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Daily Life of the Local Church (2)
In our previous study, we began to examine the picture give in the New Testament of the daily life of the local church. First of all, we saw that, to enter into this daily Christian living as pictured in the New Testament, there are three, what I would call, initiatory experiences. I’m sure that most of you understand the word “initiation.” It means that something that gets us into something. And there are three experiences laid down in the Book of Acts and in the New Testament that initiate the believer into the living of the church. Some people have the impression there’s just one experience, others have emphasized two, but the New Testament quite clearly says there are three. And in Acts 2:38, we saw these three requirements for every person that turns from sin to God, through faith in Jesus Christ and says, “What shall I do?” The answer is given there by Peter,
Repent, [first of all], be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So the three initiatory experiences, the doorway into normal Christian living by New Testament standards, are these: repentance, the inward change of heart, the turning away from sin, the submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ; baptism in water, an outward testimony of our identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection; and receiving the Holy Spirit, an enduement with supernatural power to make us effective members of the Body of Christ, effective witnesses and to make the unity of the Body effective.
Having passed through these three initiatory experiences which are the doorway into Christian living, we are then confronted with the four continuing activities which are pictured in the New Testament as the regular daily activity of the church. As I pointed out in my previous study, many of us, as preachers, have failed people in always presenting the doorway and never telling people what happens when you get inside the door. I think this has been one of the outstanding failures of many sections of the church. And if I am to name anybody without being offensive, I would say the Pentecostals and the Baptists at least. We keep getting people to the door, saying this is the door, it’s wonderful inside, but we don’t tell anybody what lies inside, nor do we tell them how to experience what’s inside.
Now no one incidentally, on the Day of Pentecost, was converted when they heard people speak in tongues. But when Peter stood up and preached the Word that brought conviction and then conversion to 3,000 souls. If we have tonguesspeaking without the preaching and ministry of the Word, we will not see much by way of conversion. And after conversion, as I said, Peter said the next step is be baptized and it says in Acts 2:41:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized . . . about three thousand souls... [it would seem.]
And we understand also that they were brought into the baptism in the Holy Spirit which was a norm in New Testament Christian living. It was assumed as being for everybody.
And then in Acts 2:42, we have these four continuing activities, which we began to deal with in our previous study and which we will go on to deal with in the present study. The four continuing experiences are stated there in Acts 2:42:
And they continued steadfastly... [Now we are not dealing with the initiatory experiences that happened once, we’re dealing with things that are regularly practiced and repeated.] They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, [the King James version says, but more correct modern English “in the teaching of the apostles. It wasn’t in the finished product of doctrine, it was in the process and discipline of being taught that they continued,] and fellowship and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
There are the four continuing activities: being taught, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers.
In our last study I pointed out that at the time of coming to Christ, and especially at the time of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, the most urgent need for every believer is sound scriptural positive instruction. The Scripture in Romans 6:17 speaks about doctrine as the mold into which the new converts should be, as it were, poured, that he may come out shaped and formed the right way. And the mold of doctrine in which a new convert is poured is of decisive importance for the rest of his Christian life, because if the mold is shaped wrong or lacks certain features, that convert is going to come out in a certain sense spiritually misshapen and incomplete. The mold of doctrine or teaching decides the product that’s going to come out as a result of the convert being subjected to their teaching.
Secondly, the second activity we said was fellowship, sharing together. And we pointed out that fellowship is the end purpose of the gospel. It’s not a means, it’s an end. 1Corinthians 1:9:
We are called unto the fellowship of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
The word “unto” indicates this is the end. 1John 1:3:
These things write we unto you, [the apostle John says] that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The New Testament record was given to bring us, as believers, into the fellowship of the apostles and that fellowship was with God the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. Fellowship is sharing together in the things of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This fellowship we saw was on every level: spiritual, financial, material, in their homes, in every form, they lived as a community that was sharing most of the things of life. I pointed out also that fellowship is the place of spiritual birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” If we do not have a place of spiritual birth, nothing spiritual will ever be produced in the church. It is not primary to have a project or a program—what is primary is fellowship and out of the fellowship will be born God’s projects and God’s programs. But if we seek to have a program and project without fellowship, all that we have is flesh and flesh will never produce spirit. That’s why I think there is so much carnal, sweat-producing activity in the modern church and so little that has real spiritual life in it because people are not in the place of spiritual birth, which is the place of fellowship.
The third activity, which we began to deal with, but did not completely deal with in our previous study was eating together, and you’ll see that at the head of your outline. Now in the King James version, it’s translated “breaking bread.” And of course, partly because of the Plymouth Brethren and some other groups, people have come to associate this with taking the Lord’s Supper. Now this is a matter of opinion but as a student and scholar of Greek I question whether the word “breaking bread” meant that in the early church. I don’t believe it did. It was the normal phrase for eating together and I believe that all this means (if you want to say “all,” because I think it means a lot) is eating together. This is the third basic activity of the early church. When God opened my eyes to this, I was astonished to see how much there was in the Book of Acts about eating together. You see, having been through a Pentecostal process, I had come to think that food was a pretty unspiritual thing anyhow, and that eating together was the mark of the carnal church. I had heard a preacher once say, “They have gone from the Upper Room to the Supper Room,” as a kind of condemnation. But when I really looked at the New Testament, I saw that that remark doesn’t apply because they did go from the Upper Room to the Supper Room and they stayed in the Supper Room and they were together every day around the meal table. It’s a remarkable fact. I’d like to read couple of Scriptures in Acts 2—or rather one in Acts 2:46–47. This is the closing verses of the 2 Chapter of Acts. This is the final product.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house [or eating their meals at home] did eat their [food] with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people.
Here’s a picture of the church, walking in victory, living in the Spirit and in fellowship. Where was it effective? In their homes. Every meal table became a place of fellowship, a place of prayer and a place of praise. And you see, the unbelievers didn’t see them in the temple because the unbelievers didn’t go to the temple, but the unbelievers saw them in their homes and they saw those things in their homes which made them want what these believers had.
You see, by and large, especially in modern America, the unbeliever will never come to find out what you’ve got in the church. If the only place you display your wares is in the church building, then most unbelievers will never see what you have. I heard a preacher say once that Jesus said you were not to hide your light under a bushel. And he said, “The biggest and commonest bushel under which most Christians hide their light is the roof of the church building.” It never reaches—95% of the unconverted will never find out what goes on inside the church building. If that’s the only place we display what we have in Christ, really, we’re not going to reach them. But what goes on in our homes, they’re soon going to find out about. And the home where we are tonight, I’ll guarantee, since we started having this series of meetings, the people up and down the road have been saying, “What’s going on at that house? Why are all those cars parked there? What’s happening tonight? Why are they heating the swimming pool?” And believe me, it will not be long before there will be a stir in this area. Not because of what was being done in the Presbyterian Church or the Episcopal Church or any other church, but because something has happened that makes people happy in their homes.
And I’ll tell you something—most American Christians, or most American people, are not happy in their homes. There isn’t too much happiness in most American homes today. A really happy home where everybody enjoys one another and they’re praising the Lord, is going to stick out like a sore thumb. People are going to say, “What’s going on there?” And up and down this area where we live, I would say probably the most powerful positive testimony to the unconverted at the present time is what’s going on in people’s homes. There are homes in this area where certain nights in the week, you just can’t find parking in the street at all. Why? Because people have started to come together, enjoy one another, enjoy religion, enjoy the Lord. The majority of people, I am convinced, that only have it in church don’t enjoy it, they endure it. I’m just convinced this is true. It’s not intended to be a criticism.
You turn to Acts 20:7 and you see again another picture of the early church. This is in the city of Troas, or Troy. Paul is on a journey, he stops off and spends seven days in the city of Troy and it says,
And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them...
Not, I believe, to take the Lord’s Supper, but just to eat together, and you see the language implies it was a normal thing, not something special. They were regularly doing that. There is a great deal in eating together.
As I pointed out in our previous study, in Africa we faced this problem, that though theoretically there was fellowship between the black and the white Christians, in reality, there was practically none. And we considered various ways in which this situation could be changed and I believe it was the Lord that showed us that if we would invite the African believers into our homes, it would change. And if we would eat with them, it would change further. And I must say that this step was opposed by some of our fellow missionaries, but it did achieve its end. It brought about a different relationship than had existed before. You cannot eat together with people and have the same attitude to them. It changes you, it changes them, it changes relationships, it changes the atmosphere.
This is extremely true, particularly in the light of Oriental custom, as prevailed in the Bible, because eating together with a man was equivalent to entering in to a kind of covenant with him. If you partook of a man’s hospitality, you put yourself under an obligation to him which only the most base and unworthy would ever violate. If you consider actually the conduct of Judas in betraying Jesus, the absolute height of his guilt was that he first ate bread with Jesus and then betrayed Him. Jesus gave Him the bread out of the dish, the sop, he took it and went out to betray Jesus, and by biblical standards, this was the height of his guilt. And you’ll see, as a matter of fact, Jesus in the gospels, in the 13th chapter of John, refers to Psalm 41:9 at this point, and I’d like you to look for a moment in Psalm 41:9 because this is a prophecy of the betrayal of Jesus. And the psalmist says,
Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.
And Jesus applies that to Judas, He quotes that verse. And that is the absolute height of treachery—to eat with a man and go out and betray him. And the one purpose for which God brings His people together in fellowship around the table is that we will be loyal to one another from then onwards. We will not eat together or look people in the face, shake them by the hand, say, “God bless you, brother,” and walk out and start gossiping and carrying tales about them around the neighborhood. If we do, we’re guilty in something of the same as Judas was. Of course, this was also involved in taking the Lord’s Supper. Let me not seem in any way to belittle the taking of the Lord’s Supper. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we are renewing our covenant with Him and with everybody else that partakes with us. We are pledging ourselves to loyalty to Him and to one another. And that’s why, in the 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians, such severe judgments are pronounced upon those that take the Lord’s Supper unworthily. Because they are guilty of treason, of treachery. It’s like looking a man in the face and waiting until he turns his back, and stabbing him in the back. That’s how it’s viewed by biblical standards.
So, this is let’s say, the practical outworking of fellowship, was eating together. Turn to 1Corinthians 11, for a moment and I want to point out to you something that I think has sometimes gone unnoticed. The Corinthian church were, I would say, lively, enthusiastic, and sometimes a little blunted in their perceptions. For instance, they could be happy with the Lord’s blessing upon them, even when there was all sorts of adultery in their midst. And when they came together to take the Lord’s Supper, apparently they had a very strange idea in which everybody brought his own food and one would start eating while another was still hungry and one would drink too much wine and get possibly a little bit drunk. And they thought this was eating the Lord’s Supper and Paul, in the 11th chapter of 1Corinthians, says, “Don’t imagine that is eating the Lord’s Supper. Eating the Lord’s Supper is something different.” And I’ll show you where he says this. 1Corinthians 11:20–21,
When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
Then he goes on to instruct them in the following verses what it really means to take the Lord’s Supper. But those two verses that I read I believe are evidence that in the Corinthian church they did practice coming together, everybody bringing his own supper (which is what we call today a “potluck” supper) eating together, not for the proper purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper together, but as a natural form of fellowship. Paul didn’t criticize the fellowship. He may have objected to the drunkenness, but he said, “Don’t imagine that that type of fellowship, in itself, is taking the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s move on then to the fourth continuing activity, which is mentioned there in your outline: prayer. As I understand it, being instructed is the first need of the local church, and praying is the first outreach of the local church. The first collective ministry of the local church is praying. Turn to 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul says,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men...
Now, I’ll show you in a few moments in the next chapter that Paul is giving instructions to Timothy about the conduct of the affairs of a local church, which he calls the house of God, the church of the living God. He says, “I’m writing you these things to tell you how to conduct the affairs of a local church.” And after the introductory first chapter, at the beginning of the second chapter, he says, “First of all,” the primary ministry of a local congregation is what? Supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks. Sum it up in on comprehensive word: prayer. And I believe this to be the truth.
The primary ministry of a collected group of believers coming together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, after they have received suitable instruction, is prayer. Prayer for whom? Prayer for all men. As I understand it, God expects the church to be a center of prayer, to be a powerhouse from which the power of effective intercessory prayer is going forth into the world. And I am convinced by consideration and observation that if the church were fulfilling this function its relationship to the world would be very different. If you pray enough for people, there’ll come a time when they feel something in you that will respond to you. But if you go to people to testify to them or whatever it may be, to serve them without prayer, their attitude towards you is different.
I’ve come to see this as the primary ministry of a group of believers gathered together, first of all, prayer, not preaching to the unconverted. First of all, not as a ministry but as the meeting of a need comes teaching. Then out of the teaching proceeds praying. This is the first positive ministry of the church—the outreach that proceeds forth from the teaching. Because if you sow the Word of God, always something will come out of it. And what you sow will be reaped. If you sow the full truth of God’s Word in the hearts of God’s people, inevitably there will be a response. Activity will result. But the activity will be commensurate with what is sown. Turning on to 1Timothy 3:15, you will notice that Paul says—well, we have to read verse 14,
These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God...
Why was this epistle written? That Timothy might know how to behave himself in the house of God. And Paul goes on to say:
...the church of the living God, is the pillar and ground of the truth.
That’s a tremendous statement. I’d like to take time but I’m not going to amplify it now. But this letter is written to instruct believers how they should behave in their local fellowship group. And it says, first of all prayer. The primary ministry is praying.
If you turn to Isaiah 56 for a moment, you’ll find a very, very beautiful verse—one of these beautiful poetic utterances of the prophet Isaiah. Speaking about those who have been strangers and outcasts and unwanted in the previous verse, the Lord says through Isaiah—verse 7,
[Let them not feel unwanted, let them not feel cast off nor rejected, because] Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all peoples.
So God’s house, the church, is to be called “an house of prayer for all peoples.” And I’ll tell you, when God’s people are made joyful in His house of prayer, that’s a joy that stands the test of tribulation. There are other types of joy that Christians enter into that don’t stand the test. But when we let God make us joyful in the house of prayer, when God’s people really have joy in praying, they are spiritually established.
I have to say one thing. When I was converted out of what I would call Christian heathenism, complete ignorance of God and of the things of God, though I’d been a member of a church for twenty-five years, the thing that I liked best was the prayer meeting. The one thing I didn’t want to miss was the prayer meeting. Now this was totally and absolutely alien to my own character. I remember once as an unbeliever hearing about some people going to a prayer meeting. I’d never been to a prayer meeting in my life. I didn’t know what one was. I understood that they were going to spend one hour in a prayer meeting. You know what I said? “How could people ever spend enough to pray about to take one hour?”
Well when I was saved and baptized in the Holy Spirit, this is one of the revolutions that instantly took place. The meeting I didn’t want to miss was the prayer meeting. And I must say God made me joyful in His house of prayer.
Now turn back to 1Timothy and look at the next verse, and you will find another things which I believe the church has neglected to its own great loss and to the loss of the whole community. Moving on from the general theme of “all men” what is the first specific topic for prayer? Verse 2, “For kings, and for all that are in authority...” It’s not for the preachers, not for the missionaries, not for the sick. The first prescribed topic of prayer in the local congregation is those that are in authority.
Now I’ve checked on this and some of you have been there when I checked. I’ve been to congregations and preached there and asked them, “How many of you in the last week have prayed once intelligently for the head of your government and its affairs?” And very, very rarely will you get twenty percent of the people that will respond. If you get a twenty percent response it is unusual. What are they doing? Missing the first priority.
We met Brother Don here, and if his name is recorded on this tape it will not embarrass him. I happened to meet him in the first time in Australia. I was preaching there. I preached on this theme of praying for those in authority. And I said at the end, “How many of you pray regularly for the Queen and all the rulers of this Commonwealth?” I mean out of about 150 people, about five people rather timidly slipped their hands up. And Don was not one of those who put his hand up.
Well, then I met him somewhere here locally about a year later and he happened to hear me preach again and he said, “Brother, you’ll never catch me again. I was caught once, but never again. We, in our family, pray regularly for the rulers every day.” So he caught the message. Here is where the majority of American Christians are still grossly at fault. They are criticized by the hour, but pray is almost unknown. I tell people frequently, “If you would spend the time you use criticizing, praying, you would have much less to criticize. And thank God, the people you criticize are much more faithful in their job than you are in yours. Because if the rulers of this and other nations were not more faithful in administrating the nation than the Christians are in praying for them, believe me we’d be headed for chaos.
The picture of the local church, when you view it in the light of the New Testament, is simple and it’s practical, and it’s effective. It says elsewhere in Romans, “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Secular authority is ordained of God. But it’s our business to see that’s it’s directed the way God desires through our prayers. If we did not have rulers and governors, the situation in this nation and all nations would be chaotic. It’s God’s mercy and God’s provision that we have secular rules and authority. Our responsibility if to pray for it.
Now I have a message on that that I could preach for the next two hours but I’m not going to. I’m just going to point out to you, here is the picture of the local church meeting in fellowship, and I believe it’s important to say, they’ve received instruction, their in fellowship, they’ve eaten together. What do they do? Pray. Now you say, “That’s not very spiritual.” We go to the prayer meeting and we take a list of our prayer requests and we pray. And the atmosphere is like ice. It’s just a religious exercise, because you haven’t got anything to pray out of. But if you pray out of instruction, fellowship, eating together, that’s different.
You see, the whole basic problem with prayer is not what do you want God to do. Because if any of us were given half an hour to tell God what to do, we’d run out of things. What is the problem? It’s to get to the place where you know God is going to do what you’re asking Him to do. Then telling Him is a small matter. And the place is the place of fellowship. Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus is speaking. And incidentally it’s in these verses, it’s in the 17th verse that He speaks about the local church. The only time in all His discourses that He mentions the local church is in Matthew 18:17 and He uses it twice in the one verse. It’s the only reference to the local church. And then He says and still in the context of the local church,
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together into my name, [where two or three have been brought together by the Holy Spirit to meet around Me, represented by My name] there am I in the midst of them.
If two can harmonize, come into fellowship, harmony, concord, agreement, anything that they will ask, it shall be done. The basic requirement of effective prayer together is harmony. That’s the correct translation of the Greek word agree. It’s the Greek word that gives us the English word symphony.It means blending together in harmony. If you get two people to harmonize, their prayers are irresistible.
You see the devil will get us occupied with everything except the thing that really matters. I don’t think the devil fears prayer meetings. Not the least bit. And I’m personally convinced that in most churches most of the prayers that are offered never get above the ceiling. God doesn’t even hear them, because if you’ve studied the Scriptures, God has laid down pretty strict requirements about the type prayers that He will hear. And He says, “If I hear I will answer.” What the devil’s scared of is two people harmonizing. And just when two people, even if they are husband and wife, are getting near the place of harmony, then the devil will turn loose about fifty extra demons to keep those people from getting into harmony.
Now you know. I can see about fifteen people nodding their heads simultaneously. Now you know why it happens. Don’t be discouraged. You were no threat to him until you came to the place where you were almost in harmony. But remember, almost in harmony is not harmony. You take two instruments that are almost in harmony, but just a little bit off key, and see what it sounds like.
We must move on. I want to deal now with the second part of the outline that you have in front of you: The relationship between “House” Church and “City” Church. This is a big theme. I don’t want to deal with it at length, but I really want to direct your attention to certain obvious needs that must be met. Today in America and in many other countries of the world it is impossible to number, the thousands and thousands of house prayer and Bible study groups that are meeting. No man has promoted this. I don’t think any denomination has promoted it. Most denominations are scared of it. Some are actually fighting it. But it still happens. And basically, as far as I can see, there only can be two sources for it. It must be either God or the devil. My picture of the devil makes it hard for me to believe that he’s bringing thousands and thousands of people together that are in groups all over this country to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. So I’m left with the solution it must be God. And personally I don’t want to fight against God. But I believe that though these small prayer groups are tremendously powerful, the potential is enormous, there are certain requirements that must be observed.
The phrase, “the church in the house,” is found actually in the New Testament in four places. I’ve given you the references there—Romans 16:5, 1Corinthians 16:19. In both those instances the people that were the masters of the house, who owned the house, were Aquila and Priscilla. Both those two references. Colossians 4:15 the man whose house it was was called Nymphas. Philemon verse 2, the man was Philemon himself. Now some people speak about a “house church” meaning that on Tuesday night at 7:30 and Sunday night at 6:30 we meet in the home of Brother Smith. Personally, I don’t believe that was what was meant by “the church that is in thy house.” Remember the church means the assembly. And as I understand it it means a group of believers living in ordered fellowship in somebody’s home. Whether they had regular meetings or not, is irrelevant. It was their fellowship in that home under the headship of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, that constituted a church in a house. It’s not nearly so artificial as some so called house churches that we confront today.
I don’t know how it is with you but about once a week I run into somebody that says, “I’m a member of a New Testament church somewhere.” And I think, “Dear Lord, I wish you weren’t.” I don’t believe it’s in the power of one man or one group to bring into being a New Testament church. Actually, as I understand it and I’ve explained it in these earlier studies, you don’t have the choice if you belong to the church in the city that you live it. You belong, if you belong to Jesus Christ. And the church in that city is no smaller than all the believers in that city. So talk about a New Testament churchconsisting of fifteen adults and three children in somebody’s backyard, is really a caricature of the real truth.
Now if there was a group of people living in fellowship in a home, and there are many of those today up and down this country, that would qualify much better for the title “the church in somebody’s house.” The believers living together in ordered fellowship in a house.
Now as I understand it, these small groups, whether they are living there or whether they meet in Sister Smith’s home, or Brother Jones’ house, for regular fellowship, instruction, prayer—I call these the cells out of which the body, which is the church, is to be built up. And I believe therefore they are of supreme importance, because in the physical you cannot have a healthy body with unhealthy cells. And it’s equally true in the spiritual. If the small cells are not healthy, the whole church cannot be healthy. If you do not have spiritually healthy families, you cannot have a spiritually healthy church. You cannot build up a healthy church out of unhealthy families. If there isn’t order and harmony in the homes of the individual believers, there cannot be an ordered, harmonious local church.
But on the other hand, these small groups, these cell groups, are not the local church. The local church is more than all the groups put together. And where some people have made a mistake is to rest content with the fact that they’ve got a sweet little group that meets three times a week, really has sweet fellowship and prayer. Thank God for it, but never imagine that that’s the goal. It isn’t. The goal is much bigger. I would say much harder to achieve even than that. The goal is an integrated fellowship of all the believers, all the groups within that given area.
Now I want to point out to you that though the New Testament acknowledges the regular fellowship of believers in their homes, it never allows us to rest content with that as an objective achieved. And I have rather carefully studied this subject and I’m going to point out to you eight different purposes for which, in the New Testament, it was considered normal for all the believers in an area to come together. Not somebody’s home, but a gathering of all the believers. And in many cases this must have numbered fifteen or twenty thousand persons. It’s estimated that in the church in Antioch and Syria, at the time that Paul and Barnabas were going and coming from there, there were at least forty thousand believers. I believe in the church in Jerusalem there must have been more than fifty thousand. In Corinth it’s estimated the minimum number was twenty-five thousand, and yet Paul writing to the Corinthians talks about the whole church coming together in one place. This is not a home meeting that he has in mind.
Let’s look at these places rather quickly. They’re listed there in your outline. 1Corinthians 14:23,
If therefore the whole church be come together into one place...
Let’s not go on. He’s imagining this happening. And as I said, the church at Corinth must have numbered, I would say at a conservative estimate, twenty-five thousand persons. He speaks about the whole church coming together. It doesn’t mean necessarily mean all twenty-five thousand persons, but it means that there was a meeting held that was open to all twenty-five thousand persons and maybe at least fifty percent of them attended. Let’s say we can envisage fifteen thousand persons coming together. Now that’s not a home meeting.
What kind of purposes did the church come together for on this scale? You’ll find them listed, and I’ll go through them quickly. The first one that I would mention is just three verses further on—1Corinthians 14:26 and notice this is in the context of the whole church coming together. This is not exclusively with reference to a small group.
How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
I’ve have tried to sum that up. The purpose of the gathering there as presented by Paul is for the believers to edify each other through their particular gifts and ministries. Mutual edification by gifts and ministries of all the believers coming together.
The second purpose is mentioned in 1Corinthians 11:22–33. I’ve already referred to this in this study and pointed out that the Corinthian Christians apparently came together for a kind of “potluck” supper and called this having the Lord’s Supper. Paul said, “No.” He didn’t object to them coming together for that purpose, but he said, “This is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” He went on,
What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? [So this didn’t happen in a house. Then he goes on with the instructions for taking the Lord’s Supper which begins in verse 23.] For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you. [In verse 33 he sums up the instructions by saying,] Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.
It is clear to me that Paul envisaged a large group of believers of Corinth, several thousand, coming together to celebrate or take the Lord’s Supper. This could not have been done in the home of an individual. In fact, it’s proved that he didn’t envisage this because he said, “Don’t you have houses to eat and to drink in?” This is not something that he was envisaging being done in a house.
Then the third purpose of coming together and the next three purposes all relate to what I’ve called the Mobile Ministries. Acts 21:20–22. The Apostle Paul had been away from the city of Jerusalem a good many years, come back, made himself known to James and the brethren. James and the brethren in Jerusalem said, “Now we’ve got to have a meeting and let you minister to the whole congregation.” This is what they said. Verse 20,
And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, [that’s Paul] Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe [but the Greek says “how many myriads, how many ten thousands of Jews there are which believe in the city of Jerusalem]; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together...
See, this is not a little home group. This is a meeting because, why? A mobile ministry has been directed by the Holy Spirit to the city of Jerusalem in the person of Paul, the whole church in Jerusalem is to receive the benefit of this mobile ministry. It’s the responsibility of the local leaders to call the entire church together and make available to them the mobile ministry to the universal church, which is there in the person of the Apostle Paul.
And then in Acts 14 we find a another somewhat similar, but slightly different reason. Acts 13 and 14 deal with what is commonly called the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. They were sent out at the beginning of Acts chapter 13 by the church that was at Antioch with the laying on of hands commended to the Lord. And at the end of Acts chapter 14 we read of their return to the church that sent them out. We’ll read verse 26–28.
And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. [They were recommended to the grace of God by the laying on of hands of the leaders of the church.] And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.
They gathered the church. I would imagine that must have been a gathering of at least fifteen thousand persons. Probably considerably more. And they told them all that had happened on their journey. Why? Because it was logical. That was the church that had sent them out, that was the church that had taken responsibility for them, that was the church that was in a sense sponsoring their ministry. They owed it to that church to go back and report what God had done. This is logical. It also brings out the principle that when a local church sends people out, those people are answerable to that congregation. In the New Testament you will never find people sent out that were not answerable to some congregation that sent them out.
And even Paul and Barnabas were apostles. They had to come back and give an account of their stewardship, a report of their ministry to the congregation that had sent them out.
And then again in Colossians 4:16 we have another reason, also related to mobile ministries. Many times when Paul and the other apostles could not go to a city, they would write a letter with the directions and instructions that that particular congregation in that city needed. And when that letter was received by the local elders, it was the responsibility of the local elders to call all the believers together in that city and read the letter. Remember that probably fifty percent or more of those Christians were illiterate. They couldn’t read the letter. How was it communicated to them? By the leaders. A concourse was held of the whole church. The leaders read out the letter slowly. No doubt they read it out maybe once or twice or three times. The people said, “I didn’t understand that. Read it again. What did he mean?” They answered them. But the letter was the focal point of a meeting of the whole congregation. Let’s look at it as stated in Colossians 4:16.
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.
Colossae and Laodicea were two neighbor cities in what we would call Asia Minor. And apparently Paul had written also a letter to the church at Laodicea which is not preserved and they were neighboring churches. They had similar types of problems. Paul didn’t want to give all his advice and counsel to one church. As it were he shared it so he says, “When this letter arrives at Colossae, it will be read amongst you and then when you’ve finished it send it to the church at Laodicea and let it be read there. And I’ve sent a letter to the church at Laodicea, let that come to you and read it.” So Paul confidently anticipated that the whole group of believers would be called together in each city to hear read out loud each of the letter which he had written to them.
Now there are three other purpose and if you want to look in Acts 15:30 you’ll find another example. I don’t want to open to it now. Well 1Thessalonians 5:27 is so strong that I think we should read it. Paul says,
I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.
It was an absolute requirement that they got all the believers together and read the letter to them. When it says, “I charge you by the Lord...” it’s not a little or unimportant thing.
Acts 15:30 you will find another case where a letter was written to the whole church at Antioch, and in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, you will find that it was assumed that a letter sent to any of the seven churches would be read to all the congregations. So there’s a very clear specific purpose for the whole congregation being gathered together.
Now let’s look at three other purposes. The sixth one stated there to settle issues of doctrine and practice affecting all believers. Turn to Acts 15. Almost the whole of the 15th chapter of Acts is devoted to the discussion as to what was to be required of the Gentiles coming to the Lord Jesus Christ and desiring to be recognized as Christians? Some of the Pharisees said, “Well, they’ve got to become proselytes. They’ve got to come under the Law of Moses, they’ve got to be circumcised. Keep the Law and then we will acknowledge their faith in the Messiah.”
But Paul and Barnabas said, “No, it doesn’t have to be that way.” So the whole church in Jerusalem came together to settle this question. To me this is fantastic when you think they were all Jews to start with.
I have a Jewish friend who said to me once, “When you’ve got two Jews you have an argument. When you’ve got three Jews you’ve got a revolution.” And here we have maybe thirty thousand Jews. And you will notice the language. If this wasn’t the grace of the Holy Spirit than I don’t know what it was. But they expected the grace of God to operate.
Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company...
The entire congregation came together. They made this decision, they arrived at their conclusion, and it was a very tricky decision. What was to be required of Gentiles if they wanted to put their faith in Jesus Christ? Most Gentile believers don’t know to this day what is required of them. It’s a strange thing. There are only four things: to abstain from idols, blood, things strangled and fornication. And they are all placed on the same level. That’s all that’s required of Mosaic observance of Gentile believers coming to the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s most important because the great majority of us here are Gentiles. Let’s know what God expects of us. We are not entitled to eat things that are strangled nor things that have the blood left in them. That’s put on the same level in the word of God as fornication. Most of us, I think I’m sure, realize that fornication is out for Christians. So are things with blood in them and things strangled. It’s a remarkable fact. Many, many Gentile believers have no idea of these requirements. It’s not my purpose to go into them here.
Now, let’s read on. Verse 25, they said in this letter,
It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord... [and verse 28, a still more astonishing statement.] For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us...
This group of Jewish believers had arrived at absolute unanimity on what the Holy Spirit required. And the principle is that matters affecting doctrine and practice that relate to every believer have got to be settled in the entire congregation. Preliminary discussions were held by the apostles and elders, but they had arrived at what they considered to be the mind of the Lord, it had to be ratified by the whole congregation.
Then again in 1Corinthians 5 we have another situation in which Paul required that the whole local congregation be called together. 1Corinthians 5:1-5, and again it’s important that we see this. Here was a case of terrible immorality. A man living in incest with his father’s wife. We don’t want to go into the details, because there’s certain aspects of this which are not altogether clear as to exactly what Paul had in mind. But there was some condition of grave sexual immorality. I want to point out that Paul did not hush it up, he did not require that it be dealt with in a corner by private conclave. He demanded that it be brought out in front of the whole congregation, named, and dealt with. This is what he says,
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much named among the Gentiles [only the Jews have a name for this and they do if you read the Law of Moses, but the Gentiles don’t], that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of out Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul, without question, envisaged the whole congregation coming together, his letter being read as the representative of his own person, and in the combined gathering of all the believers and Paul’s letter, this man that had done this terrible thing was to be turned over to Satan. Not for the damnation of his soul, but for the judgment of God in this life, that by this he might be brought to repentance and his soul might be eternally saved.
There’s many other aspects to this which are very important, but it’s not my purpose nor do I have time to deal with them now. But notice that serious immorality could not be hushed up, could not be swept under the rug, had to be named, brought out into the open, and dealt with in front of the whole congregation. And I don’t believe there’s any other way to keep the church pure, but to do it that way. I could give you at least four different cities in the United States and name at least four different names that are probably known to most of you here where this has not been done when it should have been done, and the results are disastrous to the entire body. If anybody thinks they’ve got a better way than God’s way of doing things, let’s judge by the results. But up till now I haven’t seen it.
Then there’s one other reason the Scripture gives for bringing the whole local church together. Matthew 18:15–17,
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
Step number one, go to the man alone. If he listens the problem is solved, you don’t need to take it any further. If he won’t listen take two reliable witnesses that everything that’s said may be established in the presence of witnesses. If he hears then the problem is solved and you don’t have to go any further, then the third inevitable step is to take it to the congregation.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
This again we’re dealing with something tremendously serious. But the person whose case is brought before the local congregation in a proper order and who refuses to accept the decision of the local congregation, is no longer to be treated as a Christian. “...Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” It’s not abusive language. It just means he’s forfeited the right to be considered a believer. And until he repents and submits to the local congregation, do not think or speak of that man as a Christian. This is it. This is the supreme discipline of the local church. It has no more than this. But when it’s done in the spirit of God, it’s extremely effective.
I’ve seen different ways of administrating discipline in different groups and I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s spiritual methods of discipline are the only ones that are adequate to the situation and will produce the results that we need.
Let me sum these reason up then quickly going through the outline given in various passages in the New Testament for gathering the whole church together. I have to go quickly. First of all to edify each other through gifts and ministries. Second to eat the Lord’s Supper together. Third to be edified by visiting mobile ministries. Fourth to hear reports by mobile ministers returning to the local church which sent them out. Fifth to hear letters from mobile ministers read. Sixth to settle issues of doctrine and practice effecting all believers. Seventh to maintain discipline and proper standards of behavior among believers. And eighth to settle disputes among believers. And I observed there, which I will read out for issues of doctrine, discipline, morality, or disputes between believers, the final court of appeal is the whole local church.
Now you say, “Well where were these meetings held?” The answer is the Bible is delightfully silent. It just doesn’t tell us. We know a few places. It says in Acts 2:46, 5:42, they met in the temple. In Acts 19:9 Paul preached for a year and a half in a philosopher’s school. In Acts 28 it says they met in an upper room. But the really important thing is the Bible doesn’t tell us because it isn’t important. Any place that will meet the need is all right. But I think the very significant thing is there’s no record in the New Testament of believers ever building, what we would call, a church. According to church history, which I’m no expert on, I understand the first building specifically built as a church was built in the year 222 A.D., which is almost two hundred years after the day of Pentecost. This is all the more remarkable because the traditions of the people amongst whom they lived we for building. The Jews built synagogues, the heathen built temples. But the Christians coming out either from Jewish or heathen background didn’t build. Remarkable fact, and I think it’s one that we’ve got to take into account facing what God is doing in America today.
Finally I must point out that, I cannot dwell on it—time has run out, that if this type of fellowship in which the whole body can be called together at a given point is to be effective, it demands that all the local leaders must be in close and regular fellowship with each other. If you’d like to glance at your leisure at the Scriptures given there, you’ll see that it was assumed that in any area the elders would be able to meet and discuss problems that were raised. If we do not have this fellowship of the local leaders, then the church is just a lot of isolated little groups, cells that are never united, in a body and can never function as a body. Here is an absolute essential requirement for the functioning of the local body is the fellowship of the local leaders, recognizing one another, meeting with one another, sharing with one another and then reporting back to their own congregations and seeing that the decisions arrived at were carried out.