There seems to be many different ideas of how and why the New Testament church meets.
In our day the prevailing idea is that the church meets to worship God. We do this, we are told, by singing, preaching, praying, and giving. There is no end to the books, magazines, websites, and seminars which “shows” the church how to meet and worship. In fact, we routinely refer to our church meetings as “worship services.” The question is why does the church meet? How is the NT church instructed by Scripture to meet? What is done in these meetings? The basic answers can be found in 1 Corinthians 14:26 –
“How is it then brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
If we were to elipse the components of the meetings, singing, teaching, etc., the passage would read like this: “Whenever you come together…let all things be done for edification.” The purpose of the NT meeting is for the edification, or building up, of the believer. This is why we (should) come together as a church. From this guideline for NT church meetings we can extract the following biblical truths:
1. Believers are to meet together (“Whenever you come together…”).
Meeting together is not an option. The writer of Hebrews exhorted the church to not forsake the assembling of themselves (Heb. 10:25). The Greek word ekklesia, which we translate “church”, literally means “an assembly” or “those called out.” The idea is of one calling together a group of people for a specific purpose. When and where the church meets is never commanded in Scripture. But we are definitely commanded to meet.
At first, the early church met every day (Acts 2:46). Later, we are told that the church came together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Some scholars believe the first day of the week was called “the Lord’s Day” by early believers (Rev. 1:10). As New Covenant believers we recognize that we are not bound by any day of the week (Rom. 14:5, cf. Col. 2:16-20). However, it seems from the Scriptures that the early church held some type of meetings on the first day of the week. This does not, however, prevent us from meeting as conveniently as we can. The main idea is that Christians meet together, the day, place, and time is not important. Meeting on a Tuesday evening with the brethren is just as “correct” in God’s eyes as meeting on Sunday mornings.
In addition, the early church met in the homes of believers (Acts 2:46b, 8:3, 20:20; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philm. 2). While it is true that in its earliest stages the church at Jerusalem met alternately between the Temple and homes (Acts 2:46), it appears that within a short time they met exclusively in private homes. In every instance that a certain local church is mentioned in the NT, the meeting place is described as being in someone’s home (i.e., “the church in your house,” “the church that is in their house”). The early Christians did not build costly religious shrines because they understood that the church was not a material building they had built, but a spiritual building built by God (1 Pet. 2:5).
NOTE: This is not to say that building church buildings is wrong. I think sometimes the emphasis we spend on equating “church” with “building” is off the mark. I just wish Christians would think “outside the building” a little bit. Since this article was originally written, there has been a huge spike in churches embracing smaller groups in homes, which meets with my approval 🙂
2. Each believer should participate in the meetings (“… each of you …”).
Christianity today is by and large a spectator Christianity. In today’s church there is little or no mutual participation in the church meetings. Only the spiritually elite are allowed to do anything in the meetings. The designated choir sings the designated songs led by their designated leader. The designated preacher gives a pre-prepared monologue sermon. Prayers are spoken by designated church leaders. Perhaps drama or “special music” is allowed, but even it is performed by designated performers. The rest of the congregation are allowed to participate in the corporate singing of hymns or choruses and maybe give an offering (but even its taken up by designated ushers!).
For the most part, the Body of Christ is instructed, at least by implication, to sit there in the pews and watch the “professionals” do all the ministering.
This type of uninvolved spectator meeting is foreign to the church of the New Testament! Paul specifically said that when the church comes together everyone has something to share. From the least to the greatest, the church meeting was open to all who were led to participate. Each could pray, prophesy, teach, or sing as God had gifted them. If someone felt God had a word of encourgaement or correction for someone else or for all, they were allowed to share it. If God had done a wonderful deed in the past week which needed to be told for the edification of all, it was allowed to be told. If someone simply wanted to praise God they were allowed to do so. There was no fear of embarrassment or being told to “shush” by the pastor or deacons (or the little old lady on the pew next to you)! Each Christian had an opportunity to share.
This is called the priesthood of the believer. Each believer is a priest unto God (1 Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 5:10). Unfortunately, in our day the priesthood of the believer, though verbally affirmed by most churches, is never really practiced. Many churches have the slogan “Every Member a Minister.” However good it looks on the church sign or the church letterhead, if its not really being practiced it means nothing. Countless believers are growing cold and apathetic to spiritual things because they are not allowed, or are too fearful, to participate in the church meetings. They are suppressed by the idea that unless they have a “calling,” a degree, or ordination papers, then they are unworthy to contribute meaningfully in the corporate assembly.
In stark contrast to today’s spectator “worship service” stands the NT meeting. Here each believer is encouraged to use his/her gifts for the edification of one another. Here each believer is important and needful for the Body to be a healthy organism (1 Cor. 12:20-27).
NOTE: There is to be a respect for order during worship services (1 Cor. 14:40). Worship is not to degenerate into a free-for-all. The main point of this section is that churches often place limits on the excerise of spiritual gifts during services. Give a little room for the Spirit to move!
3. Each believer is gifted and should use his/her gifts (“… a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation…”).
Everyone who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit living in them (Rom. 8:11). The Spirit gifts (lit. graces) each and every believer for service (Rom. 12:4-6a; 1 Cor. 12:4-11). The Scriptures mention several different gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some examples are: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, leading, mercy, miracles, healing, helps, service, tongues (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28). And there are undoubtedly many other gifts that the Spirit graces believers with (1 Cor. 12:4). The previous citations should not be viewed as exhaustive. The point is, is your church allowing and encouraging Christians to develop and use his/her spiritual gifts in the meetings and in everyday life? Remember: all believers have either a gift or several gifts (“each of you,” v. 26). The point is we should be faithful to use whatever gifts he’s given us to build up the Body of Christ.
4. The purpose of NT church meetings (“Let all things be done for edification”).
The reason that the church meets is for the edification of each believer. I know this statement flies in the face of almost all we have been taught. We are told that the church meets to worship God. While the idea of meeting primarily to worship sounds scriptural and pious, the truth is Christians do not meet primarily to have a “worship service.” This is not to say that worship doesn’t happen when Christians meet. It does and it should. Worship should occur at all times, in all places, and in all things, whether Sunday morning in a church building or Thrusday afternoon at the dinner table. A Christian’s whole life is an act of worship (Rom. 12:1-2)! So, yes, when Christians meet on Sunday mornings or at any other time/place, they are in a sense worshiping God. But it is in no way different from the worship we should be living and giving the rest of the week. We must concede that the primary objective in Christian meetings is not to have a “worship service” since worship is a way of life.
The primary reason Christians meet is to edify one another. The reason that God gave us the gifts of the Spirit is so we might edify one another (Eph. 4:12; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). The term edify is from the Greek oikodome. This word is an architectural term. It means “to build, confirm, or strengthen.” It is used in reference to the church’s position as God’s building (1 Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:21). Elsewhere it is used to describe the ministry of believers to one another (Rom. 14:9,15:2; 1 Thess. 5:11). The purpose of this edification, this building up and strengthening, is to spur each other onto maturity in Christ (Heb. 24-25) that we might worship him in every area of our lives.
As believers we stand in the need of constant and regular strengthening. Living a life of worship among those who revile and reject us will take its toll and begin to “crack the foundation” of the strongest building. Therefore we need to come together and repair the breaches that we might stand firm. This is done by the mutual ministry of the Body of Christ to one another.
There is no “set” way that the NT church is commanded to meet. We CAN observe these facts about NT church meetings:
1. The church met in met in private homes, not specially constructed church buildings. This does not make church buildings wrong or unscriptural in any way. I am simply stating that the early believers met in homes for specific purposes.
2. Belivers met as often as they could, sometimes daily sometimes weekly. The point is they did meet.
3. The church met for the purpose of mutual edification and maturity towards Christ.
4. Each believer contributed, withing scriptural bounds, as he/she had been gifted because each believer understood his/her position as a priest unto God.
5. The early church met for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or Love Feast, which, by the way, was a full meal, not a token thimble of grape juice and a cracker (1 Cor. 11:17; Jude 12).
My prayer is that we will consider only what the Bible says about the why’s and how’s the church should meet. Obviously God gave these instructions for us to follow, not just for a Bible history lesson. May the Spirit guide us in the understanding and application of his truth.