One of the best descriptions we can find of an early church gathering is found in Acts 20:7,11: And on the first day of the week, when we gathered to break bread, Paul began talking to them… when he had gone back up, and had broken bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while.
Unfortunately, this brief description of the early church is often overlooked. In some way this situation reminds me of the initial days of the Internet, when people used to say: “You can find that book at http://www. amazon. com”. Later they would shorten that and say: “www.amazon.com”. Now, of course, it is just: “amazon.com” (sometimes just: “ebay”, “google”, etc.). We intuitively know what the speaker is saying, having followed the progressions ourselves!
Herein is precisely our problem when we try to put together “snapshots” of the New Testament church and how they met and functioned from the NT. We were not there to live through the NT expansion of church life! When we read of it in the Scriptures, the apostolic authors cut short their communication when referring to the churches they have planted and watered. They are not trying to paint a picture of the way churches should meet, for how long, or their size, etc. but correct things that have gone awry or simply recount church history. This leads to us – nearly 2000 years later- paying little attention to vital church life clues! I often wonder if, over the centuries, we have “strained out the gnat, and swallowed the camel” in this regard…
In this snapshot from Acts 20, though, I find three key ingredients that have great significance for today.
1. They gathered together on the first day of the week…
As we know from history the Jewish day was from 6 pm to 6pm. The early church gathered together in the evening of the “first day” of the week, evidently a carry-over from the weekly rhythm/flow of the Old Testament Sabbath. St. John wrote that he was “caught up in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), which most scholars today equate with the first day of the week.
I think we can assume then that the apostolic pattern then was to start churches that kept to a weekly flow of gathering together once a week. They also met in different ways throughout the week to have fellowship and pray but once a week they all met together. I think we have followed this practice quite well even to the present day!
2. They gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread…
Here you may be very surprised where we haven’t gotten the apostolic practice down quite so well. For Luke, writing in apostolic “dot.com shorthand”, just records that the church in Troas waited a whole week to gather together again and the reason they met was to break bread. Period!… not to worship, pray, give, fellowship, or to listen to a sermon!! How can this be? “They meet to eat!??!” Incredible!
“ They did not think that religion was meant only for Sundays, and for what men now-a-days call the ‘House of God’. Their own houses were houses of God, and their own meals were so mixed and mingled with the Lord’s Supper that to this day the most cautious student of the Bible cannot tell when they stopped eating their common meals, and when they began eating the Supper of the Lord.” (C. H. Spurgeon, 1874)
What was unmistakably a big part of the early church lifestyle has become a mere “token practice” in our day, completely devoid of the very setting that would make it meaningful!
“To simply explain ‘the breaking of bread’ as ‘the Holy Communion’ is to pervert the plain meaning of words, and to mar the picture of family life, which the text places before us as the ideal of the early believers”. (Page)
3. They gathered together in homes and talked with each other…
Although Paul was to leave the next day for a very long time and spoke into the wee hours (so long that he put the young man Eutychus fast asleep), this should not be considered the norm for a first century home gathering. What is more, the words “talked to them” (which the KJV regrettably translated “preached unto them”) is dialegomai in the Greek, from which we get our English word dialogue. A synonym for dialogue is an exchange of ideas! The great apostle Paul talked, but then they asked questions, Paul talked some more, others talked, they all sang and prayed, they ate food and broke bread. This same Greek word is used of the disciples who “discussed with one another” other about who would be the greatest (Mk 9). Clearly they weren’t “preaching unto” each other!
Without a doubt, we know that God gave teachers to the Body (Eph 4:11) and that the elders were called to teach (I Tim 3), but we also must practice the art of “When you assemble, each one has a hymn, a teaching…” (1 Cor 14:26)
So, where does this leave us now?
If we want to be Biblically-oriented, orthodox believers we need to look afresh at every description of NT church gatherings and try our best to reproduce it today! This obviously doesn’t mean we need to speak Greek or wear robes and sandals, BUT we must do that which reproduces church more like a family gathering than an institutional one. As one house church planter has observed:
“Size is the real issue. The church should [have]… more participation, closer interaction, more accountability, more commitment and closer relationships.” (Dick Scoggins, fcpt.org)
Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,