Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: January, 2015

THE HOUSE CHURCH MOVEMENT

Review:
Biblical Church: A Challenge to Unscriptural Traditions
and Practice
Beresford Job
Bethany Publishing, 2007
279 pp., pb.

I had the privilege of meeting Beresford Job at a conference in New York State in 2013 – my copy of the book is autographed by the author! Beresford Job is an elder in a well-established house church in England, and his book is exactly what the subtitle says it is – a challenge to unscriptural traditions and practice. The main argument of the book is that most modern churches have departed from the practice of the apostolic church, and are spiritually impaired as a result. In order for the church to function as it was meant to, it must return to the apostolic example.

The book’s thesis
What we think of today as the traditional church, Beresford says, arose during the post-apostolic era. It concentrates ministry in the hands of a professional clergy, and features formal “worship services” in large public buildings specifically designed for the purpose. The congregants sit passively in pews while a sermon is delivered from a pulpit.
All of this, Beresford argues, is a departure from apostolic practice. The earliest Christians met informally in private homes where everyone contributed to the meeting, and the Lord’s Table was a part of a regular meal. The elders were simply spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation, not paid professionals brought in from the outside.
It is hard to argue with the main contention of the book. The highly institutionalized Christianity we know and accept today is utterly foreign to the New Testament. Yet at points I feel that Beresford is guilty of overstating his case, in some ways giving us a one-sided picture of what 1st Century church life was like, and downplaying passages that seem to run counter to his thesis.

House gatherings only?
For one thing, while it is certainly true that the early Christians met in private homes, and did not own church buildings per se, it is also true that there was a larger, more public aspect to church life as well. Of the church at Jerusalem, for example, it was said that they were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV). The entire church at Jerusalem numbered at least 3,000 souls (v. 41), and it was this larger church that “continued with one accord in the temple.” At the same time there were smaller groups that were “breaking bread from house to house.” On the one hand it was possible to speak of a church as embracing the entire Christian community in a given city – the church at Ephesus or the church at Corinth, for example; and at the same time to speak of the church that is in Priscilla and Aquila’s house (e.g., Rom. 16:3-5).
This may help explain the seeming contradiction between I Cor. 11:5, where Paul allows women to pray and prophesy, albeit with their heads covered, and I Cor. 14:34,35, where he does not permit them to speak at all. What Paul may have had in mind in Chapter 11 were the small house gatherings in the which the Lord’s Table was observed, while in Chapter 14 he may be discussing the larger public meetings when “the whole church comes together in one place” and unbelievers might come in (14:23). In that context not all of the participants may know each other personally, and appearances and gestures take on greater significance. Thus what might be appropriate in a smaller, intimate gathering might not be appropriate in a larger, more public one. Hence the restrictions on what women were permitted to do in Chapter 14. Ironically, Beresford takes Chapter 14 as the blueprint for how small home gatherings are to be conducted.

Prescriptive v. descriptive?
One of the problems with Beresford’s handling of the subject is that he does not distinguish between passages that are prescriptive and ones that are merely descriptive. He concludes for example, that because the early Christians met in private homes that modern churches must do so as well, and that therefore their size must necessarily be kept small, and no one should lead the meeting standing from the front. Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that I Corinthians 14 does indeed describe what went on in a typical house church on Sunday morning in which everyone is sharing, he then tries to argue that there should be no formal teaching time on such occasions. None of this, however, is explicitly required by any text of Scripture.
On the other hand it is certainly true that form follows function, and that what we are told in Scripture by way of precept is that spiritual gifts are distributed throughout the body, and that “the whole body . . . causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16), and to that end we should be “filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18,19). This would almost certainly require some form of small group interaction, and it is an undeniable fact that the way most traditional churches are structured stifles that kind of interaction.

The eldership
Another problem area in Beresford’s book is his handling of the eldership. Beresford is perfectly willing to concede that a biblical church has elders – he recognized as one himself – but he insists that “any idea that elders are in charge, or hold a position of executive authority over the church, is alien to the pages of scripture” (p. 134). “The main default of biblical leadership . . . is that of invisibility as opposed to any kind of profile; and visitors to such a church would have no way of knowing who were and who were not elders” (p. 140). He then goes on to discuss a number of passages that seem to describe elders as ruling and people as submitting to their authority. He carefully analyzes the Greek verbs used and argues that they do not imply any kind of hierarchical authority.
His linguistic analysis is mainly correct. But when the passages he discusses are taken in their context a different picture emerges. The elders “labor among you” and “admonish you” (I Thess. 5:12). They “speak the word of God to you” (Heb. 13:7), and “watch out for your souls” (Heb. 13:17). Therefore we are to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thess. 5:13) and “counted worthy of double honor” (I Tim. 5:17). This hardly amounts to a “default position” of “invisibility”!
The fact of the matter is that one of the key tasks of the church is that of making disciples, and that involves older, more mature Christians taking less mature Christians under their wings, as it were, and instructing them. Therefore Paul could tell Timothy, “the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). While it is true that decision making in the church is by common consensus and church discipline is to be exercised by the entire congregation (Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:4,5), that does not mean that a church is free to do whatever it pleases. Its decision must conform to the will of God (as even the subtitle of Beresford’s book suggests!) and to that end spiritually mature and well-taught brethren who are recognized as elders play a key role.

The Lord’s Table
Another problem area in Beresford’s book is his treatment of the Lord’s Table. He criticizes traditional churches for making the Lord’s Table “merely a ritual with bread and wine” (p. 186). He points out, quite correctly, that the Greek word translated “supper” (deipnon) literally means exactly that – a supper, the main meal of the day (I Cor. 11:20,21), and concludes from this that the Lord’s Table should be observed as a part of full meal. He tells us that in the house church of which he is a member the fellowship meal is served buffet style, and that the broken bread and grape juice are simply laid out on the serving table with the rest of the food. But Beresford misses the main thrust of the passage. Paul’s whole concern in bringing up the subject is to correct certain abuses that had grown up around the meal, and he issues a stern warning against those who partake “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27), “not discerning the Lord’s body” (v. 29). Such a person, he says, “will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). Is it any wonder, then, that churches have this part of the Supper into what Beresford calls “a ritual performed in isolationist solemnity with closed eyes” (pp. 188-189)?
If the bread and the wine are to represent the body and blood of Christ, something must be said verbally to draw the connection between the sign or symbol and the thing signified. This is why it is important, when observing the Lord’s Table, to repeat the words of institution (“This is My body,” etc. . . ). Otherwise we run the risk of trivializing the ceremony.

Despite all of its flaws Beresford’s book is well worth reading. The fact that the book raises the question at all of how a church is supposed to function makes it worthy of our consideration. While Beresford challenges tradition (perhaps a reflection of his background in a country dominated by the Church of England) we have our share of problems over here on our side of the Atlantic as well, where good ole American pragmatism is the rule, and most Christians would never think to consult either Scripture or tradition – we are used to basing our practice on sheer expediency. We need to have our thinking challenged, and Beresford’s book does exactly that. It is a thunderbolt from across the sea.

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BIBLICAL CHURCH LIFE

Most of us think we know what church is like. A group of people get together in a building and sit in pews while they work their way through the program contained in the bulletin. Song are sung, a plate is passed, and the sermon is preached. And when it is all done, they all go home to Sunday dinner. It would come as a surprise, therefore, to discover that such an arrangement would have been virtually unrecognizable to Christians in the First Century. Then there were no church buildings, there were no choirs and organs, and there was no professional clergy. Our modern practice would have struck them as cold and sterile.

In I Corinthians the apostle Paul gives us a fascinating glimpse into the life of the First Century church. It is about as similar to the modern church as butterflies are to orangutans.

The charismatic gifts obviously played a prominent role, and Paul mentions the “word of wisdom,” “the word of knowledge,” faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, “discerning spirits,” tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (vv. 8-10). Yet Paul’s main concern throughout the chapter is not about the spiritual gifts per se; it is about the underlying spiritual unity of the church. He takes it for granted that the gifts existed and were being used at Corinth. His concern was to make sure that they were being used properly.

He tells us that “there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all” (vv. 4-6; NKJV). The Corinthians, it would seem, were a contentious lot. While Paul could say that “you come short in no gift” (1:7), he also had to castigate them for their divisions and party spirit. “. . . for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (3:3).

In Chapter 12 Paul challenges this way of thinking by essentially asking them where these gifts came from, and he tells them that these gifts are “the manifestation of the Spirit” that is “given to each one for the profit of all” (12:7). They came from God himself for a specific purpose, viz., the edification of the entire body. They should not be the occasion of boasting and pride.

Paradoxically, the diversity of gifts actually reveals an underlying unity. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit’ (v. 13). Even though the gifts are quite diverse from each other, they come from the same source – the Holy Spirit. What is even more significant is that believers share a mystical unity with this Spirit – He dwells within each of their hearts as a result of the new birth.   Thus Christians have a deeper tie with each other than exists in any secular, worldly society.

Moreover this deeply spiritual unity obviates any of the social or economic divisions that ordinarily exist in human society. “. . .whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free . . . [they] have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” We make look at ourselves and each other outwardly, and seem quite different from each other, and we have a natural tendency to look down on those whom we perceive occupy a lower station in life from ourselves. But within the community of believers those distinctions are superficial and essentially meaningless. What really matters is what goes on inside, the work of God within the human soul. At the bottom of it Christians are all brothers and sisters of each other – the outward social distinctions simply don’t matter anymore.

Paul explains by comparing the church to a human body. The body is made up of many different parts, but it is still one body, and it functions as a whole. Just because the foot is not the hand does not mean that it is any less a part of the body. And if the whole body were an eye, how would it hear? In the final analysis, all the parts are necessary for the proper functioning of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you.” Moreover, our less attractive parts we adorn with nice clothing so that in the end, everything looks nice.

Paul then makes his point:” . . that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (v. 25). The exercise of spiritual gifts, rather than be the occasion of personal rivalries, rather should be the opportunity for us to serve each in Christian love.

The point of it all is this: if we are genuine Christians we have been “born again” and the Holy Spirit resides within each of our hearts. And it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that gives us an intimate personal connection with Christ and with each other. Thus a church should be much more than just a social club, a group of people joined together by common social, cultural or political interests. It should be a kind of mystical fellowship with each other and with Christ.

That fellowship, that loving concern that we should have for each other should be demonstrated in the personal interaction that we have with each other. And that almost necessitates meeting together in small groups. This is undoubtedly why the early Christians met together in private homes where each member was actively involved in the group.

This does not mean, however, that any old group of people gathered together in a private home is automatically a church. It is the presence of Christ though his Holy Spirit that makes the church the church. Thus when we gather together as Christian believers we should consciously seek his felt presence in our meeting, and he should always be the center of our attention.

Today we are encouraged to see more and more believers gathered together in house churches, as well as some of the more traditional churches turning to home Bible studies and discipleship groups to supplement their regular Sunday morning services. For it is only in a small group setting that we can minister to each other on a personal level, with each of us as a vital member of the larger body. May we find God’s blessing as we seek to worship Him and minister to each other!

THE PASSING OF TIME

    New Year’s Day is a time when we reflect on the passage of time, the end of one year and the beginning of the next. We look back over the past year, often filled with its trials and difficulties, and we look forward to the coming year, resolving somehow to do better. But too often our view of things encompasses just those two years. Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves, what are we accomplishing in life as a whole?

    It is not a new question. In fact, over three thousand years ago Moses asked essentially the same question. In Psalm 90 he gives us a meditation on the meaning of life, and basically asks the question, how does it all add up in the cosmic scheme of things?

    The occasion of the psalm was tragic. Moses had been called by God to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. Yet things had not gone so well after their departure from Egypt. On several occasions the people had sinned and provoked God to anger. Finally, when they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land they lost heart and revolted against Moses. At the bottom of their revolt was a lack of faith in God Himself, a lack of confidence that God would fulfill His promises. In response God decreed that none of the adults alive at that time would enter Canaan – they would wander in the wilderness until all of them had died. The whole story can be found in Numbers chapters 13 and 14.

    Thus Moses had the sad occasion of witnessing the generation of people he had led out of Egypt perishing in the wilderness without ever receiving the promised blessing. And Moses realized that this sad turn of events was all the result of the people’s sin. A more disheartening circumstance is hard to imagine.

    Thus Moses approaches God in prayer and intercedes on behalf of the people. But what could he say? The facts of the case were already perfectly well known to God, and the guilt of the people was undeniable. Moses had to make his appeal on some other basis.

    Moses begins by addressing God this way: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations’ (Ps. 90:1; ESV). Here he draws attention to the kind of relationship that Israel had enjoyed with God in the past. God had always been their “dwelling place” – His abiding presence was their comfort and security, their refuge in the time of distress. It was this relationship that had been disrupted by the recent turn of events.

    Moses then acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He is the eternal God – “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v.2), and the destiny of mankind is in His hands – “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!'” (v. 3). Moses is stuck in particular by the contrast between God’s eternity and man’s mortality – “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past’ (v. 4), and as for man he is like a mere dream, or like the frail grass in the dry Middle Eastern climate – here today and gone tomorrow.

    Then Moses frankly acknowledges that Israel’s (and by extension all of mankind’s) predicament is directly the result of sin: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (v. 8). The result is that “all our days pass away under your wrath” (v. 9). Human life has become fragile and fleeting. We are here perhaps seventy or eighty years, and our time here on earth is often marked by “toil and trouble” (v. 10).

    Having frankly acknowledged the nation’s predicament, Moses then makes his plea for their pardon. He asks God to “Have pity on your servants” (v. 13). He looks forward to a restoration of the nation’s relationship with God, with all the blessings that that entails. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 14). He asks that God’s work in their midst might become evident to all, and that He would “establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 17).

    The point of it all is this: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” (v. 11). God is certainly a God of love, but let it never be forgotten that He is also the Almighty; He is our Creator, and He is absolutely holy – He hates sin and is resolved to deal with it. This does not meant that we ought to spend our days here on earth in perpetual gloom; but God wants us frankly to acknowledge our sin and confess it, so that communion with Him can be restored and that we might be able to “rejoice and be glad all our days.” Life is ultimately about a relationship with God, and that relationship should result in heartfelt peace and joy.

    This new year, let us learn “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Let us make each of the days that remain to us here on earth count for God’s glory and our own eternal happiness!