Part 4 - What the Bible Says!
Let’s remind ourselves of the main points regarding what the apostles’ established churches to be like and how they taught them to function and operate:
Believers met as churches on the first day of the week
When believers came together as churches on the first day of the week they met in houses.
When they came together in people’s homes their corporate worship and sharing together was completely open and spontaneous with no one leading from the front. The early believers didn’t have anything that even approximated a ‘church service’.
As part of these proceedings they ate the Lord's Supper as a full meal; indeed, as their main meal of the day, commonly referring to it as the love-feast.
They understood each church to be an extended family unit (the idea of churches being institutions or organizations would have been totally alien to them), and practiced non-hierarchical plural male leadership that had arisen from within the church it would subsequently lead. This indigenous eldership (elder, pastor/ shepherd, bishop/overseer being synonymous terms in the New Testament) sought to lead consensually wherever possible, and was understood to be purely functional and not in any way positional.
Right, so now let’s see this all laid out quite unmistakably in black and white in the pages of the New Testament:
New Testament churches met in the homes of those in the church:
Acts 2:46 - Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts...
Here we see that in the very beginning they gathered in each others homes and the temple courts. (The Temple Courts, as a public gathering place, were used for mass gatherings for teaching, evangelism, prayer etc and were utilized for what one might term as multi-church gatherings.) Breaking of bread refers to eating meals and is what the phrase means as used in the New Testament. Included in its meaning here would be the Lord’s Supper (as a full meal), as well as their ordinary daily meals the rest of the week. (See later!) From this point the temple gatherings fade from view completely as the church spread outside of Jerusalem and eventually to the Gentiles. The temple was then a complete irrelevance (being eventually destroyed, of course, in AD 70), and we are left with the simple fact that whenever particular and specific churches are located in scripture they are always, without exception, in people’s homes.
Acts 8:3 - But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
We here see that each church Saul (later to become Paul the Apostle) destroyed was found in a house. (It is interesting to note here that meeting in houses didn’t protect the early churches from persecution in any way, and their persecutors knew exactly whose homes they were meeting in. The explanation sometimes given that the New Testament churches met in houses because of persecution is quite without biblical merit. Even when there was no persecution of believers - and systemic persecution against Christians in general didn’t arise until the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth Century - churches throughout New Testament times, and well beyond, met in people homes.
Romans 16:3-5 - Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.
1Corinthians 16:19 - The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
Colossians 4:15 - Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church that meets at her house.
Philemon 1-2 - Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother. To Philemon our dear friend and fellow-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier and to the church that meets in your home.
James 2:1-4 - My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated against yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
James is quite clearly referring here to when they met as a church, and what he says only makes sense if they were doing so in a home as opposed to a public building. What is at a premium here is space, or otherwise why would the poor brother be required either to sit on the floor or to stand? He could have just been shuffled out of the way to a seat somewhere in the back row! (The fact that the Greek word here for ‘meeting’ is the Greek word for Synagogue is not relevant. The word simply means a gathering of people, and the fact that it also came to mean the building wherein such gatherings happened is the same as has happened with the word ‘church.’ Whereas it can indeed mean a religious building, it primarily means a gathering of believers. James, if only because of the issue being lack of space, is clearly using it in its original meaning of a gathering of people rather than an actual Synagogue building.)
And there you have just about all the verses in the New Testament which relate to where churches were located when believers met together; and it’s patently obvious that they met in houses. Neither is it the case that there are other verses to which I haven’t referred but which might indicate that churches sometimes didn’t meet in homes. Any such verses, as any biblical scholar will tell you - and we will see them doing just that in the next section - are completely absent from the text of the New Testament. No-one who knows their biblical stuff would challenge the simple fact that the apostles established churches to meet in the homes of those believers who were part of them, and that there is not one word or hint in the New Testament that it was in any way envisaged that this would ever change.
New Testament church gatherings were completely open and participatory with no one leading from the front:
In 1 Corinthians 11-14 Paul’s context is how the believers there ought to conduct themselves when they come together as a church. (This is not something that any Bible commentator would challenge and is self-evidently the case). He is particularly concerned, in the light of their obsession with the verbal gifts of the Spirit such as tongues and prophecy, that they understand the rules he had previously given them concerning their use. Further, he couches his teaching in terms of each person in the church being a different part of a body, and that the key to a healthy body is that each part functions properly and according to its design. Against this background it becomes clear that what Paul writes only makes any sense when understood as instructions and rules laid down for a corporate gathering at which all present are free to take part without the controlling presence of anyone ‘leading’ the proceedings.
1 Corinthians12:7 - Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
The key point here is that when they meet as a church each one ought to have their personal manifestation and gift of the Spirit to bring in order that all present might be benefited.
1 Corinthians 14:23-25 - So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everyone is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Paul here makes clear that whereas un-interpreted public tongues are pointless in a public gathering (no-one has the faintest idea what is being said), prophecy most certainly isn’t. And of course the thing to grasp here is that he encourages everyone to prophecy. So there you have it again; all present were free to take part!
1 Corinthians 14:26 - What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
What is the push here, then? That everyone should take part, and quite spontaneously as well! The Holy Spirit, and not some human ‘master of ceremonies’, is seen to be leading the proceedings.
1 Corinthians 14:29-31 - Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.
This verse also shows us as clear as day that the gatherings of the New Testament churches were open and participatory, and without any human leadership ‘from the front’. Such instructions as we are seeing here would be nonsensical if directed towards a gathering that was led by someone who was directing the proceedings and conducting some kind of ‘religious service’. They make perfect sense, however, when understood as instructions for everyone in the church to adhere to and implement. Just imagine, Paul here tells them that someone already sharing something is to give way to another who indicates they now have something to bring. This is no ‘church service’. Indeed, this is the exact opposite of a ‘church service’. It is rather the coming together of a group of believers in someone’s home to function, and to share together, like an extended family. All are free to contribute and take part for the corporate good and spiritual well-being of each person present. It isn’t merely that Paul doesn’t lay much stress on the person leading ‘from the front’, it is rather that he lays no stress in that regard at all and that any such idea is completely alien to his thinking. Nothing is further from his mind in his writings than the notion that someone might be leading the church gathering. As we have already noted, in someone’s lounge there isn’t even a ‘front’ for anyone to lead from. Few things could be more alien to the New Testament than the idea of ‘church services’ being ‘led’ from the ‘front’ by a ‘Minister’ whose ‘job’ it is so to do.
When New Testament churches met they partook of the Lord’s Supper as a full meal:
Another aspect of Paul’s context in 1 Corinthians 11-14 is to make it clear to certain believers in the church that they should no longer be attending the infamous love feasts at the Temple of Diana located in their city. These were sordid affairs, to put it mildly, with priestesses doubling for prostitutes, and the whole thing was basically a drunken orgy. Further, he addresses the fact that not only were believers in the Corinthian church failing to maintain proper relationships with each other, and then eating the church love-feast without first putting such behavior right with those they had sinned against, but some were even getting drunk and eating all the food before the poorer brothers and sisters had even arrived. Needless to say we are not going to be seeing the apostle correcting the abuses of some ‘communion service’ consisting of a ritual with bread and wine (as we have seen so clearly, the New Testament church had nothing that would have even vaguely resembled such a thing), we are going to see him correcting the abuse of a corporate shared church meal which he refers to as the Lord’s Table and the Lord’s Supper. (The Greek word translated supper here in this Corinthian letter is deipnon, and it exclusively denotes the main meal of the day eaten towards evening.) His cure for the problems being encountered is to simply tell them that if they can’t conduct themselves properly and treat the church meal as something a bit special, that is, the Lord’s Meal, then they should just go to their own homes and eat selfishly and get drunk there.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17 - Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
Using the terminology of the food and drink at the Passover, itself a full meal, Paul indicates that the food and drink represents, among other things, the unity we have because of what Jesus accomplished for us in His death. The truly awful, and perfectly misleading, phrase ‘Holy Communion’ comes from the fact that in the Greek the word translated participation is koinonia, and means fellowship. Hence we have such associated words as communication, communique and communion. As stated earlier, the New Testament knows nothing of ‘communion services’, and the early churches shared bread and wine as part of a communal church meal - as simple as that! The idea of there being a ‘communion service’ tacked on to the end of a normal ‘service’ would have been quite ridiculous to them; if only for the simple reason that there weren’t any normal ‘services’ for them to be tacked on to in the first place.
1 Corinthians 10:21 - You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too: you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
This is his warning to those who are coming to the church love feast whilst still attending those held at the pagan temple. And of course the love feasts at the pagan temple, as with those the Christian churches practiced, were proper meals.
1 Corinthians 11:20-21 - When you come together it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.
How does a ‘communion service’, comprising a morsel of bread and a tiny sip of wine, satisfy hunger or enable someone to get drunk? Of course, it doesn’t! Remember, the New Testament churches didn’t have any ‘services’, let alone ‘communion services‘. They rather ate a full meal together and called it the Lord’s Meal. (Supper: deipnon - the main meal of the day towards evening) This is what Jesus had told the apostles to do just before His death at the Passover meal.
Jude 12 - These men (false teachers) are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm...
Love feasts! What love feasts? Churches don’t have love feasts at which some people might be blemishes, do they? Well, any Bible scholar will tell you that the churches in the New Testament did indeed have love feasts when they met. And of course here we have another of the names they used for the Lord’s Supper, the love feast! So when does your church have its love feast then?
The New Testament churches met on the first day of the week:
Acts 20:7 - On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.
This verse is interesting for various reasons, and not least of all because the phrasing here in the Greek tells us that the coming together on the first day of the week was their normative and habitual practice, and not just some one-off event here with the church in Troas. A more accurate translation might be, “As usual, we came together on the first day of the week...” As we have already seen, this verse is how we know that churches in the New Testament did indeed meet on Sundays, and it is the one part of the apostolic blueprint that didn’t end up being tampered with and changed. However, there are two other things of great interest here:
Firstly, the reference to breaking bread is, of course, the Lord’s Supper. The phrase is one of the ways that the Jews back then referred to eating a meal, and here it is clearly the church love feast that is in view. And it is further fascinating to note that the Greek at this point also indicates that this breaking of bread, i.e. the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Table, the love feast, was actually the main reason for their coming together. It was, in fact, the very heart and purpose of their gathering together as a church, and was the thing around which everything else revolved.
Secondly (and this is slightly off the immediate point but still important), the Greek doesn’t say that Paul, “…spoke to the people…” at all, and it certainly doesn’t say, as another translation would have you believe, that, “...he preached to them until midnight.” We have already seen that when churches met on the Lord’s Day their gatherings were interactive and open for all to participate in, and no one person dominated or did all the talking or whatever. So it should come as no surprise then to discover that the Greek word, quite wrongly translated here as “spoke to”or “preached to”, is dialegomai; and it means to talk with, to discuss, or to dispute with. It is actually where the English word dialogue comes from, and far from indicating a monologue (sermon) with just one person speaking, it rather denotes a two way verbal intercourse that is mutual, participatory and interactive. Even Paul the apostle didn’t ‘lead a service’ (remember, they didn’t have ‘services’) or preach a sermon when he visited a church on a Sunday. What he did do, however, was to talk with the people who comprised that church and to share interactively with them; including, of course, eating the love feast with them.
Each church practiced non-hierarchical, plural, male leadership that had arisen from the people within the church. These men were known as elders, pastors (or shepherds) and bishops (or overseers), these being synonymous terms in the New Testament:
We shall be back to this (with various other things we have touched on so far) in later articles, but for the time being we will see what the New Testament shows us about it without making too much comment.
Acts 11:30 - This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 14:23 - Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.
Acts 20:17, 18a, 28 - From Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived he said to them, “......Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (or bishops). Be shepherds (or pastors) of the church of God which He bought with His own blood.
Acts 21:18 - The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James and all the elders were present.
Philippians 1:1 - Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers (or bishops) and deacons.
1 Timothy 4:14 - Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
1 Timothy 5:17 - The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
Titus 1:5 - The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town (that is, locally grown men in each church), as I directed you.
James 5:14 - Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
1 Peter 5:1-4 - To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s suffering and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed. Be shepherds (or pastors) of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (or bishops) - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you (see below), but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Matthew 20v25-28 - Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many.”
So there you have it! None of this just my own idea or personal interpretation, it’s what the pages of scripture quite clearly and unmistakably reveal as being the case. I repeat; this is not merely what I say, it is what the Bible says!
Still not sure about it all though? Well, I can understand that right enough! It is, after all, pretty radical stuff. So let me entice you to the next article where you can see for yourself what universally recognized and acclaimed evangelical biblical scholars, experts and historians have to say about it.