Assembly 2.0: Part 11.11: Have We Restored the First Century Assembly?



The Restoration Movement was originally a unity movement. Various branches attempted to build unity from within the Presbyterian and Baptist denominations, but they found themselves unwelcome, even excommunicated by their home denominations. They became, unwillingly, a new denomination (and then, later, decided to pretend not to be a denomination).

As a result, Alexander Campbell published a series of articles called the “Search for the Ancient Order,” seeking to find the original pattern for the early church’s assembly. Just as I have done, he found very limited guidance in the scriptures, and so he turned to history
— the uninspired writings of the early church fathers — to fill in the gaps. And there were many gaps.

Alexander Campbell himself made it clear that he didn’t consider the pattern of worship that he taught a salvation issue, as noted by John Mark Hicks.

The interesting question, however, is whether [Campbell] thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?

This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370),

(emphasis Hicks’).

Campbell believed that the practices of the primitive church made for a model that all Christians should be able to agree on and so unite on. He was looking for a way that we could all worship as one.

However, a generation after his death, his words were being misinterpreted as defining “positive commands” that were “tests of faith” of greater importance to God than morality and good works. The positive commands were given, we were told, to test our willingness to obey God — even those “commands” not found in the scripture that had to be inferred using later, uninspired sources. Obviously, although the Churches of Christ continued to insist on the rhetoric of being silent where the Bible is silent, when you’re damning people based on passages from Clement of Alexandria, you’ve abandoned your principles for the sake of tradition.

Now, the last several posts demonstrate that even our most conservative sister congregations don’t come close to replicating the early church practices. Just to name a few deficiencies —

  • No regular love feast. No use of the language of “love feast” or agapē to refer to the common meal.
  • Multiple congregations in the same city — even of the same denomination.
  • No concern for the physical posture of prayer.
  • No regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
  • No meeting in homes.
  • No Holy Kiss.
  • No washing of feet.
  • No wine. Welch’s Grape Juice is not the meaning of “fruit of the vine.”
  • No tongues.
  • No prophecy.
  • No questions of the speaker.

In fact, we are so far removed from the early church that a visitor from the First Century would likely not recognize one of our assemblies as a Christian assembly. They would be shocked that we don’t eat together and that the services are so formal (even in our “low church” style) that people don’t speak to each other or ask questions. They would see a near complete absence of love as they experienced it — through hospitality, shared homes, shared food, warm greetings, and humble mutual service.

They’d be jealous of our Bibles (and iPads with Bible applications), and the women would be thrilled at the thought of meeting in buildings so they don’t have to clean house every week for company. And they’d all be delighted at the absence of persecution and astonished at how victimized we feel at the persecution we do suffer. They would tell us about real persecution (too gruesome for me to describe here).

Most importantly, they’d be confused — and even outraged — that we’ve made such things as instrumental music and the use of the church treasury into salvation issues. They’d ask us whether we’ve lost Paul’s epistles and his lessons on grace.

But I do suspect that they’d enjoy our four-part harmony (who wouldn’t?), even though a visitor from the Fourth Century church would consider us damned heretics for singing other than in unison.

Fortunately, the Bible itself is plenty clear that salvation is not dependent on such things. I’m enough of a Restorationist that I think we should try to learn from our spiritual ancestors and emulate them — especially in terms of their goals and purposes. That is, they ate together, not to honor some unwritten book of rules on how to do church, but to show how much they loved each other. In that culture, true love was shown through hospitality
— eating in homes, washing feet, kissing the cheek. And things aren’t that much different today. We might not need to wash feet, but we should visit in homes, shake hands and hug, and — most importantly — cross class, racial, and ethnic lines as we do so, because in Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek.

And some congregations do this very well, typically through a small groups program. But others are so stuffed-shirt that they can’t imagine meeting anywhere but the church building — as though the building were the Temple. It’s really Old Testament thinking. It’s not Christian — and, in fact, misses the heart of Christianity, replacing agapē with control. They’re not nearly the same thing.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Assembly 2.0: Part 11.11: Have We Restored the First Century Assembly?

  1. David Himes says:

    This is one of those realities most people in the Churches of Christ don’t want to acknowledge

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    On the other hand, we’ve done a really good job of continuing the Anglican public religious lecture beginning circa 1535. And all of our churches bear a striking resemblance to Westminster Hall circa 1605.

  3. Mark says:

    I wish to add to the deficiency list:
    Little to no public reading of the Torah, Prophets, and the Psalms.

    In most cofC services, only 2 or 3 verses of one of Paul’s letters would be read. Aside from the numerous (>20) verses cited in the sermon and taken out of context, little of the Bible was heard as it was written, in Hebrew and Greek paragraphs. When one is reading from a scroll, jumping around is impossible without unrolling the entire scroll and risking damaging it. I leave out the Gospel because there was a time in early Christianity when there was no written Gospel, though someone present who saw a miracle of Jesus or who had heard him speak might have repeated the actions/words from memory. Once the Gospel was written, it would have been read. A letter of Paul would have been read if it were available.

    I really believe there was a fear in the cofC of reading too many consecutive verses of the Bible since it might have contradicted what had been taught by the use of proof texts.

  4. George Guild says:

    Excellent article Jay!

  5. Dwight says:

    Very good. My cousin is of the opinion that to do things differently is sinful, even having a supper that resembles the Lord’s Supper on another day to remember Jesus. But one thing that those that press this strictness of subjecting others to the coC LS standard is that they themselves do not follow verbatim the Lord’s Supper ritual as we read it and those that partake in the morning are doing it in the wrong time of the day as it was evening. The point is that while we point a finger at others in condemnation, we are condemning ourselves. This was the problem with the
    Pharisees in that they condemned others without acknowledging their own deficiencies.
    I have read many articles that condemn those that meet in homes because this is a movement towards apostasy. Boy do we have a disconnect in our thinking.

  6. Randall says:

    This is off subject but I am excited about it and want to get the word out. Bobby Valentine has a new blog out. Here’s the link:

  7. Charlie M. says:

    I keep trying to think exactly what a typical 1st c. assembly would “have”, especially if it were a gentile group. The oral tradition of some sort, surely. Maybe (Maybe) a letter or two from an apostle. As Jay or some other said, possibly access to a copy of the Torah from a benefactor or a local synagogue. They don’t seem to have any sort of special form of indwelling that “leads them to all truth.”

    Then I wonder what the Ethiopian “Unique” (as a kid in our Bible class said years ago) said to his synagogue or fellow Jews when he reached home and how what he experienced changed his and their way of thinking.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Charlie M,

    I’ve often wondered the same thing. If the eunuch made it to Ethiopia trained as a missionary, Philip was quite the teacher! My guess is that the Jerusalem church sent missionaries very quickly to the Jewish settlement on the upper Nile, Elephantine. From there, they surely reached out to the Jews in Ethiopia. “Ethiopia” is probably the modern Sudan, and so very near Elephantine.

    Another interesting question is whether the eunuch was a proselyte. Jews were not allowed to become eunuchs under Torah, although he may have been converted afterwards. There was a very prominent Jewish settlement nearby in Elephantine in those days. If he was not a proselyte, then Cornelius wasn’t the first Gentile convert, and that would change Acts in countless ways — so he had to be a proselyte — but from very far away.

  9. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for mentioning Bobby. Glad to get him away from Facebook and back to a proper blog format. You see his site in my Links on the right.

  10. Minor point, but where do you come up with “But I do suspect that they’d enjoy our four-part harmony (who wouldn’t?)”?

  11. Because doesn’t everyone at church agree with us?

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