It’s church Jim, but not as we know it!

Throughout the last two thousand years, and all around the world today, Christians come together in churches of an almost endless variety. Whatever shape or size of church you prefer, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be something out there somewhere that fits the bill. Moreover, it seems pretty clear as well that the vast majority of Christians in this myriad of completely differing churches are quite happy to endorse the believers in pretty much all the others.

Across the world Christians in churches that are, for example, led by priests, happily endorse other churches which are not led by priests. And, of course, vice versa! How many Christians in (let’s say) Baptists churches are going to condemn their brothers and sisters for being in Episcopalian ones? I would imagine very few! Yes, by and large Christians don’t tend to fall out with each other over what kind of churches they attend. And, of course, quite right too!

But I have discovered something in all this which is, I think, rather strange, because there does appear to be an exception to this rule, and one that generates a goodly amount of controversy too. You see, whereas most Christians in churches that, for instance, baptise babies, are happy for other Christians to be part of churches which don’t, and vice versa; and whereas most Christians in churches whose worship is somewhat akin to a pop concert are content for other believers to be part of churches which would positively reject anything other than a pipe organ or piano, and vice versa, there nevertheless does seem to be one way of doing church of which the vast majority of Christians, and especially church leaders, are deeply suspicious, and on which most seem to positively frown.

I have discovered, over a period of four plus decades, that pretty much any which way of doing church is, broadly speaking, acceptable to the vast majority of Christians except that of simply replicating what churches were like as described in the pages of the New Testament. Christians are free, it would appear, to do church pretty much however they choose with the exception of just copying how the apostles of Jesus set churches up in the first century.

Worship, it seems, can be completely liturgical, or not liturgical at all. It can be raucous and charismatic or ecclesiastically sombre. It can be happy-clappy or quiet and reverent. But what it can’t be, it would appear, is open and participatory, with all present free to take part as the Lord leads as taught by Paul the Apostle! The Lord’s Supper can be pretty much any kind of ritual with bread and wine that you care to think of, whether administered through the medium of priestcraft or non-ordained laymen, light and airy in tone or more formally ecclesiastical; but what it apparently can’t be is having a loaf of bread and cup of wine as part of an actual meal as was the case in the New Testament churches!

Further, church leadership can take the form of Archbishops, Archdeacons, Vicars and general priesthood or, alternatively, it can be the other end of the spectrum and comprise non-priestly – yet still ordained – Ministers and Pastors and the like. But what it apparently can’t be is plural elders raised up in, and recognised by, the church of which these men were already a part even though this is what Bible scholars unanimously accept was how the early church functioned in such regard! And we note finally that it is quite normative for Christians to gather in Cathedrals, Basilicas, Church Sanctuaries, Chapels, rented building and village halls etc, but should a church simply meet in the homes of those who comprise it, as Bible scholars unanimously confirm that the New Testament churches did, then not only are such gatherings of believers not even recognised as being churches, they are positively guaranteed to invoke the very greatest of suspicion!

This is amazing, is it not? Pretty much any which way of doing church you can think of is acceptable in the eyes of most Christians except, that is, the way the New Testament describes that churches were actually like! When it comes to what form church life ought to take the consensus of Bible believing Christians throughout church history has been that pretty much the only way not to do church is the way the Bible actually teaches.

I think that is something we should think about very seriously indeed!

Isn’t life strange?




Church Life: Command or Convenience?

We can, broadly speaking, divide the concerns of the writers of the New Testament into three areas: theology (propositional doctrinal truth), morality and ethics (personal holiness) and actual practise regarding such things as church life and church setup, baptism, and how the early church went about evangelism etc. However, although few genuinely Bible believing Christians would question whether or not the first two categories are matters of command; that is, positively prescribed, the majority view since the New Testament was completed has been that the third category is merely descriptive and therefore not binding. Whereas theology and personal holiness are accepted as being biblically mandated, with the clear understanding that the apostles of Jesus expected full obedience to their teaching regarding such, how Christians put into practise what they also taught regarding church life, baptism, evangelism and the like is, in contrast, said to be entirely negotiable and up for grabs. It is apparently  absolutely fine for us to go about such things any which way that happens to best suit us.

Now of course if this is what the New Testament writers actually teach then all is well and entirely as it should be. If it is found to be clear from the inspired text that theological truth is binding (divinity of Jesus, atonement, salvation through faith by grace alone etc etc), and that moral stances such as not stealing, or not being sexually immoral, or positively loving our neighbours and forgiving others are matters of command, but that things such as church practise, baptism and how evangelism was conducted are not mandated, then I would have no complaint. But the simple truth of the matter is that, however much Christians continue to turn a blind eye to it, such things are commanded and mandated in scripture just as is doctrinal theology and personal moral and ethics.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2, precisely in the context of how the believers there were conducting themselves regarding church life (the immediate context being women in the assembly), Paul writes, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”

The Greek word here for traditions is paradosis and it simply means the established way of doing things; that is, established practise. And of course, if Paul is praising them for sticking to the way he taught them to conduct themselves regarding church life, and women in the assembly, then what would he say to believers who have changed what he had taught the Corinthians out of all recognition? He certainly wouldn’t say, “Well done for going against what I teach and doing things completely differently!” He would rather say, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Following the above statement are four chapters in which the apostle outlines how the Corinthians were messing up their church gatherings, and what they were to do in order to correct things. As a direct consequence Bible scholars are virtually unanimous in their understanding that Paul had taught the Corinthian church to, for instance, meet  in their homes, to have open participatory sharing and worship with all present taking equal part, and that the whole proceedings ought to revolve around the Lord’s Supper, the loaf and cup being part of a communal meal. Paul also makes clear in these chapters that when it comes to church practise, the  test of orthodoxy is conformity to this way of doing things. Phrases such as, “We have no other practise!” and, “As in all the churches…” eloquently testify to this simple fact. Then, summing up his argument at the end of these chapters, he writes in Chapter 14:36-38:

“Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?  If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.”

Here, as clear as day, and as black and white as one could wish for, in the precise context of describing how a church gathering ought to be conducted, Paul states both explicitly and unequivocally that such things are as much matters of command as are theology and morality. If what Paul writes here is to be taken in any way seriously, and how could it not be, then we are not free to do things differently, be it regarding church practise, baptism or whatever. In the second to fourth centuries the Early Church Fathers went totally against Paul’s teaching, and therefore against the Word of God itself, when they made the changes to church life and baptism to which the vast majority of Christians, however inadvertently, are still adhering.

The argument that in the New Testament such things as church life and baptism are merely described as opposed to prescribed is patently false. 99.9% of Christians will have never even heard the above verses referred to by their leaders, let alone explained or expounded by them. How could they though? Should they attempt to do so, their leaders would then have to explain why they are making a living out of performing a ministry of which the New Testament knows absolutely nothing!