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.