"Since the time of Socrates it has been an accepted part of Western
wisdom that, in matters of social organization, it is necessary to know
what is right before we can know what is wrong. Insofar as man is reasonable, the intelligent way to begin is to consider first the end. The only reason why a physician can diagnose the nature of an illness is that he already has a vision of what a really well body is." (Elton Trueblood, 1953)
In this e-epistle I would like to list five signs that point us to a vision of what the New Testament church looked like 2000 years ago. I believe that we can measure for ourselves – for better or for worse – against these signs. We can, and should, look for these NT principles and practices of apostolic churches in our modern times to gauge if we meet their standards.
The apostle Paul wrote to two churches he had "birthed" that they should:
"Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith." (2 Co 13:5).
"Test everything; hold fast what is good." (1Th 5:21).
We also need to examine our lifestyles and practices and see how they compare with the NT example. The bible was not just written for our personal instruction but for our corporate instruction as well. When Jesus said to His disciples "You are the light of the World" He spoke to them as a unit, as The 12, not just as individuals! Unfortunately this is often missed in our English language because of our "you – singular" vs. "you-plural" dilemma. Our rugged individualistic society doesn’t help here much either…
Fortunately there is a standard, a guide, a road map for our corporate life as Christians. It is found in the pages of our Bible. It is there that we find what is right so we can correct the things that are wrong in our personal and corporate lives.
"We must actually find the cure before we find the disease." G.K. Chesterton
I once heard Loren Cunningham say that "if something is alive it is also growing". The early churches must have been dynamically alive because they were "added to daily" and "multiplying greatly" throughout the NT.
Ac 2:47 And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Ac 5:14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women
Ac 6:7 And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Ac 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.
Ac 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Just as in the plant and animal kingdom, if something is alive – breathing and eating – he or she will also be growing and multiplying! A sure sign of a healthy church is that it is growing with new blood, new converts and not just bloating on the dreaded “transfer growth” syndrome.
Non-involvement leads to feeling non-important. An involved church where every member ministers, everyone participates, in an ongoing and daily way, is a dynamic church.
Did not God already circumvent this major problem of non-involvement by telling us that "When we come together, each one…" (1 Cor 14:26) is to contribute with a teaching, lead out in a song, a tongue with an interpretation, a prophecy?
- Was not the whole church to weigh the prophecies given and not just the leaders? (1 Cor 14)
- Was not the whole gathered church in Acts 6 to “choose from among you seven men” who would be added to the apostolic team?
Show me a church that believes in, and practices, “every member a minister”, where every member -young and old, male and female – is involved and I will show you a healthy church.
3. Ownership precedes Stewardship.
We often hear preaching about giving to the local church (i.e. practicing good stewardship), but the people often have no sense of ownership of the church. If we are honest, we have to admit that in most churches, the church runs fine whether we are there or not! After all, the pastor and staff are paid to keep it running and we are just the spectators, watching an all-too familiar show week in and week out!
It could just be the #1 reason why the 1st century church gave of themselves so greatly, is that they considered themselves such a vital and integral part of its life! Without them the church would DIE! People don’t sell their homes or give away their property just so the church can build a bigger, more comfortable building for them to sit in or buy the latest and greatest state-of-the-art sound system!
The First Century believers gave up everything they had to the church because they were the owners of the church.
Acts 2: 44-45 And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
4. An Eldership team.
If we closely look at the New Testament practice of church leadership, we will see that elders led, or “were shepherds of” the early church and not the (lone) pastor. This is more than just semantics.
Firstly, we see that elders were selected from "among the flock", and not brought in from the outside (ie. surrounding cities or nations). NT elders were foremost homegrown leaders, good fathers and husbands, who had "proven" themselves in the battle field of their own homes and in the marketplace.
Secondly, we see that elders were either working full-time in their normal jobs (i.e. being a elder was not their "money-making job") or they did receive money as needed from the flock. Certainly the idea of a salaried pastor and staff is difficult to find in the pages of the NT.
A healthy NT church had finances going outward to meeting people’s daily needs (see Acts 6:1) and supporting apostolic teams, not going inward to meet building costs and salaries!
5. Mutual Edification using (supernatural) spiritual gifts.
1Co 14:26 What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
When we come together as a body of believers – a living, functioning Bride of Christ – our main focus is to make sure that everything we do, the "all things" of 1 Cor 14, is done for the edification, encouragement and up building of “one another”. The context here is talking about using supernatural gifts (healing, tongues, discernment, prophecy) for the strengthening of the gathered church. There is no pre-ordained order of service in a healthy church because the Holy Spirit is free to "just show up" and minister blessing and freedom to those in need, to those hurting or to those rejoicing!
Spiritual gifts are key to a healthy church and I don’t mean only the gifts of helps and administration! Church, we need to rediscover the power gifts in our gatherings so we can biblically edify one another and strengthen the church!
In closing, feast your hearts on these fine words from author and missionary pioneer Floyd McClung:
"It is not a model of church that excites me, but what the Spirit of God does in people’s lives when they discover the New Testament principles of doing church in small communities. It is those principles that are the engine that powers the house church model, not the model itself. These principles are not complicated, and they don’t require a theological education to figure them out. They are woven all through the story of the church in the book of Acts. And they permeate the house church movement world-side." (Floyd McClung, used with permission)
Yours for the least in the kingdom,