Saturday, December 13, 2003

Below is an introduction and 1st chaper to Frank Viola's "Rethinking the Wineskin"
As I continue to seek the Lord in God's reestablishment of the church in North America
I can't help but to think..."I can't go back to doing church the way we have been
doing it." It's been a tough 8 months venturing to "do church" in the New Testament
way, I still don't totally have a grasp on it beause I'm still reprogramming my
religious mindset. In the institutionalized church's terms I guess I totally failed
in planting a church, but I am beginning to question whether I've failed or
am getting closer to have just begun? Father I only want to be that which you have
called Your glorious bride to be. Let it be so, I'm not giving up!

read on.....


Frank Viola's Rethinking the Wineskin is part of a long, distinguished line of expositions portraying the way of life that characterized the New Testament church and its effect on us today. Voices like Frank's express the distinctiveness of the New Testament church--the church is a body, a family, and a bride. In effect, the New Testament church is relational.

That the New Testament church is relational is itself uncontroversial. Yet for many people, books like Frank's come as a shock. The churches most of us inhabit have little or nothing in common with the way of life that marked the New Testament church. Far from being a body or a family, the church for most of us is an organization or an institution. The contrast between the institutional shape of the contemporary church and the relational shape of the New Testament church could hardly be more striking.

The institutional church often knows, at least vaguely, that the New Testament church was a very different kind of beast, yet it goes on its way, in blithe disregard of the way the early believers were church. It may even claim that the Bible is its sole authority in "faith and practice" and still virtually ignore its practical authority with respect to the practice of the church. Maybe that's by choice. But most often the ignorance is due to momentum, for institutional churches are a lot like trains. They are going in a certain direction, and they will continue in that direction for a good long time even if all hands try to make them stop.

As with trains, the options for turning the direction of institutional churches are limited at best. If a switch or siding is available, the train could turn; otherwise, it just follows its tracks. Therefore, everyone aboard had best hope that he is on the right train headed in the right direction.

Relational churches, like those in the New Testament, are different. They are not trains, but groups of people out for a walk. These groups move much more slowly than trains--only several miles per hour at the fastest, but they can turn at a moment's notice. More importantly, they can be genuinely attentive to their world, to their Lord, and to each other.

Like trains, institutional churches are easy to find. The smoke and noise are unmistakable. Relational churches are a bit more subtle. Because they don't announce their presence with flashing lights at every intersection, some believe that churches like those in the New Testament died out long ago. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Relational churches are everywhere. I personally have been meeting with one for more than twenty years. Still, groups like ours are quietly walking together, not bothering to call undue attention to ourselves, because we are simply pilgrims together.

Yet once you learn how to spot a relational church, you will soon discover groups of people everywhere meeting just like the New Testament church--as bodies, families, and brides rather than as institutions. I personally know of scores of them; those groups collectively know of hundreds or thousands more. They are simply groups of people walking with God. The trains pass them by all the time. Sometimes the people on board wave; sometimes they can't because the train is moving so fast that people going several miles per hour just look like a blur.

But all this is within Frank's book. His approach is his own--didactic and spiritual at the same time. This allows him to unfold the New Testament church and its effect on us in a distinctive fashion. And by avoiding conventional publishing mechanisms, he has been able to make it available free of charge.

If you are in one of the groups of people now walking around as a relational church, Rethinking the Wineskin will give you a new appreciation of your roots in the New Testament assembly. If you are on one of the trains whizzing by, it may be a bit surprising to find out that some of those blurred patches of color outside your window are groups of people walking with God. That thing you just passed was another relational church.

Hal Miller
Salem, Massachusetts



In the following pages I have sought to revisit the provocative question of how we do church in the 20th century. My intention in doing so is two-fold: 1) to introduce the Biblical teaching regarding New Testament church life to those who are unfamiliar with it, and 2) to cultivate a deeper understanding of how the practice of the church relates to God's ultimate intention in Christ.

Throughout this book, I will be referring to those churches that most people are familiar with as "institutional churches." I could have just as easily called them "establishment churches," "basilica churches," "traditional churches," "organized churches," "clergy-dominated churches," "contemporary churches," "program-based churches," and so on. Despite the fact that this phrase is an inadequate linguistic tool, it seems to best capture the essence of most modern assemblies today.

Before a sociologist objects to my use of the word "institutional," I readily admit that all churches, even the ones I endorse as "New Testament churches," assume some institutions. Sociologically speaking, an institution is any patterned human activity or organization designed to accomplish a given end. (Thus, observing the Lord's Supper every week would technically qualify as an institution.) However, in this book I am using the phrase "institutional church" in a much narrower sense. Namely, I am referring to those churches that operate primarily as institutions that exist above, beyond, and independent of their individual members; are organizationally centered on professional pastors and staff; are constructed through programs more than relationships; and are unified on the basis of special doctrines or practices.

By contrast, in this book I wish to promote a vision of the church that is organic in its construction, relational in its functioning, Scriptural in its form, Christ-centered in its operation, and Body-oriented in its unification. Stated simply, the purpose of this book is to discover anew and afresh what it means to be the church from the Divine standpoint.

For those who have never read anything which challenged their notion of "church," this book may explode like a bombshell. To those who are not yet ready to make an honest and rigorous appraisal of the contemporary church, this explosion will prove potentially offensive. Yet for those who are daring enough to bring every practice under the scrutiny of Biblical revelation, to step out of the safe limits of traditional religion, and to spurn compromise, the explosive truths presented in this book may well liberate them into a new dimension of spiritual reality.

Given the plethora of books written on the New Testament church which already crowd the shelves of seminary libraries and used-book stores, some may wonder why I see the need to add another one to the lot. Quite simply, I believe the value of this book lies chiefly in its approach. That is, it seeks to combine both the heavenly and the spiritual nature of God's purpose in Christ with the practical and earthly dimensions of church life. While a few books have sought to discuss the former in the light of the latter (many of which have sadly gone out of print), this book seeks to present the latter through the lens of the former. In other words, it seeks to thoroughly explore the practice of the New Testament church within the context of the eternal purpose of God. It also attempts to preserve a healthy balance between the theological aspect of the church and its practical dimensions. Stated simply, this book is a modest attempt to present old truths from fresh angles.

While I am in no sense an expert in ecclesiology (the theological study of the church), what I have written has come out of my own Biblical search as well as my experience in meeting with many churches around the country that gather in the manner that this book describes. Thus, the major concepts in the book have not remained in the realm of theory. They have been birthed by spiritual vision and walked out in Christian shoe leather. What I offer in these pages, therefore, is not the polished work of a professional scholar, but the roughly-hewn labor of an ordinary believer who has both rethought and re-practiced the church for years. In addition, because this is not a scholarly treatise, I have chosen to cite my sources informally (albeit, the major publications I have quoted from are listed in an extensive bibliography at the end of the book).

Finally, I am indebted to a countless number of precious brethren and trusted friends who have had a positive influence on this work, the chief ones being Hal Miller, Russell Lipton, Stephen Kaung, Robert Banks, Christian Smith, Jon Zens, George Moreshead, Russ O'Connor, Howard Snyder, Dan Mayhew, Robert Long, Chris Kirk, and David Hebden of the present, as well as T. Austin-Sparks, Watchman Nee, and G.H. Lang of the past. Special thanks go to my wife, Susan, along with, Dan Barth, JoAnne Gordon, Paul Hodges, Carey Kinsolving, Mark Mattison, Peggy Osborn, James Rutz, Maranatha Spicer, and Frank Valdez for their technical comments on the manuscript.

I offer this book as part of the ongoing work of the Master Builder, the Lord Jesus Christ, who even now continues to build His church with the living stones of the redeemed.

Frank A. Viola
Brandon, Florida
January 1997




No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16-17, NIV)

The theme of "church renewal" sits lavishly upon the tongues of countless Christians today. You can't go very far in the Christian world without hearing an exhortation on the necessity for greater unity in the Body of Christ, the importance of the priesthood of all believers, the urgent need for destroying all man-made barriers, the increasing demand for fuller spiritual power, and the radical call to world-wide evangelism. While none of these themes is new or original, they are now capturing the attention of many modern Christians.

These modern currents of spiritual renewal are not exclusively flowing from any one stream of the Body of Christ. Rather, they are being heralded across denominational and traditional lines. In effect, these Biblical accents of church renewal reflect the genuine stirring of God's Spirit through His people. They are channels of the wine, even the new wine, which represents the life and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the world today.

Yet the testimony of the Spirit is also registering something else--something which touches a deeper note. Through a quieter, yet no less fervent voice, God is challenging His beloved Bride to freshly examine the very context in which she assumes spiritual renewal to take place. Thus, surfacing on the religious horizon, there can be detected a largely hidden, yet growing stream of ordinary Christians whom God is using to summon His church back to the simplicity and vitality of New Testament practices.

The present burden of the Spirit, therefore, is fastened upon securing a people who will shed their man-made, encrusted traditions concerning church polity, church practice, and church organization, and who will hand the church back over to the complete mastery of the Lord Jesus Christ. To put it another way, the Spirit of God is not only speaking about the wine; He is also speaking about the wineskin.

To be sure, the present stream which stresses spiritual renewal and apostolic power is indeed genuine and preserves a Biblical insight. Yet this other river of life, whose distinct chord is the recovery of apostolic practice and life, is cutting deeper channels toward the eternal purpose of God. Although the latter is less extensive and obtrusive than the former, it nevertheless reflects the deepest yearnings of the blessed Savior for His Bride. There can be no full recovery of apostolic power if there is not first a recovery of apostolic practice and life.

Church history is rife with examples demonstrating how virtually every past renewal has been hampered because the new wine has been routinely repackaged into old wineskins. By the old wineskin, I mean those traditional church structures that are patterned after the old Judaic religious system--a system which separated God's people into two separate classes, required the presence of human mediators, erected sacred buildings, and laid stress on outward forms. The facets of the old wineskin are many: the clergy/laity distinction, the spectator-performer styled church meeting, the single-pastor system, the program-driven worship service, the passive priesthood, the edifice complex, etc. All of these facets represent Old Covenant forms in New Testament garb.

Accordingly, the present cry of the Spirit for genuine renewal will never become a reality to those who ignore His concurrent voice regarding the call for a new wineskin--one that represents the fresh wineskin that was fashioned and formed by those who had been directly entrusted by the Lord Jesus with the new wine of His Spirit.

While not a few have presumed that God has largely left the wineskin of church practice to the pragmatic whims of well-intentioned men, the Lord has not left us to ourselves concerning the practice of His church. We so often forget that the church belongs to Christ and not to us! As in the Old Testament type, no peg of the tabernacle was left to the imagination of man. Rather, the house was to be built "according to the pattern" given from above.

This is not to suggest that the New Testament supplies us with an ironclad, meticulous blueprint for church practice. In fact, it is a gross mistake to try and tease out of the apostolic letters an inflexible written code of rules for church order that is as unalterable as the law of the Medes and Persians (such a written code belongs to the other side of the cross). On the other hand, the New Testament does provide us with a number of clearly defined principles and practices that are to govern God's spiritual house. And it is these principles and practices that comprise the "Divine pattern" for the ekklesia (church).

Herein lies the aim of this book: it is an attempt to furnish us with a portrait of the wineskin that God has ordained to contain His new wine. Each chapter paints a picture of the local assembly as it is depicted on the canvas of the New Testament. And undergirding each brush stroke is a solemn plea for the sovereign rights of the Holy Spirit in His church today.

May we not be so foolish as to presume that if we retain the old wineskins of our liking that we will be able to preserve the new wine of God's Spirit. As our Lord declared, when men put new wine into old wineskins, "the skins will burst and the wine will run out." May the Lord radically deal with our hearts so that we may humbly receive the new wine that He is seeking to pour out as well as adjust them to the shape of the wineskin that He has prepared. This, in fact, is the only way that we may secure the full Headship of Christ in His church. By contrast, our refusal to part with our old wineskins will continue to limit His sovereign hand and grieve His tender heart.

The Lord help us to seriously rethink the wineskin.




The great Bible expositor Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, "We are living in an age hopelessly below the New Testament pattern--content with a neat little religion." With this thought in view, I would like to begin our discussion on the practice of the New Testament church by examining why the early church gathered together. What was the purpose of the New Testament church meeting?

Note that when I use the term "church meeting," I am using it in a very narrow sense. The Bible portrays a number of different types of meetings in which the early Christians gathered together (prayer meetings, evangelistic meetings, ministry meetings, apostolic meetings, church councils, etc.). By "church meeting," I am referring to the special meeting of the local assembly that is described in 1 Corinthians 11-14. According to the Biblical record (as well as to church history), this meeting seems to have occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

Before we explore the purpose of the New Testament church meeting, let us first examine why most Christians gather together for "church" today. There are basically four reasons: 1) for corporate worship, 2) for evangelism, 3) to hear a sermon, or 4) for fellowship. As strange as it may seem, the New Testament never envisions any of these reasons as being the central purpose of the church meeting.

The Place of Worship, Evangelism,

Sermonizing, and Fellowship

According to the New Testament, worship is something we live. It is the setting forth of the thankfulness, affection, devotion, humility, and sacrificial obedience that God deserves at every moment (Matt. 2:11; Rom. 12:1; Phil. 3:3). Therefore, when we come together as God's people, we should come in a spirit of worship. The temple of Old Testament Israel is the key figure for this aspect of the church meeting. The outstanding feature of the temple was worship. In the minds of many modern Christians, however, worship is restricted to singing choruses, hymns, and praise songs. While worshiping God through song was a very important facet of the early church meeting (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), the Bible never presents it as its chief aim.

In the same way, the Bible never equates the purpose of the church meeting with evangelism. Rather, the New Testament demonstrates clearly that evangelism was commonly engaged in outside of the meetings of the church. Gospel preaching was commonly conducted in those places where unbelievers frequented, e.g. in the synagogues (of the Jews) and in the market places. Contrarily, the New Testament church gathering was primarily a believer's meeting. The context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 makes this quite plain. While the unregenerate were sometimes present, they were not the focus of this gathering. (In 1 Cor. 14:23-25, Paul fleetingly mentions the presence of unbelievers in the meeting, framing his comment in hypothetical language.)

Furthermore, the popular notion that the weekly church meeting was for the sake of hearing a sermon is without Biblical warrant. While the ministry of the Word was certainly present in the early church gathering (1 Cor. 14 speaks of those bringing doctrines, revelations, and prophecies), hearing "a sermon" was never its chief feature. In this regard, the New Testament church meeting was markedly different from the typical Protestant church service wherein the pulpit is the central feature, where everything leads up to and is structured around the sermon, and where the congregation evaluates the meeting by the quality of the message. The notion of a sermon-oriented, pulpit-pew styled church meeting cannot be sustained by the New Testament.

Indeed, the apostles ministered the Word of God at length in certain settings. But such settings were not "church meetings." They were "ministry meetings" designed for evangelistic purposes or for the strengthening of the believers. These meetings would be akin to the special seminars, workshops, and conferences of our day. Such "ministry meetings" should not be confused with "church meetings." In the former, one or two believers share with an interactive audience to equip it for works of service; in the latter, every member freely exercises his gift with no one taking center stage. So while the ministry of the Word was one aspect of the church gathering, it was not its central purpose. Furthermore, the teaching in the church meeting was not delivered by the same person week after week as is the custom in today's institutional church.

Fellowship was not the main purpose of the New Testament gathering either. While fellowship is a demand of Body life, it is never said to be the primary purpose of the church meeting. Fellowship is simply one of the many organic outgrowths that emerge when God's people begin to joyfully enthrone the Lord Jesus and allow His Spirit to direct their gatherings (Acts 2:42). Yet as necessary as fellowship is to the life of the church, it should not be equated with the purpose of the church meeting.

Mutual Exhortation and Edification

If the purpose of the church meeting, as described in the New Testament, was not for corporate worship, evangelism, sermonizing, or fellowship, what then was it for? According to Scripture, the governing purpose of the church meeting was mutual edification and exhortation. 1 Corinthians 14:26 puts it plainly:

How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, EVERY ONE OF YOU hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. LET ALL THINGS BE DONE UNTO EDIFYING.

Hebrews 10:24-25 puts it even plainer:

And let us consider ONE ANOTHER to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but EXHORTING ONE ANOTHER and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (see also Rom. 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:11; and Heb. 3:13-14).

The meeting of the church envisioned in Scripture was designed to allow every member of the assembly to participate in the building up of the Body as a whole (Eph. 4:16). Mutuality was the hallmark of the New Testament church meeting--"every one of you" was its most outstanding characteristic. While praise and worship songs were sung, they were not confined to the leadership of a special group of "professional" musicians. Rather, the meeting was open to allow for "every one" to minister through singing. In the words of Paul, "every one of you hath a psalm" in the local gathering. Even the songs themselves were marked by an element of mutuality, for Paul exhorts the brethren to be "speaking to yourselves, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). In such an open context, it is reasonable to assume that the early Christians regularly composed their own songs and shared them with the rest of the saints during the meeting.

Each believer who possessed a word from God was given the liberty to supply it through his or her own particular spiritual gift. Hence, a typical New Testament church meeting may have looked like this: a child shares God's word through a drama presentation and a song; a young woman gives her testimony; a young brother shares an exhortation followed by a group discussion; an older brother expounds a portion of Scripture and follows it up with a prayer; an older sister tells a story out of her own spiritual experience; several teenagers discuss their week at school and request prayer; and the whole group experiences table fellowship during a shared meal.

As Paul pulls back the curtain of the New Testament gathering in 1 Corinthians 14, we see a meeting wherein every member is actively involved. Freshness, openness, and spontaneity are the chief marks of this meeting, and mutual edification is its primary goal.

Christ, the Director of the New Testament Gathering

The Biblical injunctions regarding the meeting of the early church outlined in Scripture solidly rest upon the Headship of Christ, which is the focal point of God's eternal purpose (Eph. 1:9-22; Col. 1:16-18). That is to say, Christ was fully preeminent in the New Testament church meeting. He was its center and its circumference. He set the agenda and directed the events. Although His leading was invisible to the naked eye, Christ was clearly the Guiding Agent.

In this connection, the Lord Jesus was free to speak through whomever He chose and in whatever capacity He saw fit. The common practice of a few professional ministers assuming all of the activity of the assembly, while the rest of the saints remain passive, was utterly foreign to the early church. The New Testament meeting was based upon the "round-table" principle, wherein every member is encouraged to function, rather than upon the "pulpit-pew" principle, where the members are divided into the active few and the passive many.

In the New Testament gathering, neither the sermon nor "the preacher" was the center. Instead, congregational participation was the Divine rule. The meeting was non-liturgical, non-ritualistic, and non-sacral. It possessed no sense of sacrosanctity or perfunctoriness. Instead, it reflected a flexible spontaneity wherein the Spirit of God was in utter control, being free to move through any member of the Body as He willed in an orderly fashion. In fact, the early church gathering was so governed by the Holy Spirit that if a person received an insight while another was sharing the Word, he was free to interject his thought. Strikingly, the person speaking would stop and give heed to what was being said by the other (1 Cor. 14:29-30). Moreover, profitable questions and healthy discussions were a common part of the gathering (1 Cor. 14:27-40).

Such a meeting is almost unthinkable in the context of most contemporary churches today. Most Christians fear trusting the leadership of the Spirit to direct and shape their church services. The fact that they cannot envision a corporate gathering without placing themselves under the direct guidance of a human moderator reveals that they are strangers to God's ways. Much of the reason for this has to do with their own unfamiliarity with the Spirit's working in their personal affairs. Simply put, if we don't know the Spirit's control in our own life, how can we know it when we gather together? The truth is that many of us--like Israel of old--still clamor for a king to rule over us and a visible mediator to tell us what God has said (Exod. 20:19; 1 Sam. 8:19).

Undoubtedly, the presence of a human moderator in the church meeting is a cherished tradition to which many Christians are fiercely committed. The problem is, it does not square with Scripture. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find grounds for a meeting that is dominated, directed, and officiated by one person. Neither do we find a gathering that is rooted in a pulpit centrality that is focused upon one man. Probably the most startling characteristic of the New Testament church meeting was the absence of human officiation. Christ led the meetings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. Again, the principle that governed the early church meeting was that of "one-anothering;" mutuality was its peculiar feature. It is no wonder that the phrase one another is used nearly sixty times in the New Testament! Watchman Nee observes,

In the church meetings, 'each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation' (1 Cor. 14:26). Here it is not a case of one leading and all others following, but each one contributing his share of spiritual helpfulness...Nothing is determined by man, and each takes part as the Spirit leads. It is not an 'all man' ministry, but a Holy Ghost ministry...An opportunity is given to each member of the church to help others, and an opportunity is given to each one to be helped. One brother may speak at one stage of the gathering and another later on; you may be chosen of the Spirit to help the brethren this time, and I next time...Each individual must bear his share of responsibility and pass on to the others what he himself has received of the Lord. The conduct of the meetings should be the burden of no one individual, but all the members should bear the burden together, and they should seek to help one another depending upon the teaching and leading of the Spirit, and depending upon His empowering too...A church meeting has the stamp of 'one another' upon it (The Normal Christian Church Life).

Today's popular one-man orientation, which rivals the functional Headship of Christ, was completely unknown in the early assembly. Instead, all of the brethren came to the meeting feeling that they had the privilege and the responsibility to contribute something. The early church gathering was marked by an open freedom and informality that was the requisite atmosphere for Christ to function freely through each member of His Body.

In essence, going to church in the first century meant giving more than receiving. That is, you did not attend the church meeting to receive from a class of religious specialists called "the clergy." Instead, you met to serve your brethren through your individual gifts so that the whole Body could be edified (Rom. 12:1-8). In God's thought, it is the unified-diversity of Spirit-endowed gifts that is essential to the building up of the local assembly. Robert Banks describes the function of the New Testament gathering saying,

Each member of the community is granted a ministry to other members in the community. This means that no person, or group of persons, can discount on the basis of their particular gifts other contributions of the 'Body' or impose a uniformity upon everyone else. The community contains a great diversity of ministries, and it is precisely in the differences of function that the wholeness and unity of the Body resides. God has so designed things that the involvement of every person with his special contribution is necessary for the proper functioning of the community. This means that each member has a unique role to play, yet is also dependent upon everyone else (Paul's Idea of Community).

It is important to stress at this point that the concept of mutual ministry that is envisioned in the New Testament is far different from the pinched definition of "lay-ministry" that is promoted in the modern institutional church. Granted, most established churches offer a plethora of volunteer positions for "laypeople" to fill such as cutting the lawn of the parsonage, ushering the aisles, washing the pastor's car, shaking hands at the sanctuary door, passing out bulletins, teaching Sunday school classes, singing in the choir or worship team, and flipping transparencies. But these restricted ministry positions are a far cry from the free-and-open exercise of spiritual gifts that was afforded to each believer in the early church gathering.

The Necessity of a Functioning Priesthood

In light of all that has been said, consider these telling questions: Why did the early church meet in this way? Was it just a passing cultural tradition? Did it represent the early church's infancy, ignorance, and immaturity? I think not, for the practice of the early church meeting is deeply rooted in Biblical theology. It made real and practical the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers--a doctrine that all evangelicals affirm with their lips.

And what is that doctrine? In the words of Peter, it is the notion that all believers are spiritual priests who are called to offer up "spiritual sacrifices" unto the Lord and toward their brethren. In Paul's language, it is the idea that all Christians are functioning members of the Body of Christ. From a pragmatic standpoint, then, the New Testament church meeting is the Biblical dynamic that produces spiritual increase--both corporately and individually (Eph. 4:11-16); for if we do not function, we do not grow--and this is a kingdom law (Mark 4:24-25). Granted, believers can and should function outside of the church meetings; but the gatherings of the church are especially designed for every Christian to exercise his or her gifts (1 Cor. 11-14; Heb. 10:24-25). Thus, the common practice of pushing "one anothering" outside of the modern church service cannot help but retard the growth of the believing community.

In this regard, the institutional church is essentially a nursery for overgrown spiritual babes. Because it has habituated God's people into being passive receivers, it has stunted their spiritual development and kept them in spiritual infancy. (The incessant need for predigested, dished out spiritual food is a mark of spiritual immaturity--1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14.)

While the Reformation recovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, it failed to restore the necessary practices that embody this teaching. While the church has claimed the ground of a believing priesthood, it has failed to occupy that ground. Consequently, in the typical Protestant church, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is no more than a sterile truth. In this regard, Joseph Higginbotham and Paul Patton pointedly remark,

Every year on 'Reformation Sunday' it is urgently proclaimed that the Reformation won the battle for the priesthood of the believer. The wish is certainly the father of the thought, but we are still talking about wishes, not facts. The very congregations who hear the proclamation deny by their polity, their congregational life, and even by their architecture the truth they claim to embody...Our words betray our Reformation Sunday victory celebrations. The battle is not won; we do not yet occupy the ground where the priesthood of the believers is fact ("The Battle for the Body," Searching Together, Vol. 13:2).

The doctrine of the believing priesthood in modern evangelicalism continues to beg for practical application and implementation in the life of the Lord's people. Thus, God has established open participatory meetings to incarnate the splendid spiritual reality of expressing the Risen Christ through a fully-employed priesthood. In this way, the New Testament church meeting was designed by God to fulfill His eternal purpose, which is centered upon forming Christ in a company of people and bringing them unto His full stature (Gal. 4:19; Eph. 4:11-16).

There is nothing more conducive to the culture of spiritual life than the open church meeting that is depicted in the New Testament. In this regard, the book of Hebrews amply demonstrates that the mutual supply of the Body is vital for the spiritual increase of the church. Quite simply, mutual ministry is the Divine antidote for preventing apostasy, the Divine requirement for ensuring perseverance, and the Divine means for cultivating individual spiritual life. Consider Hebrews 3:12-14:

Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an EVIL HEART OF UNBELIEF, IN DEPARTING FROM THE LIVING GOD. BUT EXHORT ONE ANOTHER DAILY...LEST ANY OF YOU BE HARDENED THROUGH THE DECEITFULNESS OF SIN. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.

Here the writer of Hebrews teaches us that mutual edification is the remedy for developing an unbelieving heart and a hardened will due to sin's deceitfulness. Furthermore, in Hebrews 10:25-26, the Bible again presents mutual exhortation as the Divinely-established safeguard against turning away from the Lord. It says,

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; BUT EXHORTING ONE ANOTHER...FOR IF WE SIN WILFULLY after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.

While multitudes of clergy have made common use of the above text to stress the importance of "attending church," they have blissfully ignored the rest of the passage, which furnishes us with the primary purpose and activity of the church meeting, i.e. mutual exhortation and encouragement. Frankly, we ignore the full teaching of this passage to our own peril, for our spiritual prosperity is hinged upon corporate meetings that are marked by mutual ministry.

Manifesting Christ in His Fullness

It is not without significance that the Greek word for church, ekklesia, literally means "assembly." This meshes nicely with the dominant thought in the Pauline corpus that the church is Christ in corporate expression (1 Cor. 12:1-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:1-16). Hence, the function of the local assembly is to express the Risen Savior. We gather together so the Lord Jesus can manifest Himself in His fullness unto the building up of His Body. But the only way that this can become a reality is if every member of the assembly is free to supply that aspect of Christ that he or she has received.

If, therefore, the hand does not function in the gathering, then Christ is not manifested in fullness; for the Lord Jesus cannot fully disclose Himself through only one member. Likewise, if the eyes fail to function, Christ will be limited in revealing Himself. On the other hand, when every member of the Body functions according to his peculiar gift, Christ is fully seen--He, as it were, is Assembled in our midst!

Consider the analogy of a puzzle. When each piece of a puzzle is placed in its rightful position in relation to the other pieces, we say that the puzzle is "assembled." As a result, the entire picture is seen and understood. And so it is with Christ and His church. When every member of the ekklesia supplies something of the Risen Head through the free-yet-orderly exercise of Spirit-endowed gifts, God's desire of revealing His blessed Son to our hearts anew and afresh is realized.

Lest someone misunderstand at this point, participatory meetings do not preclude the idea of planning. Nor do they mean that we should scrap any semblance of order or form. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul formulates a number of broad guidelines which are designed to keep the church meeting running in an orderly fashion. These guidelines demonstrate that in Paul's thought there is no tension between an open participatory meeting and an orderly one which results in the edification of every member. With scholarly insight, Robert Banks summarizes the texture of the New Testament church meeting saying,

The Spirit's sovereignty over the gifts results in a stable, though not inflexible, distribution within the community and in their orderly, though not fixed, interplay in the gatherings...So then, provided certain basic principles of the Spirit's operation are kept in view: balance, intelligibility, evaluation, orderliness, and loving exercise, Paul sees no need to lay down any fixed rules for the community's proceedings...Paul therefore has no interest in constructing a fixed liturgy. This would restrict the freedom of God's communications. Each gathering of the community will have a structure, but it will emerge naturally from the particular combination of the gifts exercised (Paul's Idea of Community).

The Question of Sustaining Force

What has been set forth concerning the purpose of the early church meeting touches a vital feature that sets the New Testament assembly apart from the modern institutional church. It involves the searching question of what drives and sustains the church.

In the typical institutional church, the religious machinery of the church "program" is the force that propels and charts the direction of the assembly. If the Spirit of God left an institutional church, His absence would go unnoticed: the 'business-as-usual' process would forge ahead; the worship would be unaffected; the liturgy would be uninterrupted; the announcements would be heard; the offering would be taken up; the sermon would be preached; and the closing song would be offered. Like Samson of old, the congregation would go right along with the religious program, "knowing not that the Lord had departed" (Judges 16:20).

By contrast, the only sustaining factor of the New Testament assembly was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early church relied entirely upon the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain its existence. Hence, if the life of a New Testament meeting was at a low ebb, everyone would know it--the cold chill of death could not be overlooked. What is more, if the Spirit of God left the gathering, the meeting would collapse altogether. In short, the New Testament church knew no other sustaining influence other than the life of the Spirit through the believing community. It did not rely upon a man-programmed, humanly-planned, institutionally-fueled system to preserve its momentum.

In this regard, the institutional church has been perfectly mirrored by the Mosaic tabernacle of old after the ark of God had been taken from it. When the presence of God had left the holy tent, it was reduced to nothing more than a hollow shell accompanied by an impressive exterior. Yet regardless of the fact that the Lord's glory had departed, worshipers continued to offer their sacrifices at the empty tabernacle (1 Chron. 16:39-40; 2 Chron. 1:3-5; Jer. 7:12). To use the Old Testament figure, the institutional church has confused the laying down of the altar with the consuming fire. Resting content with rearranging the pieces of the sacrifice upon the altar, the institutional church no longer sees a need for the heavenly fire (except perhaps to make people feel good).

The tragedy of the institutional church, therefore, lies in its reliance upon a humanly-devised, program-driven religious system that serves to scaffold the "church" structure when the Spirit of God is absent. This moss-laden system betrays the fact that when the spontaneous life of the Spirit has ebbed away from a group of believers, it ceases to be the church in any Biblical sense, even though the outward form may be preserved. John W. Kennedy sums it up well:

Man always tries to conserve what God rejects, as church history adequately demonstrates. The result is seen in the bulk of present-day denominations, much of it a lifeless monument to glories that have long since it possible that God's people, in erecting 'lampstands' of bricks and mortar which have had to be kept up long after the light of the Spirit has gone out, have thwarted God's purpose? (Secret of His Purpose).

The Clerical Objection

While the New Testament abundantly establishes the fact that the early church meetings were open, participatory, and spontaneous, many modern clergymen refuse to approve of such meetings today. Modern clerical thinking on the subject goes something like this: "If I allowed my congregation to exercise their gifts in an open meeting, there would be sheer chaos; therefore, I have no choice but to control the services, lest the people spin out of control." Such an objection is severely flawed on several points and betrays a gross misunderstanding of God's ecclesiology.

First, the mere notion that a clergyman has the authority to "allow" or "forbid" his fellow brethren to exercise their gifts is built upon a skewed understanding of ecclesiastical authority and ministry (more on this later). The bottom line is that no one has the right to permit or prohibit the believing priesthood in the exercise of its Spirit-endowed gifts.

Second, the assumption that chaos would ensue if clerical control were removed betrays a lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit. It also reveals a lack of trust in God's people, something that is utterly non-Pauline (Rom. 15:14; 2 Cor. 2:3; 7:6; 8:22; Gal. 5:10; 2 Thess. 3:4; Phlm. 21; see also Heb. 6:9).

Third, the idea that the church meeting would turn into a tumultuous free-for-all is simply not true. If the saints are properly equipped in their use of spiritual gifts and understand how to submit to the Holy Spirit, then an open participatory meeting is anything but glorious. (By the way, Christians do not become equipped by listening to sermons week after week while being planted in a pew. The resolute fear among professional pulpiteers to open up their church services for spontaneous ministry is sheer proof of this.)

While open participatory meetings may not always be as prim and proper as the traditional church service that runs flawlessly according to the pastor's (unwritten) liturgy, they do reveal much more of the fullness of Christ and the preciousness of His people than any human arrangement could ever manufacture.

Granted, there will be times (especially in the beginning stages of a church's life) that some may bring unprofitable ministry. But the antidote for this is not to put a lid on spontaneous ministry. Rather, those who deliver unedifying ministry should be corrected. And this largely falls on the shoulders of the more mature brethren, namely the elders (more on this later).

Recall that when Paul faced the frenzied morass in Corinth, he did not close the meeting nor introduce human officiation. He rather supplied the brethren with a number of broad guidelines to facilitate order and edification in the gatherings (1 Cor. 14:1ff.). What is more, Paul was confident that the church would adhere to these guidelines. In like manner, if such guidelines are heeded today, there is no need for human officiation, fixed liturgies, or pre-planned services in the gatherings of the church. G.H. Lang explains,

And when they had gathered, no visible leader was in evidence, nor was a pre-arranged programme followed. Two or even three prophets might address the assembly; psalms, prayers, and other exercises were introduced spontaneously (1 Cor. 14). Great emphasis is laid on this as being the Divine intention by the fact that upon gross disorders arising, and the gatherings becoming unseemly and unprofitable (1 Cor. 11,14), the apostle by no means suggests any other form of service, but only lays down general principles, the application of which would prevent disorder and promote edification, the method of worship continuing essentially as before. There was indeed a duty to restrain vain and deceitful talking (1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:10-16); but there was no legislative or coercive power; the authority of the elders was purely moral...The control of the assembly by one man was thus unknown. The Lord Himself, by His Spirit, was as really present as if He had been visible. Indeed, to faith He was visible; and He Himself being there, what servant could be so irreverent as to take out of His hands the control of the worship and ministry? But, on the other hand, most certainly it was not the case that anybody had liberty to minister. The liberty was for the Holy Spirit to do His will, not for His people to do as they willed...All rights in the house of God vest solely in the Son of God. The post-apostolic church quickly departed from this pattern (The Churches of God).

At bottom, the tendency to reject the New Testament styled church meeting unearths a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. Rendle Short puts an even finer point on it saying,

We spoil God's workings, and we starve our souls, if we depart from this principle [open participatory meetings]. Someone may say, 'But will not things get into dreadful confusion if you seek to follow out these patterns? In those days they had the Holy Spirit to guide them, and shall not we go wildly astray, and have dull, confused, unprofitable, perhaps even unseemly meetings, unless we get someone to take charge?' Is that not practically a denial of the Holy Spirit? Do we dare deny that the Holy Spirit is still being given? The Holy Spirit is at work today as much as He was at work in those days...Please do not think that what is sometimes called the 'open meeting' means that the saints are at the mercy of any unprofitable talker who thinks he has something to say, and would like to inflict himself upon them. The open meeting is not a meeting that is open to man. It is a meeting that is open to the Holy Spirit. There are some whose mouths must be stopped (Titus 1:10-14). Sometimes they may be stopped by prayer, and sometimes they have to be stopped by godly admonition...But because there is failure in carrying out the principle, do not let us give up on the principles of God (The Churches of God).

In Numbers 11, we have the first appearance of clericalism in the Bible. Two servants of the Lord, Eldad and Medad, received God's Spirit and prophesied in the camp (vv. 26-27). In hasty response, a young man urged Moses to "restrain them" (v. 28). Moses, however, stopped the mouth of the young suppressor by declaring that it was God's desire that all of His people possess the Spirit and prophesy. This desire was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) and continues to find fulfillment today (Acts 2:38-39; 1 Cor. 14:1,31). Unfortunately, the modern church does not lack those who wish to again restrain Eldad and Medad from ministering in the Lord's house. May God raise up a multitude of believers who are of the spirit of Moses so that the Father would get what is rightfully His--a kingdom of functioning priests that serve under the Headship of His Son.

Headship vs. Lordship

It may prove useful at this point to note the careful distinction that the Bible draws between Headship and Lordship. Throughout the New Testament, the Headship of Christ virtually always has in view Christ's relationship with His Body (Eph. 1:21; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19), while the Lordship of Christ virtually always has in view His relationship with individuals (Matt. 7:21-22; Luke 6:46; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9,13; 6:17). What Lordship is to the individual, Headship is to the church. Thus, Headship and Lordship are two dimensions of the same thing. Headship is Lordship worked out in the corporate life of God's people.

This distinction is important to grasp, for it throws light on the problem of church practice today. It is all too common for Christians to know Christ's Lordship and yet know little of His Headship. For instance, a believer may truly submit to the Lordship of Jesus in his own personal life. He may obey what he understands in the Bible, pray fervently and regularly, and live a life of self-denial, personal piety, and love for others. Yet simultaneously he may know nothing about shared ministry, mutual accountability, and corporate testimony.

In the final analysis, to be subject to the Headship of Jesus means to obey His will regarding the life and practice of the church. It includes such things as discerning God's mind through mutual ministry and sharing, obeying the Holy Spirit through mutual subjection and servanthood, and testifying to Jesus Christ collectively through mutual outreach and oneness. Submission to the Headship of Christ incarnates the New Testament teaching that Jesus is not only Lord of the lives of men, but that He is Master of the life of the church. And Scripture is plain that when Christ's Headship is established and given concrete expression in the earth, He will become Head over all things in the universe (Col. 1:16-18).

With stirring clarity, Arthur Wallis describes the inseparable connection between Christ's Headship and His Lordship saying,

Christ taught that our commitment to Him must be wholehearted. It means denying oneself, taking up the cross and following Him. But Scripture is equally clear that our attitude toward Christ is reflected in our attitude toward His people. As is our attitude toward the Head, so will our attitude be to His Body. You cannot be wholehearted toward Christ but only halfhearted toward His church (The Radical Christian).

Final Thoughts

I end this chapter with several questions for thought.

Is it possible that modern evangelicalism has only affirmed the doctrine of the believing priesthood intellectually, but has failed to practically apply it due to the subtle entrapment of deeply entrenched traditions? Do our modern church services, which are largely built around the sermon of one man and the worship program of an established music team, reflect the normative gatherings that we find in our Bibles or are they at odds with it? Why would open participatory church meetings be good for the early Christians, but somehow be unworkable or dangerous for us today? Finally, is our practice of the church an expression of the complete Headship of Christ or the headship of man?

May God help us to answer these questions sincerely and in the light of His Word.


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