What are the irreducible, minimum requirements for a church in order for it to be biblical?
It was argued earlier in this book that the practices passed on by the apostles have the force of biblical command, and this is true be they, for instance, concerning people working and providing for themselves and not being idle, or the manner in which churches functioned (such as what they did when they met together). From the New Testament as a whole we can piece together a clear picture of just what this apostolically commanded church practice actually was. I would consequently list the following:
Believers met as churches on the first day of the week. (And it is instructive to note at this point that this is the only apostolic practice that the early church fathers didn’t mess around with and change. And of course the reason for this is that it doesn’t in any way touch on the actual nature of what a church is, and therefore didn’t affect the wrong teachings and changes to church practice they introduced one way or the other. They therefore left this one thing unchanged and it remained as the apostles had originally established.)
When churches came together they met in houses.
When they came together in their houses their corporate worship and sharing together was completely open and spontaneous (1Co 14:26 describes the proceedings as, “each one has”), 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 those elders 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 the slightest way positional.
Now that is what the Bible clearly reveals as to how the apostles, who were the recipients of Jesus’ full revelation and teachings, established churches to operate and function. But the question before us is: How much of their blueprint could be changed whilst leaving a church as still fundamentally biblical in it’s nature and functioning. (I use this phrase because nature and functioning are totally interrelated, being actually different sides of the same coin. As in the rest of life, form follows function – it is just the way things unalterably are! Parents and children, for instance, function together differently than colleagues at the work place, and it’s the difference in nature that makes the difference in function so important. A family where parents and children relate together more like workmates than blood relatives would be an example of, not a normal family, but a dysfunctional one. So likewise, churches that function as institutions or organizations, rather than extended families of the Lord’s people, are examples of dysfunctional churches and not, biblically speaking, normal ones.) So let us now proceed in earnest to the answering of our question, and see what parts of the apostolic blueprint, if any, are non-essential in maintaining both the nature and functioning of a biblical church. And we’ll start with the issue of which day churches ought to meet.
Now as far as nature and function are concerned this is indeed entirely neutral, and the early church fathers realized this and so saw no need to make changes. They saw that you could alter the functioning and nature of churches without reference to the day on which they met and so in that regard left things as apostolic status quo. And, conversely, a biblical church could change the day on which it got together yet remain everything it already was, and continue to practice and function in the same manner in every other respect.
And I would be the first to say that being (nature) and doing (function) church biblically is more important than the day on which you meet in order to so be and do; and would rather be part of a church that was biblical in practice and function but which met on, say, Thursdays or Tuesdays, than one that met on Sundays but which wasn’t biblical according to our earlier definition. But here is my question: When the early church fathers themselves chose not to change the day of the gathering of believers, on what basis, and for what possible reason, should we?
Though I say again that I do accept without reservation that a church meeting on a different day of the week to Sunday can be otherwise fully biblical. Further, if it ever became illegal to meet on Sundays, but not Thursday, then I would probably, under such circumstances, be quite happy to make the necessary changes. But outside of such extenuating circumstances, and I shall be back to that thought later, why change the day on which the early church, under the guidance and care of the apostles, met?
And let me also answer at this point the completely legitimate point that in the world of the New Testament, the Jews started a new day in the evening, and this means the first day of the week for them started on Saturday evening. Therefore, if any church met on Saturday evenings specifically for that reason then I would accept it as a biblical thing to do. However, it must still be said that this would seem to be illogical in countries where each day is reckoned to commence in the morning. For most of us the first day of the week is the time period from when we get up on Sunday morning until we go to bed again, so I would still maintain that meeting as churches on Sundays remains the biblical norm as far as we are concerned. So let’s move on now to the question of meeting in houses.
That the early church did meet in houses no one with an ounce Bible knowledge is going to deny, and the nature and functioning of the meetings they had when they came together as churches simply meant that there was never any need for them to do otherwise. Numbers in each church were, by definition, supposed to be small, and interactive gatherings with no one leading, and with a meal thrown in to boot, are just perfect for a house setting. After all, what better place could there possibly be? And so once again we see form following function as it always does in the New Testament. (The eventual move from houses into specially sanctified religious buildings was, as with all the other changes we are considering, due to the early church fathers. And it is interesting to note too that this was the final change they made to the apostolic blueprint, and that meeting in houses was actually the original apostolic praxes that survived their reinvention of the Christian church the longest.)
But let us now consider the plight of twenty Eskimos in a village somewhere near the North Pole who have just become Christians, and who therefore want to become a church, but whose largest igloo can only fit 8 people in it. Now if they therefore decided to hire a slightly larger igloo with the express purpose of using it for their gatherings as a church, then assuming they still meet as the Bible describes and don’t therefore change the nature of what their gathering together ought to be, then I would see no problem. Indeed, I would rather be part of a biblical church that met outside of homes for their main gathering (assuming though that the other biblical practices were in place) than part of a church that met in homes but which was unbiblical in every other respect. You can maintain the nature and functioning of a church, if you really have to, whilst meeting somewhere other than in a home. Indeed, the church of which I am a part sometimes used to rent a hall for the bit of our gathering together that includes the singing, this being out of love for neighbors having heard their complaints about the noise. But we sit in a circle, just as we would in a home, and what we do in that hall is still completely open with everyone free to spontaneously take part, and without anyone leading from the front. And when we are done we return to one of our houses for the love-feast. But let me underline now what I just said about if you really have to; because we must make sure that we don’t let deviations from the biblical norm, permissible only because of extenuating circumstances, actually become the norm. Let me illustrate what I mean by this from what the Bible teaches about baptism.
Biblical baptism, like apostolic tradition for the way a church functions, is a command from the Lord. And although it’s actual mode isn’t anywhere commanded in the pages of scripture, we know from the way the early church did it (apostolic tradition again) that it was to be done upon conversion, with no time lapse, and in water. (And of course the immersion bit we get from the simple fact that the actual word baptism in English is simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo which literally means to dip, dunk or immerse.) And many of us would be greatly concerned at any idea that we are free to make changes to this, whether regarding who is to be baptized, the mode of their baptism, or indeed it’s timing, and remain painfully aware of how the church at large has massacred it in each of these ways for far too long. So our position would be that, in order to comply with the teaching of the Word of God, a person should be baptized upon profession of faith in Jesus, as soon as possible, and by full immersion in water.
But let us now address an instance of someone coming to the Lord but who is bedridden because of illness. Baptism, as biblically commanded and exampled in the New Testament, is clearly out of the question as far as they are concerned, so would not coming up with some other more appropriate mode be incumbent upon us? And of course we would respond to this in the affirmative! In such a circumstance one would technically be out of step with the teaching of scripture as to the mode of baptism, yet still be in complete harmony with it’s intent and spirit. But here is the vital point: Nothing of what I have just said could possibly apply to the conversion of an able bodied person, and the normal mode would have to be employed in order for things to be as the Lord wants. And neither could anyone argue for baptism for someone who hadn’t responded to Jesus by faith, because that would attack the very nature of baptism, even though it’s external mode might still in accordance with the scripture.
And of course this is what I mean when I say we must not make biblically permitted deviations, necessitated because of extenuating circumstances, become the norm. If the church of which I am a part here in England had access to the size of houses that similar churches have, for instance, in America, then we would not in a million years have even thought of using a hall for part of our gathering together. And if we return for one moment to our postulated brothers and sisters at the North Pole, should it turn out that they do have igloos big enough to fit a good number of people in after all, then what possible need would they have of hiring a large public building-type igloo for their church gatherings? And of course the truth of the matter is that any process of negotiating away any of these factors which together make a church biblical is usually a lead up to attempts at smuggling in alternatives to the other three things I listed:
Open worship and sharing with no one leading from the front
The Lord’s Supper as a full meal
Non-hierarchical, plural, male, indigenous leadership
And do let me make it quite clear that with the above three things we are now looking at the completely non-negotiable and irreducibly bare minimum requirements for a church to be said to be biblical. But let me make it clear as well that I do not by this mean that everything has to be in place from the word go, there is often and frequently the need for instruction, development and spiritual growth first. Yet it still remains the case that these things must be at least where a church is headed, it’s destination so to speak, even if it has not yet arrived. Of course the Lord’s Supper as a full meal ought to be in place from the word go, there is no possible reason for such to not be the case, but eldership will normatively arise later. And it is often the case too that someone might take an initial lead in the corporate weekly gatherings until others learn how to begin to play their part. But the thing to grasp is that it would nevertheless be quite clear where the church was headed in regards to how it functions and does things.
And of course the issue here is that anything that touches on these three things does indeed impact on the very nature of what a church is. Change things here and you cause a church to begin functioning in a way that is not only different from what the New Testament reveals, but completely alien to it and virtually it’s opposite. To return to our example of baptism we might say that here we have the equivalent of baptizing an unbeliever. The very nature of the thing is changed and the Lord’s intention for it made void, canceled out; indeed, virtually done away with! And it boils down to this: Why would anyone who understands these last three parts of the blueprint want to play around with the first two in any case, unless there were the most pressing extenuating circumstances virtually forcing them into it? I have yet to hear it put better than by my good friend Steve Atkerson: “The question is not so much why we should do things the same way the apostles did, but rather why would we want to do anything differently?”