Why church the New Testament way?

 

Why church the New Testament way? Church — the New Testament way — can profoundly impact our walk with God, our lives together as His people and our ability to make disciples. Though today’s church still follows some New Testament practices, others with great potential for blessing have been neglected: celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a weekly fellowship meal, participatory gatherings, congregational consensus and relatively small community churches.[1]

 

The Lord’s Supper — A Holy Meal       

Scripture reveals that the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day as a sacred, covenant feast (the Agapé), an actual meal centered around the one cup and loaf. According to British New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie, the apostle Paul “sets the Lord’s supper in the context of the fellowship meal.”[2] Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of Regent College, pointed out “the nearly universal phenomenon of cultic meals as a part of worship in antiquity” and “the fact that in the early church the Lord’s Supper was most likely eaten as, or in conjunction with, such a meal.”[3] A major benefit of celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a holy banquet is the wonderful fellowship that each member experiences — community through communion.[4] Arguably, his holy meal was the main reason for the weekly gathering of the church.[5]

R.P. Martin, Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted the “eschatological overtones” to the Lord’s Supper “with a forward look to the advent in glory.”[6] The bread and wine thus not only symbolize the past sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood, but partaking of them serves as an enacted prayer asking Him to fulfill His promise to return and eat it again with us.[7] Athanasius understood the daily bread of the Lord’s Prayer to be “the bread of the world to come.”[8] When eaten as an actual feast in a joyful wedding atmosphere, the Lord’s Supper typifies the future wedding supper of the Lamb and thus takes on a forward-looking, prophetic aspect.[9] It is like rehearsal dinner before the wedding banquet!

 

Participatory Gatherings

In addition to teaching by the elders, first century church meetings gave opportunity for the brothers to contribute to corporate worship and not merely attend a service. Here is how Paul described the meetings of the church in Corinth: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”[10] Each brother could minister according to his spiritual gift. He did not have to be an elder. [11] This open format allowed those prompted by the Spirit to offer testimony, sing, share a spiritual experience, teach, exhort, lead in prayer, read Scripture publicly, praise, etc. [12] Elders were responsible to be sure everything was done “decently and in order.”[13] The prime directive for anything said was it had to edify, strengthen, build up or encourage the church.[14]

Participatory assemblies provide more naturally for the fulfillment of the various “one another” passages of Scripture.[15] Not only is this type of meeting more meaningful to the congregation as a whole since the brothers directly impact the gathering, but allowing participation is actually commanded. Making the descriptive prescriptive, Paul went on in 1 Corinthians 14 to admonish, “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord”.[16]

 

Congregational Consensus

In addition to such duties as equipping, teaching, oversight, counseling, disciple making and evangelism, an essential function of first century church leadership was building congregational consensus.[17] Commenting on the general nature of early church polity, Donald Guthrie observed, “These early communities displayed a remarkable virility, which was a particular characteristic of that age. The churches were living organisms rather than organizations. The promptings of the Spirit were more important than ecclesiastical edicts or Episcopal pronouncements. When decisions were made, they were made by the whole company of believers, not simply by the officials . . . It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to suppose because of this that the church was run on democratic lines. The Acts record makes unmistakably clear that the dominating factor was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”[18] Unity is important.[19] The mind of Christ is more likely found when the leaders guide the whole congregation to participate in making major decisions.[20] Church members are encouraged as they realize everyone’s input is important. The Spirit is given free rein to guide the church. The leadership’s role in this process includes helping build consensus by teaching what Scripture says on key issues, privately talking with each church member about decisions, appealing to those who differ and — after much persuasion — calling on any dissenting minority to yield to the elders and the rest of the congregation.[21]

 

Small Community Congregations

During the apostolic era and for the next two centuries, the church met primarily in the largest available homes of its members. According to Graydon Snyder, professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary, “the New Testament Church began as a small group house church (Col. 4:15), and it remained so until the middle or end of the third century. There are no evidences of larger places of meeting before 300.” [22] Since the New Testament letters were written to Roman atrium-sized churches, the instructions contained in them are geared to work in a smaller fellowship.[23] Using private homes, when suitable, is still ideal and a wise use of resources.[24] Gathering in smaller venues facilitates intimacy, friendships, accountability, participation, discussion, consensus and one another ministry. It is important to design church structures and settings that will benefit the effective functioning of the church.

 

Conclusion

Why church the New Testament way? Perhaps it is the surest way to honor Christ in every area of church life. After all, who knew better than the apostles about church order? The Twelve were personally trained by our Lord Jesus. They knew the best framework to obey Jesus’ teachings and purposely patterned this for us in the churches they established. The apostles were careful how churches were organized. Their ways were both practical and purposeful. Most significantly, they evidently intended for us to follow their traditions: “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”[25]

These New Testament church practice traditions were part of what gave the early church the dynamic today’s church is sometimes missing.[26] Early Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg wrote that the apostles “have taught us by example how to organize and govern churches . . . Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life . . . respect for the Spirit by which they were led should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.”[27] The question is not Must we do it the way it was done in the New Testament? Rather it is Why would we want to do it any other way?[28]

Want to learn more? Go to www.NTRF.org for unabridged articles on the New Testament church practice. You’ll find scriptural support, scholarly confirmation and practical ideas. 


[1]At the core of these practices must be a living relationship with God and each other —  life breathed out by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said His disciples will be known by their love. We are to be involved in each other’s lives (invested love). These are matters of the heart.

[2] New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 758.

[3] The First Epistle to The Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 532 & 555.

[4] Ac 2:42-46

[5] Ac 20:7, 1Co 11:17-22, 33

[6] “The Lord’s Supper,” The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982), p. 709.

[7] Lk 22:19, 1Co 11:26

[8] Frederick Godet, Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 1981), p. 314.

[9] Lk 22:16-18, 29-30, Re 19:7-9

[10] 1Co 14:26, ESV.

[11] Elders play a key role in coaching the brethren as to what is and is not edifying.

[12] 1Co 14:26-40, Heb 10:24-25, Ep 5:19, Col 3:16

[13] 1Co 14:40

[14] 1Co 14:26

[15] Ro12:10, 12:16, 14:13, 15:5, 15:7, 15: 14, 1Co 12:25, 2Co 13:11, Ga 5:13, etc.

[16] 1Co 14:37, ESV.

[17] Ep 4:11-13, Ac 15:22.

[18] New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 741.

[19] 1Co 1:10, Ep 2:19-22, 4:3-6, Php 2:1-2, Col 3:12-15

[20] Mt 18:15-20, 1Co 5-6

[21] Heb 13:17

[22] Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 166. Ac 16:40, 20:20, Ro 16:3-5a, 16:23, 1Co 16:19, Col 4:15, Phm 1-2b, Ja 2:3

[23] Ancient Romans homes were designed around an atrium, a large central room. According to the Yale university archaeologists who excavated it, one Roman house church would hold 65-70 people. The book of Acts records 120 in the upper room.

[24] Modern homes often will not hold as many people as would Romans atriums and suitable parking is often a problem. Church planters should look for homes with large open areas and plenty of off street parking.

[25] 2Th 2:15, ESV.

[26] Without Christ at the center of things, these patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell (John 15:5). We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine (Lk 22:16ff). Either one without the other is problematic.

[27] Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), p. 84-86. 

[28] The apostolic church traditions we advocate are those for which there is general scholarly agreement: the Lord’s Supper celebrated as an actual meal, Roman atrium-sized congregations, participatory worship and elder-led congregational consensus. We are not convinced these traditions include communalism, pacifism, asceticism, celibacy, dietary restrictions, rigid liturgy or ruling arch bishop.