Doing Church—Are There Any Rules? (Rethinking Church #16)

When the church comes to exist in a particular place and time, it inevitably takes shape in the world as a visible association of people. We can see this happening before our eyes in the New Testament. Jesus chose twelve apostles and gathered many others around him. The number twelve, clearly patterned after the twelve tribes of Israel, represents a new beginning to the people of God. In other ways, Jesus and his disciples resembled a school with Jesus as a rabbi. Early Jewish churches naturally adopted the synagogue model. As we can see in Acts, early Christians met in public spaces to listen to the apostles’ teaching and in homes to share the Lord’s Supper. As the church moved into the gentile world it also adapted models borrowed from the Greek and Roman cultures.  Many groups met in the homes of wealthy patrons, like those in the houses of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19) and Nympha (Col 4:15). [For this story, see Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians].

According to Acts, the first church was led by the apostles. Soon other leaders were appointed to administer some community tasks (Acts 6), and eventually James the Lord’s brother and the “elders” became the main leaders (Acts 15, Gal. 1–2). In the Old Testament, elders were traditional local, tribal, or clan leaders. The authority of elders is a natural extension of the family, and their presence was common among ancient Israel’s neighbors and in Greek and Roman villages. As the name indicates they were usually older men who were respected by the community. In many cities beyond Judea, missionary founders of churches, such as Paul and Barnabas, were the authority figures at least for a time. Apparently, some churches eventually adopted the model of elders as leaders in particular cities (Acts 20:7; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1).

In previous essays in this series, we’ve been able to find in the New Testament clear teaching about what the church is and what it is supposed to do, but we do not find instructions specifying how it must be organized everywhere and for all time, or where to assemble to engage in its communal life, or what means it must use to accomplish its mission. Instead, we find variety on all three counts. Believers seem to be able to adapt to circumstances, adopting and modifying as necessary, models already used by other types of associations.

It seems that there is no one pattern of organization, communal life, or means of action that is essential to the church. Are we, then, left without guidance for these areas? Are we completely free to do whatever we like? No, we are not without guidance. First, there is tradition. The New Testament church grew out of and in organic continuity with Jesus’s ministry. It adapted that original community life to new circumstances but did not make a radical break. Judging by the way it preserved Jesus’s teaching and deeds as witnessed in the gospels, the early church seems to have treasured that continuity. And in our efforts to be the church Jesus built we should take pains to preserve that continuity as well.

Second, the New Testament’s clear teaching about the church’s essential constitution and mission gives guidance and sets limits to how we go about organizing and conducting communal life and accomplishing the church’s mission. It should be obvious that organizational structures, functions, offices, and means should serve the essence and mission. But experience teaches that they tend to become institutionalized, centralized, and self-perpetuating. Alternative motives and goals gradually replace the original motives and goals. Church history can be written as a tug of war between the tendency to drift and efforts to return to the church’s essential features.

Hence the church in every age must take care to keep its means aligned with its essence and mission. Many of the essays in the rest of this series will be devoted to examining the way we conduct church life in contemporary America (USA) in view of the church’s essence and mission.

1 thought on “Doing Church—Are There Any Rules? (Rethinking Church #16)

  1. Rich

    Ron at this point I think it should be said, what is the gospel.
    I think at this point in time would give us all the guidelines that we need to further the mission then our Lord was trying to accomplish. I for one just love this question what is the gospel gospel written what are scriptures.
    That were talk so many times about in the New Testament what I interesting is is that God made so many promises in the old Covenant through the prophets one of them being forgiveness of sins.
    Is this not a blessing of Ephesians 1 along with so many others all spiritual blessings are through Christ.
    Now I’m not trying to divert from what you’re saying.
    All so they throughout history the Jews screwed so many things up that is just absolutely mind-boggling that we can’t figure out how to do good. You know what Hebrews it says exercise your mind in the word of righteousness and you will discern to learn to discern good from evil.
    I really don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go into all of this right now but I will later.
    What Arch Church lacks is the true meaning of family what are true church latch is the meaning of relationship what are true church wax is the giving of money if we have it call we have to do is look at Romans 12 through 14 some of us got it some of us don’t as far as money is concerned and administration is concerned.
    Are we just too big now do we really really have a relationship with everyone in our tribe. We have the advantage of being free we have the advantage a coming together The Taking of the Lord’s Supper not the Lord snack enjoying each other’s company but do we oh well that’s just another thing.
    No one of the biggest things that I love about this Society is capitalism.
    If that doesn’t spell exploitation I don’t know what does.
    There’s people in every Church that need a few bucks but we’re so busy paying for the light bill for the loan on the building on the property I just don’t get where we are thinking straight.
    It’s one thing to take advantage I used to run a business and the way that I look at it is that did I want the business to run me or did I want to run the business I didn’t have to make a lot of money but if I did make a lot of money I would have to hire other people to take care of everything for me that didn’t work for me.
    Any case Ron just a thought or two maybe might want us say something about that love you bro I love you bro Rich constant.
    Triste as a PS we have God on our side we have Jesus working our future out for it we have the Holy Spirit so that we can stay in constant communication if we have enough Faith to believe that we do.
    I really don’t get it do we really believe in God do we really believe that he works in the Realms of men today.
    of course to me that’s just kind of pitiful thinking how much do we love money



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