This coming Sunday, millions of Christians will meet at various places of worship from Cathedrals to former football stadiums, to small church buildings. And, many others will meet in smaller groups inside their homes. However, the size, variety, and creativity of these church gatherings are not vast because of the Bible’s instructive latitude. It’s vast because we’ve mistaken spiritual activity with biblical community.
Just because Christians get together with other Christians on Sunday doesn’t mean they are involved in a biblical Church meeting. To a growing number of believers, especially those fatigued by their experience with the institutional church, the best of intentions and a desire to meet are the only parameters for gathering as a local Church. But having our heart in the right place doesn’t indicate doctrinal accuracy.
For those of us who value our good intentions too highly, the Bible has some hard lessons to teach. Remember the return of the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6:7? The physical journey of a Holy artifact that must not be carried by anyone except those of the Levite tribe (see 1 Chronicles 15:2). In that account, Uzzah (who was not a Levite) tries to prevent the Ark from falling off the cart by steadying it with his hand and is instantly struck dead by God. Uzzah’s intentions were pure as the wind-driven snow. But, God wasn’t interested in his good intentions. He wanted obedience to His command.
Where God has spoken, he expects compliance—not from some rigid sense of duty but from a heart that desires to please him. If the way we are gathering as the local Church is contrary to the direct teaching found in the Bible, it’s time to change. The example of the Church at Corinth should encourage us by demonstrating that a local assembly can be tremendously wrong and yet still be a part of God’s Church . . . as long as we don’t forget that change is required when we’re walking contrary to God’s ways. The only way to know if we are being obedient in the matters of the Church is if we are ordering our gathering according to the Bible.
Many Christians tired of institutional Christianity act like Anarchists—no order, no accountability, no government, and no consistent commitment to regularly attend a gathering with other believers. They’re “over it” and done with “all that” and “Thank God, Almighty, we’re free at last!”
Is the local Church you are a part of organized according to the direct teachings of the Bible or is it a combination of entrenched traditions, innovative ideas, and creativity designed to entertain? Or maybe you believe that because Jesus is your Sabbath, you aren’t required to meet at all. What does the Bible say about the meeting of believers and how that meeting should be led?
First off, not attending the Church gathering is not an option. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Biblical Christians gather regularly with other believers. It’s not a matter left up to personal desire, schedule, or creativity. We see from Acts 20:7 and the unmistakable inference of 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 that the disciples met weekly. This is the norm, practice, and instruction for the Church gathering from the very beginning.
Not gathering, gathering infrequently, or gathering in a manner out of step with biblical teaching indicates either ignorance or rebellion and is not an option for the Christian who desires to be obedient to the Word of God.
If you’ve already bought into the idea that we, as Christians, should gather regularly, great. But, how we gather matters, as well. The Bible is not silent on the purpose, structure, and content of the gathering of the Saints this side of Heaven, which is why three couples meeting for a little Sunday evening Bible reading and prayer is not a Church gathering. But wait, didn’t Jesus say, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Welcome to one of the most abused verses in the Bible. This passage has, literally, nothing to do with the general Church gathering of any size. If you read just a few verses prior, you’ll quickly realize Jesus’s statement is about the divine support you will receive when two or three that are meeting in his name come to deal with a sinful and unrepentant brother. It’s not about Jesus being present and validating your small group because you and a friend met and prayed in His name.
If simply getting together with your Bibles isn’t enough, then what constitutes a biblical Church meeting? For the vast majority of Christians today, it doesn’t seem to matter—not because they are willfully opposed to what the Bible teaches but, more typically, they don’t know what—or even if—the Bible has anything to say about the regular gathering of Christians.
There are two types of information regarding the Church meeting that can be found in the Bible: description and prescription. When we encounter a description of what the early Church did, we shouldn’t automatically take that account as a doctrinal requirement. A report of what was done isn’t the same as teaching what must be done. For instance, we see in the early Church that everyone held everything in common—the first Christian Commune—but this is descriptive of what they choose to do, not prescriptive from what the Bible teaches all local Churches to do.
Prescriptive instruction in the Bible is the universal teachings for the local application of the Church Body, wherever it may be.
1. Who Should be at the Church Meeting?
To someone raised in the typical protestant, evangelical church, it’s often surprising to be told that the Church meeting is not for the unbeliever. Many Church meetings are geared, specifically, to entice unbelievers to come into the meeting. It’s a nice idea based on good intentions—let’s bring people in and expose them to the Gospel—it’s just not something you’ll find in the Bible.
Nowhere in the New Testament is the idea of inviting unbelievers into the weekly gathering of the Body of Christ, making it, essentially, an evangelistic/missionary effort. The Great Commission says, Go and make disciples. It doesn’t say go and invite as many non-believers into your meeting so a professional pastor can tell them about Jesus for you. The “seeker friendly” church is a modern innovation devoid of biblical example, instruction, or support.
Here’s why that matters… When a crystal-clear mountain stream and a muddy stream run together, only a few yards downstream, dirty water is the result, every time. This example from nature is found on a spiritual level in the local Church. The Bible is clear on this topic relative to believers and the unsaved. 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
Which begs the question, ‘If there is no communion (true fellowship) to be had between the saved and unsaved, why have myriad churches done their dead-level best to get as many unsaved people as possible into the building on Sunday morning?’
The answer is simple: They don’t understand what the meeting is for, according to the Word of God. This isn’t a matter of the value or merit of individuals. It’s a matter of God’s purpose in the meeting of His people.
2. The Biblical Purpose of the Weekly Meeting of the Local Church
The first insight into the purpose of the Church meeting encountered in the New Testament is seen in the record of what took place at the weekly gathering of Christians. In Acts 2:42, it states, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” There is no mention of evangelism in the meeting. Clearly, this was a gathering for believers, not for the unsaved.
The purpose of the Church meeting, according to the Bible (not according to our good evangelistic intentions) is to build up—to train and to edify—Christians to do the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11–13 outlines the ministries distributed throughout the Church and what those ministries are for. “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
These ministries are to take place in the meeting with the express purpose of “perfecting”, which is to say, to make complete or to bring to maturity, the Christians in the local Church for the work of the ministry, for edifying the body of Christ. When the central focus of the Sunday meeting becomes an attempt to evangelize and teach unbelievers who have been encouraged to attend, the true purpose and biblical goals of the gathering are lost in the effort—and a biblically illiterate, immature body is the result. Ultimately, the effort at making Jesus popular with unbelievers results in making the church indistinguishable from the world.
The Biblical Structure of the Local Church
Where the Bible is silent and the possible choices are not sinful, the Church is free to choose a path forward. The structure of the local Church, however, is not a free-for-all restricted only by our imagination. The Bible, despite what many pastors seem to believe, speaks directly to the matter of Church structure. What the Bible teaches on the organization of the Church is remarkably simple, bearing no resemblance to the giant church constructs of today’s global denominations.
3. The Bible Sanctions Only Two Offices in the Local Church
Your church gathering may have a Lead Pastor, an Executive Pastor, Youth Pastor, or use titles such as Reverend, Father, or any number of others but, all of these are inventions of denominations, thoroughly extra-biblical and, in most cases, thoroughly unbiblical.
In 1 Timothy 3:14,15, Paul says, “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Preceding these verses are the requirements for Elders and Deacons—the only two Church offices spoken of in the New Testament. “Elder” is the overseer and “Deacon” is the logistical/ministry support role.
There are five words used in the Bible describing the office of “Elder” which are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament: Elder, Presbyter, Overseer, Bishop, Shepherd, and Pastor. The biblical Church is elder-led, not under compulsion but through a voluntary submission to the leadership God has established. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
The Bible is the only source for instruction on how Churches are to be organized and operated. In the Bible, we find autonomous, self-governing local Churches. There are no structural or organization ties between local churches and no organization larger than local churches. There are churches which are led by a plurality of elders, appointed through the local church according to the parameters of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
The road back to biblical Church doesn’t lead through church tradition, innovative ideas for growth, what I may want it to be or feel good about, or even the strong manifestation of spiritual gifts. The road back to biblical church leads away from giant organizations and also the small gatherings of believers inventing church based on their personal opinions. The road to biblical Church leads through obedience to the teaching found in the Word of God. For many, this will require a journey away from familiar surroundings.
Is that a journey God is calling you to take? If so, I would love to hear your comments or questions below.