, we must take it in context. James is talking about the danger of speaking without self-control. If we understand James 3:1 as saying that only a few should teach, then that would stand in direct contradiction to other passages, such as Colossians 3:16 (again, look at who Paul is talking to in the context) and Hebrews 5:12. Similarly, if we take the “Great Commission” as given to all followers of Jesus, then teaching (which is part of the commission) would be part of that command.

    -Alan

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