New Testament Church Basics
It’s common nowadays to ‘choose a church’ based on personal preference. If the kids’ programme is cool, the Pastor is easy to listen to and the band is trendy, what more could one want? However, in light of the fact that the Bible contains several epistles that give detailed doctrinal instructions about the function, character and purpose of a local assembly1, a ‘choice of church’ must of necessity involve spiritual convictions and an intelligent commitment to Biblical doctrine.
This should come as no surprise. Biblical Christianity has never been about personal preferences. At its most basic level, Christianity means “God reveals His truth and I obey it”. When the first local assembly was formed in Jerusalem its members “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine”, not “in their own personal preferences” (Acts 2:42). That doctrine, now enshrined in all its fulness in the New Testament, includes not only all we need to know about our Lord and Saviour, about the gospel of our salvation, about walking by faith, and about the coming Kingdom, but also about the whole spectrum of local assembly principles and practices.
Doctrine matters to serious Christians. The history books are full of examples of faithful believers through the ages who, often at great cost to themselves, took a stand for Bible truth. Though the simplicity of assembly order and the purity of assembly principles were, for the most part, buried for centuries under the liturgy, ceremonies and rituals of Christendom, when the Bible was translated into English (and the mother tongues of many other nations), believers’ eyes were opened. They saw through the extra-Biblical ecclesiastical traditions of men and earnestly desired to get back to the simplicity of New Testament doctrine, both as to the way of salvation and also to church doctrine and practice.
How things have changed! In the 21st Century it’s not purity of doctrine that church-goers want – they don’t seem to want doctrine at all! They want a church free from doctrine. No doctrine, no demands and no duties. Let’s just have a fun time, avoid debates about “non-essentials”, and not judge anyone or anything – an attitude that is very far removed from the emphasis in the New Testament:
“Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim 4:13)
“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16)
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine…” (2 Tim 3:16)
So, doctrine matters; and in the realm of “assembly truth”, no less than in any other area of divine revelation, it is vital that we get a clear grasp of the basics. This will help us to form our own settled understanding of first principles. So, here are the 8 purposes of a local assembly:
- It exists for divine glory
- It manifests the divine presence
- It exhibits divine design
- It administers divine authority
- It displays divine order
- It provides divine care
- It proclaims divine truth
- It fulfils the divine commission
In eight consecutive articles we will look at these foundational issues starting with:
Chapter 1 – The Local Assembly Exists for Divine Glory
21st Century Western culture is, by and large, self-centred. The one-time Hilton Hotel motto, “Welcome to a world that revolves around you”, neatly sums up our present age’s spirit of entitlement and self-gratification. By contrast, a local assembly exists first and foremost for God – for His glory! It’s not about me, my comfort or my schedule. It’s about Him. It’s not my assembly, or even the leadership’s assembly – it is God’s assembly! The Bible describes it as “the flock of God” (1 Pet 2:5), “the temple of God” (1 Cor 3:17), and God’s tilled field (1 Cor 3:9). We will see in later articles that God both dwells in the assembly and rules in the assembly; but, for now, let us simply be reminded that God owns the assembly. It is His – and it exists for Him and for His glory.
Think of it this way: Creation – the Universe and everything in it – exists “in Christ, through Christ and for Christ” (Col 1:16). The Lord is simultaneously creation’s architect, builder and owner. The same is true of a local assembly.
First, the local assembly exists “in Him”. Writing to the assembly in Thessalonica (in ancient Greece) Paul addressed them as follows: “Unto church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:1). That is quite a statement. Each local assembly exists in the sphere and power of God and of Christ!
Second, the local assembly exists “through Him”. There would be no assemblies without the instrumentality of the Lord Jesus. That’s the idea in Acts 20:28 where it speaks of “the church of God [in Ephesus], which He hath purchased with his own blood”. How costly a gathered company of Christians is! It is composed of redeemed sinners, each one the fruit of the atoning sufferings of Christ. Every local testimony exists through His cross work and through His working in salvation in localities all around the globe. That’s why each assembly belongs to Him.
Third, the local assembly exists “for Him”. When God asked Moses to construct a house for Him, at the time of the exodus from Egypt (1,500 BC), He said, “Let them make ME a sanctuary” (Exod 25:8). The Tabernacle, and the later Temple, existed for God! And so it is today. The assembly is a “house for God”. It exists to manifest His glory, to represent Him and to promote His interests. How precious this is! In this “present evil world” that rejects Christ, there are assemblies dotted all around the world that exist “for Him”.
Think of what glory is brought to God as companies of redeemed sinners – priests who are able to offer up spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5) – meet together weekly to “remember the Lord” at the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim His death, and lift up their voices in praise, thanksgiving and worship to God for His worthy Son, the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 11:23-26, 14:15-17). The corporate worship and praise of a local assembly renders to God the glory due to His name. This is the highest privilege and loftiest occupation of an assembly. But let us remember that everything about an assembly – all of its meetings, activities, order and design – has God’s glory in view (1 Cor 10:31). We shall see this ever more clearly as we work our way through the chapters to come.
If the local assembly exists “in HIM, through HIM and for HIM”, our first consideration cannot be “Are we attractive to the world?”, or “Are we coming across as exciting to millennials?”, or “Are we impressing the business professionals among us?”. Everything must be gauged as to whether it is acceptable and well-pleasing to the Lord. That said, the quality and condition of our gospel literature, or hymn books, or buildings, should not give anyone a valid reason to think we are neglectful or that we don’t take Christianity seriously. There is no excuse for laziness, coldness or carelessness in assembly testimony. But the modern trend of borrowing from the business world, from the rock music scene and from the celebrity culture around us, in order to attract bigger crowds and to be ‘successful’, is a fundamental misunderstanding of why an assembly exists. It exists not for the eye of men, but for the eye of God. We need not expect the ungodly to be impressed with what is spiritual and scriptural, unless of course the Spirit of God is working in their hearts and they are seeking God. Lost people, with their ungodly ways of thinking, impressed as they are with power, prestige and grandeur, will not find a company of pilgrims gathered to the name of Christ “outside the camp” (Heb 13:13) appealing or attractive.
So, if our culture “doesn’t do group singing anymore”, that should not affect our determination to follow the Bible’s exhortation to assemblies to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). If our culture says it no longer finds public preaching “the best way to absorb information”, and would rather the emphasis was placed on multimedia, music and mime, that should not sway us from our duty to “proclaim the Word as a herald”. God has clearly outlined that ‘public preaching’ is the chosen method for the spreading of the gospel and the teaching of the Word (1 Cor 1:17-2:5). All of this must be understood and settled in our hearts, or we will be forever chasing the latest fad in Christendom in an attempt to make the assembly look cool in the eyes of the world, rather than starting from the premise “What saith the Lord?”.
The fact that the assembly exists for God’s glory not only reorients our thinking about whom the assembly is for, but also dignifies and elevates our service in connection with it. If the assembly exists for God’s glory, then the mid-week prayer meeting is significant and worth attending. All of the assembly’s meetings and activities are of interest to heaven. In a results-orientated pragmatic society, it needs to be remembered that Sunday School work, gospel literature distribution, open air preaching, and series of gospel meetings are all primarily conducted with a view to the Lord’s glory – and He is honoured and pleased with such service, whether or not it “produces results” (2 Cor 2:14-17).
As we revisit the basics of assembly testimony, there could scarcely be a more fundamental and important truth than this – the local assembly exists for the glory of God.
- What main factor should govern one’s choice of church?
- Why does an assembly exist?
- Who does an assembly belong to?
- What should we do when New Testament practice falls out of favour with the surrounding culture?
- Is the prayer meeting as important as the breaking of bread?
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. The word “assembly” rather than “church” will be used throughout this series of posts, as it more accurately expresses the meaning of the original Greek word “ekklesia”.