[I’m reposting this one from August. It’s cited in the article on a New Restorationism. The post makes better sense once you’ve read this.]
In the last post, I suggested that a better approach to the assembly is to think about how we can best accomplish God’s mission on earth rather than how we can best replicate First Century practices.
However, First Century practices are hardly irrelevant. After all, the apostles may well have had very thoughtful reasons for what they did. Or it may have just been necessary due to their circumstance. The particulars may well have been defined by the local culture, but the purpose and spirit of what they did remains important today. And so, we should “go to school” on the apostolic church and see how these practices might be applied in contemporary culture–but without making them into laws.
I don’t think we want to require our travelers to sail in wooden boats or walk on sandaled feet, but we should be able to see some genuine wisdom in the church’s early practices that still is applicable today.
We start by considering God’s declared purpose for the assembly. The Bible is actually quite explicit. As I’ve covered this subject before, I’ll be brief.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul tests what the Corinthians were doing in the assembly by whether the proposed practice edifies, encourages, strengthens, or comforts. In Hebrews 10:24-25, we are commanded to assemble to encourage one another toward love and good works. Thus, these become the tests for whether a practice suits the purpose of the assembly.
Nowhere does a New Testament writer test a practice against an approved list of authorized acts. They just ask whether the practice serves these purposes.
Also, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul also asks whether a practice will bring a unbeliever in the assembly to glorify God. Thus, our assemblies are for the members but sensitive to the unbelieving visitors. Sometimes we lean too far one way or the other.
With these lessons in mind, what can we learn from how the early church “did church”?
They met in homes. This was largely due to necessity, as the church was illegal until the Fourth Century and so couldn’t secure the equivalent of a building permit even when they weren’t persecuted. But the practice proved very powerful. The church grew despite being illegal and frequently persecuted–due in large part to the passionate agape love the community offered its converts. Meeting in homes is one very effective way to help gain this level of intimacy.
They also ate a common meal–the love feast–which was only natural as they were already gathered in a friend’s house.
Very much in this spirit, my congregation has small group meetings in homes, and most groups make a practice of eating together. They’ve unwittingly reproduced the First Century house churches and love feasts!
Making this missional, as the early church did, means inviting friends and visitors to the small groups and being certain that the meeting is done in reverence to Jesus. Especially the meal should be done in honor of Jesus–through prayer and by sharing generously in Jesus’ name.
While a cappella singing is not commanded, the practice surely teaches the importance of congregational participation in the song service. We can’t let the band or organist suppress the singing, as so often happens.
And while the Bible certainly permits solos and such, it’s important that congregational singing be preserved, as is true in nearly all churches. Singing builds community. In fact, it builds a certain intimacy–singing with someone breaks down social barriers.
Singing is missional when it’s more than great singing. The song service should help bring the believers–and the visiting unbelievers–to fall down on their faces (metaphorically, you know) when confronted with the glory of God.
The early church’s care for its widows has largely been taken over by the state, but we should realize that widows continue to have unmet needs. Care for widows is the essence of the church’s mission, and we very often give it lip service at best.
Our deacons have asked permission (gladly given!) to care for our widows by cutting grass, cleaning gutters, and otherwise helping them do things that they can’t do for themselves. The Spirit has moved in our deacons to act much as the deacons in Acts 6 did.
But widows in the early church also were part of an order that provided needed service. It’s great to have social events for the elderly, but the elderly have an even greater need for purpose. And so the church should help them find good works within their capabilities. What could be more missional?
Our ladies Bible class does a great job of this, as do many of our other ministries. Our older members are among our most active and valuable, and this is as it should be if we are to be true to First Century examples.
You see, the underlying purposes and heart of the First Century church can be replicated today in ways that speak to and work within current culture.
It’s a different way of being a Restoration church, but I think it’s the right way.