In one of many times I've thought about the mission of the believer and the role of the church, I pondered, How are we to pick a church, how are we to start a church, and ultimately, how are/were they organized in the New Testament. What was the 1st century church-building plan? In my study, I didn't find anything about such a plan. Instead, the church was there in Acts 2:47 as a result of God's other work. It was the result of accomplishing and realizing other goals for the individual believer and his reaction to other believers. That doesn't minimize the importance of a fellowship of believers. The church IS Jesus' body. That's the idea in the New Testament, but it's not something that must be formalized as much as it needs to be realized.
Yes, the church was structured. The scriptures point out several things from Acts through the letters that demonstrate that. However, the manner in which this structure came about is indicative of the nature of the structure. The structure was orderly, not ritualistic; sought to meet the needs of the members rather than the comforts of membership; and impacted the world with the word of truth, instead of conforming truth to the world.
In one of the Acts first references to the church. Acts 2:47: And they were steadfastly continuing in the teaching of the apostles and in fellowship, and the breaking of bread and prayers.
'Steadfastly continuing' is really one word in the original and refers to unremitting continuance, persistant, unrelenting pursuit, or clinging to something. It wasn't a casual thing. It's a reminder of the parable of the seed and the sower. The casual attitude towards spiritual things might be the best contrast, yet there are many organized churches that focus on recreation in order to keep members happy, entertained, satisfied with the church. During special sports events such as super-bowl, there must be some accomodation so often these events are integrated into the church's events, so that the members won't have to decide between the two. For the worldly, Super bowl is one of those things you just CAN'T miss. It seems that these cares of the world are choking the interests in spiritual things.
In the New Testament church, two of the things that they were persistant about were "the teaching of the apostles" and "fellowship". This is important because most cults are just as persistant with their teachings. It was through the Apostles that the church was founded and the record of the New Testament was written, so as Christians we must be persistant about the truth those who gave so much to preserve it for us.
What that means, essentially, is that we much see that false teaching not infiltrate the church. Over years heretics have infiltrated the church in various ways and have denied the truth of some of the essentials of the gospel. Though the scriptures were recorded, that doesn't stop false teachers from denying it, and as Jude wrote, we are obligated as believers, to "contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints". Jude 3 Not only were essential teachings of the truth denied, often times, empty philosophy were taught instead, as well as embraced with the same intensity as the traditions of men that Jesus rebuked. As the Bereans, we must search the scriptures to see if these things are true. We must persistently seek the truth.
Secondly, the New Testament church was persistant about fellowship. When Hebrews encouraged believers not to forsake the assembling together of ourselves, his focus was not on "going to church", but on encouraging, "provoking one another to love and good works." Hebrews 10:23-25. Many people's zeal is lost through neglect of this kind of fellowship. In contrast, fellowship will help us to steadfastly-continue; not just at meetings but with other believers on a regular basis. In Acts, the frequency was daily. According to this Hebrews passage, the frequency should be increased "as you see the Day drawing near."
The importance of fellowship can't be better exemplified by looking at the traditional concept of what church is, and the minimal amount of time we spend doing things that characterized the early New Testament. Our duties to God, to spread the gospel, make disciples and teaching aren't things we can relegate to the "church", or barter for involvement in the church. We are the church, each of us with individual accountability to Jesus.
In a recent discussion with someone about the upcoming Luis Palao crusade, I noticed one of the problems of this kind of evangelism. The coming of Luis Palao is financed and organized by the churches in the area as a push to get more people saved and bring more into the churches. Ironically, these churches haven't made disciples of the ones they have. If they had, there wouldn't be a need to bring big-name evangelists to town. How well a church (formal or informal) makes disciples of its members determines how well that church is fulfilling Jesus' instructions to "make disciples of all nations". Matthew 28:19
Part of the problem with this is the new meanings (or connotations) we have given to the word fellowship. In the modern church fellowship has come to refer to things like eating at a church pot-luck supper or simply the friendly gathering of believers. The New Testament concept, however, encompasses more that Christian friendship. Fellowship was sharing a common interest, namely the life, work, and ministry of Christ. Even things like giving and suffering were things to have fellowship in. Philippians 3:10, II Corinthians 8:4
The personal involvement of believers in each others lives was the primary consideration and the underlying principle of the church as a unit, and the regular assembling of believers is essential to this continuing involvement.
Assembling is encouraged in Hebrews, but it is only the first step. Thus, Hebrews goes on to say, "encouraging..." When united believers become a "functioning" unit, that is when it conforms to the biblical principle of the body of Christ.
Thus, "assembling", with whatever structure must follow the purpose of the assembly. While structure can be used to assist in keeping the body together so it can fulfill its purpose, the true church cannot have structure without purpose.
If you've ever pulled a joint, or injured a member of your physical body, you know how it hurts. This concept of the body is the thing that inspired the writings in I Corinthians, and yet, 19 centuries later, it seems stranged to think of a church in that way. What would be really strange would be to go a week without one of your hands, and yet, the church exists in this same way. If you see your church hand once a week, that's okay. If that member hurts, it doesn't really affect the body.... Or does it? I'm sure Jesus feels the pain, the discomforts of a disjointed body. The church really can't become a body until its members are so connected with each other that they blend together as the hand blends with the arms.
I Corinthians is the most popular text covering the gifts of the spirit and the body and its members. I've been through a number of studies covering the gifts of the spirit and how we can know what ours is. Nice, informative, but the result has usually been an artificial segmentation of members and duties based on gifts. What I've heard very little of is the membership of the body. A spiritual gift is something nice to HAVE. Becoming a vital part of a church body, however, demands something of us. Yet, the two cannot truly be divided.
Another visual image presented by Paul to the Colossians involves being "knit together" 2.2 2.19, when he talks about "holding fast to the Head, and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. The contrast was between the sincere devotion to Christ, the head of the Christian church with its vital members operating as a body and worldly ideas of religious experience, traditions and rituals.
Unity in the church must come from a realization of the body concept and a commitment to actualizing that concept. As Paul might have summarized in I Corinthians, "There are many members, but they don't become a functioning body until they have fully joined."
While church is readily identified with the congregation as well as the regular meeting of the members, church and unity has yet another connotation that is Biblical appropriate to the church's purpose. Beyond the existance of the church as a body, with members caring for each other as members of a body relate with and protect each other, there is the ministry and defense of the gospel truths.
Jude talks about our "common salvation" and tells us to "contend for the faith", While the enemy would suggest that such defense is competitive in nature, it is essential that true Christianity be clarified. In fact, much of the New Testament was written with clarification in mind.
While this aspect of unity might not at first not be relevant, it is the primary difference between Christian unity and ecumenical universalism. The manager of one of the local Christian radio stations suggests that Christians should get along, and not disagree, argue. While there is some truth in the need for tolerance, the basic premise for this thought neglects the very nature of Christianity. It is divisive. Matthew 10:37. Believers must stand firmly for the beliefs and teachings that make us DISTINCTly Christian, and that make Christianity what it is. Very often, this type of unity is what prompts the most division, since it must follow the Biblical injunctions, "Do not be conformed to this world" Romans 12:2, "Do not be mismated with unbelievers." II Corinthians 6:14, "
This divisive nature of Christianity, ironically, seems to be one of the main reasons for Christians to be unified as a body. Truth is the distinctive that characterizes Christianity. Outside of it, there can't be true Christian unity. This probably explains John's salutation "The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever." II John 1,2
Similarly, the church must be unified in carrying out what is so commonly refered to as the "Great Commission". When you consider the two concerns of the first church, the Apostles doctrine, it's not difficult to see how evangelism and apologetics (defense of the gospel) would be related and held in high regard. Indeed, revelation of the Word of God was of primary importance in the use of the gifts.
Traditionally, whenever there's a special event that focuses on unity, there is a push for some kind of multi-racial gathering. In Tyler there is a church that focuses on this concept of their tri-racial congregation. Multi-racial gathering do suggest that some of the racial barriers are broken down, but this congregationalism may not be a sign of Christian unity. Unity. It could be just as much a show as the formalities of many churches. Christian unity is much deeper and it all goes back to the initial drive of the New Testament church in Acts 2:47: And they were steadfastly continuing in the teaching of the apostles and in fellowship, and the breaking of bread and prayers.
In the most organized churches in town, this unity is missing. The church is missing.