There are many different expressions of church practice today, and the variety probably goes back almost as far as the Church itself. My own view is that variety is a great thing: people are different, cultures change, and God has allowed his people many different ways to express their worship to Him and learn together to be His people. But in the midst of this variety, it's important to be clear about what goals and non-negotiable practices must be maintained. What are the essential attributes and practices of the church that is faithful to God's intentions? To adapt Jesus' metaphor from Luke 5:36-39, what is the "new wine" that requires a change in wineskins?
The Myth of the Primal Church
I've often heard it taught that God's design for the church is the one depicted in Acts 2:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, ESV)
There's no question that this idyllic picture reflects the power and attraction of the earliest church in its setting. But like the exciting discovery of a new land, or the passion of newlyweds, this seems more like fresh fervor than normative practice. You don't need to go much further into the New Testament to find strife and division: much of Paul's comments to specific individuals have to do with apparent disagreements and tension within the church. The evidence suggests that the practice of sharing all possessions didn't persist either.
My own opinion is that the New Testament doesn't provide a single normative blueprint for churches in organizational structure, liturgy, style, size or other matters. Unlike the canon of Scripture, there is no canon of church practice. Rather, the Bible provides instructive examples that give us models for how to "be church" while still allowing fresh expressions in our day.
With that background in mind, i wanted to create an overview of what the New Testament actually says, either by way of descriptive example, or by specific prescription, about the practice of church. I won't delve in detail on specific verses or the historical background: those are book length subjects. Instead, my intent is to survey what kinds of topics are addressed.
The Gospels: Sacraments, and Unity
While the words of our Lord Jesus as recorded in the Gospels tell us a great deal about God's Kingdom and what it means to be part of it, we have relatively little instruction about church form and practice. This is not too surprising, since the Church per se did not exist until after His resurrection! Most Protestant churches recognize two sacraments ("a rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace") as having been directly ordained by Jesus Himself: the Eucharist or Lord's Supper (e.g. Luke.22.15-20), and baptism (e.g. in the Great Commission, Matt.28.16-20). Interestingly, the same Commission enjoins the Eleven to "make disciples", and in the original text, this imperative is the focus, the other verbs being supplemental to it (a literal translation might be "While going, make disciples ..."). However, "disciple making" seems more abstract than ceremonial practices like baptism and the Lord's Supper, except as a reflection of conversion itself (a necessary first step in making disciples, but clearly not the whole journey). There certainly seems to be less clear institutional practice in the area of disciple making than the two sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.
His words in Matt.18.15-20 address the practice of church discipline, and promise his presence where even two or three of his disciples are gathered in His name, that is, as His people. In a similar vein, Jesus prays in John.17.20-26 for those who would believe through the apostle's testimony (which includes us today), that we as His disciples
- might be one with God and with each other
- would be a testimony to the world that God sent Jesus
In His prayer for the Twelve in the preceding verses, Jesus talks about their relationship to surrounding society ("they are not of the world", John.17.14), and their mission:
"As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." (John.17.18)
Given the context, it seems reasonable to extend His words to the Church today.
choosing a replacement for Judas before Pentecost, the apostles met together with a single mind for prayer. Altogether about 120 people (Acts 1:15)
description in Acts 2
Acts 4:32-35 - shared possessions, distribution by the apostles to those who had need
The church at Antioch (Acts.11.19-30) was founded by those driven out of Judea by persecution following the stoning of Stephen. The church in Jerusalem dispatched Barnabbas to Antioch, where he encouraged them to remain faithful to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to find Paul, brought him back to Antioch, and together they taught for about a year. When a famine later broke out, the church at Antioch sent relief (presumably money) to the church in Jerusalem. So there was a reciprocal giving between these two churches: giving people for ministry, and giving money to meet practical needs. Later the church in Jersusalem sent both a letter of instruction and leaders to the church in Antioch (Acts.15.22-33).
We later get an interesting glimpse of church leadership at Antioch (Acts.13.1-3). Five people are named as prophets and teachers, who presumably were leading the church. Barnabbas and Paul are listed, consistent with the description in Acts.11: interestingly, Barnabbas is list first, and Paul (still named Saul) is last. We know little about the others, though they were likely also significant men in their day. Simeon was called Niger, that is "black": perhaps he was from North Africa, or merely of dark complexion. Lucius was from Cyrene, in North Africa. He was quite possibly among those who heard Peter preach in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts.2.10), where the Cyrenian Jews were significant enough to have their own synagogue (Acts.6.9). It is also likely he was among the "men of Cyprus and Cyrene" who spoke to the Greeks in Antioch in Acts.11.20. Manaen is described as the "foster-brother" or "close friend" of Herod Antipas, governor of the entire region. We know from historical sources that Herod was educated in Rome: if Manaen was brought up with him, that indicates he was a man of significant wealth and power. The cosmopolitan nature of this group is striking.
In addition to their being described as prophets and teachers, we see them actively worshipping and fasting, presumably seeking God's will. The Holy Spirit leads them to appoint Barnabbas and Paul to a work of ministry, and they are sent out on what becomes the first missionary journey. Here we see church leadership at work, seeking direction regarding their ministry, and actively commissioning those whom God called. Later (Acts.14.23) we see Paul and Barnabbas setting up leaders for the churches they have established, an activity which Paul addresses in detail in several of his pastoral epistles.
The church in Ephesus was a major focus of ministry for Paul: he spent three years there evangelizing (Acts.19.10), and the impact was so broad that "all the Jews and Greeks that lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord." One interesting episode from this period shows new members of the church publicly repenting: in Acts.19.18-19, those who had previously practiced sorcery ('magic arts') made public confession, and burned their scrolls. The value was estimated at 50,000 drachmas: since a drachma was about the value of a day's wage, this was an enormous amount of money, equivalent to the annual income of more than 100 people.
Paul had never visited the church in Rome, and much of his letter is devoted to explaining the Gospel that he taught: people are lost without God, but salvation is available through grace, by faith and not by law, because of Christ's sacrificial death. Some have likened Romans to a missionary's support letter, introducing Paul and his message to believers to whom he hoped to minister, and whom he hoped would enable him to take the Gospel even further, into Spain and regions beyond (Romans.15:18-24).
After his exposition of the Gospel, Paul addresses several practical matters of Christian behavior, particularly interpersonal relationships, including relationships within the church and church practice. He uses the metaphor of a body to show that the Church is made up of individuals with different spiritual gifts, and all of them -- prophecy, service, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership, kindness -- are to benefit Christ's body, the Church (Romans.12:4-8).
He also encourages the Romans to accept one another without passing judgement, despite different beliefs about doctrinal matters like whether to eat meat or not, or what day to observe for worship (Romans.14:1-15:7). While these are not strictly matters of church practice, they are certainly issues which continue to cause division in many churches today. He also encourages them to look past the ethnic and cultural divisions between Gentiles and Jews: surely a significant issue for the Roman church of that age.
The sixteenth chapter is primarily devoted to greeting various individuals, and several groupings indicate, either explicitly or implicitly, churches that met in individual homes, in some cases led by women: Phoebe (Romans.16.1), Priscilla and Aquilla (Romans.16.5), and probably the groups in Romans.16.14-15 as well.
The church at Corinth was the result of Paul's evangelistic work, coupled with other work by Apollos to establish their faith (ICor.1.10-17, ICor.3.4-9). In this, his second letter to them (he alludes to an earlier letter which has not been preserved ICor.5.9), Paul uses several metaphors to describe the church: God's temple (ICor.16-17), God's garden, and God's building (ICor.3.9).
Paul pleads for an end to divisions in the church, whether partisanship based on spiritual leaders (ICor.1.10-12), based on worldly thinking, or as a consequence of quarrels and disputes. Paul encourages them to bring their complaints against each other to the church for judgement, rather than taking them to trial in civil court (ICor.6.1-8), a practice which does not seem prevalent in the church today. He also addresses different standards of belief about what is and is not acceptable for Christians to do (ICor.8), similar to his instructions to the church in Rome.
Paul also gives explicit instruction about head coverings for men and women in prayer (ICor.11.2-16), and conduct in sharing the Lord's Supper (ICor.11.23-34). Much has been written about Paul's teaching on the subject of men and women, and i will not attempt here to add any explanation, other than noting the clear practice of the church: they prayed together, and Paul was concerned that such practice showed appropriate respect to God and to each other. The same is true of his instructions on the Lord's Supper.
Paul's most detailed comments about spiritual gifts are in chapter 12, a topic which occurs in several of his other letters as well (Romans.12:4-8, Eph.4.7-16). Without going into detail about the gifts themselves, we can note several points:
- Diversity of gifts is important to the health of the church:
Thessalonians: Evangelism, Example, and Discipline
Paul 's first letter to the Thessalonians indicates that they had a significant and broad evangelistic impact on their surrounding area: "you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." (IThess.1.7) The narrative is more a commendation of what has already transpired, however, rather than a prescription for how the church ought to act. He also commends them for imitating the churches of Judea (IThess.2.14), and mentions specific instruction he provided to them as to Christian behavior (IThess.4.1 and following). There is a brief allusion to church leadership structure: "respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord" (IThess.5.12), and a strong exhoration ("I put you under oath") to have Paul's letter read to all the brothers, an example of church instruction (IThess.5.27).
Most of Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians addesses doctrinal matters, though he mentions in passing his own example of diligence, and suggests there should be no food for those who refuse to work (suggesting an interesting economic interdependence in the church). After urging them to avoid those who disregard his instruction, he provides a model for relating to those who have so behaved in 2Thess.3.15: "Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother."
Eph.4.22 describes how Jews and Gentiles have been brought together in the church, though previously they were separated
(this story is incomplete ...)
The One Anothers of the New Testament
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