My family and I came to Dallas in June of 1967 to attend Dallas Seminary. We immediately were led of God to fellowship at Believers Chapel. This church had a profound impact on my life and ministry. During my seminary years I taught at the Chapel on various occasions, and after graduation I was involved full time in the ministry of this church, along with others. It was with the encouragement and assistance of the elders of Believers Chapel that I and other men from the Chapel set out to establish a church plant. Just before we left Believers Chapel, the elders encouraged me to teach a series on the New Testament church which highlighted some of the distinctives of what we then called ?the new work.? These manuscripts contain the series which I taught in 1976 while at Believers Chapel, and they still describe (with minor changes over the years) the principles which guide and govern Community Bible Chapel (?the new work?) some 22 years later.
My family and I came to Dallas in June of 1967 to attend Dallas Seminary. We immediately were led of God to fellowship at Believers Chapel. This church had a profound impact on my life and ministry. During my seminary years I taught at the Chapel on various occasions, and after graduation I was involved full time in the ministry of this church, along with others. It was with the encouragement and assistance of the elders of Believers Chapel that I and other men from the Chapel set out to establish a church plant. Just before we left Believers Chapel, the elders encouraged me to teach a series on the New Testament church which highlighted some of the distinctives of what we then called “the new work.” These manuscripts contain the series which I taught in 1976 while at Believers Chapel, and they still describe (with minor changes over the years) the principles which guide and govern Community Bible Chapel (“the new work”) some 22 years later.
1 Timothy 3:15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
Ephesians 1:22-23 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 2:10, 20-21 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. … 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord;
If you were to go to nearly any Protestant, evangelical church today they would claim to be a New Testament church whether that church had a congregational form of government, a Presbyterian form of government, or whether it was ruled by one man with an iron fist. They would say so because they view themselves as teaching and practicing what the New Testament teaches. Most would believe that they are a New Testament church because they are organized and operating in a way that the New Testament allows. Few, however, actually attempt to reproduce the practice and principles of a New Testament church.
When we say we are a New Testament church then, it is necessary to go into considerable detail as to how we are a New Testament church in any other way, or to any greater degree, than the church down the street. Incidentally, I think I must also add that there is no grounds for pride, for if we are correct in our understanding of the church, it is because the Spirit of God has revealed this to us. It is also true, that “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Our greater understanding of the truths of the Scriptures, then, makes us more accountable before God to apply what we know to be true.
Furthermore, we should realize that we can have the proper form without the power of God. We may have the form of godliness, but deny its power (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5). Israel was seldom if ever rebuked for some technical error in the forms of her worship, but she was often rebuked for going through the rituals without a heart for God (cf. Isa. 1:11; Micah 6:6-8; Psa. 40:6-8; 51:16-17). To recognize and understand New Testament principles for the church, then, is not enough. We must carry them out with a heart which is right before God.
We have endeavored not to talk about our distinctives and flaunt them continually, perhaps sometimes to a fault. To continually speak of our distinctive views would lead to a disproportionate emphasis on certain truths and encourage a sense of spiritual pride, a criticism not unheard of, I might add.
Nevertheless, it has been a number of years since there has been any systematic teaching from the platform on Sundays on this subject. Because there are many new faces since this subject was last taught, it is important for you to know what we stand for in the area of ecclesiology, or what is more commonly called the doctrine of the church. I must also add, that my understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the church might not be a perfect reflection of the collective understanding of the elders, but at least I am not aware of any great differences so far as the principles are concerned.
The names of churches sometimes give very few clues to their ecclesiology. Many of you are asked, “Where do you attend church?” When you tell them, they say, “what kind of a church is that?” My wife was asked this very question by one of our children’s teachers this week. What would your answer be?
There is yet another reason why it is important for us to study this doctrine of the New Testament church, for as most of you know by now, there have been a number of men, including myself, who have met for prayer and study under the supervision and guidance of the elders concerning the starting of a new church in the Dallas area. Because of this, it is important for those who might wish to be involved in this work to understand what it is that we wish to be and to do as a new church. These next few weeks will be of vital importance to those who may wish to join us, and perhaps will help you in making a decision about the new work.
Just as importantly, we want no one to misunderstand our intentions and our goals in starting a new work. Because of this we feel it is vital for all of you to understand the principles of the New Testament pertaining to the church, and to recognize that the principles upon which the new work will be established are almost exactly the same as those of this ministry. Of course, there will be a certain amount of variation in the application of these principles and it is important for you to know that our elders understand this, and in fact, have encouraged me to make these differences clear to you, for it may be the differences which will make the difference to you as to whether you will stay or go. I must take just a moment to say that I am absolutely delighted at the gracious and generous spirit of the elders toward the new work. None of us could have asked for any greater openness or generosity on their part.
We are out to establish a New Testament church, and the pattern for this church must not come from this church or from any other church, for every church is only an attempt to implement what the New Testament teaches. Our pattern must always be the Word of God itself, and not the work of men, no matter how great it is. The new work will endeavor to practice the principles of the New Testament in a way that is appropriate to our needs and our particular personalities.
For the next six weeks, then, we will make the Scriptures of the New Testament our text, and the particular subject of our study will be “The New Testament Church, What Is It?”
There is one question which must be answered at the very outset of this series, and it is this: Why all this fuss about the church? Is the doctrine of the New Testament church so crucial that it is worthy of several weeks of study? By and large the world has written off the church as irrelevant and a waste of time, as a bunch of fanatics who are ‘doing their own religious thing.’ Even within professing Christianity there are those who are saying, “I’m a part of Christianity, but I want no part of churchianity!”
I want to deal with this challenge to the church in more detail, but let me begin by giving two responses to the playing down of the local church by many who call themselves Christians today. First of all, I want to emphatically state that it is inconceivable for a Christian to be a part of Christ’s body, the universal church, without any relationship to the local church, the local, geographical manifestation of the Body of Christ.1 Fellowship with Him implies and necessitates fellowship with the saints.2
Second, there have been many failures in the local churches which justify a great deal of criticism. Much of the evangelism which has occurred in recent years is not directly attributable to the local church. Even worse, a significant portion of the follow-up and fellowship which these new Christians have received has been a result of organizations other than the local church.
But these failures do not justify an abandonment of the local church; they necessitate a fresh look at the Scriptures in order to instruct us as to how the church must change in order to conform to the Scriptures, and to once again carry out its task in the world. Just as marriage is not to be abandoned because of many abuses and failures, so too, the church cannot be forsaken for some lesser alternative.
This statement is, I think, sad but true, “The church no longer turns the world upside down, but the world has turned the church upside down.” May God enable us, as we search the Scriptures, to get back to the Bible in these matters.
For the remainder of this lesson, then, I would like to underscore the importance of a study of the New Testament church by focusing upon three facets of the church:
The Greek word from which we get the term ‘church’ is ekklesia.3 It is a compound word made up of the preposition ek, ‘out,’ and the verb kaleo, ‘to call.’ Some have concluded from this that the term implies the idea of separation, but this is somewhat questionable.4 In ancient secular Greek this term was used for an assembly that had gathered for some purpose, such as a legislative assembly. This same sense is infrequently found in the New Testament, where in Acts 19:32 it was used of a riotous mob that gathered who were aroused by Demetrius, a silversmith whose business, along with others, had been threatened by Paul’s ministry.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) this Greek word was used “for almost any type of gathering of people.”5 The emphasis of this word fell upon the fact of a gathering, rather than upon who met, or where they met, or for what purpose.
It is in the New Testament that we see this term come to have its technical sense of a people who have gathered for the purpose of instruction and worship. It is used in its broadest sense of the universal church, that body of all believers in Christ from Pentecost to the rapture. For example, our Lord said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18b).
Again, it is used of those who are believers in a certain city, such as in Revelation, chapters 1-3, where the seven churches are addressed. We might speak today of the Church in Dallas. Finally, it is used of those believers who met together in one location, such as the church that met at the house of Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5a).
This word ‘church’ is never found in the New Testament in reference to:
The focus of our study will be upon the church in its local manifestation, the local church, its principles and practices.
We are also informed concerning the importance of the doctrine of the church when we look at the various descriptions of the church in the New Testament. These descriptions are almost always in the form of analogy. If Minear is correct, there may be as many images or analogies as 100.6 Obviously, we’re not going to attempt to exhaust this resource, but there are several images which especially suggest the importance of the church.
With this analogy Paul emphasizes both the unity of the body and the individuality of each particular member. That Jesus Christ is the Head of the body suggests that it is our Lord who directs and guides the body, and that its unity comes from the Head of the body, Who coordinates and directs each individual part.
(2) The Temple of God. Again, the church is referred to in Scripture as the temple of God. Each individual Christian is a stone, all of which make up the temple, still under construction, and our Lord Jesus Christ is the Chief or Cornerstone (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:5f). The temple is the place where God dwells, so that the church is the dwelling place of God. God not only dwells in each Christian individually, but in all Christians corporately. As the Cornerstone, our Lord is the One who binds the temple together, that temple whose two walls are those of Jews and Gentiles, forever united in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14f). Not only was the temple the place in which God dwelt, it was also the place of worship, from which praise was to ascend to God.
(3) The Bride of Christ. Another description of the church is that of the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22f; Rev. 19:7; 22:17). Here we have emphasis upon the love of Christ for His church, and His full and adequate provision for His bride. In addition, we see the responsibility of the bride to keep herself pure and unspotted for her Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.
(4) The Flock of God. The church is also described as the flock of God (John 10:22f; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Shepherd of the flock. Here we are reminded of His loving and tender care for His church, in feeding, leading, and protecting it from harm. We are likewise reminded of our dependency upon Him, and our helplessness apart from His care.
(5) The Vine and the Branches. The last analogy which we will consider in this message is that of the Vine and the branches (John 15:1f). Here our Lord Jesus is described as the source of life and power and fruit for the Christian. The Christian must abide in Christ as the Vine for fruitfulness.
All of these images or analogies indicate the most intimate relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ and His body, the church. Not only are we instructed by these analogies of our absolute need of Him, but of His great interest and concern and care for us. In short, the church is vitally important to us because it is of vital importance to God. This will be even more clear when we look at the declaration of God’s purpose for the church.
Finally, let’s look at God’s purpose for the church. Technically it would be more accurate to say purposes, for these are several as we shall see.
(1) Continuation. The first purpose for the church might be called continuation, for it is God’s purpose for the church that it should continue to carry on the work which our Lord Jesus Christ began while upon the earth. This is certainly implied by Luke in the introduction to his second work: “The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).
It is that little word, “began” which I want you most carefully to ponder. The former work which Luke refers to is the gospel of Luke. In it are described some of the things which Jesus did and taught. But here, in his introduction to the book of Acts, Luke says that Jesus began to do and to teach. If He began something, then it must not be finished. Who is going to finish what our Lord began? Luke’s answer is the remainder of the book of Acts. Is this not an amazing thing? God has surely placed His treasure in ‘earthen vessels,’ for He has ordained that what Jesus began, we will finish. What our Lord started to do and teach in His physical body, He now continues in His spiritual body, the church. What a task we have! How essential it is for us to attend to His instructions as to how His body, the church, is to function.
(2) Proclamation. Certainly related to ‘continuation’ is our function of proclamation. Of this, the Apostle Paul writes in his first epistle to Timothy: “But in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The mental picture which Paul seems to draw for us in this passage is that of a beautiful Greek structure. It rests upon solid pillars which themselves are firmly grounded and linked to a solid foundation. The picture suggests to us that it is upon this structure that the truth of God is lain, there to be held in open view to all who pass by. The church is God’s chosen instrument to uphold and publicly display the truth of God to the world. How sad it is when the beauty of the truth of God is marred by a cracked foundation and shaky pillars. This is what the world seems to think of the church. When the church fails to be what she is called to be, the message of the gospel is to that extent disgraced.
(3) Demonstration. Also there is the great cosmic purpose of demonstration. Of this Paul spoke in his letter to the Ephesians: “In order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
In the context of this statement we’re told that God is using the church to demonstrate to the angelic hosts, both good and fallen, His great wisdom. As God used Job in the Old Testament to instruct Satan, so He uses the church today. In 1 Corinthians 11:10 women are instructed to have their heads covered ‘because of the angels.’ This is to be an object lesson on submission to the angels, who according to Peter (1 Pet. 1:12) are stooping down with interest, to behold what God is doing in the world.
(4) Glorification. In Ephesians Paul wrote: “… to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).
We know that it was the purpose of our Lord Jesus Christ to glorify the Father (John 12:28), but Paul says that this is the purpose of Christ’s body, the church, “to Him be the glory in the church …” What an amazing fact! God’s purpose for the church is for “the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:12b). The church is to glorify God. We can only do this as we practice the principles of the New Testament church.
Surely all of this should suffice to indicate that what we are studying is of vital importance to us because it is a matter of the intimate concern of God.
It is possible, however, that someone would raise this one objection, “What you say is very true, with reference to the church universal, but what does it have to do with the local church?” The error here is in failing to see the relationship between the local church and the universal church. The assumption of the New Testament is that the local church is a replica or a miniature of the universal church. This fact has been noted by numerous scholars in passages such as that in 1 Corinthians 1:1-2a: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus …”
We might very well render the phrase, “the church of God which is at Corinth” in this way: “The church as it is in Corinth.”7 What God purposes for the whole, He purposes for the part. What the church universal is to be and to do, so also is the local church.
Do you see how important this area of truth is? May God enable us to understand and to practice the principles of the New Testament church.
My unsaved friend, let me ask you this question, “Are you a member of the church?” I did not ask if you were a member of this church. I asked if you were a member of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot join His church by signing a card, even a pledge card, or by coming to the front to join a local church. You cannot become a member of the universal church by water baptism, only by the work of God the Holy Spirit, by trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, only by realizing that you are a sinner and don’t deserve any good thing from God, only by trusting in His death for you and His life for you, then you will be joined by the Spirit of God to the church, a membership that cannot ever be revoked. May you do that this very hour.
1 Hebrews 10:25; cf. Also Earl Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Portland: Western Baptist Press, 1972), pp. 11-12.
2 Cf. 1 John 1:6-7.
Ephesians 4:11-12 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
1 Corinthians 12:4-7 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Peter 2:4-9 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: “Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, And he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.” 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, “The stone which the builders rejected, This became the very corner stone,” 8 and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
Sometimes misunderstandings are amusing. The woman who has been stopped by a policeman for driving the wrong way down a one-way street protests, “but officer, I was only going one way.” Or the other day I saw Alan Fundt on Candid Camera interview a young boy on the subject of football. It is hard to believe that his understanding of football could be so far removed from reality. Among other things this boy said that the reason why the players wore shoulder pads was to make them appear tougher than they really were so that the other players would be afraid to beat them up on the field.
Someone told me one time about the son of a prominent Christian leader who was in his Sunday School class. The young lad was asked what it meant to be a Christian, and the young lad said it meant to have Jesus in your heart. When the boy went on to assure his teacher that he had Jesus in his heart the teacher asked him how Jesus got there. At this the young man paused and gave some careful thought, after which he hastily replied, “I guess He got there through the hole in my sock.”
Although some misconceptions can be comic, others may be deeply tragic. Such is the case with the understanding of the subject of ministry in the church. It has caused many pastors to throw up their hands in frustration and leave ministry altogether. It has frustrated countless individuals in the church who have no seminary training or professional status in ministry, because they have assumed that their contribution to the work of the ministry is primarily in matters which are largely physical, or financial.
In the light of such great confusion in this matter of the Christian and his relationship to the ministry, I want to focus your attention on this matter from the pages of the New Testament. Our subject for this lesson will be “The New Testament Church—Its Ministry.” We will begin by determining who is in the ministry, and then proceed by defining the word ‘ministry’ from the Scriptures. This will lead us to a discussion of the principles of the Word of God as to why ‘the ministry’ is the work of all Christians. Finally, we will make some very practical suggestions as to the application of this teaching.
The first major error in current evangelical thinking which must be dealt with is the matter of who is responsible for ‘the ministry.’ Generally today we speak of a special class of individuals as going into ‘the ministry.’ This core of elite is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of ministry, and certainly the most significant ministry in the local church. But if this is the thinking of modern Christianity, it is not the teaching of the New Testament, for Paul has written:
“So has He given some to be apostles but others to be prophets; some to be evangelists but others to be pastors and teachers, to make the saints fit for the task of ministering toward the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12, Berkeley).
In terms of biblical teaching, every Christian is in the ministry. There is no separate class of those who minister while the others stand by and observe. Some may devote more time to the ministry than others; some may even be paid for their ministry; but all Christians are in the ministry.
In one sense those who are evangelists and pastor-teachers are less involved in the ministry than the rest of the saints. Who, for example, is more involved in the playing of football, Tom Landry or Roger Staubach? Tom Landry is the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but have you ever seen him throw a touchdown pass, or tuck the ball under his arm and sprint for a first down? It is the players who are most directly involved in the game of football. So, too, it is in the ministry of the church. Paul has written that evangelists and pastor-teachers equip the saints for the ministry. It is not the evangelists and pastor-teachers who are to do the ministry; they are to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.
Do you see how far we have strayed from the Scriptures? We think ‘the ministry’ is the work of a few professionals who have had formal theological training and who spend all their time preaching and teaching and counseling. Paul says that the pastor-teacher is not to conduct the ministry, but to coach the saints so that they may carry on the ministry. So-called laymen look to the pastor to do the ministry; Paul looks to the layman. The world divides Christians into separate classes: clergy and laymen. The Scriptures teach no such distinction.
Every Christian, then, is in the ministry. If you are a Christian, you are in the ministry. Since each one of you, assuming that you have come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is in the ministry, it should be a matter of great interest to you to know what constitutes the ministry. What is the ministry? What is it that God holds you responsible to do?
Although much could be said on this word ‘ministry’ there are two general characteristics of ministry in the New Testament which are essential for each of us to understand. First of all, the idea of ministry is perhaps best defined in terms of service. This is evident by the translation of Ephesians 4:12 of the New American Standard Version: “… for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ …”
There are three Greek words which are employed in the New Testament which convey the concept of service. The first word (douleo) denotes what might be called ‘Slave service,’ for this is the word which is used to describe the service of a slave to his master (cf. Rom. 1:1; 1 Pet. 2:16). Paul uses this word to describe his attitude of service to men when he writes: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
A second word (leitourgos), in its New Testament usage, has a far more religious connotation. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament it was used in translating a technical term for priestly service to God.8 Luke employed this term to describe the ministry of Paul and Barnabas at the church of Antioch (Acts 13:2). It was also used of the ministry of the Macedonian and Achaian Christians who gave to the poor in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:27). Paul again used this word in Philippians 2:30 for the ministry of the Philippian saints to him through Epaphroditus.
But the word for ‘service’ or ‘ministry’ in Ephesians 4:12 is neither of these two terms, but rather the word (diakonos) from which the name ‘deacon’ is derived. Beyer states that while douleo emphasizes service as a slave, and leitourgos signifies service in the church, “… diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. … in diakonio there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.”9 This, then, is the word which denotes the loving service of a believer in Jesus Christ to others. It is applied to apostleship (Acts 1:17, 25), to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), as well as to the serving of tables (Acts 6:1).
I want to underscore this concept of service, for it surely is not a part of the spirit of the age. Unfortunately, it is frequently not a mentality that characterizes Christians. Surely we cannot deny the fact that it was the attitude of our Lord Jesus, for he said: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His Life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
As Paul has written, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
A second general characteristic of the ministry in the New Testament is that it is profitable service. It is service or ministry which has many different facets and manifestations but there is one common element in all of its diversity, and that is that it is service or ministry which is spiritually profitable to the individual and which therefore builds up the body of Christ as it strengthens and builds up individual members of the body. Paul does not tell us specifically what the various works of service are in Ephesians 4:12, but he does tell us the result of these ministries: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”
Spiritual ministry, ministry which is truly Christian, is profitable ministry. It builds up individual Christians and therefore builds up the body of Christ.
The sad thing is that many Christians think the only kind of ministry which is profitable is the kind done by the professional. They feel that if their form of ministry is not preaching or teaching or counseling that it has little or no value. How unfortunate, how unbiblical this thinking is. Meeting the physical needs of the poor is defined in Scripture as a ministry (e.g. Rom. 15:27). As James tells us (2:15-16) the poorly clothed and fed are not profited by mere words, not even by an excellent sermon or tape; they are profited by food and clothing. Ministry in the New Testament is meeting the total needs of the saints in such a way as to encourage and strengthen them in the faith. The sick do not need a sermon so much as they need comfort, encouragement and prayer. The man or woman who has just had major surgery and is at home recovering may not need a lesson in theology so much as he may need a little practical theology—meals brought in, help with the housework, children taken to school, and so on. All too often people evaluate the value of their ministry by the kind of ministry rather than in terms of its overall result.
Let me summarize what I have said to this point. I have said that the work of the ministry is the work of all the saints, that it encompasses far more than preaching, teaching, and counseling (though that is surely an essential part), but includes every form of service which benefits other Christians.
What I have said to this point is not just an option, it is an imperative. The necessity of a diversified and universal ministry is dictated by biblical principles. The two fundamental principles which underlie the concept of ministry in the New Testament are (1) the doctrine of spiritual gifts, and (2) the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.
Concerning spiritual gifts the Apostle Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).
In this twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul describes the church as a body. Each Christian is a member of the body (v. 13) with his or her individual gift and function (vss. 7-11). In the body there is both unity and diversity. No one member of the body can view himself as either superior to the body, for he is dependent upon it for his life, nor inferior and unnecessary to the body, for he has his own unique contribution to the function of the body. In verses 29 and 30 Paul also instructs us that no one individual has all the gifts, nor do all have any one gift. While upon the earth our Lord manifested Himself through His physical body, but now He has chosen to continue what He began to do and to teach through His spiritual body, the church (Acts 1:1ff).
Just as there are certain necessary functions for the spiritual body of Christ, to some extent every Christian is responsible to carry out every one of these functions. But to each individual member of the body, God has given particular abilities to carry out some functions better than others. These abilities we call spiritual gifts. Though all are to give to the support of the financial needs of the body (cf. lesson 7, The New Testament Church—Its Finances), some are given supernatural ability (Rom. 12:8). All are commanded to be witnesses (Acts 1:8; Col. 4:5-6; 1 Pet. 3:15, etc.), but some are gifted as evangelists (Eph. 4:11).
All of this indicates to us that the work of the ministry includes all of the functions encompassed by the totality of spiritual gifts given to the body. Spiritual gifts are given to sustain and build up the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The work of the ministry is the work of sustaining and building up the body (Eph. 4:11-13). Spiritual gifts are given, then, to enable Christians to carry out the work of the ministry, which is the building up of the body of Christ. The work of the ministry is dependent upon the exercise of every spiritual gift (that is permanent gifts).
Now let me return for a moment to that passage in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, for it is very important to our understanding of the work of ministry. In verse 4 Paul states that there are diversities of gifts. This we should know well. But in verse 5 he says, “And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” Here Paul is speaking about the various spheres of ministry in which the same gift can operate. One may have the gift of teaching and teach in a seminary in South Africa, another may teach a Sunday School class in Dallas or Hong Kong, another may teach thousands by radio or television or cassette tapes. All have the gift of teaching, but God has given each a sphere of ministry which is necessary and important.
In verse 6 we are told, “And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” Not only has God given different gifts to Christians, and different spheres of ministry to those who have the same gift, but He has also given differing degrees of effectiveness. One may have the gift of evangelism and win five to Christ in a year, while another may win 50,000. One may teach a class of four, and another a class of 4,000. That is because God has sovereignly determined that there will be differences of effectiveness.
Now in spite of all these differences in gift, and sphere of ministry and effectiveness, Paul says in verse 7, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” My friend, no matter what your gift is, it is for the good of the body; no matter how your gift is employed, it is for the benefit of the entire body; regardless of how few or how many your gift affects, it is for the profit of all.
That is why the work of the ministry is the work of service performed by all believers for the benefit, ultimately, of all believers. The work of the ministry, the work of building up the body will not be complete without your ministry through the exercise of your spiritual gift. Spiritual gifts are the supernatural endowment of power to carry out the work of the ministry. Since no one has all the gifts, since everyone has a gift designed for a specific use, all Christians must do the work of the ministry.
The second biblical principle which underlies the concept of ministry in the New Testament is that of the priesthood of every believer. Although this doctrine is taught elsewhere (cf. Rev. 1:6; 5:9), it is Peter who gives us the clearest revelation on this matter:
You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
In the Old Testament economy there was a separate class of priests who mediated between man and God. In the New Testament, however, we know that there is only one mediator between men and God: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is because of His high priesthood that we are all constituted priests of God, with priestly ministries:
Hebrews 10:19-25 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.
The high priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ does two things: it motivates us to draw near to Him with full confidence, and it prompts us to minister to others. Since our concern is with the matter of ministry to others, let us review the exercise of our priesthood as it relates to others. What priestly exercises constitute a part of our ministry to others? Essentially the priestly function of the Christian is described in terms of spiritual sacrifices:10 “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). These spiritual sacrifices are enumerated in the New Testament:
(1) The sacrifice of self, as a living sacrifice in the service of God. In Romans, Paul exhorted: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1).
The sacrifice of self is a living sacrifice. How can one be a living sacrifice? In the context of Romans chapter 12 it is noteworthy that the very first subject Paul mentions after his exhortation to give ourselves as a living sacrifice is that of spiritual gifts (vss. 3-8). My understanding is that we are living sacrifices to God as we give ourselves to ministry to others through our spiritual gifts.
(2) The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In Hebrews chapter 13 we are given another form of spiritual sacrifice: “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15).
One of the offerings in the Old Testament was the thank offering. So also, there is a thank and praise offering in the New Testament. As we publicly and privately give thanks and praise to God we are exercising our priesthood.
Now here indeed is an amazing priestly activity. We offer up to God the sacrifice of service as we do acts of kindness, as we perform acts of charity, as we do good, and as we minister in financial ways. The word ‘sharing’ is our word koinonia, which we generally understand as ‘fellowship.’ One manifestation of commonality, of common life, is the sharing of our goods and our money with those in financial need. This is a priestly function.
(4) The sacrifice of proclamation. Another spiritual sacrifice which all believer-priests should offer up is that of proclamation. We should proclaim the goodness and the greatness of God: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
We should proclaim the gospel of God. Paul describes the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles and their salvation in sacrificial terms: “But I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:15-16).
Think of that, the salvation of souls by the proclamation of the gospel is viewed as a sacrifice offered to God as an act of our priesthood. Not only is the actual proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of souls a pleasing sacrifice, but so also is our giving to those who proclaim the gospel: “But I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).
Do you see the application of the priesthood of every believer to this matter of ministry? Those areas of priestly service which we have studied exactly overlap the functions which are encompassed by the spiritual gifts, as well as the work of the ministry as described in the New Testament. The work of the ministry is the work of every kind of service necessary to the maintenance of the body and its upbuilding. The ability to perform these functions is provided for the Christian by means of spiritual gifts. The responsibility for every Christian to be active in the ministry is taught by the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a priest, and your priestly functions are the work of the ministry. If you are a Christian, you have at least one spiritual gift, and this gift enables you to carry out a particular function in a particular sphere that no one else should do. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ you are in ‘the ministry’ and it is the responsibility of pastor-teachers to equip you to do that ministry.
There are a number of practical applications of the biblical teaching for me as a pastor-teacher.
First, the Scriptures call for me to withdraw from extensive activity in those areas of ministry which are not in accord with my spiritual gift. This is important for two reasons. In the first place I would be spending too much time trying to do something I will never do well. It is the same frustration that a man with no mechanical aptitude experiences in trying to work on his car. Then again, if I move into areas of ministry for which I am not gifted, I effectively keep others from doing what God designed them to do far better than I. Now this does not mean that I am never to attempt to witness just because my gift is not evangelism, for if I understand 2 Timothy 4:5 correctly, Paul exhorts Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, although this does not appear to be his spiritual gift. I am speaking of spending a great deal of time and energy in areas that God has gifted others to handle better than myself.
In practice this means that some of the things which Christians normally expect ministers to do, I will not be doing to their satisfaction. All too often we want to hire out our responsibilities—to pay the minister to do what we don’t want to do. Hospital visitation, counseling, administration, and many other areas of ministry may have to fall largely on the shoulders of others whose gifts equip them to serve in these ministries.
Second, the Scriptures indicate that my concept of ministry should be that of ministering through people, far more than just ministering to people. As we have seen in Ephesians chapter 4, my work is to equip people for ministry. My responsibility, as I understand it from the Word of God, is to spend the greater portion of my time helping those who desire to do the work of the ministry. The emphasis of my ministry, therefore, will be to encourage and help equip teachers, counselors, and leaders. I intend to help in the training of counselors who will carry on the greater part of pre- post-marriage counseling. It is my desire to see godly women equipped to minister to other women. I intend to make myself available to meet with the Sunday School teachers, under the direction of our superintendent, and to share with them what I will be teaching on the same passage that they will be teaching the following Sunday.
Perhaps even more significantly I am committed to work with fathers who are appointed as the spiritual leaders of the home. We are intending to prepare each week a family study guide, which will help the fathers or heads of families to study the text for the following Sunday, to discuss this text with his wife and children. We are committed to give every available kind of help and encouragement to those who wish to be leaders in their homes and in the church.
But there are certainly implications for you in these passages of Scripture pertaining to the work of the ministry as well. It should be very clear that the work of the ministry is the work of serving. It is my fear that many come to hear the ministry of the Word only to be ministered to, rather than to minister. One of the great encouragements of the new work is that many of those who desire to be involved want to participate in ministry. They greatly value the teaching they have received but greatly want to share what they have received with others. That is the kind of people we want to see, many who want to be servants, rather than to be served.
In the days to come we hope you will find our new church is functioning smoothly, but there will be a number of adjustments that will have to be made. Everything will not go off without a hitch. It will not be as easy to sit back and hope not to be noticed. It is only those with the heart of a servant who will survive the initial weeks, but the work of service is the work of every saint.
My friend, in terms of the Word of God you are in the ministry. May God make your ministry ever so clear, and may you find the joy of serving Him as a priest of God, by His power and grace.
9 Hermann W. Beyer, “DiaKoneo…, DiaKonia, DiaKonos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 2, p. 81.
10 Since priestly activity is also indicated by the word leitourgeo, the ministry of priests can be seen in verses which employ this term (e.g. Acts 13:2-3; Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Romans 15:16). Cf. Robert Saucy, p. 167.
Acts 2:42, 46 And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. … 46 And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,
Acts 20:7 And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.
1 Corinthians 11:18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.
1 Corinthians 14:26-40 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. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.
As we began this series on the New Testament church we emphasized the importance of the church in God’s program. If I may present these principles visually, I think perhaps it will help to emphasize the fact that the New Testament church is the focal point of God’s program, for it is in the church that God’s purposes converge. We might represent this fact by this illustration:
If we are correct in understanding the church in this way, then it should be clear that the doctrine of the church is of no mean significance, indeed, it is of paramount importance because God’s purposes in the world today are inseparably intertwined with the principles and practices of the church. This is ground already covered, but it is worthy of repeated emphasis, for the church today is considered irrelevant and impotent by far too many Christians.
In a similar way it would appear to me that we might say that the meeting of the church is as essential and inseparable from God’s principles for the church as the church is from God’s program for the world. Let me represent it graphically in this way:
Here we see that the point at which the principles of the New Testament church converge is more than anything else, the meeting of the church. Because of this it is our intention to devote this lesson to the subject, “The New Testament Church—Its Meetings(s).”
As we begin we must carefully distinguish between what I am going to call the ‘church meeting’ and ‘church meetings.’ The expression ‘the meeting of the church’ refers to the weekly assembling of the church for the purpose of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread (or you might prefer ‘communion’) and prayer. Immediately after the birth of the church at Pentecost in Acts chapter two Luke describes the activities to which the new church devoted itself: “And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Now we know that in those initial days of the church, these things were done daily (Acts 2:46), but we also realize that this was not practical for them to continue, any more than we are able to do so today. Consequently, the settled and permanent practice of the church was to meet on the first day of the week to continue in these functions of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. Such seems to be the combined inference of (read Acts 20:1) Acts 20:7-12, 1 Corinthians 11:17ff., and 14:26ff. We assume, therefore, that the ‘meeting of the church’ was the meeting on the first day of every week, to which all Christians who were a part of that church came for teaching, for a remembrance of the Lord in communion, for fellowship and prayer.
I have said generally that the meeting of the church was for the purposes of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. When we look at the various passages which describe the meeting of the church in greater detail (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17ff; 14:26ff), we find that there was a great variety in the kinds of participation and activity in which the saints engaged in the church meeting. We know that there was singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), prayer (Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 2:1-2, 8), teaching (Acts 2:42; 20:7), discipline (Matt. 18:17), the reading of Scripture (1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Tim. 4:13), and perhaps the taking of a collection (cf. Acts 2:42, 45; 1 Cor. 16:1-4). In the early days of the church there was also the exercise of the sign gifts of tongues, interpretation, and prophecy (1 Cor. 14:26-28, 29).
In addition to the regular ‘meeting of the church’ were other meetings conducted by the church. For example, in Acts 12:5, 12ff., the church met to fervently pray for Peter who had been arrested by Herod. We know that Paul taught daily in the school of Tyrannus at Ephesus for nearly two years (Acts 19:9-10). These and many other meetings were no doubt held by the church, but these varied with time, place and circumstances, and were not regularly, consistently or uniformly carried out by all the churches.
You will understand, then, that when I speak of the ‘meeting of the church’ I am not implying that this is the only meeting which a church can legitimately conduct. Special prayer meetings, home Bible studies, missionary conferences, and special meetings are completely within biblical principles. These meetings can meet with regularity and not violate biblical principle. But these meetings are not mandatory, they are not of equal importance as the ‘meeting of the church.’
Now I am certain that I have already raised a question in your mind. It could be stated something like this: “If all these activities took place in the meeting of the church, what is wrong with having several meetings which include these same functions?” Some churches have prayer meetings, teaching and preaching meetings, singing, Scripture, and so on. And what church doesn’t take up the offering? Why must all these things be done at the same meeting? This is a very significant question and well worth the effort of answering.
To begin with, let me cite several biblical reasons why a diversity of church meetings is wrong.
(1) The Scriptures teach that every man has the right to participate in the meeting of the church in a variety of ways. When the elements of the church meeting are divided into various meetings, there is almost always no opportunity for every man to participate. For example, although there may be a teaching or preaching service, is any man free to teach then and there? If he is not, then where can he address the whole body for their profit? Now I realize that at the traditional prayer meeting all can pray, but this is almost never the case with sharing a song, a favorite portion of Scripture, or a personal word of testimony. Every man should be free at some time, and I would assert one time, to exercise his priesthood and his spiritual gifts verbally and publicly.
(2) When the various elements of the meeting of the church are divided into several meetings, often there is undue emphasis or value placed upon one as opposed to others. I find, for example, that there are some who feel that the Sunday morning exposition of the Scriptures is all they want or desire, so they do not feel the need to come to the Lord’s Supper on Sunday evenings. The emphasis of the New Testament is balanced, so far as I can detect, in the elements of teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer. Division of these functions almost always promotes imbalance.
(3) Another very serious problem which is created by the division of the meeting of the church into several meetings is that it creates confusion as to when the New Testament principles specifically related to the meeting of the church are to apply. For example, we are told in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that women are to keep silence in the church meeting, and not even to ask questions. If the elements of the church meeting are divided among several meetings, does this mean that women cannot ask a question in any of these meetings? If so, in which meetings can she, and in which can she not? What is the basis for the inconsistency? These questions all arise out of a diversity of meetings in place of one meeting.
Besides being biblical, New Testament practice and teaching is practical. There are a number of very practical reasons for having one meeting of the church.
(1) There are too many meetings and not enough time. In the case of many churches there are just too many meetings and not enough time. Very often in order to be considered spiritual by those in our church we must give inadequate attention to our families. Our society is far too complex, time demands too great, to have a continual series of meetings each week, every week. Sundays are no day for rest; they are days of wrestling and rustling the kids to and from church. We take so much time meeting with the saints, we have no time for the lost.
(2) There is too much travel and too little fuel. To put the matter quite candidly, there is just too much inefficiency with continual meetings in the church. Not only is too much time spent in travel, but also too much gasoline—and it should be clear that this resource will someday be depleted. And this is not to mention the energy which is consumed in heating, cooling, and lighting the church building.
(3) As a result of time and schedule conflicts every family has to make choices which omit some important aspect of church activity. Because it is impossible for every family to attend every church meeting of the week, they must choose some and omit others. Even though they know that the meeting they miss is important, whether it be a prayer meeting, a communion service, or a teaching session, they simply cannot attend all. So, to whatever extent they do not attend every service, they are short-changed.
(4) Just as you cannot dissect a living organism without destroying life, neither can you dissect the meeting of the church without losing some of its vitality. There is something about the combination of elements in the meeting of the church that is missing when each of these elements is isolated to themselves in different meetings. When all of the elements of the church meeting are combined there is a variety, a sense of expectation, a vitality which makes one look forward to coming again. One writer has put into words what it is that we lack in our multiplicity of meetings, when he says,
One cannot help but feel that some of this expression is missing in many churches today and that to some extent Cullmann deserves attention when he asserts that “the services of worship in the Protestant churches of our own era are very much poorer, not only in respect of the free working of the Spirit, but also in respect of what is liturgical and especially in respect of what is aimed at in the gatherings of the community.”11
I saw a magazine article entitled, “When the Molds Get Moldy” the other day, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when the writer bemoaned the fact that we can almost set our watches by the order of service. Such was not the kind of meeting which electrified the early saints and turned the world upside-down. The various elements of the meeting of the church are decidedly interrelated and cannot be successfully separated. Worship does not happen in a vacuum, or upon command. It is a response to God, His attributes, His faithfulness, His lovingkindness, His working in our lives. When we teach the Scriptures at one time and worship at another we are performing a kind of abortion on the Word of God in my estimation, for just when we have been elevated and inspired by the teaching of the Word of God, just when we have been reminded of His character, and kindness, and goodness, we are told to stand for the benediction. This is the time for prayers of praise, for hymns of praise, for partaking gratefully of the elements at communion which symbolize His work on our behalf. You cannot effectively separate these various elements of the church meeting.
You will recall that at the outset of this message I began by telling you that just as the church is central to the outworking of God’s program for mankind, so also the meeting of the church is the focal point of the New Testament principles pertaining to the church. Let me reiterate the absolute necessity of the meeting of the church if we are to carry out New Testament principles as we should.
(1) The principle of spiritual gifts. Take the principle that every Christian has been given a spiritual gift (or gifts) for the benefit of the whole body (1 Cor. 7). The meeting of the church gives an opportunity for men to discover and to develop what might be called the vocal gifts in a way that few other meetings allow. Surely there are other avenues of discovering and developing spiritual gifts, but the church meeting is a vital one. Indeed, in many churches of the New Testament church, it may have been the only opportunity for public expression, for there were perhaps no other church meetings.
(2) The headship of Jesus Christ. Second, let’s take the principle of the Headship of Christ over the church. How is it practically manifested through the church? What greater and more obvious way than to come together as a church and look to Him to lead men to teach, to exhort, to share a song or a portion of Scripture as they are divinely led. This does not mean that they have not prepared during the week, but there has been no careful and meticulous coordination of the variety of participations in the meeting. Because there is no one visible leader who is directing every detail of the meeting, it becomes evident that our Lord Himself presides over the meeting through His Spirit.
The headship of Jesus Christ over His church is visibly apparent by the fact that the men take the leadership in the meeting of the church (1 Corinthians 11:3). This is why Paul instructs the men to lead in prayer and in the teaching when the church is gathered for worship, and why the women are to learn quietly (1 Timothy 2:8-15). This is also why men serve as elders, and not women.12
(3) The priesthood of every believer. Now what greater opportunity to demonstrate the priesthood of every believer than in the meeting of the church. Men may exercise their priesthood by verbally praising God and by proclaiming His Word, and by making intercession for men. Women, though not audibly, may pray, offer up the sacrifice of praise, intercede for others, and participate in the remembrance of our Lord’s death. Here, indeed, is a corporate exercise of the priesthood of every believer.
The priesthood of every believer is demonstrated in the passing of the elements during communion, and in the prayer offered for the offering. Since the priesthood of every believer removes the Old Testament distinction between laity and clergy, leading in communion and in the offering is the privilege and responsibility of every man.
(4) The church as the body of Christ. At the meeting of the church, the saints gather as the body of Christ. Each member comes in dependence upon the rest of the body. Each member comes to be strengthened and encouraged and edified by the other members of the body. Each is reminded of the unity of the body when partaking of the one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17). Each is reminded of their interdependence in the body of Christ when every member contributes in some form of ministry.
So you see that the principles of the New Testament church beautifully converge and in one way or another find their culmination in the meeting of the church. In this weekly meeting of the local church the saints gather corporately for teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. To put it in another way, Godward, they meet for worship; inwardly, they meet for edification; outwardly, they gather to proclaim the glory of His grace. What a privilege has been given to us to gather in this way every week.
May I once again stress the need for balance in the various elements of the meeting of the church. There are some churches which might better be called, “Apostles Doctrine Church,” others, “Fellowship Church,” still others “Communion Church.” But all of these elements should be found in proper balance in every church. That is our desire for our church.
Now, having said what I have, and you know there is much more that could have been said here, let me describe briefly what we intend to do in the meeting of our church. First of all, we intend to provide a balance in teaching, fellowship, remembrance of our Lord, and prayer. We consider every one of these items essential. We are going to endeavor to provide a proper balance by having one meeting of the church each Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to approximately 11:30 or 11:45. Since systematic teaching is vital to the growth and maturity of the church, the first portion of the meeting will be devoted to teaching. I am going to begin a series on the book of Acts. While I (or another brother) teach the adults, the children will be studying from the same text (in most cases) on their own level of interest and ability. After the teaching session there will be time for questions (by the men—1 Cor. 14:35) and answers. After this I suspect that we will introduce visitors and then break for coffee and conversation for about 20 or 25 minutes. Then we will begin the worship segment of the meeting and our school age children will join us for a time of singing (including some children’s songs). We will have a time set aside for any man to share from the Scriptures. We will also have a time devoted to worship and the remembrance of our Lord in communion. Finally we will have a time set apart for prayer and praise. During the meeting, appropriate songs and hymns and choruses will be encouraged. It is our desire that in so conducting the meeting of the church, our Lord may be praised, the saints edified, and the unsaved convicted and converted.
12 This is a point that is often debated. Some would hold that men alone can serve as elders, but that women may serve as deacons (or deaconesses). It is my personal understanding that it is men alone who are to hold both offices. The point here, however, is that by men taking the leadership in the church, they reflect Christ’s headship over the church.
1 Timothy 3:15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
All of us have often heard the story of the preacher who received a call to another church and who was in his study praying about the matter while his wife was upstairs packing. This is just one more reminder of the fact that there is always some final authority, and that often that authority is not the one officially designated as such. I learned this very early in my employment and have found it to be true at nearly every job I have had since.
What is the final and ultimate source of authority for the New Testament church? Many of the cults will say that the Bible is their final authority, but in reality it is some other revelation given to their founder that is final and authoritative. Usually, the Bible is to be interpreted by means of this other revelation. The Roman Catholic church would agree that the Bible is one of the final authorities, but also we must understand that it is the church which is the final authority, even in the interpretation of the Scriptures. In the final analysis, the Scriptures fall under the authority of men, rather than men under the authority of the Word of God.
We would naturally expect every church which claimed to be New Testament to claim that the New Testament was its final charter, the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. Strangely, however, when it comes to the matter of the government and ministry of the church, the New Testament is often set aside for what might be called ‘practical reasons.’ I have known of a number of instances where men have gone into so-called New Testament churches and pointed out practices which directly contradict the Scriptures, but where the people tenaciously hang on to their traditions because ‘that’s the way we have always done it.’
While some churches are totally adverse to change of any kind, others feel guilty if they are not constantly changing and trying new ideas. Every Sunday Christians come to church wondering what kind of novelty they will find this week.
We have always endeavored to be a New Testament church in the fullest sense of the term, looking to the New Testament as fully authoritative in not only one’s personal life, but also for the corporate life and ministry of the church. This is also the desire of the new work which we are about to begin.
A review of our study for last week should quickly explain the need for a final, authoritative guideline for the operation of the church. You will remember that we discussed several of the purposes which God has for the church:
(1) Continuation—it is God’s purpose for the church to continue to do and to teach what our Lord Himself began to do while in His physical body here upon the earth (cf. Acts 1:1).
(2) Proclamation—the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15); it is God’s chosen instrument to display the truth of God to the world.
(3) Demonstration—in addition to displaying the truth of God to men, it is also God’s intention to display before the angelic hosts the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10).
(4) Glorification—it is through the church that God seeks to bring glory and praise to Himself (Eph. 3:21).
To put the matter very simply and directly, God has chosen to carry out His program in the world in this age through the church. He has far too much at stake to leave men to their own wisdom and carnal devices in the matter of the church. God has given to us an authoritative charter for the church, and that charter is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God, the Bible, and particularly the New Testament.
The first testimony that the New Testament is the charter of the church comes from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ. The word church occurs only twice in the Gospels, both times in Matthew (16:18 and 18:17). In Matthew 16:18 the church is still conceived of as future: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
By and large, the Lord had not given instructions regarding the church while upon the earth. He spoke about the Millennial Kingdom which He offered and which Israel rejected due to their rejection of Him as its Messiah. Even the last words of our Lord in Acts chapter one are directed more to the kingdom than to the church (cf. Acts 1:3, 6). As our Lord Jesus said, there were many things which His disciples needed to know, but they were not yet able to bear them (John 16:12). These matters would be taught them by the Holy Spirit: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25-26).
Since the doctrines of the church had not been given in the Old Testament or even by our Lord, this doctrine could legitimately be called a mystery, and the Holy Spirit must make these things known only by special revelation. It was the Apostle Paul who was granted the privilege of making these things known:
Ephesians 3:1-5 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2 if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; 3 that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. 4 And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit;
It was through the ‘holy apostles and prophets’ that the Holy Spirit revealed this doctrine of the church, but in the New Testament it is in the epistles of Paul that we come to see this doctrine most clearly defined. For example, Paul wrote in order to give specific instruction to churches. Many of his epistles are addressed to the churches themselves: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:1-2a, cf. also 2 Cor. 1:1). “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians …” (1 Thess. 1:1a, cf. also 2 Thess. 1:1; Phil. 1:1).
In addition the so-called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ were written with the explicit purpose of informing Timothy and Titus how the church was to operate in the absence of direct and personal apostolic oversight: “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
I am somewhat amused today when someone in the church says something like this: “In the New Testament the apostles did it this way, but we don’t have apostles any more, so we are not completely sure how it ought to be done.” The reason I am amused is that this was precisely the problem faced by Timothy and Titus. Can’t you see timid Timothy wringing his hands there at the church at Ephesus, especially with all those who were teaching false doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3), saying to himself, “If only Paul were here, he could tell me what to do in this situation.” Well, Paul wasn’t there, and I suspect that either Timothy wrote Paul a somewhat frantic letter, or Paul, knowing Timothy as he did, anticipated his anxiety and wrote him this first epistle, followed up some time later by another.
Do you see the point? Timothy didn’t have an apostle present to tell him what to do, any more than we do today. But what Timothy did have was apostolic instruction, the instruction given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit of First and Second Timothy. That is precisely the instruction which we have today. We have no less help and direction than Timothy, indeed we have more, for we have in our possession the entire New Testament.
There is yet one further portion of Paul’s writing which I would like to remind you of in connection with this point, and that is in the second epistle to Timothy:
2 Timothy 3:14-17 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The primary focus of this passage is directed to Timothy as an individual. This I understand. But surely there is a secondary emphasis for the church corporately, that the Scriptures are all-sufficient for the church as well as for the individual Christian. In the Scriptures we can find definitive instruction for every essential area of church practice, for example:
Even the silence of the Scriptures is instructive. We not only learn from what the Scriptures tell us, but from what they do not speak to. Not long ago I was asked to speak to a new church which was forming on the outskirts of Dallas. I was speaking on the subject of leadership in the local church, for this church was in the process of recognizing elders and deacons. I had the occasion during this time to speak with a man who had some contact with this group previously and knew that I was teaching on the subject of leadership in the local church. This individual said to me, “Doesn’t it bother you that the New Testament does not tell us explicitly what process we should employ in recognizing elders?”
My answer to him was extremely simple. “Not at all. The silence of the Scriptures on this subject informs me that God has given us freedom in the area of the recognition of elders within the guidelines laid down in the New Testament. God wants us to use wisdom in this process, knowing that there is no one way which works best in every situation.”
You see, God deliberately does not tell us how to do everything. This keeps us humble and dependent upon Him to reveal the best possible way of carrying out His will and His word. The Christian life is one of freedom within certain perimeters. What God has not told us He did not want us to know, and we should learn from silence as well as from specific instruction.
Let me summarize what I have been saying. I have said that the New Testament is the charter of the church. It gives to us not only the content which we are to preach and teach, but also the principles and practices which the church is to carry on today. Let me underscore this truth by reading some of the counsel Paul gives to his ‘son in the faith,’ Timothy:
There is nothing more central to the church than the preaching and teaching, and practicing of the Word of God, as individuals, and corporately as a church. But how far do we carry this principle?
To this point there has been little that I have said that any fundamental Bible teaching church could disagree with. Where do we and many other ‘New Testament churches’ differ in the area of the Bible’s authority in the area of church practice? There are, I believe, two extremes which we must avoid in the application of the New Testament principles and practices of the church.
(1) First, there is the danger of blindly following every practice which we see recorded in the New Testament. Some churches practice foot washing—a practice which even I might go along with if these young people persist in coming to church without shoes. Other churches expect speaking in tongues and spectacular healings and the hands of healers. Some would insist in meeting in homes because this was often done in the New Testament, and I would agree that there is much which could be said for this, especially in times of intense persecution, or perhaps, fuel shortages. Some churches would insist upon meeting in the evening as did the early church.
Negatively, some might frown upon such modern advances and the motion picture or the use of the overhead projector, reasoning that if the Apostle Paul didn’t need to use such new-fangled devices, neither should we. Some might be opposed to broadcasting over the radio or television.
Certainly this extreme goes too far in insisting that we attempt to reproduce the New Testament practice without variation today. But the opposite extreme is just as erroneous.
(2) This extreme is what might be called the ‘hang loose mentality.’ There are many fine and sincere Christians who subscribe to this approach, but in my estimation, they also have gone to an illogical and unbiblical extreme. One very sincere Christian leader, for example, has written this: “He (Paul) was ‘a free man’—not locked into patterns and structures, either in communication or in organization and administration.”13
Again he writes:
… Paul was not consistent in the instruction he gave regarding the appointment of elders and deacons … It is impossible, of course, to arrive at conclusive reasons as to why there is a disparity in Paul’s approach to church leadership from church to church. But, is this not part of the genius of the New Testament? Once again we see freedom in form and structure, means and methods, and patterns and programs.14
This individual sees no instruction for us in the practices of the New Testament church or the apostles. The great danger with this kind of mentality is that we may too hastily cast aside some principle or practice of the New Testament as being only applicable within a certain culture, but not to us today. Some would say that Paul’s instructions that women were not to speak publicly in the church meeting (1 Tim. 2; 1 Cor. 14), were made on purely cultural grounds, but the apostle said: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:33b-35, NIV).15
This principle, then, is the outworking of the Old Testament law; it is not merely a word to the Corinthian prostitutes as some have supposed. The most serious error, I believe, is that of attempting to distinguish between principles of the New Testament and practices. The argument is that we are only bound to what is spelled out as a principle. But the New Testament does not divorce apostolic principle from apostolic practice. Listen to these words from 1 Corinthians: “I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. 17 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. 4:16-17).
The Apostle Paul practiced what he preached and preached what he practiced. Paul sent Timothy to remind the Corinthians of his ways, that is what Paul did, his practices. He said that his ways were consistent with his teaching, and this teaching was in Christ. This practice and teaching was not just for the Jewish culture, or the Roman culture, or for the Greek culture, it was to be practiced ‘everywhere, in every church.’ We cannot separate apostolic practice from apostolic principle. Over and over again the apostle made it clear that his teachings and practices did not vary from church to church (1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 14:33; 16:1). Note carefully: I have not said that there is no flexibility in the New Testament, for there surely is. I have not said that the Scriptures spell out precisely how everything is to be done. Neither have I said that there is not room for a diversity of methods which Paul himself illustrates and allows for in others. I have simply said that this matter of simplistically separating apostolic practice from apostolic principle is dangerous and often unbiblical. It would therefore be safe to assume that behind every apostolic practice there is an apostolic principle.
This raises a very important question, I suspect the most important question of this message, which is simply this, “Assuming all of the principles of the New Testament are binding on the church today, how can we distinguish between apostolic practices which are binding and those practices which are not?”
Let me suggest several questions which I believe will enable us to answer all of these questions, and will enable us to distinguish between practices which are not binding from those which are.
(1) Was the practice in question universally and consistently followed in the churches of the New Testament? Let’s take this matter of foot washing, for example. Did every church in the New Testament practice foot washing? So far as I know there was not any church which practiced this. The reason is simple: our Lord washed the feet of His disciples to teach them the importance of humility and the need to view ourselves as those who have come to serve, rather than to be served. Our Lord did not command the church to practice this, and to my knowledge they never did, and certainly it was not universally followed.
Let’s take another example, the meeting of the church in houses. It is obvious that the church met ‘from house to house’ (Acts 2:46) and that Paul greeted the church which met in various homes (Romans 16:3-16). My question is this, “Did the church meet only in homes, was this the consistent and universal practice of the churches in the New Testament?” No. The church seemed to meet in the synagogues, and in the book of Acts they met in the temple. In Ephesus, the Christians met daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). We would conclude from all the evidence that the church met wherever it was most convenient to do so. They did not feel compelled to meet in any one kind of building.
(2) Is the practice directly related to a principle which we would violate by neglecting that practice? Let me begin with a positive illustration. It was Paul’s practice not to allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12). This practice was universally observed in every church (1 Cor. 14:33b). The principle is that which was laid down in the Old Testament law (1 Cor. 14:34; cf. Gen. 3:16). That principle, as I understand it, is that from the time of the creation, it was God’s order that men should be leaders, and that the women should be followers. What was implied before the fall, God made explicit after the fall (Gen. 3:16).
Now for a negative illustration. Is there some principle which we would violate by not meeting in homes, or for that matter, in a school? I think not. Is there a principle which we would violate in meeting other than in the evening. Again, I think not.
(3) Is the practice a right or a responsibility? We know from the book of Philippians that the Apostle Paul accepted financial assistance from the Philippians. We also know from 1 Corinthians chapter 9 that it is an apostolic right for one who ministers to be supported by those to whom he ministers (cf. also Gal. 6:6). From the standpoint of those who receive ministry it is a responsibility for them to minister in a physical or financial way. That is both apostolic principle and apostolic practice. But since accepting this financial remuneration is a right, it may be set aside for particular reasons. This is precisely why the Apostle Paul did not take financial assistance from the Thessalonians, for he knew that some might use this as the basis for an accusation (II Thess. 3:7-9). Rights may be set aside, but not responsibilities.
(4) Is there a higher principle, which might override a particular practice? We are told frequently to ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (cf. Rom. 16:16). This is done frequently enough that we might call it universal. I think that it is. But there is also the principle clearly stated that we are to ‘avoid every appearance of evil’ (1 Thess. 5:22). If today greeting one another with a kiss were to bring reproach and discredit to the church then this practice should be altered in such a way that will continue to practice the principle and yet avoid harmful criticism.
I must tell you that I was overjoyed the other day when Sally, the young mother for whom we have earnestly prayed the last several weeks was back healthy and joyful from the hospital. If there was any time a holy kiss might have been in order I would have considered it. We met after the evening meeting she said to me, “I’ve been told that the ‘holy kiss’ is out, but that the ‘holy hug’ is still in order.” I agree with these sentiments.
By the way, I think that we should look carefully at Paul’s instruction here, for he did not say, “Greet one another with a Hollywood kiss,” but rather it is with a holy kiss. For Paul it must either be a holy kiss or none at all. If there is no such thing as a holy kiss, then we had better settle for a ‘holy handshake.’
Concerning the matter of eating a meal in conjunction with the Lord’s supper, we would all agree that this was the normal practice of the New Testament church. This seems clear to me from 1 Corinthians 11 (cf. especially verse 21). But if all things cannot be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), then it should be set aside. Paul made it clear that the primary purpose of the gathering of the church was not to eat a meal, but to remember the Lord (1 Cor. 11:22). A meal is preferable, but it is not absolutely vital, and must be set aside if it cannot be conducted in an orderly way.
The Bible, then, is the charter of the church, not only in the principles that it lays down, but also in its practices. There are practices which we were never intended to carry out; there may be practices which, on the basis of principle, we ought not to carry out today. But even in this the Word of God is sufficient to make this clear to us.
First of all, may I exhort you to strive for balance in the application of the principles and the practices of the New Testament. May we not be overly rigid, and yet let us avoid an overly casual and carefree attitude toward the Scriptures in the matter of church life.
Second, I believe that we need to be very careful about the things which we tenaciously hold and defend. The great danger for one who is unbending and inflexible in the matters which Scripture speak to is that they become equally rigid and inflexible in matters of preference and tradition. May God give us a continual willingness to change our opinions when Scriptures dictate that we do so, or when circumstances dictate change and the Scriptures permit it.
Finally, let me say a word about church constitutions. I have heard it said, “We have no constitution other than the Word of God.” I certainly agree with the sentiment behind that statement. But that is a statement which many other churches, and cults for that matter, would be delighted to make. I think it is important for us to clearly explain what we understand the Bible to teach on many matters, including the New Testament teaching on the church. When our understanding of the teachings of the Bible change, as I hope they will (if necessary), then our booklets will change too. This is the way it should be. But a constitution is a very difficult thing to change. In many churches people have found it almost impossible to change a constitution even when it clearly contradicted the Bible. That, I think, is why you will find no constitution, as such, in our church. And with this I personally would concur.
My unsaved friend, I have been speaking almost exclusively to Christians this morning. I believe that the Bible is completely authoritative in the matter of church. But the Bible has a word for you as well, and it is simply this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). May you be joined to His church by faith in Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:15-20 And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Matthew 23:8-12 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
As we come to the matter of leadership within the local church, there are those who would have us believe that there is no New Testament pattern for the organization and administration of the church. For example, Donald G. Miller states: “No particular structure of church life is divinely ordained.”16
Again he writes: “Any form … which the Holy Spirit can inhabit and to which He may impart the life of Christ, must be accepted as valid for the church. As all forms of life adapt themselves to their environment, so does the life of Christ by His Spirit in the church.”17
An error in Mr. Miller’s thinking, and I suspect in many of ours as well, is that he does not understand that the New Testament form of organization for the local church is based upon New Testament principle. It is that fundamental principle which provides for us the standard by which all organization and leadership in the local church must be measured which I would like to investigate in this message. I will then discuss that organizational framework for church leadership which this standard necessitates.
Incidentally, let me ask you, what do you think the fundamental principle is which is determinative for leadership within the local church? Do you know?
The fundamental principle from which church leadership and organization develop is this: Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. Now I know that most every Bible-believing church would be willing to agree with this principle as I have stated it, but I must confess that until this week, I did not really understand it as I should and I am convinced that I shall realize in the future that I do not understand it yet as I should. I fear that very few Christians understand the Headship of Christ over the church, and that even less implement this principle in the life of the church.
This principle of the Headship of Jesus Christ is so foundational and so infrequently taught, that I want to take several minutes to be sure you understand it this morning. Although the Headship of Christ is taught elsewhere in the New Testament, we find the clearest teaching in the book of Colossians. Here we can best summarize the Headship of Christ by the use of three prepositional phrases,
The phrase ‘of Him’ lays emphasis upon the Headship of Christ in that He is the ultimate source, or point of origin. We speak of the head of a river or of a body of water as its starting point. So Jesus Christ is the Head of all creation as its Creator: “For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16).
Likewise, our Lord Jesus is the Head of the church in the same sense, for He is its Creator. The church finds its origin in the person and work of the Lord Jesus: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).
The second phrase ‘through Him’ instructs us of yet another way in which the Headship of Christ is manifested. Not only is Christ the Head of creation as its originator, but also as its sustainer: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
Granted, creation would never have come into existence apart from its head, Jesus Christ, but also apart from Him it would not continue to exist, for “in Him all things hold together.” Now I am not a scientist, and before long you will all understand this, but I am told that scientists cannot really understand what it is that holds the atom together and keeps it from flying apart. Whatever this force is, I am told they call it ‘atomic glue.’ If I understand Col. 1:17 correctly Jesus Christ is the ‘atomic glue’ of creation, for it is He that continues to sustain the creation. In Him the creation finds its unity, its cohesiveness and direction and purpose. It is He who is working and directing and guiding all of creation to its intended purpose.
In a similar way, Christ is the Head of the Church as its sustainer, as well as its source. Jesus Christ as the Head of the church gives the body unity and cohesion. Just as the head coordinates and directs the physical body, coordinating every activity so as to produce one unified person, relating literally thousands of functions and impulses to the overall purpose of the body, so the Head of the church gives unity and order in the midst of great diversity. Paul tells us, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17b).
Again in Colossians we read, “and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Col. 2:19).
The third phrase ‘unto Him’ spotlights the ultimate purpose of the Headship of Christ. Not only is Jesus Christ the Head of creation in that He is the source and the sustainer of creation, but He is also its ultimate purpose for existence; He is its goal: “… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
Even God’s creation is praising the glory of its creator: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psa. 19:1). [E.g. Triumphal entry—if crowds had not praised Messiah, creation (the rocks) would have.]
The ultimate purpose of the Headship of Christ is that He might have pre-eminence in all things. That all praise and glory and honor might go to Him: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).
There is nothing very controversial about the principle that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. But there surely is room for a great deal of discussion when it comes to the outworking of this principle. Hardly any Bible-believing church would dare deny that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, but all too few do anything to practice it. We have already said that in the New Testament, particularly in the life of the Apostle Paul, principle and practice are inseparable. (1 Cor. 4:11-17). Any biblical principle must result in biblical practice. The major question for us, then, is “How is the Headship of Christ over His church practiced?” Out of this great truth that Christ is the Head of the church, I see at least two foundational and fundamental operational principles for the church. These two principles dictate to a large degree a kind of church government which does not square with what is being done by the world or by most churches.
(1) Any form of church government which gives pre-eminence to men rather than to our Lord is unbiblical. Fundamental to the concept of headship is that of preeminence. “He is also head of the body, the church … so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).
God’s purpose for Jesus Christ in being the Head of the church is that He might have the pre-eminence. Any form of church government which tends deliberately or otherwise to place men in a position of pre-eminence is contrary to God’s purpose. I don’t recall ever hearing one sermon on these very significant verses in the gospel of Matthew, where our Lord denounces the status-seeking scribes and Pharisees: “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your leader, that is, Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10).
The scribes and Pharisees loved prominence, they delighted in titles which honored them and the place of honor at public gatherings (cf. Matt. 23:5-7). Pre-eminence in the church belongs solely to our Lord. He alone is Teacher, Father, and leader. This is why our Lord forbids His disciples to take for themselves titles which would exalt them over others. Error was two-fold in Matt. 23:8-10.
Now our minds can immediately begin to think of men who are exalted in one fashion or another in churches in Dallas and throughout the world. I am not so concerned with them so much at the moment as I am with us. Are men exalted and praised and given prominence in our church? I pray that they are not. I know for myself, and I think for the others who are in a position of leadership, that we do not intend to honor men. That is why we do not have a man who is called the pastor of the church. In the ultimate sense there is only one pastor of Believers Chapel, or for that matter, of any other church which professes salvation by faith in Christ, and that is our Lord Himself. There is shepherding to be done in the church, and this shepherding is carried out by our Lord through the elders, whose work is the work of shepherding (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2), and those who have the gift of pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). Never in the New Testament do we see any kind of hierarchical ‘pecking order’ where one pastor is the ‘head pastor’ and others are assistants to him. There is only one Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and even the great Apostle Peter dares only call himself a ‘fellow elder’ (1 Peter 5:1).
The other day one of my friends told me of a church sign which he saw not very far from here. On the sign was the name of the church. Normally, as you know, there is at the bottom the name of a man, followed by the title, ‘pastor.’ On the bottom of this sign, however, was the name a man, followed by the title, ‘servant.’ I like that, for it is much closer to the teachings of the New Testament. Indeed, it is precisely what our Lord said to His disciples after He cautioned them about titles which tend to exalt one man over another in the church. “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:10-11).
The Headship of Christ, then, prohibits the exalting of anyone but our Lord Himself, for His headship demands that He have the pre-eminence.
(2) The Headship of Christ is best reflected in the rule of a plurality of elders. We have already approached this from the opposite side by saying that leadership by one person tends to exalt one man over others, while only Christ is to be exalted, for He is the Head of the church. To state the corollary to the first operational principle we must say also that the Headship of Christ is best reflected when the church is led by a plurality of elders.
We said previously that the Headship of Christ over the church was to be seen in His work of giving the body, composed of many diverse members, unity and cohesion. He is the unifying force who binds the body together. Now, how does this work out in the practical administration and leadership of the church? How, in practice, do we demonstrate the Headship of Christ to the world and the angelic hosts? Remember, we cannot divorce principle from practice. We must therefore practice the Headship of Christ organizationally, if the world is to observe that Jesus Christ directs and guides and gives unexplainable unity to His church. This is best accomplished by the church being ruled by a plurality of men, who in the New Testament, are called elders.
But why does plurality rule demonstrate the Headship of Christ? First of all, it avoids exalting men above men and giving them pre-eminence which belongs only to our Lord. Second, it is necessary because no one man has all the gifts necessary to lead the church. God has diversified His spiritual gifts, which necessitates plurality rule (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27-30). Third, and most important, plurality rule most clearly evidences the leadership of Christ over His church. We are not at all surprised when one individual is firmly convinced that his ideas ought to be followed. It is easy to have unity when only one person is involved. A man has no difficulty coming to a unanimous decision before he marries, but afterward unity comes a bit harder. You can well imagine how hard unity is to achieve when there are a group of men. If you have ever been a member of a committee, you know precisely what I mean. When a group of elders meet to discern the Lord’s guidance there is a great deal more assurance of God’s will when all come to a unanimous decision than when one man decides what is best.
I can hear some hard-headed businessman saying to himself, “Nonsense. You would never be able to get anything done, or come to any decisions that way!” Sir, you are precisely right, humanly speaking. But that is the point; we are not speaking humanly. Jesus Christ is alive and well, He is the Head of the church. He is at work in His church, guiding, directing, giving it unity, bringing it to its goal. The headship of Christ is no more apparent than when a group of stubborn, hardheaded, but godly Christian men come together, all seeking God’s guidance in a matter, and they all reach a harmonious decision.
Now what about the practice of the New Testament church—does it square with what I have just said? How was the early church guided and directed so as to know the will of the Lord, the Head of the church? Was it by the leading of one individual? Did Paul or Peter, or James dictate the will of God when His leading was needed? No! In Acts chapter 6 the church was faced with the problem of widows who were being overlooked in the daily administration of food. The apostles came to a collective decision on this vital matter, and their decision found approval by the whole congregation. The Lord’s Headship was clearly recognized. In Acts chapter 13 the Lord’s leading in the life and ministry of Paul and Barnabas was not determined individually, but collectively. In Acts chapter 15 we see the most crucial decision which the apostles and elders faced in the New Testament. Who made the decision? How was God’s leading discerned? Did Peter make the decision? Did Paul or James? No, the decision was made by the group of apostles and elders. Notice especially verse 25 and the expression, “having become of one mind” (Acts 15:25). That is how to best discern the leading of the Head of the church, and that is how we can best demonstrate His Headship in a very practical way—through leadership by a plurality of elders.
There is yet one passage of Scripture which underscores the necessity of leadership by a plurality of men. It is one which, to my knowledge, has never been clearly understood by most Christians. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20).
Most Christians think that this is some kind of promise that our Lord will be present with a group of Christians, no matter how few gather. Many small churches have consoled themselves with this passage, especially on prayer meeting night, when literally two or three have come. But the context of this verse is not that of Christians to gather as a church for worship, or even of some less formal gathering of Christians. It is a coming together for the purpose of discipline. In verses 15-17 we are instructed as to how to deal with a brother who has sinned. In verse 18 we are told, ‘Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven—and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
The ‘binding’ or ‘loosing’ refers to the judgment of those who have gathered over a matter of church discipline. When we come to verse 20 and the promise of our Lord’s presence when two or three are gathered, it is a gathering for judging a matter which may necessitate church discipline. Why does our Lord not promise His special presence when only one comes to decide a matter of discipline? It is because the Headship of Christ is best demonstrated when He convinces a plurality of men of His will.
Some may object on the basis of the Old Testament and singular leadership of Moses, David. That was in the Old Testament before the church. These men were ‘types’ of Christ, Who is the Head.
There is yet one thing which should be said concerning this principle of the Headship of Christ over His church. There is no other head of the church, other than He whose headquarters is heaven. There is no headquarters in Rome, nor at any denominational headquarters. Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.
I have given a good deal of emphasis to the headship of Christ over His church but it is a doctrine which at best receives only lip service in the church today. Christ’s headship prohibits any one man being set over duties, and it necessitates, I believe, rule at the local church level by a plurality of elders.
So far as leadership in the New Testament church is concerned there are only two offices, that of elders and deacons. There is no office of pastor; there is the work of pastoring and the gift of pastoring, but there is no office as such. No man in the New Testament is ever referred to as the pastor of a church.
In the New Testament there are two Greek words which are employed interchangeably for the office of elder (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). The Greek word presbuteros, from which we get the word presbytery or Presbyterian, is usually rendered ‘elder,’ while the word episcopos (cf. episcopalian) is rendered ‘bishop’ or overseer. The word ‘elder’ emphasizes the maturity of the man, and the dignity of his office, while the term ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’ refers more to the function of this office.
Although we have already discussed the principle which necessitates the plurality of elders, let me say that the uniform practice of the churches in the New Testament was to have a plurality of elders (Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). In 1 Timothy 3:2 the singular is widely recognized as a “generic use,” speaking of elders as a class.
The New Testament is quite specific concerning the work of elders. They are to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28); to guard (Acts 20:28-29; Titus 1:9-14); to oversee (1 Peter 5:3; Hebrews 13:7, 17); to give counsel (Acts 21:23); to handle disputes (Acts 15:2ff); to visit and pray for the sick (James 5:14) and to supervise the distribution of money (Acts 11:30)
The Scriptures lay down extensive qualifications for the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Some qualifications, such as ‘the husband of one wife’ are absolute, while others are more relative, for example ‘hospitable,’ or ‘apt to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2).
Obviously we do not have sufficient time to go into each of the qualifications for the office of elder, but let me outline the various categories into which these qualifications fall:
The Scriptures make it clear that we have an obligation toward elders. These responsibilities may be summarized as follows:
The major question in the minds of most Christians is, “How are elders appointed?” There are several passages which give us instruction in this matter. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Here we are told that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit Who appoints elders. That is the Divine side. But there is also the human side, when we read, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate (lit. know) those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction.” (1 Thess. 5:12).
Also in 1 Corinthians we read,
Now I urge you, brethren you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints, 16 that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. 17 And I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. 18 For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men (1 Cor. 16:15-18).
In these passages we are simply told to “recognize” those who are elders. We will know those who are elders because they will meet the qualifications of an elder and they will already be doing the work of an elder. We make this sound rather mystical, but we are able to discern that a man is an elder just as we recognize than an individual is gifted to teach or to recognize that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God.
The exact process, as you will note, is not specified. As I have said before, this silence of Scripture is instructive, for it tells us that there is no one way to formally recognize elders. As I understand it, this recognition is that of the church at large. Once initial elders are recognized these men will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s appointment of new elders by monitoring the congregation to see if others have emerged as elders. It is also possible that a man is no longer functioning as an elder, for a variety of reasons, family needs, business pressures, or whatever. In such a case that individual should step down. If the elders had some kind of systematic review it would more easily facilitate the recognition of new elders or a change in function of a former elder.
The deacons are the assistants to the elders in the carrying out of their responsibilities. There are no specific tasks outlined in the Scriptures for deacons, but the Greek work diakonos fundamentally conveys the idea of service. If Acts 6:1-6 is to be understood as a kind of proto-deacon situation (as I am inclined to take it), then the deacons are to relieve the elders of tasks which would detract them from a ministry of prayer and teaching (Acts 6:4).
It is most interesting that the qualifications for deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13) are almost identical with those for elders, indicating the importance of their ministry. It is no surprise when a deacon is recognized as an elder.
Let me say just a few words in conclusion and application.
First, Paul commends those who desire the office of overseer: “ It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).
I know that many of you are gun-shy on this matter; you are awe-struck by the magnitude of men who are elders in this ministry, but Paul commends the desire to be an elder. There is much eldering that needs to be done here as well as in the new ministry to be established.
Second, these qualifications which Paul gives us for elders and deacons are qualities which every Christian man, woman and child should desire in his or her life. They are, in the final analysis, the work of God the Holy Spirit. May God make of us the kind of man and woman which these qualities describe.
God never requires anything of us for which He does not make provision. God’s provision is found in His Word and in His Spirit. May God bring these qualities into your life and mine.
Finally, would you pray for us, that God will raise up leaders, elders and deacons who meet the requirements of His word.
1 Corinthians 11:3-10 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 14:33-35 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
1 Timothy 5:10 having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.
Titus 2:3-5 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored.
On the 455th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg, a group of women posted on the doors of 12 Los Angeles churches theses intended to bring the contemporary women’s liberation movement into the life of the Church. Their statement repudiated what they called the primitive thinking of the Apostle Paul.18
If the women’s liberation movement has done anything for the church of Jesus Christ, it has placed the spotlight on the question of the role of women in the church. It has demanded that we speak to an issue which many have attempted to sweep under the proverbial carpet. I have to say that as I approach this subject I feel something like a professor that I heard about some time ago. It was during the Second World War and the prisoners of war of the Allied Forces in a particular prison camp decided to organize some activities which would keep the men mentally alert and active. One course that was offered was “American History.” That in itself is nothing particularly novel or interesting, but what was unique was that this course was taught by a Britisher. They called the course “American History from a British Point of View.” That is somewhat the way I feel this morning as I approach the subject of the role of women in the church, from a man’s point of view.
For the sake of the women, particularly any who may be inclined in the direction of the liberation movement, I want to say that it is not my intention to harass the liberation movement—neither is it my intention to defend it. There are some causes which this movement has taken up which, in my opinion, are just and noble. I personally believe that women should be paid the same amount for their labor as men. I believe that single, widowed, or divorced women should have equal credit privileges.
But these matters are not the major concern of the Scriptures nor are they the subject of my message, so I will not address myself to them. The question I shall attempt to deal with this morning pertains to the role of women in the church, our church in particular. What does the Word of God say to us in this matter of women and their function in the church?
Whenever the subject of women in the church arises, it is always the Apostle Paul whose name is mentioned first. Surely we know that Paul spoke more frequently and more pointedly to this question than any other New Testament figure. One could almost be amused at the ingenious methods which men and women have employed to do away with Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church.
Some throw out every passage which they disagree with as unauthentic. Such is the case with William O. Walker, Jr.,19 He says that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is actually a compilation of three separate pericopae, all of which are not Pauline. He then goes on to throw out the epistles to Timothy and Titus, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, and the related portions in Ephesians and Colossians, which leaves us only with Galatians 3:28:20 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Others admit the passages are genuinely Pauline, but that Paul was either unclear,21 completely biased,22 or mistaken.23 We are not shocked when we are told about Ernest Kaseman, “ … who, after a lecture on St. Paul, was confronted by a woman who said, ‘Are you saying that Paul was wrong?’ Kasemann replied: ‘Even being an apostle is no excuse for bad theology!’”24
But it is most disappointing when men such as Dr. Paul Jewett, in attempting to explain 1 Tim. 2:12-15 say that Paul was mistaken, “that he hadn’t gotten his rabbinical training squared up with the idea of freedom and equality he talked about in Galatians.”25
By far, the most popular approach to Paul’s teaching on the role of women by evangelicals is to write it all off as culturally oriented, for a particular people and occasion: “Thus, the focus of Paul’s concern with the covering of the prophetic women’s head would appear as an issue of concern in his day, rather than a general principle of worship.”26
Lest we should become puffed up because we take the Scriptures seriously and literally, let me also say that there has been a great deal of injustice done by Christian men whose egos are slightly over-enlarged and who have used the teachings of Paul to domineer and dictate their wives. Such was never the intent of the Scriptures. We, as Christian men, must recognize that the Scriptures speak clearly not only in the matter of the submission of women, but in the sacrificial and loving leadership of the men—a subject which has been too little dealt with by us, I fear.
Paul has become the scapegoat for the biblical teaching on the role of women, but what Paul taught and practiced was consistent with the practice of our Lord and was based upon the teaching of the Old Testament as well as that which was revealed to him by our Lord concerning the church (cf. Eph. 3:1-13). We will begin our study by observing the cultural backdrop of the view of women in New Testament times; then, we will take note of the practice of both our Lord and Paul in the matter of women, and then we will expound the principle upon which these practices were based, and finally to some practical outworkings of this principle for us today.
Although this has been said previously, it is important to remember that the New Testament teachings were liberating to the women of New Testament days.
A. W. Verrall, the great classical scholar, once said that one of the chief diseases of which ancient civilization died was a low view of women.27 … The Jews had a low view of women. In his morning prayer there was a sentence in which a Jewish man gave thanks that God had not made him ‘a Gentile, a slave or a woman.’ In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely her husband’s possession to do with as he willed.28
Aristotle once said, “Woman may be said to be an inferior to man.”
In New Testament times, “(Women) received no education, not even teaching in their religious writings, the Torah. One rabbi who lived at that time said, ‘Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman. Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her lasciviousness.”29
Much could be said in the way of the elevated status which Jesus and the apostles (Paul) gave to women, but the subject of our discussion must be limited to the role of women in the church.
Women played a large part in the ministry of our Lord. Some of His closest friends and faithful followers were women (cf. Matt. 27:55-56; Luke 23:49, 55). They were the last to leave our Lord’s cross and the first to see Him resurrected (Luke 23:55; 24:1ff.). There were women who followed Jesus as He traveled about, and who supported Him and His disciples (Luke 8:1-3). If perchance we are inclined to think that the role of women was primarily in the kitchen, or preferably in the kitchen, we need to be reminded that Jesus commended Mary for sitting at His feet, while Martha was obsessed with fixing the meal (Luke 10:38-42).
We must also recall what women did not do to minister when they accompanied our Lord. Our Lord did not choose women to be among the 12 apostles. He did not send women to teach, preach or heal. So far as we know He did not invite women to the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:20. When the great commission was given in Matthew 28:16-20, it was given to men. In brief, women did minister to our Lord and with our Lord, but never in a capacity of leadership or of authority such as teaching or preaching.
Likewise the Apostle Paul had high regard for women. Many of those greeted in the last chapter of Romans were women. Phoebe was especially mentioned as one who had greatly helped the church at Cenchrea (verses 1-2). Paul’s teaching on the marriage relationship greatly enhanced the position of the married woman (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). But once again we see that women were not allowed to assume positions of leadership or authority within the church. In 1 Timothy Paul wrote:
Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet (1 Tim. 2:9-12).
In 1 Corinthians we read:
As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:33b-35).
The uniform practice of the churches; then, was that women should not take leadership in the church meeting. They were not to teach or to exercise authority, nor were they to engage in questions. They are to subject themselves, as the law teaches, Paul said.
No one, save the rankest liberal, would disagree with the fact that it was the practice of the Apostle Paul that women could not take a leadership role in the church meeting. Most, however, would be inclined to say that the reasons for this practice were purely cultural, and therefore inapplicable to the church today. With this we must disagree, for Paul does not base his instructions on culture, but upon principles which are related to the purpose of the church and to the teachings of the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians Paul’s teaching is consistent with the ‘law’ (14:34). In 1 Timothy the silence of women is established upon the teachings of the early chapters of Genesis (1 Tim. 2:13-14). We will only understand the necessity of women not leading or being in authority in the church when we understand the principle which underlies this practice. That principle is that God has assigned man the responsibility of reflecting or demonstrating the headship of Jesus Christ in marriage and in the church.
It is fundamental that we understand that the church is God’s showplace. God is using the church to demonstrate truth, both to the angelic hosts as well as to the world. In Ephesians we read: “in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
In the fifth chapter of Ephesians we are told that the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church is reflected in the husband-wife relationship in marriage. Marriage, the church, and the family are God’s object lessons. This being the case, husband, wives, and children all have a role to carry out in order to properly demonstrate what God wishes to communicate.
In marriage and in the church God has assigned man with the responsibility of reflecting the headship of Jesus Christ over the church. To the woman God has assigned the role of demonstrating the submission of the church to her Head, Jesus Christ. The foundation truth behind the role of women in the church, then, is that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Man has the responsibility to play the role of the head of the woman, and the woman is to submit to her head. This is precisely what Paul said in Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23a).
Again we see this taught in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”
Before we engage in the more controversial aspect of headship, let us think for a moment about the headship of God the Father over the Son. Our Lord constantly sought the will of the Father rather than acting independently—something which Satan attempted to get Him to do at His temptation. In the Garden of Gethsemane our Lord submitted to God’s will for Him to die, in spite of His human desire to avoid it. Submission to the headship of the Father resulted in the Son being obedient to the will of the Father for Him to become incarnate, so in the process, our Lord ‘veiled’ His heavenly glory by taking upon Himself a physical body (cf. Phil. 2:6-8). He sought not to bring glory to Himself, but to the Father.
In the case of our Lord we should see that His submission and humiliation was God’s way of blessing and bringing glory to Himself (Phil. 2:8-11). We should also understand that the submission of the Son to the Father did not in any way imply inferiority on the part of the Son to the Father. Both the Son and the Father are equally God. The Son is no less God because He submitted Himself to the will of the Father and sought to glorify Him. The submission of the Son to the Father was a functional submission, necessary for the unified activity of the Godhead.
Such is the case with the woman’s submission to the husband. It does not imply in any way inferiority on the part of the woman to the man. The wife’s submission to her husband is her indication of her submission to God (Eph. 5:22). As the Son veiled His glory in the incarnation, so the wife is to veil her glory (1 Cor. 11:2-16) in order to bring glory to her husband. The woman is not to take positions of leadership in the church because God has chosen men to reflect leadership over the church, and since the church is the bride of Christ of which Christ is the Head, so the man is to exercise headship over his bride, his wife.
Now let me make a few general comments about this matter of headship and submission on the basis of what I have already said:
(1) Headship and submission are necessary whenever there is plurality in order to have unity. Such is the case within the Trinity; how could we expect otherwise in marriage and in the church?
(2) Headship and submission are assigned roles, not on the basis of worth, but for the purpose of acting out the truth of God.
(3) Headship necessitates leadership and pre-eminence; submission necessitates obedience and submission.
(4) Headship and submission are universal. They are found in the Godhead. Man is to submit to the headship of Christ; woman is to submit to the headship of man. No man or woman is exempt from the necessity of submission to headship. The principle remains constant, only the application varies.
(6) The basic issue is whether or not you are willing to assume the role which God has assigned to you as a man, woman, or child. Elisabeth Elliot Leitch, in an excellent article entitled, “A Christian View of Women’s Liberation” had some excellent comments on this matter of accepting our assigned roles:
The only road to fulfillment, that is, to freedom, for human beings, male or female, is an apprehension of what we are made for.30
Accepting our places means making it our business first to understand the cosmic assignment and then, here and now, to find out what we’re good at, and if it is not inimical to God’s order, to do it.
We too, are allowed to glorify God and we glorify Him by being women. The more womanly we are the more perfectly God is praised.31
The fall of Satan was the result of his refusal to submit to the Headship of God. Satan was not content with being the most beautiful of God’s creatures; he wanted to be like God (Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:12-17). When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden he enticed her to rebel against her assigned role and to be ‘like God’ (Gen. 3:5). That is Satan’s way, attempting men and women to rebel against the role to which God has assigned them, to act independently, to be fulfilled, but in some way other than the way God has prescribed. In every case where man chooses Satan’s path rather than God’s, he finds frustration and bondage, but the one who submits to God finds freedom and fulfillment (cf. John 8:31-32).
What are the practical ramifications of the woman carrying out her role under the headship and leadership of men in the church? Clearly, a woman is not to take any position of leadership and authority in the church meeting. Again, it seems obvious that a woman should never allow herself to be in a position of leadership or authority over men. The Headship of Jesus Christ, His leadership over the church, is to be carried out by men.
I must say that this might very well mean that leadership and teaching might not be as good under the leadership of men. In some churches I am certain that there are godly women who could do a better job of preaching than the pastor. But the church of Jesus Christ is to operate on the basis of principle, not pragmatism.
I would understand that women are not to speak in the church meeting whenever in so doing they ‘have the floor.’ Surely we would not forbid women from participating in congregational singing. Personally I would not hesitate to allow a woman to sing in a duet or ensemble in which a man is participating, but I would be reluctant to ask a woman to sing a solo in the church meeting, since to sing is to teach (Col. 3:16).
So much has been said in the past about what a woman cannot do that I have not spent a great deal of time reiterating those things. What really matters is what a woman can do in order to minister in the church. Let me make several suggestions.
First, a married woman can find fulfillment in the church by doing what she was designed to do. We have already said that it is not permitted for a woman to rule or have authority in the church, since this role has been assigned by God to men. I want you to notice a rather significant passage in the book of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26).
Did you notice that God said ‘Let them rule’? Man and woman were to rule over God’s creation, and thus both were created in God’s image. Woman’s subordinate role no more keeps her from participating in ruling the creation than our Lord’s subordination to the Father restricts Him from rule. But how is the woman to participate in ruling over creation? That is given in the second chapter of Genesis: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him’” (Gen. 2:18). Man was not complete without woman. God created woman for man, Eve for Adam, in order that she might complete him, and more importantly here, that she might help him to carry out his intended task. Woman does rule, but as the helper of her husband. No wonder it is assumed in the New Testament that elders are married. No wonder that in 1 Timothy 3:11 a part of the qualification of a deacon, and I think elders, too, is that their wives be godly women.
Here we come upon one of the great problems of the liberation movement, for it seems to me that both men and women are facing an identity crisis in which they want to know who they are. The difficulty is that men and women today refuse to marry and thereby to become one flesh. Men and women want to marry without losing their identity, but as I view the two becoming one flesh both the husband and the wife find their identity now as one flesh. Too many couples want the advantages of married life without any sacrifice so far as their individual rights are concerned.
(1) Woman is not to find her fulfillment in doing her own thing, going her own way, even in having her own ministry; she is to find fulfillment by helping her husband to rule and to lead. She should view herself as her husband’s helper in ruling the home, as well as in ruling and ministering in the church. All too often husbands and wives are going their own individual ways, even in church ministry, when they should be serving and ministering together. Now I think that it is good and proper for men to minister to men, and women to women, but we need a great deal more ministry on a couple to couple and family to family basis. Women should find their ministry in conjunction with their husband’s gifts and abilities and desires. The motivation for the godly wife should be to advance her husband and his ministry. One aspect of this is staying out of his way—allowing him to assume leadership in the home and in the church. The other part is encouraging your husband to discover his spiritual gifts, and then seeking to discover how your gifts compliment and reinforce his. Far too many of us have been obsessed with ‘our ministry’ when we should be seeking to help others discover their ministry. The amazing thing for the wife is that as she does this she will have a ministry for herself as well.
(2) A woman will fulfill her ministry in the church when she operates in the sphere which God has ordained for her. The primary sphere for the woman which God has ordained is the home. Now I know that some wives are better mechanics than their husbands, and that some husbands are better cooks than their wives. But this does not do away with the fact that God has ordained the home as the primary sphere of the woman. It should not be necessary to document this, but I think perhaps I should. In his instructions to Timothy, Paul has this word concerning young widows: “Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach” (1 Tim. 5:14). Notice these women are told to keep house. We find a similar expression in Paul’s letter to Titus where the older women are to teach the younger women to: “… love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored” (Titus 2:4b-5).
If there were ever a picture of the fully ‘liberated woman’ it is that drawn for us in Proverbs chapter 31. It is obvious that this woman is given a great deal of latitude and responsibility by her husband, but it is also clear that the central base of operations is the home. This is the sphere which God has appointed for the woman. The home and its related responsibilities are even the central thrust of the ministry of the woman who is more mature and perhaps gifted to teach. We just read the portion of Scripture from Titus 2:4-5 where the older women are to teach the younger women to be good wives and mothers, and housekeepers. It is a sad thing when young girls are raised in Christian homes which teach them to disdain the womanly arts of food preparation, sewing, and rearing children. There is a desperate need for this kind of ministry today as many young mothers did not have the opportunity to observe their mothers being housewives, because they were out working to support the family.
Now I can hear some of those single or divorced women saying, “But what about me? I’m not married. What can I do?” My answer, in short, is this, do what you see the godly women doing in the New Testament. In the New Testament we are taught and shown by example that we have an obligation to those who are orphans and widows, to those who are sick and destitute. Although Timothy is instructed to teach the older and younger men, and the older women, he is not told to teach the younger women (Titus 2:1-8). Women can surely minister more effectively to other women. Notice with me the requirements which Paul sets down for the widow who is to be put on the role of those who are regularly supported by the church: “Having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Tim. 5:10).
In Acts chapter nine we are told of Dorcas, who worked with the widows making garments, I would assume for use either by the needy or by those who ministered in the church.
According to the New Testament women cannot be leaders in the church, but they can help their husbands lead. Women should concentrate their efforts in the sphere of the home, and they should concentrate in the areas of ministry and service to others. Fulfillment is knowing your assigned role and then doing it to the glory of God. May God raise up godly women who will minister to and through their husbands, young women who will minister to those in need, older women who will minister to younger women, teaching them to be godly women and wives and mothers.
19 William O. Walker, “1 Cor. 11:2-16 and Paul’s View of Women,” Journal of Biblical Literature, March, 1975, pp. 94-110.
When we come to the matter of finances in the New Testament church I think we all tend to tighten up a little bit, for inevitably it deals with something which is very dear to the hearts of most Americans—money. I, too, am a bit apprehensive, for I recall all too well an encounter between a friend of mine and his pastor. The pastor had just given a rousing sermon on stewardship, and so far as I know, attempted to stir up the troops to give even greater sums of money into the church treasury.
My friend, whose name is Carl, and who is quite outspoken, was not too impressed with the sermon. When Carl got to the doorway there was the pastor shaking hands with those who were leaving. The pastor, whose name was Vince, knew that if there was anyone in the church who would level with him about his message that morning it was Carl. With very little prompting Carl concisely summarized the matter with this statement, “Vince, the way I look at it, your sermons cost me twenty-five bucks a piece, and frankly, Vince, you and I both know they’re not worth it.” With this in mind let us carefully proceed with this matter of finances in the New Testament church.
From the amount of time spent on this matter of finances in some churches you might conclude that it is the only matter of importance, at least to the preachers. But in spite of the undue emphasis upon money in some churches, money and giving is a vital part of New Testament Christianity. Certainly we see this in the second chapter of Acts where the newly-born church is described:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:42-45).
I would suspect that when we read of ‘wonders and signs’ taking place in the church we would think of miraculous healings and such, but in my mind the greatest miracle is when naturally self-seeking, materialistic men and women begin to sell their property and share with everyone their hard-earned assets. Now here is a true miracle. How many people do you know who are willing to renounce possession of their material goods and share with those who have material needs? How many Christians like this do you know of? As I said, here, indeed, is a greater wonder, a manifestation of some great change which has taken place because of the Lord Jesus and the coming of His Spirit to the church.
Probably the major reason why Christians have so much trouble with this matter of money and material goods is that they have a wrong view of it. Before we go any further, let’s be sure that we have a right view of material blessings.
(1) Contrary to current thought in some churches, money and material goods are not evil, but a blessing from God. In 1 Timothy chapter four and verses 1-5 Paul had to caution Timothy about those false teachers who would forbid marriage and certain foods as evil. To the contrary, Paul said, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Later in this same epistle Paul wrote: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
(2) Worldly riches are not only for us to enjoy, they are also for us to share with those in need: “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
In the early chapters of Acts the actions of the Christians of selling their goods and meeting the needs of other Christians proved in a tangible way the reality of their faith and the strength of the bond between Christians.
(3) Money is a stewardship. Rather than viewing money as an indication of spirituality, or that spirituality guarantees prosperity (1 Tim. 6:5), a misconception common to many in New Testament times and today, it was to be understood as a stewardship, something that is to be wisely used and invested, rather than hoarded or lavished upon ourselves (cf. James 5:1-6; 1 Tim. 6:18-19; Luke 16:1-13; 19:11-27).
(4) Material possessions in the Bible are never viewed as an end in themselves. Pursuing after riches has caused great heartache and difficulty to many Christians (1 Tim. 6:7-10). Material goods are to be understood rather as a means, a means by which we can prove our love for God (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5; Luke 18:18-25), and our love for our brethren (Luke 10:25-37).
(5) Our possessions don’t belong solely to us. One final observation we should make about material goods from the early chapters of Acts is that the Christians did not regard their possessions as belonging solely to them. That is they did not claim their right of ownership. Listen to this description from the historian, Luke: “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32).
Now I know that some have said this was a form of communism, but surely that is not what Luke has described to us. First of all, there is no compulsory collection of goods and money from anyone. This is most clear in Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (Acts 5:4a).
The land belonged to Ananias and Sapphira. They could do with it what they wished. They did not have to sell the land, or to give any part of the proceeds to be used for the poor. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was that of deception, lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4).
Second, the text does not say that everyone sold everything they had and pooled it all together. It says that no one made selfish use of his right of ownership. I want you to see that actual ownership did not change except in the case of property that was sold. Luke said, “… not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own …” (Acts 4:32).
Property still belonged to its owner, but the owner did not claim exclusive rights to his property. This was because the congregation was ‘of one heart and soul.’ There was such love and concern for one another that whatever anyone had that someone else needed was his to use. To put this into more modern terms, the slave owner might loan his Cadillac to his Christian slave to take the children to school or to go shopping. One individual might loan his rototiller to his Christian neighbor who did not own one. The man with a large house would volunteer to host a large gathering of Christians that could not fit comfortably into another house. Someone who had an extra room might make it available for visiting Christians to stay in.
Material blessings, then, are not simply for us to enjoy, but for us to share with others who are in need; they are a tangible means of expressing Christian love and unity to believers and to demonstrate the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How different the budgets of most churches today are from that of the New Testament. In the New Testament times things were far less complicated, so far as the Scriptures inform us. Today, much of the money given to the church goes for physical facilities, church buildings, parking lots, maintenance, salaries, staff and the like. Now I realize that many of these things are necessary and good, but in the fact of these budgetary needs we may have lost sight of what should be a priority in our giving.
Before I give the reasons for giving in the New Testament, it is essential for me to first of all say that people never gave for the purpose of tithing in the New Testament. Tithing was a practice specified in the Old Testament law, and was not carried over into the New Testament. Our Lord never required it, nor did His apostles and the church ever practice it. We are not under law, but under grace. Now some of you may use this as an excuse for not giving, and that would be wrong. If in the Old Testament, a portion belonged to God, in the New Testament everything is His, and we are stewards of it, who will some day give account for (of?) our stewardship (cf. Luke 19:11-27; 1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:10).
Now concerning the reasons for which Christians gave.
(1) By far, the greatest proportion of the Scriptures in the New Testament (by my estimates, nearly 90%) have to do with money given to meet the physical needs of the saints. In some ways it seems amusing, but by and large, it is pathetic that the passages which are used to encourage people to give are specifically addressed to the matter of meeting the needs of the poor saints. In the past several weeks I have heard individuals exhort Christians to give to a Christian radio station and to a Christian college, both noble and worthy works, but they were exhorting us to give from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, a passage where Paul is exhorting the saints to give to the poor in Jerusalem. Every instance of a church collection being taken (so far as I can discern) in the book of Acts is for the poor. The passage in 1 Corinthians 16:1-9 is directed to those who have made a commitment to give to the poor. Now there are other passages dealing with giving, but the vast majority have to do with the poor.
In Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the specific area of concern for the needy is the widows of the church. In Acts there was some kind of daily provision of food for them, and in 1 Timothy Paul taught that some of the older widows should be regularly supported by the church.
Perhaps the greatest area of neglect, however, is in the area of one church giving financial assistance to another. If the unity of the local body of believers is demonstrated by the believers of one another, even more so is the unity of the universal body of believers demonstrated by the more prosperous church giving to the financial needs of the needy church. Such was the case when on at least one occasion the Macedonian and Achaian churches gave to the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-9; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). In my estimation, this is one very great area of opportunity for affluent churches to minister to churches in Guatemala and other parts of the world when some great disaster or need arises.
(2) A second area of responsibility in church giving is that of giving to those who minister. Paul’s words are very clear in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).
Again Paul wrote to Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
Another interesting passage, stressing the individual responsibility toward those who minister, is found in Galatians where Paul writes: “And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches,” (Gal. 6:6).
Although money is not excluded, I do not think that it is primarily in Paul’s mind. This seems to be the case since in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 the obligation of determining the amount of salary received by a minister (or teaching elder) is upon the leadership of the church. In Galatians Paul seems to be stressing the obligation of those who are ministered to, to minister in return with ‘all good things.’ I now see the emphasis to be upon the words ‘all’ and ‘good.’ Not only should the servant be worthy of his wages, but he should share in the ‘good things’ of life, which those who are taught possess. If I understand Paul’s inference, this would mean that the farmer might share some of his ‘good things’ such as meat or potatoes, even black-eyed peas. I know from personal experience that some have shared tickets to see the Dallas Cowboys and to go to Six Flags. These are expressions of appreciation to those who minister. As the teacher shares with the church the blessings of the Word of God, the congregation shares of its material blessings.
Now perhaps you think I am putting in a bit of a plug for myself. You should read further in the Galatians 6 passage and you will see that these ‘good things’ should be shared not only with those who teach, but with all believers, and even the unsaved, “let us do good to all men, and especially …” (cf. v. 10).
(3) Finally, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, there is the giving of funds to those who minister beyond the confines of our local church. The Philippian church is a wonderful example of those who greatly desired to help Paul in a tangible way in his ministry of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only did they send money (Phil. 1:5; 4:15ff), but they sent Epaphroditus as well (Phil. 2:25-30). What a wonderful encouragement and help both were to Paul. The Apostle John likewise encourages Christians to minister in a material way to those preachers of the gospel who are passing by our way:
Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they bear witness to your love before the church, and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow-workers with the truth (3 John 5-8).
These, then, are the New Testament reasons for giving: to meet the needs of those who lack, both in the local congregation and in the church at large, to care for the widows, to minister to those who minister to us, and to participate in the ministry of those who minister to the church at large. Whatever other financial needs we may have, these, it would seem to me, must be high priorities in our giving.
In these days of bake sales, church-wide canvassing, bazaars, and the like,32 it is imperative that we take a closer look at this matter of the collection and distribution of funds in the New Testament.
When we come to this matter of the collection of money in the church I am reminded of the story of a church that was attempting to raise funds to support a particular ministry.
Two sisters called upon a member and asked him for a donation. The member exclaimed, “I can’t give anything. I owe nearly everybody in this town already.” “But,” said one of the sisters, “don’t you think you owe the Lord something, too?” “I do, sister,” said the man, “But He ain’t pushing me like my other creditors are.”33
Apparently this gentleman hasn’t been to very many churches, for the church seems to have developed ways of leaning on its members for money which makes professional fund-raisers look like amateurs. This is a far cry from the practice of the apostles in the New Testament. From the practice of the New Testament church we learn several principles concerning the collection of money.
(1) The Apostle Paul had no reservations about making the needs of others known. When it became apparent that there would be great needs in the church at Jerusalem there was no hesitancy to make these needs known to those who were able to help (cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1ff; 2 Cor. 8-9). Paul also encouraged the church to meet the needs of Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Zenas and Apollos (Titus 3:13-14).
(2) Although Paul never hesitated to make the needs of others known and solicit help for them, he never did this for himself. In Philippians Paul taught that we are to “… let our (your) requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6) Paul had learned to be content with little or much (Phil. 4:12) and although he accepted the gift of the Philippians gratefully, he in no way solicited this gift or future gifts (cf. Phil. 4:10-20).
(3) Paul not only made the needs of others known, he strongly encouraged the saints to give to meet the needs of others (Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:6-10). Paul’s encouragement is to be found throughout chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians. Personally, I see no reason why the leadership of the church should not continue the practice of informing and encouraging the church in this matter of giving to those in need.
(4) Finally, although there is strong encouragement for individuals to give to the needs of others there is absolutely no pressure or underhanded tactics to induce people to give. In 2 Corinthians we see that Paul encouraged the saints to give to the aid of the saints in Jerusalem. Apparently they had made some kind of commitment nearly a year previous to Paul’s second recorded epistle to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:10). They had been saving up for the purpose of making a contribution to the poor in Jerusalem, each week setting aside an amount, for when Paul would come with others to carry this gift to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-5). Paul deliberately directed that the collection be taken before he arrived (1 Cor. 16:2), I think because he wanted their giving to be strictly to the Lord, and not to give just for the sake of pleasing Paul. Paul made it very clear that his encouragement to give was not a command, but an exhortation (2 Cor. 8:8).
What a far cry today’s fund-raising is from New Testament days. Some churches hire professional fund-raisers, who keep a large portion for themselves. Others appeal to the pride of the giver, or offer to him some kind of public acclaim or recognition for his gift, a direct violation of our Lord’s instruction that we are ‘not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing’ in matters of giving (Matt. 6:3-4). Some unashamedly use methods which come straight from Madison Avenue, first of all getting the potential giver to take some forward steps, to get him, in effect, to say yes several times, pre-conditioning him to say yes to giving. They may have you sign your name on a card, insisting that you fill in no amount, just your name. Then while all heads are bowed you are to then and there make a pledge of whatever amount you should give. The decision is to be made in the heat of emotional fervor, a commitment which nearly all have second thoughts about later when they have had time to think things over. They insist that you make a commitment right now, rather than to go home and discuss it, pray about it, look at your financial status and consider your obligations and priorities.
The Apostle Paul encouraged the saints to decide to give to help the needy in Jerusalem, but he did not ask them to give what they did not have (2 Cor. 8:12), but each week, as the Lord had prospered, a decision was to be made and funds were to be set aside (1 Cor. 16:1-2). This is New Testament giving, deliberate, systematic, appropriate to our income and our financial status at the moment, cheerfully given.
Now concerning the distribution of funds, again, the New Testament gives us some clear guidelines. By and large money was distributed through the church. The money was collected for the needy in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). In the earliest days of the church the proceeds of the sale of properties was laid at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-35), and until the matter became overwhelming, distribution seemed to be the responsibility of the apostles (cf. Acts 6:1-6).
Now listen carefully, I said money was given through the church, not to the church. There is considerable difference, I believe. Ultimately, money given to those in need is given to the Lord as an act of worship (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). Money is never really given to the church, but through the church, the church being the disbursing and distributing agency. Of course, we can see the wisdom in this. Who is more qualified to make wise decisions about the disbursing of funds than the elders? Who should have more knowledge of the real and legitimate needs of the members of their body than the elders? But so far as I understand the New Testament, people knew what their money was going to be used for when they gave it. Although the specific individuals who would receive funds were not known, nor the exact amount each would receive, people gave through the church to the church in need, and that church distributed these funds. I am sure that people gave without always knowing exactly how their money was being spent, but so far as the evidence of the Scriptures is concerned, there is no recorded ‘offering’ to which people gave without having any idea how it was to be used.
Giving a certain percentage of our money to the church without any knowledge of how it is to be used is a temptation for it relieves us of the soul-searching decisions as to how it can best be used. But so far as I understand the New Testament, Christians were responsible as stewards of God’s resources to give wisely and knowingly.
Priority in the distribution of funds is always given to those who are believers, in Jesus Christ. In Acts chapter 11 Agabus, one of the prophets who had come down from Jerusalem, prophesied that there would be a great famine all over the world (v. 28), and yet the collection was sent exclusively for the saints who lived in Judaea (v. 29). Certainly the unbelievers were in dire need, too, but the money was sent for the needs of the saints. This priority to saints is consistently taught and practiced in the New Testament. In Galatians Paul taught: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Distribution of funds was on the basis of two factors, need and ministry. Funds in Acts were disbursed ‘as any had need’ (2:45; 4:35). Widows who could be supported by relatives were not to be put on the church role for regular support (1 Tim. 5:3-16, cf. especially vss. 3, 5, 8, 16). Although Paul could have claimed the right of support (1 Cor. 9:5-14) while he ministered among the Thessalonians, he did not do so partially because there were greater needs within the church (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6-15). Rather than be a burden on the church, Paul worked himself, night and day (2 Thess. 3:8) in order to minister to the needs of others.
Need, then, is the highest priority in giving, so far as I understand it. If there were pressing needs which could not otherwise be met, I think it would be best for myself to get a job to support my own family and needs, so that money which could otherwise gratefully be accepted for my ministry might be dispersed to meet the needs of others unable to support themselves. When such conditions do not exist I would understand that those who minister should be supported in their ministry based upon the quantity and quality of their ministry (1 Tim. 5:17-18) and upon their individual needs (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5; Phil. 1:5; 4:15f; 2 Thess. 3:6-15).
The only giving which is biblical giving is properly motivated. Although the passage in 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 is specially related to the matter of giving to the poor in Jerusalem, there are nevertheless some important principles related to giving which I believe relate to all Christian giving.
(1) Biblical giving is never done out of constraint, but always done willingly and cheerfully. Paul instructs: “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
(2) Biblical giving is to be done thoughtfully and purposefully. All too often our conception of giving is that we sit in a church service and suddenly are jolted by the fact that the offering plate is on its way down the pew. We quickly fumble in our wallet or purse and snatch out something to put in the plate as it passes by. I do not see that kind of giving in the Scriptures. Rather there is a decision to give made in advance of the actual giving. Then, systematically and thoughtfully a decision is made as to how much should be given to the Lord: “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Cor. 16:2).
As I understand this passage the decision to give has been made previously. The decision of how much to give is dependent upon one’s financial status at that point. Every individual is to consider his financial condition and then determine how much he will set aside for giving.
I wonder if this wouldn’t be a rather exciting adventure in the matter of giving for us to practice. Husband and wife can sit down together and discuss what amount they can designate to the Lord’s work. If you are paid weekly, this would probably be done weekly. If monthly, then I would think once a month would be the way to handle this matter. Each of our children, if they are given an allowance, or if they have earned money in one way or another, should be encouraged to make a similar decision. The amount in each case can be discreetly and privately turned over to the appropriate agency, so that this matter is one between ourselves and the Lord.
(3) Finally, giving is to be carried out realistically and proportionately. As Paul made clear in 2 Corinthians 8:12 we are to give out of what we have, not what we do not have. If there has been a change in our income or perhaps in expenditures for necessities our giving will likely reflect this. Although we may not agree with the source of this statement, there is some degree of truth in its sentiment: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It might not work in communism, but it does work in Christianity.
Since I always desire to end on a positive note, let me conclude by reminding you of some of the many benefits that result in Christian giving.
(1) Christian giving is a blessing to others in that it expresses our deep love for them in Jesus Christ, and in addition, it meets very real needs. It is then God’s way of providing for the needs of His people. The gift of the Christians at Antioch met the physical needs of the Judean saints in time of famine, but it was also a tangible expression of the unity of the body of Christ which encompasses Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor alike.
(2) Christian giving is a witness to the unbelieving world of the reality of the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, a power which even conquers a man’s wallet. Throughout the early chapters of Acts this caring for and sharing with one another is linked with a powerful witness to unbelievers. Notice these words of the writer, Luke: “And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of lands or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales” (Acts 4:33-34).
(3) Christian giving brings praise and glory to God, especially the praise which goes up to God from the one who is ministered to. Paul told the Corinthian saints:
For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all (2 Cor. 9:12-13).
(4) Christian giving not only demonstrates Christian fellowship, but in many ways deepens it. The Apostle Paul referred to the gift of the Philippians as their ‘fellowship,’ and such it was for it demonstrated their common participation in the proclamation of the gospel (Phil. 1:5). But Paul says that sharing deepens the relationship between the giver and the recipient: “While they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you” (2 Cor. 9:14).
At the outset of Acts chapter 11 the Judean Jews called Peter on the carpet for preaching to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10). What a difference there must have been in the attitude of the Judean saints after they received the gift from the Antiochian saints mentioned at the end of chapter 11.
(5) Finally, Christian giving is a great blessing to the giver, for he has the great joy of knowing he has been God’s instrument to minister to His own, and he has the opportunity to see God provide for his own needs as precipitated by his generosity. Paul actually promises God’s provision for us to help others, for he writes:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; as it is written, “He scattered abroad, He gave to the poor, His righteousness abides forever.” Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality (2 Cor. 9:8-11a).
Again, Paul writes to the Philippians, who had generously given to him in his need: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
My Christian friend, have you discovered the joy of giving? It is one of the most satisfying experiences in the Christian life. It really is better to give than to receive. May I encourage you to become very sensitive to this matter of Christian giving. One means that many Christians have found exciting and fulfilling is to establish a separate bank account, just as Paul described in 1 Corinthians 16, specifically for the purpose of meeting the needs of others as they arise. As you begin to accumulate a little money in that account you will find yourself much more anxious to give, much more conscious of needs, much more prayerful about how that money should be spent.
For far too many Christian homes there has been no real excitement in Christian living, no real opportunity to experience New Testament Christianity. Our wages are relatively certain, our health and lives are insured, our economy is supposed to improve. There is no greater experience than for a Christian to give so much that he must look to God to provide. Many of us feel far too secure and far too comfortable for our own good. May I encourage you to seriously consider the needs of those outside our church family, and to respond to the needs of saints in other parts of Dallas, or of our nation, or of the world. God has given a great deal to most of us. May He touch our hearts to reach out to those in need in a very tangible way to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.