Words to live by: It’s a not a positive law unless it’s a law.
I won’t live long enough to refute every claimed positive law among the Churches of Christ. I could spend the next few weeks just making a list! And most wouldn’t be found in scripture anywhere. Rather, we find “commands” in silences — which is, of course, definitionally impossible. Only commands are commands. (Stop me if this is too complicated.)
And so, let’s take some of the more prominent examples of alleged positive commands and see if a closer look at them will help us to understand God just a little better.
Now, at some point after the Civil War, the Churches of Christ adopted the Landmark Baptist teaching that the boundaries of the church are set by certain “marks of the church.” These marks are not the things that separate the world from those in Christ. No, by a strange coincidence they are all things that separate Churches of Christ from other denominations. This line of reasoning takes us very far afield from the New Testament, causing us to ignore the majority of the text in favor of a favored few “proof” texts.
The “marks” were largely matters of the Sunday morning worship service and church organization — because these are two areas in which denominations differ.
Let’s take a few examples.
Five acts of worship
As to worship we’ve long insisted on five “acts of worship” — singing a cappella, praying, preaching, giving, and the Lord’s Supper. The one, true church, we taught, has these five and only these five acts of worship. And yet there’s not a single passage that commands us to do these things specifically in a Sunday morning assembly.
Paul urges us to sing, but does not command weekly singing in the assembly. We are certainly taught to pray, but there’s not a single command saying we should assemble to pray on Sunday morning. There are plenty examples of preaching, but again, there’s not a single command to gather weekly to hear a sermon. Paul urges the church in Corinth to lay aside money weekly for the saints in Jerusalem, but this was a one-time special contribution, not a gift to the general fund of the church — and it’s less than clear that Paul said to give the money to the church treasurer.
There are, of course, examples of some (not all) of these things in the New Testament, but finding authority is hardly the same as finding a command. Permission and obligation are not the same thing.
Moreover, we have plenty of examples of other things happening in the assembly.
(1 Tim 4:13) Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
Did you ever wonder why public reading of the scriptures never made the “five acts” list? I have no idea. And why aren’t teaching and preaching two different acts, as Campbell taught? (Campbell taught that preaching is preaching the gospel to the lost; teaching is instruction for the membership.)
Jude 12 refers to congregational “love feasts,” that is, common meals. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of a meal. Why do we have to have a closing prayer before the meal? The early church often combined the love feast with communion, rather than feeling compelled to separate the two. After all, bread and wine were what people served with a meal in the First Century. And why is it permissible to have common meals less often than weekly? Why must we have a weekly sermon but can go years without a covered dish luncheon?
For that matter, we don’t even have a command to assemble weekly on Sunday. It’s just not there.
We have hints and indirect allusions to a weekly assembly here and there. But we also have very plain references to a daily gathering —
(Acts 2:46-47) Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They met in the temple courts — where there was instrumental music and choir music — daily. They also met in homes (with kitchens!) and ate together — the beginning of the love feast — and praised God.
The daily gathering continued for some time —
(Acts 5:42) Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
(Acts 6:1) In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
(Acts 16:5) So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
(Acts 19:9) But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
(Heb 3:13) But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Now, we know from history that weekly assemblies became the routine practice, but it’s awfully hard to find that commanded in the New Testament. Indeed, if we weren’t taught to the contrary by the Patristics, we would likely conclude that the church met every day — or at least had some gatherings every day, although not necessarily a gathering of the whole church.
You see, what we do is read Second Century and later history back into the text of the scriptures, as though God were incapable of telling us what he really meant to say. We feel compelled to look for rules on how to conduct an assembly — because our church culture tells us that the church is all about the assembly. But that’s plainly not what the scriptures teach.
The scriptures describe a church that’s about loving each other — and getting along — in order to serve in God’s mission. They met weekly or daily or as their circumstances dictated to accomplish the mission. Indeed, because they loved each other with the intensity of the love of God, they sought ways to be together rather than rules on how often they are required to be together!
You see, a focus on rules for an assembly — what day? how often? what acts? — totally misses the point.
(Acts 2:42) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
“Devoted themselves” is middle voice. They made it a point to do this. They did what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to do was to be together, to learn God’s will, to pray, and to eat together. They didn’t act out of compulsion but a Spirit-driven passion.
You see, as a few commentators have noted, they were acting out the promises of the Prophets that in the Messianic Age, God’s people would eat together.
(Isa 25:6) On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.
Do you think the Jerusalem elders wrote notes to members who missed three Sundays in row? What?! You couldn’t keep them away! The Messiah had come and the long-promised age of God’s favor had come. The Spirit had been outpoured! It was a time of celebration — not obligation.
Now, many readers will find this all terribly disorienting. If there are no rules, then people could miss services! How can we do church without assemblies?!
But that is to miss the point. The point is that the assembly isn’t a law because no law is needed. People who love each other meet. People on mission with God spend time together. People formed into the community called the body of Christ can’t be pulled apart. (I spend Thanksgiving with my parents every November no matter what — and there’s not a single law anywhere that says I have to! Is that crazy or what?)
And when they gather, they do what the people in Jerusalem did — share with each other, eat together, study God’s word together, enjoy the sweet fellowship of minds attuned to the same Spirit. Tell such people they can only meet on Sundays and Wednesdays, and they’ll be upset!
The fact that we feel the need for commands to do right shows how very far from the heart of God we are. And if you attend some of our assemblies, you’ll feel the distance. I mean, we actually beg for forgiveness for our worship — as though our God could so despise the people for whom he gave his Son that he’d damn them for worship! for worship!
The leadership of a congregation gets to decide about assemblies of the entire church. And for 2,000 years, churches of all denominations have had a weekly assembly at least. Some have had daily assemblies. Some two days a week. A few have met spontaneously. But all have met at least weekly.
This does not tell us that there is a secret command to meet weekly. It tells us that the Spirit is alive, well, and working through God’s people to keep them meeting, even when they are very far removed from God in many ways.
Meetings are important because we are saved into the body of Christ, meaning we are saved into a community. We are not saved as individuals and Jesus is not our “personal” Savior. Jesus saves the church — and we are saved into the church. He is our “community Savior.” And communities spend time together.
The problem with teaching the necessity of a weekly, Sunday gathering is the tendency for this to become the minimum requirement. We says it’s the only assembly truly commanded and therefore many meet only weekly. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Rather that teaching a made-up law to force weekly gatherings, we need to teach mission and community and celebration. Maybe a little peace and joy and righteousness.
You see, I’m a radical conservative. Unlike many of my “conservative” friends, I’m opposed to adding to the scriptures. I think God is smarter than me — and not the other way around. Therefore, I look for the truth that is there, not for ways to wedge my own truths in between the lines and into the silences.
Do we therefore abandon weekly assemblies? No, of course not. I mean, we are blessed to live in a culture where many of us get Sundays off. We should certainly take advantage of that to meet. And there are deep, theological reasons to remember the first day of the week (which we’ll get to in a future post, Lord willing).
But it’s just the wrong question. We should instead ask: how can we get together even more often? … to serve in God’s mission, to pray, to bring God’s light into darkness. Of course, if we do that, we just might break out singing — such is the power of the Spirit.