In the NT the word “church” appears 92 times. The Greek word which is translated “church” is “ekklesia” and literally means “a called out assembly or an assembly gathered for a purpose.” Though the use of “ekklesia” in the scriptures generally always refers to the NT church of CHRIST, it is also used to describe various other “assemblies” as well. (see Acts 19:32,39,41)
It seems obvious that the body of CHRIST (which is the NT church) is spoken of corporately or together as a unit rather than as its individual parts. In other words, though a man may be considered a “saint” by reason of his individual calling, the church is a gathering together of the saints as a plurality, and therefore is an entity which does not exist in an individual, though each individual is a vital part of that body, without which the body is not whole. This is illustrated in Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
In military parlance a “troop” often refers to each individual soldier, though it can be used to speak of a particular squadron or number of soldiers. Yet this is quite in contrast to the use of the word church in the NT which is never used to speak of one individual. This is an important point as we come to understand the relative importance of each member of the assembly to the building of the church: none are irrelevant. Those who gather in a particular location are “assemblers”, most especially when applied to the NT use of the term “church”.
The “church” can be the entire bride of CHRIST which is that body for whom CHRIST shed HIS precious blood to redeem. They are the “general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven.” (Heb 12:23) This body has often been referred to by some as the “universal, invisible church”. This is a very unfortunate characterization, since the Bride of CHRIST is neither “universal” nor “invisible”. It is not “universal” because it is impossible to be a member of it, apart from the specific electing grace which is bestowed on those and only those who are chosen in CHRIST before the foundation of the world. It is not invisible because the people of GOD can be seen; perhaps not all at the same place or in the same age, but are nonetheless visible, real, people. “After this I beheld, (that which is invisible cannot be seen) and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9-10)
While the term “church” can be synonymous with the “Bride of CHRIST”, (i.e.; those for whom HE died), it is most often used in relation to a particular geographical gathering of called out disciples. This is what we call the “local church”. It is this “church” which the children of GOD are exhorted to not forsake the assembling of. It is impossible that any of those for whom CHRIST died, should somehow be left out of that “general assembly and church of the FIRSTBORN”, so the only church which they could possibly forsake would be a local one.
Thus we are convinced that the assemblies of the saints play a vital role in the lives of those who are the “called according to HIS purpose” and those who forsake that assembly are not edified thereby. Finding a NT “ekklesia” is not as easy as just picking out a place, to go on Sunday morning, where fine structures house congregants of every stripe and spot imaginable. There are multitudes of organized religious folk who gather together each week to ostensibly “worship the LORD” and in many cases even speak a language which is closely related to the gospel and have traditions which are founded in antiquity. But a “NT church” cannot be discovered by its programs and practices, how long it has existed in the community, or how happy folks who gather there are made to feel. Rather a NT church is manifested by its function as a body which is “compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph 4:16)
So, the purpose of my writing is not in the hopes that nominal or habitual “church” attendance would increase since that already occurs without any prompting on our part. Part of the “program” of most such assemblies, is one designed to work to increase their numbers and revenue by being “appealing” to the masses.
Neither is it my purpose to try to “shame” folks for missing a meeting or two of such religious institutions. Rather I would hope to point out that the NT church is a living organism which is utterly dependent on every part being in submission to CHRIST. GOD’s people are edified by such an “ekklesia” and stunted by forsaking it. As such a NT church is completely at odds with the generally accepted concept of the church (regardless of its “pedigree”).
Those who have a low regard for the assembling of the saints have a limited understanding of the vital nature of the “church” or either they are not “the called according to HIS purpose.” (see I John 2:19) It is no surprise to us that many, who give good evidence of being born again, find themselves unhappy with most modern religious gatherings called “churches.” It is no surprise to us that these same folks often feel quite satisfied when they are not in attendance at such gatherings and find other pursuits more fulfilling. This is the result of seeking out fellowship among the dead. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (2Cor 6:14-16)
It is a surprise to me (and quite odd in my own mind to say the least) to see those who are called out together in a specific location, (who ostensibly value the fellowship of the brethren in CHRIST) finding greater satisfaction in other pursuits than in that fellowship. This must be due to one of three things or perhaps a combination of more than one, which I will list in order of likelihood (in my opinion).
- The local church is not functioning as the scripture indicates a NT church should. This is an unfortunate result of the gargantuan influence of religious traditions which have multiplied over the years and have infected nearly all local assemblies to some degree. It is very difficult for most to clearly differentiate between relatively harmless forms and those practices which strike at the heart preventing the church from functioning as a living organism rather than an organization which simply repeats and follows traditions handed down for generations.
It is hard to escape from such traditions, especially when one has been exposed to them all of their life. This causes a defense mechanism to kick in when “mavericks” suggest that such tradition should at least be examined in light of the scriptures. So, I think that many of GOD’s children grow weary in “tradition oriented” assemblies (and often do not know why) because they are neither being ministered to by the whole body, nor exhorted to minister to the body themselves. Such assemblies generally do not function as a body but rather as a schoolroom presided over by teachers and leaders. Everything is like prepackaged food and no one is encouraged to think “outside “the religious box, much less cut a hole in the side of it, or even worse yet encourage others to look at the panoramic view which exists there.
- The heart of the individual has grown cold and indifferent as a result of the chastening hand of GOD. The most common view that is held concerning “chastening” is that it is a response on the part of GOD to some disobedience which occurs in HIS child’s life. The common thinking is that we can avoid chastening by being obedient. This was exactly the view held by Job’s “miserable comforters” and “physicians of no value”.
Yet the scripture says that to be without chastening is to be a bastard and not a son. When GOD chastens HIS children, HE always does so for their benefit and while disobedience may seem to result in chastening the opposite is actually true. Disobedience is a result of the chastening of GOD. It is in these times of barrenness that the sons of GOD (if they be true sons) are driven to the feet of the LORD to cry out for mercy. This may sometimes be a long drawn out process, but every step of the journey is ordained by HIM who works all things according to the good pleasure of HIS will. The LORD has a way of weaning the hearts of HIS people from a love of this world that is completely opposite to the way which the natural man often assumes this would be done. (see I Cor.5:1-5) Joy cometh in the morning, not before.
- The individual is still in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” (1John 3:14) There is no doubt that some do not value the assembly because they have no love and esteem for those who are purchased with the blood of CHRIST. This is a condition which is not necessarily common among NT churches but is nonetheless demonstrated from time to time in order that GOD’s people might value HIS grace more highly. There is no remedy for this condition other than the application of sovereign mercy by the hand of HIM who is the DISPENSER of such. While we recognize that this is the case we do not try to identify them nor seek to uproot them since some of the wheat may be uprooted in the process. “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Mat 7:20)
Churches are usually comprised of three types of individuals. 1. Those whose chief desire is to give of themselves to the brethren. 2. Those whose chief desire is to benefit themselves by assembling with the brethren. 3. Then there are those whose chief desire is to fulfill religious duties by assembling. Due to the imperfections of the flesh, the saints are usually a composite of these types, but there is normally a predominant trait in each one.
The first type is the most demonstrative of a CHRIST-like spirit. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2Cor 9:7) Into this category falls those who give without expecting anything in return. They are more concerned that they set a good example to the brethren rather than trying to impress them with their knowledge. They are more ready to pray for their brethren than to correct them, to help rather than give advice. “But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.”(1Pet 3:4) While this is, specifically, an exhortation to godly women, by Peter; the same is applicable to men as well.
The LORD JESUS explained this principle to HIS disciples when HE said, “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Mat 23:11) This is totally contrary to the way of the flesh but is nonetheless indicative of the principles upon which the kingdom of GOD is built and forms the very basis of a functioning NT church.
Those who are called to be teachers and overseers, desiring to leave a lasting impression on those whose souls they must give account for, must be of this type so that the word of GOD be not blasphemed. This is what Paul meant when he told Timothy, “A bishop then must be blameless, (not a seeker of self benefit) the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, (or cordiality, desiring to help) apt to teach.” (1Tim 3:2) They cannot be lifted up with pride lest they fall into the same condemnation as a novice. Peter summed it up in this exhortation “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.” (1Pet 5:2-3
Nothing is more at odds with the operation and function of a NT church than teachers who think that what they say is more important than what they demonstrate by their walk. Paul entertained no such delusions, as he expressed to the Philippians, “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example.” (Phil 3:17) “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” (1Pet 2:21) Eloquent instruction means little except that the SPIRIT confirms the truth by producing a spirit of humility and service in the teacher. The landscape of history is littered with the bones of those who were great “preachers”. The memories of the saints are filled with the thoughts of those who in obedience to their LORD led by example. “The memory of the just is blessed.” (Prov 10:7)
This trait of servitude among the saints, regardless of calling, is the very fabric of the church, which when sewn together with the golden thread of kindness forms a garment which is both lovely to wear as well as to observe. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Phi 2:3-5) Oh that the LORD might make each one of us such men.
Then there are those whose main desire is to receive. All men have a certain measure of this, which in due moderation is not evil. All of GOD’s people hunger after righteousness and desire the fellowship which others can give. Yet the exhortation of Paul to the Ephesian elders emphasized giving rather than receiving, “I have showed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Act 20:35)
Paul’s exhortation to them is equally applicable to all of the saints of GOD; and those who are primarily concerned with their own needs rather than those of their brethren have misplaced values. (see James 2:16) Those whose main desire is to receive are those who generally are the first to find fault and sit in judgment when they do not feel their needs are being met or that things are not done as they think they should be. They are quick to take offense and demanding of apologies when slighted. They are usually critical of things that are said, jump to conclusions, and often make men offenders for a word. (see Isa.29:21)
Another trait that is pronounced among these “takers” is that they often bounce about from this congregation to the next; never making any sort of commitment to be of help to the brethren in any one place. They sometimes view themselves as roving critics who can opine about how a church should properly operate but can never seem to move beyond their own criticisms and give of themselves to a local church. They consider their own case to be “special” and “highly spiritual” and not completely understood by the rank and file.
It is sadly true that most nominal churches are filled with people who attend church because of what they “get out of it.” When they fail to get their “dose” of whatever it is they are looking for then they will usually go somewhere else looking for what they can “get out of it”. It is a sad commentary when any who are true saints take their cue from such behavior and imitate it.
One of the most unfortunate sights that is sometimes seen among the churches of the LORD is the descendants of Diotrephes in action. Diotrephes was, evidently, an elder in one of the churches, that John was acquainted with (see III John 1:9), who loved to be in the spotlight. Not only was he seeking of self-gratification, but he was not above shunning those he might view as rivals to his “place in the sun.” His descendants are often found seeking out a place in the church whereby they might ply their trade and lord themselves over the flock. Sadly they are usually found among those who occupy places of leadership in the flock. They love for men to know who they are (much like the Pharisees) and they feel slighted if they are not treated with aplomb and afforded special status among the saints. They love to form spheres of influence where they can gather a multitude of followers who will “kiss their ring” and generally have great reverence for them. They are “special” in their own mind.
This is an infectious spirit and just like Peter was moved to dissimulation with the Judaizers; some teachers and overseers take their cue from Diotrephes and consider themselves worthy of some station above the “status quo” or “common folk”. This is both the cause and the result of the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes and the basis of the clergy system.
Then there are those who assemble out of a sense of fulfilling a religious duty. I mean all good folks go to church on Sunday, don’t they, just like Grandma and Grandpa did. A sense of duty in itself is not a bad thing. However, when a sense of duty and not love for the brethren is the main motivating factor in our desire to assemble then we need to take a step back and examine ourselves before GOD. Religious duty is but one step on the pathway to destruction.
Yet, we have all found times when a sense of obligation to the brethren, rather than a genuine delight in them, has caused us to attend a meeting of the saints. We have also later discovered that GOD meant those things for good for us and have found ourselves glad that we attended out of a sense of duty rather than not being there at all when GOD has blessed us in that meeting. So, we do not desire to throw “duty” completely under the bus but to recognize it for what it is and to hope for something better as a motivating factor.
We would be remiss in discussing the “assemblers” in NT churches if we did not discuss “spiritual gifts” which are given to each one expressly for the benefit of the body. Much foolishness has been promoted over the years under the guise of enabling “spiritual gifts.” Yet we cannot let those who abuse the context and purpose of these gifts (especially those specifically mentioned in the NT writings of Paul) cause us to disregard them entirely or to prevent their true manifestations in the assemblies of the saints. Paul told the Corinthians that he did not want them to be ignorant of spiritual gifts. (see I Cor. 12:1) and then went on to detail the specifics thereof in chapter 12.
There is a diversity of gifts given to the sons of GOD.(v 4) All of GOD’s children are not given the same gifts but all are given gifts which are uniquely suited for the benefit of the body. (v.11) These gifts are not for personal benefit but rather for the profit of the whole body. (v.7) There are degrees of usefulness in each one though not degrees of value. (v.21) No gift is behind another though every one is not suitable for every occasion. (v.31)
It is my opinion that Paul is not producing a laundry list of all possible spiritual gifts here but is rather pointing out some that are made manifest in particular “operations” (v.6) and “administrations” (v.5) given to the Corinthians. Much harm has been done over the years (in my opinion) by those who insist that every one of these gifts must be found in every church and that if it is not listed here, then one’s particular talent or means of help to the brethren, can not be considered a “spiritual gift”. There are gifts which are not spelled out here.
Gifts are given to each member to enable each one to minister to the body in its own unique (diverse) manner. Some are gifts which are meant to primarily appeal to reason, such as the teaching gifts which includes prophecy and words of knowledge. Others are meant to primarily appeal to the senses, which include prayer, consolation, and healings, and perhaps even the use of music, though such is nowhere spelled out.
The majority of spiritual gifts are not of a type, meant to be put on public display but are rather abilities and capacities given to each one, such as a word of encouragement or a timely expression of concern and love. These are the operations of the SPIRIT which should in no wise be considered inferior gifts.
It is an unfortunate quirk of man’s propensity to the flesh to be drawn to those “gifts” which could be referred to as “sign gifts”, (i.e.; Tongues, miracles, gifts of physical healing, etc.) While I do not believe that a concrete case can be made (as some imply) that all such gifts have ceased, I do find that their usefulness in our particular society is probably minimal at best. My own personal observation of these so-called gifts is that they are easily counterfeited, have their largest appeal to the flesh, and are often the product of overwrought emotions rather than the SPIRIT of GOD. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss this at length.
Gifts cover a wide spectrum from teaching to signs. The same principle is to be applied in the exercise of them all. Let all things be done unto the edification of the brethren and the glory of CHRIST alone. If adhered to, this principle in itself would prevent the excesses sometimes seen in the practices of those who promote “signs and wonders”. None of GOD’s people are called to be “mystics” or “shamans” who cloak their gifts in secrecy or need some grand stage or theatrical moment to display them. When someone other than CHRIST is exalted (even secondarily) then the SPIRIT of GOD is not the instigator of such. “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.” (John 15:26)
The most common characteristic found in the NT among those who assembled in churches and were the followers of CHRIST, was that they were baptized in water. (see Acts 2:38,41; 8:12; 36-38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5) It seems fairly clear to the unbiased mind that the early Christians were actually immersed in water, though some in the present day think that it is highly spiritual to abandon this practice with the notion that it is not needful since CHRIST who is our RIGHTEOUSNESS was “baptized for us”. Indeed, HE is our ALL in ALL but, evidently the Apostles did not get the memo that they were not to baptize. Baptism is not a requirement which the children of GOD must fulfill but an act of obedience and desire.
Down through the years, there have been many explanations and modifications made of this practice to either explain it away or make it into some sort of initiation ritual which the flesh can glory in as to its performer. (see I Cor.1:13-16) Others have sought to make baptism into some covenant sign and thereby justify the sprinkling of infants who have no knowledge of CHRIST. It has also been turned into a requirement for being a part of some assemblies as though it is a special portal into the blessings thereof.
Baptism is but a testimony of a desire to be obedient to CHRIST in following HIS example. Peter said it is the “answer of a good conscience toward God.” (1Pet 3:21) As such it has no merit attached to it nor does it derive its validity as such, by the pedigree of the administrator of it. This is an intensely personal act of faith which I am baffled to explain why all who claim to be the followers of CHRIST would not embrace.
“Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. Let all your things be done with charity. I beseech you, brethren, ye (know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,) That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboreth.” (1Cor 16:13-16)mam