As we previously mentioned, the early assemblies of the followers of CHRIST were loosely patterned after the synagogues since the vast majority of the early believers were Jews who were quite accustomed to gathering there on the Sabbath day. Yet though they adopted some of the structure of those meetings there were marked differences in those early assemblies and the synagogues, and a very basic difference in their respective purpose.
The synagogues were places where Rabbi’s (teachers) taught and ministered to the common people who gathered there. The NT church or assembly is a gathering of brethren who are all priests and kings, taught of the SPIRIT, and who have each one been equipped with various gifts which are for the edification of those gathered. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. (i.e.; the whole body)” (1Cor 12:7)
The synagogues had a prescribed order which was not deviated from, yet we find no hard fast rules laid down in the scriptures as to a detailed or particular order of practice which the NT church must adhere to. Yet there is most definitely order in a SPIRIT led NT church. After setting forth some words of advice on how they should conduct their meetings the apostle sums up his counsel to the Corinthians by saying “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1Cor 14:40) This is in keeping with his admonition to them concerning the “leading of the SPIRIT”. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1Cor 14:33)
If a meeting is not CHRIST centered (as Paul said, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Co 2:2)) and therefore edifying to those gathered or it becomes an exercise in self promotion and fleshly display then we can be certain that such is of the flesh and not according to the leading of GOD’s SPIRIT. (see I Cor. 12:3) “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” (1Cor 14:32) “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1Cor 12:26-27) This is the order of the NT assembly.
Now anytime that a discussion of church practice is brought up there are always some who demand adherence to a particular set of practices or “order of service” (which amazingly is usually an “order” which appeals to them or they have been raised in) which they believe the scriptures require. The sons of Diotrephes love the opportunity to “ride herd” on the free born sons of GOD and keep them in line. Most of the time they give us anecdotal examples of the practice of the early church with the assumption that we, of necessity, must imitate what the apostles did in order to be considered obedient.
There is actually very little that is clearly spelled out in the scriptures as to the practice of the apostolic churches, so it is impossible to know how to fully imitate them to the letter. Also, there is clear evidence that the practices of the churches changed as their circumstances did. In the very beginning, for instance they met daily (see Acts 2:46; 5:42), but before long they were meeting on the first day of the week. (see Acts 20:7) All that this demonstrates to us is that they were zealous to meet with GOD’s people and that the day or frequency with which they met was entirely without requirement or rule whatsoever. While much can be learned by studying history and the scriptures concerning early church practices, there is no compelling evidence or commandment of the scriptures that instructs the NT church to continue in any particular order or to adopt a set of rules which binds them to a particular practice.
The only actual command which is directly given to the church regarding her practices, is to remember the LORD’s death till HE comes by the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup. It is our common practice to use unleavened bread and fermented wine in this observance since we believe that these are the elements that were available during the original institution of the LORD’s supper. There are also some compelling analogies that can be made by comparing HIS body to the unleavened bread and HIS blood to fermented wine.
While this is our particular practice it is interesting to note that it is nowhere spelled out or demanded in the scripture that the bread (of the LORD’s supper) be unleavened or that the cup be fermented wine, only that it be bread and the “fruit of the vine”. This is in keeping with the fact that the scripture is silent about such details in order that we do not revert to law principles in our practice and make an observance which is highly spiritual in purpose to become nothing more than a carnal ordinance dependent on conformity to preference or to have someone preside over it as though they have some special unction to “administer” it.
It is easy to become bogged down in squabbling over the details of what these elements should be and how they should be distributed and miss the true purpose of the supper itself; that being a reminder of the LORD’s death in our behalf and a harbinger of HIS return, taken by brethren knit together with a kindred SPIRIT. “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.” (1Cor 11:29)
Sadly, many brethren, over the years, have fallen out with one another over the details of such matters as these, which cannot be proven one way or another in the scriptures. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom 14:5) “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” (Phil 2:3) Let us never lose sight of the purpose of this observance.
I am confident that the practice of the early church was to break bread and drink the cup each time they assembled. I personally view that as one of the primary purposes for which the church should assemble. However, I am also aware that (because of the weakness of the flesh) sometimes the practice of weekly or daily celebration of this supper can cause it to become mere habit and can perhaps cause its observance not to be as highly prized as it ought to be. I am also aware that it is often made into a ritual rather than a memorial.
So, while my personal view may be to observe it each time the assembly gathers there is no “rule” in the scripture that says that it must be so. No frequency of its observance is prescribed by the scriptures, but we are enjoined that “as often” as it is done the LORD’s death is made manifest. Let each assembly determine how often they will observe this supper. They are under no bondage nor necessity of satisfying curious onlookers or those who would spy out their liberty as an assembly of brethren seeking the honor of CHRIST.
It is common practice among many assemblies to meet on the first day of the week (Sunday) even as this seemed to be the practice of the early church; but there is no command given to the NT church to meet on that particular day and Paul makes it clear that there is no merit in esteeming one day above another. (see Rom.14:5,6) This is another matter which has caused division among the saints over the years as some would try to impose the law of Moses on those who have been set free from it by the work of CHRIST.
Many of these Judaizers think that the Sabbath (literally meaning day of weekly repose) has been changed to the first day of the week and therefore believe it is proper for the church to assemble on the first day of the week in order to observe the Sabbath. While there is nothing wrong with assembling on the first day of the week, there is certainly no requirement of such laid upon the free born sons of GOD. “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.”(Gal 4:9-10)
Paul seems to make it clear that all days are to be regarded the same, and while we are mindful that the LORD did rise on the first day of the week, we can find no correlation in the scripture with any demand for the church to meet on this particular day. The only Sabbath that should be of interest to the sons of GOD is the ONE who is our SABBATH. CHRIST is our REPOSE or PLACE OF REST and HE has completely fulfilled all of the obligations and requirements which the law of Moses did demand of HIS people.
“Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2Cor 3:17-18) Those who prefer a mixture of OT principles with those of the NT are not quite convinced that an assembly can be safely vouchsafed into the hands of the SPIRIT; since they fear that something out of their control might result. So, in order to assure that things will run smoothly and according to a prescribed plan (which they have defined as “NT order”) they set forth structures and orders (i.e. programs, denominations, and organizations) which can be carried out even when relying completely on the flesh.
New generations can duplicate this “order” and keep it going like the energizer bunny for many years. This was exactly what the LORD upbraided the church at Sardis for. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” (Rev 3:1) Because a church continues in its prescribed and sacrosanct order for many years does not mean that the church is alive. Ichabod is usually written over the doors of most assemblies, established upon such structures, long before the final meeting is held.
Due to the fact that those who have been given the mind of CHRIST are also creatures of the flesh there are going to be some problems that surface from time to time in the assemblies of the saints. Just like sin rears its ugly head in the personal lives of all of GOD’s children. (see Rom. 7:18-24) These problems are the very causes of much of the exhortation that is given out in the epistles of the New Testament. While Paul (as an Apostle) gave general guidelines to the Corinthians as to how their meetings should be conducted, he did not spell out every letter or take charge of their meeting as many well meaning “pastors” do in the present day.
While we should seek to avoid conflict and disagreement, it is often necessary that conflicts and disagreements arise in order that the truth might be made manifest. Paul points this out when he says, “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies ( i.e.; sects or schisms) among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (1Cor 11:18-19) Such divisions are not to be commended but are not necessarily fatal, because they provide opportunity for GOD’s people to examine the truth, (see Acts 17:11) and remember the true purpose of their assembly, and then to humble themselves before GOD and each other confessing their faults one to the other.
When brethren esteem one another above themselves and in honor prefer one another such conflicts are mitigated even as was the case with the young man who was disciplined by the church in Corinth. This appeared at the first to be a matter which might “split” the church but ultimately worked for the good of the whole body; most especially the recovering of this young man from his error. It is not necessary for brethren to see eye to eye on every issue in order for them to have love and mutual respect for each other and to gather in one accord with a desire to see CHRIST exalted in their midst. In fact Paul says that it is not wise to compare ourselves with our selves and thereby pat ourselves on the back. (see II Cor. 10:12) Therefore it is vital for the assembly to interact with one another rather than being spoon fed.
Well meaning men have sought to prevent these problems by simply not allowing anyone to speak or teach in the congregation except by permission of the pastor. I have been in assemblies where a member could not even read a scripture verse without prior approval of the “elder” or “pastor”. If this is the supposed cure for potential problems, then the cure is worse than the disease and the physician does more harm than good. The LORD does not put men under the law in order to subdue their flesh but rather sends HIS SPIRIT to mortify the deeds of the flesh. Neither should the church be put “under the law” in order to prevent the frailties of the flesh from being manifest.
The SPIRIT of GOD is still able to lead HIS church in spite of the weakness of the flesh and HE is able to cause them to will and to do of HIS good pleasure without resorting to legalistic authoritarianism. In all things the church must seek after unity, but this does not mean rote conformity of thought but rather a commitment to esteem one another above ourselves. The assembly is not a democracy where the majority rules but is a body where each member depends upon the other and each seeks the other’s benefit. Decisions among them should be made upon that principle which when followed, results in unity.
The prevailing “order” that is to be found in the meeting of a NT church is that which is directed toward the benefit of all present. Liberty is not license but it is nonetheless liberty and Paul recognizes that in his counsel to the Corinthians. “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” (1Cor 14:1) There is a wide variety of gifts given to the body of CHRIST in order that the body might be built up by the mutual interaction of every part. This does not mean that every member has been given the gift of public speaking or teaching or that such should occur by everyone each time the assembly meets. Yet it is clear from Paul’s teaching that there is no mechanism to be put into place that would prevent even the weakest of saints from speaking in the assembly according as they are burdened to do so.
The greatest teaching that can possibly be given to the sons of GOD by their fellow saints is not that which is delivered by word of mouth but rather by the testimony of a godly walk with CHRIST. Oh, that we might each be granted grace to demonstrate our faith by our works and not place so much emphasis on what we say. The presence of each believer in an assembly is a precious testimony to all that are gathered for the same purpose. Each one cannot help but be encouraged and greatly ministered to by the very fact that each one has gathered for the purpose of remembering the death, resurrection, and return of CHRIST JESUS the LORD. This is indeed true “ministry”. When brethren demonstrate faithfulness to the calling which they have, then the body is edified even if no word is spoken.
It is clear that some are recognized in each assembly who have the gifts and calling of being elders, pastors (i.e.; teachers), or bishops. These are offices of service and not titles to be bestowed as a means of privilege, nor a formal position of absolute authority. The terms elder, pastor, and bishop speak of the same office and calling even though three different Greek words are used. (see Acts 20:17. 28; I Pet.5:1,2; Eph 4:11)
The term elder is “presbuteros” and literally means “an old man”. While an “elder” may not necessarily be chronologically old (as in the case of Timothy) yet he must, of necessity, be “old” and seasoned in the faith, not being a novice. The term bishop is “episkopos” and literally means “an overseer”, but not a lord or taskmaster. This oversight is to be taken not for money or personal gain but because one is compelled to it by the SPIRIT. The term pastor is “poimen” and literally means a “shepherd”. A shepherd cares for the flock and desires to see it fed. To that end he prepares and dedicates himself. Sadly, much more time is generally spent in the study preparing the mind than is spent in the closet desiring the same for the heart. “Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.” (1Pet 5:3)
This calling is one which cannot be brought about by special schooling or training but is an office which only the SPIRIT of GOD can prepare a man for. A man can no more avoid this calling than Jonah could avoid going to Nineveh even as Paul relates of himself. (I Cor.9:16) While this calling does command respect, (see I Tim.5:17) it is not to be an excuse for seeking or gaining preeminence among the brethren in any sense by them or the one(s) so called in an assembly. The children of GOD are all joint heirs with CHRIST and have one KING to which they give allegiance and bow down.
Deacon is also an office of service, the particulars of which is not specifically spelled out in the scriptures. We believe they are primarily called to see to the ministry of special physical needs of members of the body individually and corporately. We see this in the ministrations to the widows spoken of in Acts. The office of deacon is one which should be filled as the need arises as seen by the first appointments of those who we think were the first deacons in Acts 6:1-6. An assembly can exist and function without deacons (or elders for that matter). This office is not demeaned thereby but as the need for a deacon arises then those qualified should fill that calling. No ceremonies are necessary to appoint or ordain either elders or deacons.
There is no specific mention of congregational singing in the New Testament but there is enough anecdotal mention of singing and the giving out of Psalms that one would be hard pressed to find any reason to prevent it. This is a matter that history shows has developed in practice over time. Many have sought (and fought) to preserve and promote certain forms and types of “singing” to the exclusion of others. The prevailing moderation to any sort of singing should be the same as that which relates to any other “ministry” of the brethren one to the other. This being: is CHRIST alone exalted in it according to its style and message?
Some prefer the use of musical instruments as an accompaniment to singing and some do not. There is no evidence in the NT to support the use of such “instruments” but there is nothing there that would prevent the use of such if carried out with due consideration of the order or moderation mentioned above.
Music of any type (singing or playing) is not to be performed in the assembly as a means of entertainment or fleshly satisfaction, but is to be set forth for the glory of GOD and the edification of the saints. Simpler is generally better since less opportunity is presented for the flesh to exalt itself. Having said all of that, music is a peculiar gift given to men for their benefit and particularly bestowed upon some more so than others, yet it is a source of joy as well as an expression of it for all.
Gathering for prayer is another of the primary reasons for GOD’s children to assemble. Prayer is, in its very essence, worship (see Acts 16;13) and is vitally beneficial to the assembly as a whole. This is a great source of the ministry of the several parts of the body to the whole. We are to bear one another’s burdens and seek the common benefit of each one as intercessors in one another’s behalf. There is special blessing attached to corporate prayer which sets it apart from that which is intensely personal. (see Mat.18:19; Acts 1:14; 4:24; 12:5) While Paul does set forth (to the Corinthians) certain restrictions on women concerning teaching in the assembly, (which is for the purpose of demonstrating the headship of CHRIST) he does not set forth any restrictions on their praying openly in the assembly.
The primary focus of many assemblies that we have observed seems to be on money. Many have a practice of passing a plate around in order to maximize contributions and in a measure to extort funds that would not be given otherwise. The legalists demand tithes and offerings from the saints and are not above the practice of shaming men to give to support all sorts of programs and endeavors. There is no evidence in the scriptures that any such practice was ever carried out in the NT assemblies nor is such to be demanded of those who are free born by the SPIRIT of GOD.
There are instances in the scripture where collections were made for the specific purpose of sending aid to brethren who were in distress; most especially to those in Jerusalem. (see 2 Cor.8-9) The overriding lesson concerning these “collections” was that thought was to be given before hand (I Cor.16:2) and giving was to be done out of generosity and not coercion. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. “ (2 Cor 9:7)
The establishment of a treasury for an assembly is only a matter of convenience and I find no reason in the NT to support a continual general contribution to such. The only examples we have in the NT of a common collection was when it was done for specific purposes. When buildings are maintained for the convenience of those gathered together then it is only right that each should help to defray those costs (as they are able), to pay for that convenience.
The specific opportunities of giving mentioned in the NT are in regard to ministering to the material needs of its members, most especially widows and orphans. Another is to help those in other cities or countries who may be oppressed or otherwise hindered from being able to attend unto their own needs. One other mention concerning giving is in relation to honoring the labor of those who faithfully give themselves to the flock as pastors (see I Tim.5:17,18) and those who may be sent to perform the work of an evangelist in other locations. (see Phil.4:16)
There is no mention of any collections being taken for this purpose or of any contributions made to a treasury, nor is there any account of anyone with these callings being paid a salary. Yet there is no need for such when the LORD’s people value a service when it is rendered. Even the stingiest of men will leave a tip for the waitress. A man who is equipped and called unto this office does not do so out of any consideration for that which he shall or shall not receive, but is compelled unto it even if he winds up impoverished as a result. (see Phil.2:30)
Much more can be said concerning the assembly and its proper function. The most important aspect of our consideration of its practices should be directed towards how each part of the body interacts with the others in order that CHRIST might be magnified in its midst and the whole be edified thereby. “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Tim 3:14-15)mam