I suppose that anyone who is in any kind of a minority, and who faces a significant uphill struggle as a result, questions from time to time why they keep doing whatever it is that makes them that minority. And those of us who are in a minority 1) Simply because we are Christians and 2) Because we are also pursuing biblical church life and 3) Because we are not, unlike most other house church advocates, pragmatists and feminists, ask it too.
And I can definitely confirm that being in such a minority amongst not only unbelievers, but most Christians as well, because of a pursuit to live as comprehensively biblically as possible, is most definitely not easy. Moreover, we seem to be an increasingly dying breed too, and many who once followed this path have long since jumped ship. I don’t mean jumped ship from following the Lord, but certainly from what I am describing here. Believe me, pursuing biblical church life, and therefore finding yourself under fire from both traditional churches and house churches, is a tough gig. And it’s a tough gig that most who have taken a shot at appear to be walking away from. So why keep going? Why keep facing such continuing difficulty and discouragement? Is time to conclude that we’ve backed the wrong horse and that we should just vanish quietly into the night?
Well, no! Most certainly not! At least, not for me and my house; and let me tell you why by drawing what I think is a very powerful biblical parallel.
Picture in your mind living in a society, not that different to Western society today, where marriage has mostly become a thing of the past; A society in which the idea of one man and one women covenanting to live exclusively together until death has become unfashionable and is no longer the norm. As with the similar notion that sexual relationships should only be between people of the opposite sex, which is already becoming obsolete now, marriage is considered both irrelevant and culturally passé. A quaint relic of an outdated tradition now mostly rejected; indeed, considered by many to be even somewhat offensive.
One doesn’t actually need much of an imagination in order to envisage this because society is heading more and more in this very direction with every passing day. Just a generation ago the practise of gay marriage would have been unthinkable, yet in western society it is being increasingly accepted as being as normal as marriage between a man and a woman. Against such a developing cultural backdrop it is not difficult to see how marriage might soon become regarded as the main stumbling block to the perceived equality of sexual relationships in general and, as already with other aspects of the traditional family, become a thing of the past.
Now in such a scenario we can be sure, based on the last 50 years of Christianity in the west in relationship to changing cultural norms regarding sex and gender, that within a generation of marriage becoming obsolete amongst unbelievers, and therefore society at large, the Christian Church would largely follow suit. Even genuine born again Christians would end up conforming to the new societal norm of rejecting marriage, just as they have already conformed to the idea that divorce and remarriage other than for adultery is acceptable, that feminism is good and biblical patriarchy bad, and just as an increasing number of Christians now think that gay sex and gay marriage is fine and dandy after all. They will, in short, not conform to scripture, but to the overall consensus of the society in which they find themselves living.
Christians will, I am sure, mostly maintain that you should only have sexual relations with another Christian, and will favour having a few long term sexual partnerships as opposed to overly many short term ones; and will doubtless want to encourage their fellow Christians who are in such relationships to stay together long enough for any children that result to have a bit of stability, probably at least until they get to college age. But of course it still won’t be marriage, and therefore still won’t be family life as depicted in the Bible. But that won’t matter to Christians then, any more than it matters to them now what scripture teaches regarding divorce and remarriage, the headship of a man over his wife and family, or that church leadership should be male.
Picture now, in this scenario, a young man who comes to know the Lord for the first time, and who therefore starts reading the Bible. He has been told by those who are older in the faith that it is God’s infallible and authoritative Word, and so he dives into it so he can learn how the Lord wants him to live and to understand what His will is for his life. As a new believer he is obviously, by very default, culturally liberal and therefore naturally feministic, pro-gay and trans, with little or no concept of traditional marriage or family life given that it’s not the societal norm in which he has been raised, even amongst Christians. And as he does read more and more of this book that he now accepts to be the God’s Word, he makes some pretty astounding – and alarming – discoveries; chief of which is that it teaches that sexual relationships are only acceptable in the context of lifelong marriage – which of course, hardly anyone believes any more, Christians included. And he scratches his head and starts to think and pray it through, and he begins to realise the enormous ramifications of what he has read.
Initially, of course, he just goes with the Christian flow and assumes that things are as they should be, and that marriage can’t be of any great importance. After all, if it was important to the Lord and what He really wanted, then obviously all the Christians he fellowships with be ardent supporters and practitioners of it, and would be married to their sexual partners. But they aren’t, so hey…what the heck??? Even more important, of course, is the fact that if what scripture teaches about marriage did matter, then all the church leaders he knows of would be teaching it and would be married too. Ministers and Pastors do, after all, know best, don’t they? All good Christians know that!
But in his ongoing reading, praying and thinking, this ‘marriage thing’ that he sees is so clearly taught in scripture just wont go away. The only reason he’s reading the Bible in the first place is because he loves the Lord, and because he understands it to be the only way to know what He wants. His desire is to daily follow Jesus, and the only means of knowing what that means in practical terms is this book that, amongst a lot of other things that have never been part of his thinking, teaches that sex outside of marriage is a sin. And sin, because he wants to follow the Lord so much, is the very thing he wants to be delivered. He wants to be obedient. He wants to be faithful to His newly-found Lord and Saviour, and so he feels he has no choice but to start asking some serious questions. And of course the mistake he makes to raise the questions with other Christians. Even more even more mistakenly, he raises them with church leaders. What he then hits up against confuses and baffles him beyond words.
Most of the believers he knows don’t really think that his questions matter much encourage him to just concentrate on growing in the Lord and attending church faithfully, and not to get hung up over questions of sexual ethics that no one else is asking. It’s not an issue, they assure him, so why worry? That whole marriage thing was then, they maintain, but this is now! Not worth the controversy, they say!
But this new conscience he’s got since coming to know the Lord just won’t let him do that, so he pushes a bit harder; and he challenges his fellow believers more directly to explain to him why scripture would teach marriage if it didn’t actually matter. And if that wasn’t an even bigger mistake than the other mistakes he’s already made, he then makes the biggest mistake of all, and he starts to challenge church leaders equally directly about it. Working on the assumption that the logical thing to do is to go to those who are supposed know best, and who claim to be teaching their congregations what the Bible says, he quickly discovers the massive difference between what church Ministers, Pastors and Priests want their congregations to think the Bible teaches about certain things, and what the Bible actually does teach about them. The cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and our hapless hero is in B-I-G trouble!
Most of the leaders he talks to take the almost de facto approach of just trying to palm him off with the argument that whereas marriage is obviously what the New Testament depicts (most of them aren’t daft enough to try and get away with saying that doesn’t teach marriage), and was indeed the way things were done in the early church, it is merely descriptive and not prescriptive. It was just how they did things back then. It was just down to the culture of the time, they assure him, and was what was best in that particular historical and cultural context. Although the Christian Church certainly hung on to the concept and practice of marriage for generations after that, as it also did with patriarchy and male headship, and the idea that gay sex was wrong, Christians have now, they explain, realised the time had come whereby such things were presenting a stumbling block to unbelievers, and had become a hindrance to the important mission of evangelising and spreading the gospel in such a way that unbelievers can receive and buy into.
But these arguments, even though from the men who are supposed to know best, just don’t hold water for him, and he is becoming more and more aware of the massive divide between what the Bible quite obviously teaches, and how the Christians of his day were actually living. It is as clear as day to him that that scripture doesn’t in any way allow for such things as marriage and sexual ethics, and numerous other things he keeps hitting up against as well, to be merely matters of preference. Quite the contrary, in fact! It is entirely obvious to him that, as opposed to being matters of preference – mere description as opposed to prescription, as he is repeatedly told – scripture actually makes abundantly clear that such things are matters of unequivocal command. Christians, he concludes, may well assume that such things are matters of mere preference, but it is obvious to him that wherever that assumption originated from, it was never anything to do with scripture itself. The argument, so wearyingly deployed against him, that such things in scripture are merely descriptive and not prescriptive is, he concludes, not only irrational and nonsensical, but simply the way in which Christians in general, and church leaders in particular, justify going against anything in God’s Word that doesn’t suit them.
So he comes to a decision; and it is indeed a bold one! Outside of sharing with others what they are missing in scripture, there is nothing he can yet do in practical terms to put into actual practise what is lacking amongst he fellow believers. He is, after all, a single man, and when something requires the participation of another, and marriage, of course, does, then there is little he can at that moment do. But the unequivocal commitment to biblical practise can nevertheless be made, and he decides that, when he does eventually meet someone with whom he wants to mate, and who desires the same with him, he will absolutely insist on following certain biblical criteria, even at the risk of ending up having to remain celibate his whole life.. The list is simple, but profound:
1) She must be female.
2) She must be a Christian.
3) She must believe in marriage as scripture teaches.
4) They will then marry for life, only after which will they have sexual relations.
His course is now set and he knows exactly what the Lord would have him do, regardless of personal cost: to seek to teach and persuade as many other believers as he can that scripture commands lifelong marriage, that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and that any Christians living together should therefore either end any sexual relationship such as they are in, or get married immediately. And of course now the game-changer has happened. Thus far he’s been regarded as merely weird, though a still a definite nuisance, but nothing overly dreadful beyond that. A young man, so everyone is still praying, who might yet grow out of his strange obsession and become more spiritually balanced.
But now it is clear to his fellow believers, and especially church leaders, that he has now become a full-blown troublemaker and a thoroughly bad and divisive influence. By declaring so publicly that scripture teaches marriage he is implying that everyone else is wrong, and of course not just Christians in general, but church leaders too. He is judging them, and must therefore be a divisive and arrogant troublemaker. And our resolute hero can only scratch his head in wonderment at the logic of these (presumably) otherwise sensible brothers, sisters and church leaders who are maintaining that he, by definition, is doing wrong by saying that they are wrong, but who also think that it’s fine and dandy for them to say that he is wrong. He concludes, however, that such irrationality doesn’t merit further consideration!
All is not lost though! He’s pretty much blacklisted now, and Christian leaders are increasingly warning anyone and everyone against him; and he realises more and more that his walk with the Lord is probably going to be a lonely one. He also discovers that the main weapon so relentlessly employed against him by those who don’t want him to be heard on these things is going to be continuous and unending slander and innuendo. No smear, it would appear, or even intentional lie, is off the table when it comes to church leaders silencing anyone teaching that sex outside of marriage is sin, thereby daring to challenge the consensus of Christian mainstream that it is their job, and a pretty well paid one too, to uphold and maintain. His situation is difficult, to say the least, but then the miracle happens. The Lord brings along a Christian girl who also wants to be faithful to the Lord, and who therefore also wants to do what His Word teaches. So quite brazenly and unapologetically they do the unthinkable…they get married!!!
The outcry from other believers is of varying degrees. Most just refuse to accept that what they have done can be considered a proper relationship, let alone a relationship that all sexually active Christians should embrace, whilst others, and especially Christian Ministers, Pastors and Priests, are somewhat more strident in their denunciations. Does this divisive young troublemaker, and now his poor deceived wife, really have the temerity, the sheer gall and arrogance, to refer to this ‘marriage’ of theirs as a biblical relationship? Are they saying, retorts Christian mainstream, that the rest of us aren’t biblical? Are they suggesting that our sexual relationships, just because they are outside of marriage, are unscriptural? Have they not seen how much God blesses these so-called unbiblical relationships? Do they not accept how clearly the Holy Spirit has led the Christian church into such a consensus? Are they so arrogant and self-important so as to claim that they done are right and everyone else wrong? The fat is well and truly in the fire, and our young man and his beloved new wife hunker down for a very long, hard and lonely haul.
But as time goes by, slowly but surely, here and there, both at home and in other nations, a trickle of other believers get to hear this controversial teaching, and realise that marriage is indeed what scripture commands after all. Many of those who do A lot of those do acknowledge that it is indeed what scripture does teach nevertheless disregard it saying it would be too problematic, couldn’t actually work, and would disrupt their Christian lives too much; but some actually go for it and do the unthinkable themselves. And word slowly gets out that more and more Christians are getting married, and are being vocal about the fact that their fellow believers are wrong to just disregard something as absolutely fundamental to the Christian life as man/woman/parental relationships. And Christian mainstream, and especially church leaders, get more and more threatened, offended and angry, and do more and more to try and stamp it out once and for all.
Over the years that follow, however, those Christians who have gotten married start to become increasingly aware of why most other Christians haven’t. There is much joy and happiness, to be sure, but problems arise between themselves and their spouses that, precisely because they are married to each other for life, they can’t just walk away from as they would have done before. “Yep, that’s definitely why most Christians don’t like marriage!” they conclude! “Man, we see it all so clearly now! This marriage lark is tough at times, but it means that, by definition, there’s no getting out of it once you’ve done it. If you’re not married you can just go and find someone else when you hit problems, but not when you’re married! God must be wanting to actually do something in us that can only happen because we don’t do that, and because we can’t just walk away and escape anything we don’t like, or because we get increasingly ticked off at each other. Yeah, we definitely get it! This must be that sanctification process that Christians talk about so much but avoid like the plague!” But tough though it is, and all the more so because of the constant opposition and slander from other Christians, everything seems to be nonetheless as it should be. Not only are they married, they are delighted to be so.
But as yet more years pass something starts to happen that is extremely disappointing. Not only are fewer and fewer Christians getting married, a significant number of those who have are divorcing. Marriages are falling apart, and the word is that it’s because people are finding it just too hard being the same relationship for life. The only answer, they feel, is to go back to Christian mainstream and escape this limitation of being trapped in marriage relationships that curb their freedom so much, and which aren’t making them happy. There was so much about how it was before, they recall, that was thrilling and exciting. You know, the buzz of a fresh sexual relationship with somebody new after the last one has worn thin. You don’t get that if you’re husband and wife, and many of the Christians who have gotten married are now saying that they are just missing how it was before too much.
And having gone from being a ridiculously small minority to being a very small minority, our faithful band of protagonists return to being the ridiculously small minority they originally were as more and more of their fellow believers who married divorce, their marriages having failed. Not only that, but the mainstream churches are veritably cock-a-hoop, welcoming back these believers with failed marriages behind them virtually as returning heroes. In the face of such discouragement, disappointment and pain, the question increasingly arises for those who remain doggedly sticking with their biblical convictions regarding marriage: Why not just give up? Marriage obviously doesn’t work for most Christians because they think it’s too hard and just can’t hack it! And we find it hard too, sometimes, and certainly harder than the easy going lack of commitment and sacrifice in mainstream practise! Are we just flogging a dead horse?
But no sooner is the question is asked than it is also answered: If every Christian marriage in the world fails, declares our (now much older) protagonist and his warrior wife, should even our marriage fail, nothing changes the fact that it is what God’s Word teaches and therefore what He wants. If not one Christian couple in the whole wide world were married, and if every believer walking the face of the earth remained deceived concerning it, it wouldn’t change the simple fact that scripture teaches marriage, and that sexual relationships outside of it are wrong. But as it happens, he adds, we actually love each other and would never stop being husband and wife for any reason anyhow.
You can probably see where I’m going with this: What scripture teaches regarding church life is commanded as equally, and as clearly, as is marriage. It is therefore no more a matter of personal preference than is the Lord’s commands regarding family life, irrespective of the fact that 99.99% of Christians seem to unquestioningly think that it is. I am not putting adherence to biblical commands concerning church life in the same ‘first order’ moral category as that of sexual sin, of course not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vitally important or that it doesn’t matter. Scripture is our final authority in all things, and any disobedience is an affront to the Lord and His authority, whether it be concerning His instructions regarding family life or church life.
I am sad beyond words how few biblical churches there appear to be, and it is nothing short of tragic to me that a significant proportion of those I have known about over the years failed and are no longer in existence. There will obviously be things going on of which I am not aware, and that thought thrills me, but the available evidence is that biblically based churches remain exotically rare. But am I discouraged to the point that I am ready to give up? Of course not! And neither should anyone else be! The parallel just drawn with marriage, albeit it hypothetical, is nevertheless a profound one because church is, after all, just family writ large. The church is, according to scripture, the very Bride of Christ. And in the same way that marriage is God’s will, whether anyone believes in it or practises it or not, so too is biblical church life.
I am personally blessed on both counts. I have a wonderful marriage and am part of a biblical church that, although somewhat numerically smaller than when we started off 35 years ago, is still going strong. Whether it, or any other biblical church, ultimately survives, isn’t the point! The point is that we have done, and are doing, what scripture teaches regarding something the vast majority of Christians, however unwittingly, are in disobedience to the lord concerning. Am I disappointed that so few believers are conforming to scripture, and therefore to the Lord’s will on this? Of course! But most of the Old Testament prophets were in a somewhat similar circumstance regarding the deficiencies and disobedience of God’s people they were standing against, and there is nothing biblically unusual about being a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
So why don’t we just give up? Why don’t those of us who are so doggedly pursuing biblical church life, yet finding it so dishearteningly and discouragingly hard, stop flogging such a seemingly dead horse and just admit defeat! Well, the answer to that is because we are disciples of Jesus and therefore committed to doing everything we can in order to live according to His will as revealed in the pages of scripture. However badly I may be doing in my discipleship, and believe me, I do indeed think that I am doing rather badly, I nevertheless want to be obedient to Him. And the only way I can do that is by first ascertaining what He actually wants, and the only way I can do that is by living as comprehensively as I can according to His written Word. It really is very, very simple!
So is it time to just quit this whole biblical church thing and be done with it? My answer is simple: What saith the scriptures?
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?
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!
As both an elder and a Bible teacher I would rather deal with, and be the victim of, the abuse of the freedom biblical church life grants the Lord’s people, than the perpetrator of spiritual retardation and damage amongst them through the exertion of a completely unbiblical hierarchical authority and control.
That the entire edifice of the church life of the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians should be built on a system of leadership and hierarchy that is itself entirely unbiblical beggars belief!
As for me and my house, we will go by scripture!
One of the things I have strongly contended for a great many years is that evangelism is not the function of the church. But because I fully appreciate how easy it is for folk to completely misunderstand this, let me clarify. Evangelism is not the function of churches, and neither is the necessity of doing good works in the world! Evangelism, and doing good works in the world, are the functions of individual believers who comprise churches. Precisely because evangelism solely concerns unbelievers, and because doing good works in the world largely concerns them, such activities, virtually by definition, occur outside of church life! Given that all Christians together comprise the corporate church of Jesus throughout time (Church Universal being the term used by theologians) then it is obviously the case, in that sense, that everything to do with serving the Lord is the function of the Christian Church at large; but what lies at the heart of the confusion here is our age old misunderstanding of what individual churches actually are, what they are supposed to be like and how they are meant to function.
In the New Testament churches were simply little extended families of God’s people, meeting in the homes of those families who comprised each individual and specific assembly. Virtually everything the New Testament teaches concerning them depicts that, just like biological nuclear families, they exist for the purpose of mutual nurture, shared love and support. The raison d’être of biblical church gatherings is therefore that of the edification, the spiritual building up, of those present both in the Lord and in their most holy faith. The purpose of gathering is to enable one another to grow in the Lord, thereby each fully becoming the person He would have each of His children to be. This spiritual growth, leading to each one present becoming progressively and fully who they are meant to be, results is them being equipped for the evangelism and good works awaiting them in the world amongst unbelievers during the week ahead.
It is not, therefore, the function of churches to be evangelising and doing good works in the world. It is rather the function of churches, just like nuclear families, to nurture the members of that family so as to enable each to become fully who they should be when outside of the family. This, for the believer who is growing in the Lord as a result of being part of such a church, issues in them performing the aforementioned functions outside of church life amongst the lost.
It’s so simple; but we miss it because the vast majority of churches are not only set up differently to the New Testament ones…they are set up pretty much the exact opposite! Rather than little extended families of the Lord’s people, they are ‘official’ religious institutions. How on earth, we might ask, did Paul and Peter, and the rest of the Apostles, get things so wrong? Or should we rather be asking: How on earth have we managed to?
Go on! Treat yourself! Be brave enough and just admit the obvious….that they were right and that the Christian Church, since the second and third centuries has, quite simply, been wrong!
Something that is abundantly clear from scripture is that Christians are a minority group. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) So whichever way you cut it, the majority of people throughout human history have been, and are, unbelievers, with only a few – that is, a small proportion – who are Christians and therefore saved. This means that I am, by very definition, in a minority, as is every other Christian who has ever lived.
But of course it doesn’t stop there. I suppose everyone would rather be in the majority, because that would mean, at the very least, acceptance by most, and, possibly, even actual popularity. I don’t know about you but if the choice were mine then give me acceptance and popularity over rejection any time. But for some of us it doesn’t stop at being in the minority merely because we are Christians. The fact that the Lord’s people are so divided over what scripture teaches, and that so much accepted Christian practise is based on completely unbiblical teaching and tradition, means that there are those of us who find ourselves in another smaller minority, even amongst Christians, because of our biblical conviction.
What we have here is a series of ever-decreasing circles pertaining to acceptance and acceptability amongst Christians, and it works like this: All believers, as we have already noted, are in a minority group simply because they are following the Lord. (I am obviously talking here about genuine Christians, and not those who merely erroneously identify themselves as such because of the nation or culture of their birth.) However, because I am one of those genuine believers who adheres to the teaching of scripture, as opposed to unbiblical tradition, concerning church life, and who is therefore, by very definition, outside of Christian ‘mainstream’ and the virtually monolithic ‘system’ that comprises it, I am therefore in yet another minority even amongst Christians, who are themselves a minority in the first place.
Every which way of ‘doing’ church appears to be acceptable amongst the vast majority of Christians, from High Church Anglicanism/Episcopalianism through Methodism and Baptistic Churches down to such expressions as independent Evangelical Churches and Charismatic/Pentecostal ones. Every which way, in fact, except those of us who simply replicate what churches were like in the New Testament during the time of the Apostles. Understanding a church to simply be a numerically small extended family of the Lord’s people, therefore meeting in houses, having open participatory gatherings and sharing the Lord’s Supper as a full meal, as was the case in Apostolic times is, it would appear, the one big “No-No!’ Pretty much everything by way of church life is accepted, affirmed, respected and embraced by Christians at large…except that! Those of us who simply copy New Testament church practise are, apparently, only doing so because we are weird, sectarian, rebellious, deceived, crazy or just too extreme and unbalanced to be considered acceptable. Already in the minority simply by virtue of being a Christian, I further find myself in an even smaller one amongst believers merely for being stringently biblical regarding church life. But hey, there’s more! Amazingly it doesn’t even stop there!
Although, at least in the West, house church Christians are very definitely in the minority when compared to those who attend institutional/traditional churches, there are nevertheless still enough of them to have their own minorities; and guess what…I find myself in probably the smallest one! What I saying is that endeavouring to be stringently and comprehensively biblical means that being part of a house church, and therefore outside of the ‘system’, is only one part, one aspect of the broader matter of being faithful to God’s Word in general. Most believers who are outside of the ‘system’ are not, sadly, outside of it due to biblical conviction, but rather because they just don’t happen to like what it has to offer. Meeting in homes, whilst biblical in itself, is nevertheless only a part of the biblical pattern, and any kind of unscriptural nonsense and behaviour can be practised in peoples homes, just as it can equally be in the public buildings of mainstream traditional churches. So merely being ‘house church’, and therefore outside of the unbiblical ‘system’, is not, of itself, the point. The point should be that we are being comprehensively and stringently biblical. Therefore, those I gather with in the context of biblical church life embrace scriptural teaching regarding other issues which are generally left well alone and avoided by most other believers, whether part of the ‘system’ or not. Because we adhere to scripture regarding such issues as gender differences, and therefore scriptures teaching concerning husbands being the heads of their families, as well as the resultant necessity of Christian leadership being therefore exclusively for the men-folk, we find ourselves an somewhat unacceptable minority amongst even ‘house church’ believers. Hence the ever-decreasing circles of being in a minority amongst the minority of already a minority. (And of course here in England you would have to add home-schooling to the list as well!)
It boils down to this: If you want to be accepted, loved and praised by the world, then don’t become a Christian. Or, if you do become a Christian, be a luke-warm, carnal and disobedient one. And if you want to be accepted, loved and lauded by other Christians, then remain in the ‘system’ and serve both it, and it’s Masters (pastors/ministers etc), dutifully, carefully and, of course, financially. And if you want to be accepted, loved and honoured by the majority of those who have, for whatever reason, rejected that ‘system’, then you will need to ensure that you are feministic, soft on sin overall, weak on what the Bible teaches regarding divorce and remarriage, and generally wobbly on biblical teaching concerning family life in general. If, however, you put the Lord, and therefore the comprehensive teaching of His Word first, then you will have to learn to find your peace, joy and security in the Lord whilst being rejected not only by the world (which was always to be expected), or even just Christians within the unbiblical church ‘system’, but by the vast majority of ‘house church’ believers too.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12-14)
Unbiblical Christianity has it’s ‘camp’ just as surely as did Israel whilst busily rejecting what the Lord was saying to her; and Jesus, because of His adherence to the truth of Gods Word (He was the very Word Incarnate), was cast outside that ‘camp’ bearing disgrace. And as surely as we will have to bear disgrace in the eyes of unbelievers, so will the truly faithful ones of God’s people have to also bear disgrace in the eyes of those believers who live in compromise to the teaching of scripture regarding those things such as I have mentioned, as opposed to comprehensive obedience concerning them.
I thank the Lord though that, a minority of a minority amongst a minority though they be, there are still many, across the world, who have not, as it were, bowed the knee to Baal, however lonely, as Elijah discovered, it might feel at the time. One of the great themes in scripture regarding the Lord’s people is that of ‘the faithful remnant’, in contrast to the majority who, though nevertheless truly His, are compromisers living in, as the Apostle phrased it, carnality and wordy wisdom!
If what you are after is a quiet life, acceptance, popularity and the smile and praises of mere men and other believers, then you will have to be very careful not to conduct your Christian life overly biblically!