“And on the first day of the week, when we gathered together to break bread” Acts 20:7
This is the main meeting of the week, when the believers pour into Bill and Jane’s home, one by one, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and edify one another. Those who can, bring food and drink to eat and to share, which is an important “ingredient” to the Supper. Some of the poor or those temporarily unemployed have little to bring but are gladly accepted into the gathering. As they come through the door, the first thing is to greet one another with a “holy kiss” and reunite as a family.
The most common thing done in homes with families is to eat together, and the church in Bill and Jane’s is no exception. They reclined at the table and ate their meals together “with gladness and sincerity of heart”. There was much joy and spontaneous outbursts of praise and thanksgiving during the meal. Conversation around the meal included stories about work, family life and their walk with the Lord. Sometime during the meal, or after the supper, the bread was broken and eaten and the cup was passed and the wine was drunk. A fresh wave of reverence fell upon the gathering as they remembered the Lord’s death and judged carefully their “body unity” and love and care for one another.
“Since there is one loaf, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf” 1 Cor 10:17
After the supper, the people “assembled” to share their gifts of the Spirit with each other — including the children!— and build up each other. There was no “pre-ordained order of service” because no one knew what the Spirit will bring. The simplest way, and perhaps the fastest, was to start with singing, but not the kind that says, “Turn to page 33 in your song book, please”.
“With all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” Col 3:16
The Holy Spirit brought “fresh, perhaps spontaneous” (Barrett’s Commentary on 1 Cor.) songs to different ones as they were filled with the Spirit and overflowed with inspired singing. The songs themselves were not only pleasant melodies but were teachings and sometimes even warnings! This was followed by more gifts of the Holy Spirit as He moved and inspired each one.
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” 1 Cor 14:26
Quite possibly one of the leaders/elders would offer a teaching, which usually was in the form of a dialogue. Paul wrote to Timothy that the elders who work hard at “preaching and teaching should be considered worthy of double honour” (1 Tim 5). Of course, anyone in the gathering could bring the teaching at anytime! As the Holy Spirit led, somebody in the assembly may have “jumped to their feet” with a revelation and the one who was speaking would take a “back seat” to the fresh revelation that was unfolding.
This in turn may have led to a time for prophets to speak, followed by a time of “weighing” by the believers — taking out the bones and leaving the meat! At this point the gift of discernment (distinguishing of spirits) is vital. From here, the sky is the limit for the direction the Holy Spirit may lead. He might guide the elders to anoint and pray for the sick. He might direct others to initiate more songs, hymns and spiritual songs sung to each other. For those still suffering in the gathering, they would break into groups and pray for each other, confessing their sins as well. For those cheerful, they should start praising again! (James 5).
“For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands him, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.” 1 Cor. 14:2
More than likely the Holy Spirit would inspire two or three to give, orderly and decently, a tongue, followed by an interpretation. Tongues were sometimes consider “too showy” in the NT and different ones were suspicious and wanted to forbid them, but Paul made very clear that this was not acceptable! Tongues followed by an interpretation was another of the many means the Holy Spirit used to encourage and build up the saints. Here I agree with Gordon Fee:
“All that interpretation does is to make the ‘tongue’ become intelligible speech. Because it was intelligible does not mean that it was now directed toward men. It may simply mean that the content of the ‘mysteries’ or prayer or praise is now made known.” (Corinthians – a study guide).
Imagine mysteries being spoken to God in a tongue being interpreted into your mother tongue for everyone’s encouragement and edification! This is church at its best!
When the believers gathered together in Bill and Jane’s house their constant question was “How can I build up the others?” They didn’t go to receive but to give! There was no attitude that said: “I have had a hard week and now is my time to receive!” Here the “Golden Rule” of Jesus came very much onto play: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” In God’s economy, the more we serve one another with what we have, the more we are blessed in return by the body, “being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part.” (Eph 4:16)
While the gathering wound to a close, appointments were made to meet again between the main gathering. Financial needs were addressed and wealth and possessions (and even property!) were shared by all, “as anyone had need”. Finally, one by one, just as they came, the believers would pack up the children and head off to their homes, refreshed and encouraged by the coming together again of the Bride of Christ and the proper working of each individual. Some would stay and linger, while others would stay and help with the cleanup. Please note that no one received a salary in the church at Bill and Jane’s house, though honour was given where honour was due, which sometimes included free-will offerings.
As needed, the church in Bill and Jane’s house would get together with other house churches in the network for city-wide gatherings: such as making decisions the whole church needs to be in on (Acts 6/15); the visit of missionaries and apostles sent out from the house churches (Acts 14); and church discipline issues (Mtt. 18/1 Cor. 5). Once again no one received a salary in the network, except if the need arose for a full-time/part-time HC network co-ordinator, who informs the different house churches in the network of “when and how” and secures the facilities needed. Teaching elders who moved between the house churches were also certainly financially supported as needed. (1 Tim 5)
It is a true picture of nature that “that which is alive is growing and budding new shoots!” The first church on earth was said to have “filled Jerusalem with this teaching”. May the Lord Jesus grant us His grace that we may fill our cities as well with the glory of the Lord.
The design axiom Form Follows Function is helpful if you are building a new McDonald’s or a new tennis shoe. If we ask ourselves the question: What is the function of this building? Fast food with room for kids to play or a romantic, intimate setting for couples. The form will follow the function.
In the body of Christ we can ask the same question: “What is the function of ‘church’ so we can build the correct form?”. I believe we can reduce a NT- style church gathering down to its two most essential functions: Edification and Participation.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul lays down the most detailed account of a 1st Century gathering of believers that there is in the NT. In chapters 11-14 we can find nuggets of truth that will serve us well in the 21st century as we try to “re-dig” our way back to the original plan. Or as Paul liked to say: “my ways”.
”For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of ‘my ways’ which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.” 1 Cor 4:17
Unveiling a NT home meeting: 1 Corinthians 11-14
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their “coming together as a church“, he starts out not by praising them but by admonishing them: saying that they were meeting together “not for the better but for the worse.” He then quickly brings up the factions that existed and raised their ugly heads as the believers gathered around the table for a meal. Some – probably the wealthy – were eating and drinking without concern for the those” who have nothing”.
Next the apostle tackles the subject of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and how they were to be used in a gathering of believers. Here he stresses the variety of gifts and manifestations to be used by EACH ONE for the common good of all.
Paul wanted participation by all for the edification of all.
The “Love Chapter” follows the corrections and instructions on eating the Lord’s Supper and using spiritual gifts to edify one another. Paul stresses that without love our manifestations of spiritual gifts are clanging cymbals and noisy gongs and that we are really good for nothing! OUCH!
Paul knew, like Watchmen Nee, that sometimes spiritual gifts need to take a back seat to love. “People may be helped by my spiritual gift but hurt by my lack of love.” (Nee)
Finally in Ch. 14 we come to what the gathering looks like and feels like:
“Since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. (1 Cor 14:12). Paul now stresses that we are to use our spiritual gifts for the edification of the church (vs. 3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26).
His landmark verse of this section contains it once again:
“What then is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Cor 14:26)
Edification without Participation.
Here is where we struggle in today’s world.
In the traditional church (which we all have known since we were children) typically a select (paid/professional) team of 2-3 will use their spiritual gifts of teaching, prophesying, words of knowledge, worship leading, etc. to edify the larger group. (I don’t want to get too involved here on this point but please do recognize that if we pay someone to edify us how can we then ever have mutual edification.) Many gifted leaders have operated like this their whole adult lives and truly bring a great edification to the sheep. The difficulty is that there is little to no participation of the flock!
Conversely, what we often see in simple church structures springing up all over the world is: Participation without Edification.
In theses simple/house churches – which are breaking away from centuries of the traditional mind set – we can error on the other extreme and have meetings that resemble “glorified AA meetings”: where each one is able to share and release his or her burdens to the group. The topics can range from home schooling difficulties to “How I spent my summer vacation…“ etc. Obviously we need time for fellowship and to share our weekly “comings and goings” but don’t mistake that for a gathering where we use our spiritual gifts to edify one another.
Hebrews tells us to ”Encourage one another day after day… lest anyone of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:13) Here in lies a powerful truth of the simple church movement: to be so interconnected with each other day in and day out that when we gather for the 1 Cor. 14 meetings we have already carried each others burdens through the week so we can concentrate on participation and edification so necessary for a NT church experience.
What Jesus Christ will return to is a body of believers that emphasize maximum edification and maximum participation!
For most of us this will involve a “paradigm shift” where the old standard way of “doing business” is brought into question and “acceptable levels of error” are no longer tolerated.
Thomas Kuhn, who first introduced the word in 1962, claimed that paradigm shifts occur over time when one theory breaks down and is replaced by another. Paradigm shifts don’t occur in a vacuum, however, but have predictable steps:
1. Awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory.
2. Crisis During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried.
3. Intellectual Battle Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual “battle” takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm.
4. Time Sometimes the convincing force is just time itself and the human toll it takes.
(Above notes taken from Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution 1962)
The time is now! The choice is yours!
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
Jesus shared this same burden and passion with His Father. When John the Baptist prophesied about Jesus, he proclaimed that “His winnowing fork is in His hand and He will gather His wheat into the barn” (Matthew 3:12). Probably the most well-known verse in the New Testament in this regard is Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem how often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”(Mtt. 23:37; Luke 13:34).
Much of the spirit of both the Old and New Testament is the same: the gathering of God’s people into one fl ock, with one shepherd (Ezekiel 34, John 10).
See what Jesus said about those who do not gather with Him: “He who is not with Me is against Me; and He who does not gather with Me, scatters” (Matthew 12:30)! Jesus says that if, in our labors for Him, we are not gathering people, we are scattering them! As Eugene Peterson picks up on in The Message: “This is war, and there is no neutral ground – If you’re not helping, you’re making things worse!” (Luke 11:23)
As missionaries for the last 20 years, Maria and I have had to take this word from Jesus very seriously. We have been convicted by the Holy Spirit many times throughout the years for “making things worse” by not putting enough emphasis on gathering what was reaped. We, along with many other people with good intentions, stressed sowing and reaping… but at the high cost of keeping!
Often the problem is not our hearts, but our wineskins. Many people around the world who focus on evangelism at the expense of gathering people into churches do so by default, not by design. Many people do not feel comfortable (or confident) trying to reproduce “church as they know it.”
“Unknowingly, the missionary quite often goes carrying with him preconceived ideas about what a church looks like,” Dr. Ralph Winter explains (Missions Frontiers, Sept. 2003). “It is not necessary to impose an Americanstyle church. True, the great twentiethcentury missiologist McGavran taught missionaries that evangelism is not good enough. People won to Jesus Christ need accountable fellowship as well. Thus church planting becomes the almost universal rallying cry, largely in place of mere evangelism. However, what if our American idea of a church‚ is itself extra-biblical?… The so-called churches of the New Testament were worshipping households like that of Cornelius, Lydia, or Crispus. They were what are nowadays called house churches.”
The “house church model” unlocks church planting, empowering the most simple-minded of us to reproduce churches! Just like the original fishermen and tax-collectors: “and [they] understood that they were uneducated and untrained men” (Acts 4:13).
The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church
Many times the issue is the so called “follow-up” we leave to locals once our team has “blitzed” an area. I have searched long and hard for this in the NT and can only see something similar in Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Well, if you are “snatched away” from the area by the Holy Spirit, fi ne. Otherwise, I think the biblical mandate is to stay until believers have been gathered together (see Acts)!
Roland Allen, a missionary to China from another century, makes the point so simple I don’t see how we keep missing it, but we do:
“I believe that we ought to return to the apostolic practice and found [start] churches in every place where we make converts, churches equipped with all the divine grace and authority of Christian churches.” (The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, 1927).
These are great and mighty days to be about the Father’s business! Let’s begin now to start “thinking flocks instead of sheep” and follow the biblical principle of sowing, reaping and keeping!
“Is our primary aim as missionaries to win individuals for Christ or to establish indigenous churches?”
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*The World Dominion Quarterly was the publishing arm of Roland Allen’s ministry. The object of the Quarterly was to think in world terms and to review the distribution of forces and resources of the Christian church in the light of world need. It pleaded for co-ordination and co-operation and a World Plan.