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!

 

 

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