First-Century Thinking (part 2)

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork in Part 1, let’s really dig into the application of our principle of first-century thinking. What observations may we make, from the New Testament and church history, about the operation of churches in the first one-hundred-or-so years of the existence of the institution of the local church? And how might persecution alter the way our churches operate or the way we perceive what things are important? Those are good questions. Let’s jump right in and see what answers they provoke.

In the Bible, God never really commands His churches when or how frequent their meeting times should be. While many in America would be quick to shake a finger at any church deciding to omit a Sunday-night service, we have no indication that the early Christian churches met for two different meetings on the same day. For that matter, Sunday was no day off for the people of the Greek world, and many of the Christians probably met either in the early morning hours before work or the evening hours after a day’s work. They knew that the Sabbath is fulfilled by resting in Christ (Hebrews 4). On the legal Sabbath, many would go to a synagogue and attempt to teach the Gospel of Christ, and they chose instead to meet together on the next day of the week, but we are not even restrained to coming together corporately on that day. Moreover, it is seemingly implied in Acts that some of them not only met, but lived together, making the tenacity with which we hold that our three-service tradition is the standard of all Christian meeting seem a little childish.

The Bible never designates church roles other than “overseer” (today called “pastor”) and “servant” (“deacon”). We have the freedom to set someone to a task. It also seems that some first-century churches had several “overseers.” And there might not have been a single person presiding over those overseers. If a church is in unity, with the leadership cooperating and led by the Spirit, and the church as-a-whole communicating and likeminded, then Jesus is at liberty to head His church. Can a church be a church without one man at the lead? Sure it can. Sometimes it might be helpful to follow one person's leadership more-so than others, but still we have freedom in this area too.

Here is another thing: Did the New Testament churches ever send their pastors packing? Sure, in certain cases the communities of Christians were responsible to practice discipline, but did they play “pastoral chairs”—pastor swapping? I’m not sure that the way we do it is necessarily wrong, but is it really all that healthy as a norm? Shouldn’t indigenous leadership be the goal? Isn’t that what we require of our foreign missionaries, to establish indigenous leadership on the field? When a man is given a title, it is not the same thing as being given leadership. He earns leadership over an extended period of time. He grows into the title, which leads us to wonder if titles are even necessary in most cases. Why don’t we focus on raising up men who will have already earned leadership among a community of Christians by the time they are given the title, so that they don’t have to spend the first two years of their ministry in the local body trying desperately to earn the respect and trust of the people who are supposed to follow?

Did all of those ancient groups of Christians meet in full membership for each meeting? Or did they sometimes meet “from house to house”—a practice we call a “cell-group” or “multi-site” model today? If the necessary meeting space were not available (as the case might be for a large church under persecution), could the Christian body operate without ever meeting in full quorum? There are ways for the church to still operate as a whole, govern itself as a whole, and provide for participation with the whole, without meeting in a single space as a whole.

For first-century churches, how were their meetings arranged? What was the content like? How did speakers address certain issues? How much of the meeting was devoted to prayer? How much was devoted to testimony? Was it a firm rule to sing during every meeting? Did people get up and sing “specials?” Did they have the same speaker for every meeting? Did they have Sunday School? Did they have any sort of class format? For that matter, were they ever separated by age group? If they had separate classes, how were teachers assigned? How centralized was the teaching? Did all teachers teach on the same subjects? Who chose what was taught? Was there just one sermon or lesson given during a meeting? How long were these meetings? How structured was the time they spent together? Were the meetings programmatically scheduled? How dynamic were the meetings? Where the meetings the same every single time. How interactive might their meetings have been? How much was the congregation treated as a passive audience?

Think about these things. Apply first-century thinking to your ministry and understanding of the Scriptures. Next time, I'll leave you with the third and final installment of First-Century Thinking. Until then, God bless.


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