Characteristics of a New Testament Church
Spread the Word, 2000
24 pp., p.b.
Robert Gessner is affiliated with a fellowship of believers generally known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren,” although they themselves eschew any denominational titles. In Characteristics of a New Testament Church he has given us a brief but thought provoking study on what a New Testament church should look like. It is certainly a subject worthy of consideration by any genuine Bible believing Christian.
Much of what Mr. Gessner has to say is obviously true and many of the issues he raises need to be taken seriously by Christians today. He points out, for example, that in the New Testament there was no distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” that denominationalism is unscriptural, that teaching in the church should be based solidly on Scripture, that prayer is central to the life of the church, and that there should be room for the exercise of spiritual gifts. He is also quite correct in criticizing modern churches for the ways they try to increase membership and raise funds. To all of this we can only say a hearty “amen”!
In some other areas, however, he wades into treacherous waters. He tries to argue, for example, that the Lord’s Supper “ought to be given absolute priority over every other meeting of the church” (p. 2). Yet when we read the general description of a New Testament church in the Book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper, while it is obviously important, is listed as just one of several different activities (Acts 2:42,46).
Mr. Gessner also raises the difficult but important question about the role of women in the church. Here he runs into the apparent contradiction between I Cor. 14, in which women are instructed to remain silent, and I Cor. 11, in which women are described as praying or prophesying, albeit with an appropriate head covering. The apparent solution to the problem is that the early church appears to have functioned on two different levels. According to Acts 2:46, the early Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (NKJV). What this suggests is that there were large public meetings in the temple and small gatherings in private homes. Elsewhere in the New Testament we are told of city churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalanika, and of house churches (e.g., Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). Very likely, then, I Cor. 11 describes small gatherings in private homes where the Lord’s Supper was observed, while I Cor. 15 describes larger public gatherings where unbelievers might be present. Women, then, were allowed to pray and prophesy in the house assemblies, albeit with their heads covered, but were not permitted to speak in the larger public meetings.
Mr. Gessner says that “the word of God is very clear and explicit” that women should remain silent and wear head coverings (p. 16). Yet the assumption on the part of many expositors is that the head covering was a cultural adaptation, and Mr. Gessner does not furnish us with an exegesis of I Cor. 11:3-16. (A strong case can be argued, however, that the passage is in fact enjoining the practice of women wearing head coverings).
Mr. Gessner, of course, is not the first person to consider what the Bible has to say about the church, and theologians from a couple of the denominations that he criticizes (Presbyterians, Baptists) have written extensively on the subject. Yet the fact remains that over time the older denominations drifted away from their biblical moorings and settled into an institutionalized pattern of church life that bore little resemblance to that of the early church. Instead of being close-knit fellowships of Spirit-filled believers, they have become purely human organizations managed by professional clergy. They adopted practices and procedures that had no warrant in Scripture and contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the people. The churches spiritually became lifeless corpses.
Mr. Gessner’s little booklet, then, raises some valid questions, and the Evangelical community at large would do well to take those questions seriously.