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5. How Do Good People Disagree on How to Do Church?

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In recent days, I have participated in several prayer gatherings. Each group was made up of sincere and dedicated Christians who were committed to prayer. Most of them were associated with churches that differ from ours in a variety of ways. How do we explain the fact that godly, evangelical Christians, Christians who have a high regard for the Word of God, do not come to the same conclusions regarding how to “do church”? Let me respond with a few observations.

First, our differences may be matters of conviction, rather than matters of doctrine. While some aspects of church life are (at least in my opinion) non-negotiables, not all fall into this category. Some practices are simply a matter of choice. Whether or not to have a Sunday school, or to meet on Wednesday nights for prayer meeting, are not matters written in stone. Thus, some of our differences are merely matters of conviction.

Second, some truths are more crucial than others. Minor differences should not divide churches, but should be an occasion to manifest grace and to display true Christian unity. Some doctrines are what we would call “fundamentals of the faith.” The rejection of one of these doctrines has both earthly and eternal consequences. To reject the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of our Lord, or the doctrine of justification by faith would have grave implications. To differ over whether communion should be observed weekly or monthly would not have the same consequences.

Third, we may be strong in our view of the church, and yet be weak in other areas. When we are strong in one area, we should expect to be weak in others. I believe that just as every believer has strengths (spiritual gifts) and weaknesses, so churches have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume that one of our strengths is our understanding of how the church should function. It may very well be that a church that is “weak” in this area may be stronger than we are in prayer or in evangelism.

Fourth, being biblical entails more than just using the right terms and having the right forms; being biblical necessitates having the right heart attitudes. This is actually the topic of my next lesson, so I will not dwell on it here. But suffice it to say that there may very well be churches who do not have all the right forms (or all the proper terms), but who have biblical attitudes, and thus they may function better than other churches that outwardly appear to get it right.

Fifth, it is not my purpose to prove us right and all others wrong; it is my goal to explain how and why we “do church” as we do, and to show how we deal with the Scriptures to come to our conclusions. To be honest, we don’t expect to convince everyone that we are doing it right. For some, learning how and why we “do church” may prompt them to look elsewhere for a church that functions more closely to their understanding of Scripture. But we would hope that some will find our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) something you believe to be biblical, and thus something that you want to embrace and support.

Our approach in this lesson is to explain how we approach the Scriptures regarding the church. I will do this on several levels:

Biblical doctrines

Biblical principles

Biblical commands

Biblical examples (the practice of the apostles and New Testament churches)

Having done this, we will show how all four of these factors serve to guide us in “doing church.” We will also confess to some areas of difficulty and make some suggestions regarding how we are to deal with those areas where we don’t seem to follow our own principles. Finally, we will conclude with some suggested areas of application.

How the Scriptures Guide Us in Doing Church

(1) Biblical doctrine is the basis for church practice. Biblical commands and principles don't come to us in a vacuum; they are based upon biblical doctrine, and thus upon how things are in God’s economy. Let me illustrate this, beginning at the beginning. In Genesis 1 and 2, we find two creation accounts. In chapter 1, we are impressed with the fact that God does all things well. God sees His creative work and declares it to be good. In chapter 2,77 we find the creation events described from a different perspective. In this chapter, creation begins with various needs, all of which God meets. There was “no shrub,” “no plant,” “no rain” (as yet), and “no man” to cultivate the ground (verse 5). Later in chapter 2, we will find that there was “no mate” for Adam. Indeed, in contrast to chapter 1, it was “not good” for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Thus, God created various things in order to meet all of these needs.

God does not set down the one command (not to eat of the forbidden fruit) until after it has been established that He does all things well (chapter 1), and that He provides for every legitimate need (chapter 2).78 The forbidden fruit becomes a test of man’s faith in the goodness of God. Satan sought to convince Eve that she had a need for which God was responsible. (That is, Satan intimated that God was withholding something good from her, and from her husband.) Would Eve trust God to provide for all that she needed – to provide something truly good – or would she believe Satan, that she needed to acquire this for herself, independently of God?

Now think of the giving of the Law in the Book of Exodus. It was not until after God had saved Israel from their bondage to the Egyptians that He gave them the Law. The Law of Moses was a kind of Near-Eastern constitution, with God as Israel’s King and the nation as His subjects. And so it is that in the Book of Exodus we read these words just before the Law was given:

4 “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, 6 and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6).

1 God spoke all these words: 2 “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:1-2).

God’s commands were not given to the Israelites until the basis for following them was evident. He had shown Himself to be a God who could save, and thus He was worthy of their worship and their obedience.

Consider this text in the Book of Deuteronomy related to God’s prohibition of idolatry:

10 You stood before the Lord your God at Horeb and he said to me, “Assemble the people before me so that I can tell them my commands. Then they will learn to revere me all the days they live in the land, and they will instruct their children.” 11 You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, a mountain ablaze to the sky above it and yet dark with a thick cloud. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you from the middle of the fire; you heard speech but you could not see anything - only a voice was heard. 13 And he revealed to you the covenant he has commanded you to keep, the ten commandments, writing them on two stone tablets. 14 Moreover, at that same time the Lord commanded me to teach you statutes and ordinances for you to keep in the land which you are about to enter and possess. 15 Be very careful, then, because you saw no form at the time the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the middle of the fire. 16 I say this so you will not corrupt yourselves by making an image in the form of any kind of figure. This includes the likeness of a human male or female, 17 any kind of land animal, any bird that flies in the sky, 18 anything that crawls on the ground, or any fish in the deep waters of the earth. 19 When you look up to the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars - the whole heavenly creation - you must not be seduced to worship and serve them, for the Lord your God has assigned them to all the people of the world” (Deuteronomy 4:10-19, emphasis mine).

This passage is a part of the second giving of the law to the second generation of Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land. Before God repeats His prohibition of idolatry, He sets the stage by reminding the Israelites of their encounter with Him at Horeb. When God manifested His presence on the mountain, there was a cloud and fire and a loud trumpet blast. But no one saw God; they only heard His voice. There is a good reason for this: God is invisible.79 Thus, the command not to represent God by means of any image (idol) is based upon reality, upon doctrine. Because God is invisible, He cannot be represented by any image.

We see the same thing in the New Testament. The doctrines set down by the apostles are the foundation of the church, and thus the apostles are spoken of as the church’s foundation:

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward (1 Corinthians 3:10-14, emphasis mine).

19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20, emphasis mine).

Biblical doctrine is the basis for the commands and principles we find in the Bible, just as it is the basis for our faith and practice, which includes how we “do church.” I will only give a few examples because we will be dealing with these things in greater depth later in this series.

Example 1: Paul’s dealing with sin in the church at Corinth. Recent events have caused me to think once again about the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 1, Paul quickly brings up the matter of divisions in the church. Various people are claiming their allegiance to particular leaders.80 Paul makes it very clear that the gospel is all about Jesus – Christ crucified (Genesis 1:18-25). Men dare not usurp His place, nor attribute God’s salvation to anything but His atoning work on the cross of Calvary. It is not men’s manipulative speech, but the Spirit’s illumination that speaks to the hearts and lives of Christians (chapter 2). In chapter 3, Paul indicates that he and other apostles have already laid the foundation by the gospel they have declared. Here, as elsewhere, Paul makes it clear how severe the consequences are for those who would seek to pervert the gospel:

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:10-17).

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel – 7 not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell! (Galatians 1:6-9)

The doctrinal foundation for the church was laid by the apostles, and no one had better tamper with it (Galatians 1:6-9)! Everyone had better be careful how they build on it. In other words, what we build on this apostolic foundation must be consistent and compatible with it. The one who does harm to God’s temple (the church) will be destroyed. Little wonder, then, that Paul pronounces a curse on all who would pervert the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). Likewise, in the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead (Acts 5:1-11), and Simon is cursed (Acts 8:14-24) for threatening the health of the church.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exercises church discipline long distance on the man who is living with his father’s wife. This man is “leaven,” Paul writes, and if left undisciplined, his sin will corrupt the entire church. Thus, he is handed over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, with the hope that his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. This process of church discipline is the duty of the church, and it takes place in the context of the church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5). Discipline is the outworking of sound biblical doctrine, with the goal of keeping the church morally and doctrinally pure.81

Example 2: Paul’s dealings with Peter when he visited the church at Antioch:

11 But when Cephas82 came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. 12 Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14).

Paul rebuked not only Peter (Cephas), but also Barnabas and others for acting contrary to biblical doctrine. In Mark 7:18-19, Jesus declared all foods clean, thus setting aside the Old Testament food laws which hindered interaction (fellowship) between Jews and Gentiles. In Acts 10 and 11, God made this change clear to Peter, resulting in the salvation of Cornelius and his household. But then Peter relapsed when some Jews came to Antioch and intimidated him, along with others like Barnabas. Paul’s actions were consistent with the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and set forth by the apostle in Ephesians 2 and 3. Jews and Gentiles dare not segregate in the church, for they are now “one new man” in Christ. Church practice must be consistent with biblical doctrine.

Example 3: Paul’s teaching on the ministry of women in the church:

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to know 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 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. 5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. 6 For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head. 7 For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:1-16, emphasis mine).

9 Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control (1 Timothy 2:9-15, emphasis mine).

Paul’s teaching pertaining to the conduct of women in the church is not based upon the culture of his day (as many contend), but upon the hard facts of biblical doctrine, doctrine which goes all the way back to the beginning, to creation and the fall of man. How women are to conduct themselves in church is based upon these factors, as stated in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2:

The headship of Christ83

The order and events of creation

The events surrounding the fall of man

The relationship between the angels and the church84

Church practice is based upon Bible doctrine.

(2) Biblical principles85 guide and govern church practice. There is a difference between a principle and a rule. The Pharisees majored in “rules” and skipped class when “principles” were taught. They insisted that you cannot “work” on the Sabbath. Jesus dealt with Sabbath issues on the basis of principles. One principle was, “It is right to do good on the Sabbath.” Thus, one could heal the sick and one could pull his ox out of the ditch.86 Another principle was, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”87 Principles provide more general guidelines, and thus leave room for some differences in interpretation and application. For example, “Don’t stay out too late, and be home at a reasonable hour” leaves room for judgment. What, then, are some of the New Testament principles that should guide and govern how we “do church”?

  • The principle of order.

And do everything in a decent and orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40).

The Corinthian church was not “doing church” in a “decent and orderly” way. We know from chapter 11 that when they gathered they were drunk and disorderly, and this was going on at the Lord’s Table. This principle certainly indicates that chaos and confusion is not appropriate for the church.

  • The principle of proportion.

27 If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said (1 Corinthians 14:27-29, emphasis mine).

This text serves to illustrate both the principle of proportion (two, or at the most three) and the principle of decently and in order (one after the other). I can imagine that when the Corinthians gathered everyone was trying to exercise their gift (or the one they desired and tried to imitate) at the same time. If there had been speaker systems in those days, they would have been fighting for the microphone. But here we see that two (and at the very most three) expressions of a particular gift were enough for one meeting. Even if they threw the clock away, there would not have been sufficient time for everyone to do (or say) everything they might wish. Because the church needs all the gifts and has various functions to perform, no one function can dominate to the exclusion of the rest.

Paul’s principle, as expressed twice in 1 Corinthians 14, was applied to one meeting. But the principle would also seem to legitimately apply to a succession of meetings. If the same person publicly exercised their gift week after week, that would prevent others with that same gift from participating. A man who has “had the floor” on one Sunday should think carefully about speaking the next week, and be even more reluctant to speak three Sundays in a row. The larger the group that gathers, the more this kind of restraint would be necessary.

  • The principle of edification.

26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church88 (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis mine).

Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt with the issue of eating meats offered to idols.89 In chapter 8, he momentarily left the assumption unchallenged that one was free to eat meats offered to idols (but not for long – see chapter 10). This was so that he could apply the principle of edification, prompted by love. Even if I were free to eat meats offered to idols, I would not be free to do so if my liberty caused my weaker brother to stumble (by imitating me, while his or her conscience condemned them). I am not to live for myself, but for the edification of others. And so the principle of edification was to govern all that took place when the church gathered, as well as at other times.

  • The principle of stewardship.

1 One should think about us this way – as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

10 Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

A steward is a person who is entrusted with something that he or she does not own, but which they are responsible to use to profit their master. Thus, a steward has no basis for pride in what is in their possession. But a steward will give account for his stewardship.90 We are stewards of the gospel, of the spiritual gifts we have been given, and of the material resources with which we have been entrusted.

  • The principles of submission, humility, and servanthood.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you (Hebrews 13:17).

In the same way, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5; see also 1 Timothy 2:9-15).

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others. 14 And to all these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond. 15 Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

Humility, submission (to the Father’s will), and servanthood are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.91 These attitudes are to characterize the Christian, and thus become the motivation and basis for ministry in and through the church.

The principle of universality.

16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).

Nevertheless, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each person, so must he live. I give this sort of direction in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).

If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16; see also 14:33; 16:1).

The principle of universality means that what Paul (or any other apostle) teaches (and practices) he teaches to all the churches, everywhere. Contrary to what some might think or say, Paul does not have one teaching for the Corinthian church and another for the church at Thessalonica. His teaching is universal, no matter where the church. I believe this universality is not only true in terms of place, but also in terms of time. What was true for the Christian or the church of the first century is also true for Christians and churches today. Thus, the teachings of the New Testament regarding the practice of the church apply as much to us as they did to those who first received them.

  • An additional observation: Biblical principles help to clarify biblical commands.

23 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7).

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

The law prescribed the tithe, and the Jews rightly complied. But Jesus made it clear that the principles of justice, mercy, and faithfulness were “more important.” When the Pharisees objected that Jesus (or His disciples) broke the Sabbath, He justified His “apparent” violation of the law by citing a higher principle. Thus, principles help us to keep commands in perspective. Biblical principles help us to better understand, and thus better obey, biblical commands.

(3) Biblical commands direct how we “do church.” Let me begin with an observation: In addition to requiring obedience, commands teach us principles. I am thinking of what the psalmist has to say about the law in Psalm 119:

Open my eyes so I can truly see

the marvelous things in your law! (Psalm 119:18)

Yes, I find delight in your rules;

they give me guidance (Psalm 119:24).

97 O how I love your law!

All day long I meditate on it.

98 Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies,

for I am always aware of them.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your rules.

100 I am more discerning than those older than I,

for I observe your precepts (Psalm 119:97-100).

It is obvious from these verses that the commands we find in the law (and in the New Testament as well) teach us important principles. Let me illustrate.

33 “If a man opens a pit or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit must repay the loss. He must give money to its owner, and the dead animal will become his (Exodus 21:33-34).

If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The principle underlying these commands is this: We are responsible for the safety of others, and thus we should employ all possible means to keep others from harm.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is seeking to illustrate how one should forego his or her liberties for the benefit of others, and most of all for the good of the gospel. He begins by establishing his “right” to be supported financially, for this is the “right” he is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. He cites the practice of the other apostles, and then turns to the Old Testament text pertaining to oxen:

7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? 8 Am I saying these things only on the basis of common sense, or does the law not say this as well? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” God is not concerned here about oxen, is he? 10 Or is he not surely speaking for our benefit? It was written for us, because the one plowing and threshing ought to work in hope of enjoying the harvest. 11 If we sowed spiritual blessings among you, is it too much to reap material things from you? (1 Corinthians 9:7-11)

From this command about not muzzling the ox, we are to learn that the one who labors is worthy of remuneration. The command about oxen teaches us a principle that applies to those who minister (in this context, apostles).

So what would some New Testament commands be that direct us in terms of how we are to “do church”? Consider the following:

  • The command to be holy.

14 Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, 15 but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, 16 for it is written, ”You shall be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16).

Note first of all that the command to be holy is rooted in the doctrinal truth that God is holy. This command is based upon doctrine. Thus, the church is called to promote and protect holiness. This is why our Lord instituted church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20), and why the Apostle Paul practiced it and urged others to do likewise (1 Corinthians 5).

  • The command to accept one another.

Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God’s glory (Romans 15:7).

Once again, the command is rooted in what Christ has already done for us. Because Christ has accepted us, we are obligated to accept our fellow believers. This is a command that is fundamental to maintaining unity in the church.

  • The command to forgive one another.

13 You must put away every kind of bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and evil, slanderous talk. 14 Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).

Once again, this command is rooted in doctrine. We are to forgive one another because Christ has forgiven us.

  • The command to consistently gather to meet and worship with other believers.

24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

  • The command that we not show favoritism in the church.

1 My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, 3 do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? 4 If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? 8 But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators (James 2:1-9).

Based upon the equality we have in Christ, we dare not discriminate against our fellow believers.

  • The principle of plurality.

I would grant that this principle is implied more than it is directly stated, but when several texts are taken together, I believe we should conclude that this is a biblical principle. Briefly summarized, the principle of plurality goes something like this: The headship of Christ over His church is best demonstrated through a plurality of leaders, rather than through one individual.92 Consider these texts.

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 12:1-12, emphasis mine).

22 And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. 23 Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23).

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.93 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20, emphasis mine).

4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).

Now as for you, the anointing that you received from him resides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, it is true and is not a lie. Just as it has taught you, you reside in him (1 John 2:27).94

Nowhere in the New Testament is there the kind of laity-clergy distinction which we see in many churches today. And nowhere can we find the office of pastor, which is broadly assumed today, virtually without question. It is the entire church that is a kingdom of priests. The church is to be ruled by a plurality of elders, and the ministry is carried out by the entire body, each contributing the benefit of his or her spiritual gift(s). Jesus is the Head of the church, and no one dares to assume His role.

  • The principle of male leadership.

This is a very unpopular principle today, but it cannot be denied that it is taught in the New Testament. It is clearly taught in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, as well as in 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Leadership in the church is to be by men; women are not to teach or exercise authority over men. Women are not to lead in the church meeting. We will discuss this principle more fully in a future lesson.

(4) Apostolic example and the practice of the New Testament church illustrate how Bible doctrine, biblical principles, and biblical commands are to be obeyed in the context of the church.

16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).

5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. 7 As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:5-7).

We are given much instruction by apostolic example and church practice in the New Testament. In Acts 20, Paul instructs the Ephesian elders about their responsibilities as church leaders by appealing to his example, which they have witnessed firsthand. Earlier in the Book of Acts, we saw how the church dealt with the highly divisive issue of inequities in the care and feeding of their widows (Acts 6:1-6). We see how the New Testament church in Jerusalem dealt with the problem of false teaching in Acts 15. And now in chapter 20, we see how Paul emphasized the importance of biblical teaching, how he was diligent to prepare the church for dealing with false teachers, and how he lived his life sacrificially, without seeking his own gain.

Paul also used the generosity of the Macedonians as an example for the Corinthians to follow in their giving (2 Corinthians 8-9). We find examples of the worship of the early church in Acts 2 and 20, as well as in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. We see that the normal pattern was for the church to meet weekly, on the first day of the week.95 How the apostles and the early church implemented biblical doctrine, principles, and commands is very instructive for saints and the church today.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

What I have been seeking to do is to explain how we interpret and apply the Scriptures in such a way as to derive our ecclesiology – our way of doing church. I have just stated that we “do church” on the basis of apostolic doctrine, apostolic principle, apostolic command, and apostolic practice. When all of these elements converge, then we can be confident that this is the way God wants us to live. This applies not only to how we “do church,” but to how we live out our faith in daily life.

We are also instructed when some of these elements are missing. That is why I feel confident that the New Testament does not teach infant baptism. I find no firm doctrinal foundation, no New Testament command, and no (clear) evidence of apostolic practice.

Consider also these words from John’s Gospel regarding foot washing:

12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example – you should do just as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17, emphasis mine).

There are some churches that have made this practice a tradition (I mean this in a good sense). Not long ago I was a part of a group of Gentiles that participated in washing the feet of some of our brothers and sisters in Christ from a Muslim background who had come to faith in Jesus. It was a wonderfully moving experience for all who were there. But is this something that every church must do?

There certainly is a principle underlying our Lord’s actions and words – that of humility and servanthood. And there was certainly a need for foot washing in those days, when people walked much more than we do. But is this a command that we find reiterated in the New Testament epistles? I cannot find it, though I can find teaching on humility and servanthood.96 Nor do I find an instance – other than this event described in John’s Gospel – where the apostles or the early church persisted in this practice. Thus, I would not find this an essential element in “doing church.” Neither do I find fault with those who do. Indeed, I express my thoughts here with some reservations.

We read in the first chapters of Acts that the early believers in Jerusalem met together daily and also that many of them sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the apostles to meet the needs of others. But this was not a command. Peter made it clear to Ananias that he was free to do as he wished with his property (and the proceeds of its sale – Acts 5:4). His sin was lying – ultimately lying to the Holy Spirit, who indwells the church. As time passes, it becomes the normal practice of the church to meet weekly, not daily, on the first day of the week. Since these matters are not commanded,97 and since we do not see these things uniformly practiced by the early church, we conclude that they are not mandatory. Once again, we don’t fault those who practice these things as a matter of conviction.

There are those who believe that the church should meet in houses, and that owning a church building is unwise, if not wrong.98 As I read the New Testament, I see that Jesus taught in the temple, in synagogues, from a borrowed boat, on a mountain side – basically wherever people would gather. I see that the earliest saints met in the temple and in houses (Acts 2:46). Paul taught in synagogues (Acts 17:1-2, 10), in the houses of people (Acts 18:7), in the market place (Acts 17:17), and in the “school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9-10). I do not see any clear command to meet in houses, nor any prohibition from meeting somewhere else. I do not see any biblical principle being violated by owning a church building. I do see the church making the care of the poor and the support of those who minister a primary concern, so spending the majority of a church’s budget on a building does seem suspect to me. One way or another, the saints met in a building. Whether that building is rented (as I assume the school of Tyrannus was), owned (the house of someone in the church where the church met), or purchased (as most church buildings are today) does not seem to be a crucial issue. Now the design of the church should be such that it facilitates the ministry of the church.

There are some issues which are a bit more problematic (although some would find some of the issues described above to be problematic to them). For example, some would contend that when the early church observed the Lord’s Supper, they did so as a part of an entire meal. I would not dispute this, for that does seem to be the norm (as we see in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Nevertheless, this does not seem to be a command, and I see no principle that would seem to require an entire meal. It also seems clear that Paul urged the Corinthians to “eat at home” as a solution to the problems their church was experiencing. Thus, I see eating a meal as desirable perhaps, but not as a mandatory aspect of the observance of the Lord’s Table.

I am a little uneasy about the frequently repeated command to “greet one another with a kiss”:

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:16; see also 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).

I must acknowledge that this is a command, and that it is one that is repeated several times in the New Testament, to several different churches. It is not only given by Paul, but also by Peter. I do observe that in each instance, it is given at the close of the epistle (for whatever that observation is worth). We don’t read of the apostles or the churches doing this, but we would hardly be wrong to assume that they did normally greet one another with a kiss. So is this something we must do to “do church” biblically?

Leaving this matter on hold for a moment, let me mention one more troubling question – that of the woman wearing a head covering. The passage in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 would surely seem to require it. Was it uniformly required in the churches? Paul wrote,

If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).

Thus, Paul seems not only to teach it generally, but he claims that it was the common practice.

So, what do we do with those things which are commanded in the New Testament and which were practiced by the New Testament church, which (for one reason or another) we don’t practice today as individuals or as a church? Let me give some suggestions.

First of all, why not just do it? Strive for the ideal by simple obedience, even though we may not have all our questions answered. Part of faith is obeying when we don’t understand it all. In a number of instances where we set aside New Testament teaching, command, and practice, it is simply because we don’t want to do it. That’s not good enough. “Just do it” may be the best approach.

Second, at least agonize about it. By this I mean that we should not just brush this matter aside, but we should sincerely agonize over our failure (refusal?) to obey what the Scriptures teach. We should question our motives for not following Scripture. I’m not nearly as troubled by those with whom I differ over such matters if they have agonized over a teaching with sincerity.

Third, study the Scriptures and seek to find a satisfactory solution (satisfactory to one’s conscience). Don’t just set the troublesome texts aside and forget them. Make them a matter of serious study, meditation, discussion, and prayer. Seek to discern the mind of God.

Fourth, if you don’t literally obey the instruction, at least seek to obey it in principle. Let’s assume that we have agonized over whether or not we should “greet one another with a kiss.” (This is surely not a Hollywood kiss.) Perhaps we have concluded that in our culture a kiss would be totally misinterpreted. Then let us seek to discern the principle behind this command, and then to determine what alternative practice would fulfill the intent or goal of the command, in a way that would be understood as such by those who observe it. Could a “holy handshake” replace the “holy kiss”? Perhaps. But failing to do anything about this command, and simply setting it aside, does not seem to be an option that is acceptable.


Let’s consider some truths to keep in mind as we conclude this lesson.

Church practices should be linked to biblical doctrine, principles, commands, and apostolic example. The title of this series is “Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?” The answer to this question is “No!” We should “serve church” in accordance with the doctrines, principles, commands and example of the apostles.

The importance of knowing Bible doctrine. Since New Testament principles, commands, and practices are based on Bible doctrine, we should realize how important doctrine is to the believer. Deviations in doctrine can result in many moral and practical problems. For example, we know that some of the Corinthians had been persuaded that there is no resurrection, and thus the door was opened to all kinds of evil:

12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. . . . 32 If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, 32-33).

Let’s consider the cross of our Lord Jesus as another example of the importance of Bible doctrine. The “false apostles”99 obviously turned their noses up at the preaching of the cross:

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic Law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

The “false apostles” wanted a more appealing message, one that had the appearance of worldly wisdom and rhetorical skill. We can see some of the fruit of this and other false teaching throughout Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. In stark contrast, Paul had but one message to preach, and that was that salvation and sanctification are the fruit of Christ’s atoning death at Calvary and His resurrection in power.

Let’s get a bit more pointed as to how this applies to us. Our ministry group has been studying an excellent little book by C.J. Mahaney entitled Living the Cross-Centered Life.100 The cross of Christ is the basis for our salvation, but its implications are many-faceted. That is why we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday – because the death of Christ is the foundation for all Christian living.

For example, there is a great deal of emphasis (inside and outside the church) on success. Is “success in life” really the goal? Certainly not “success” as the world defines it. When we seek to measure success as a Christian, the cross of our Lord should be the standard.

23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25)

But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Now let’s look at this from the other side – from the perspective of suffering. How does the cross of Christ change (indeed reverse) our attitude toward suffering? Consider how our Lord101 and the apostles viewed suffering:

10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body - for the sake of his body, the church - what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name (1 Peter 4:16).

I realize that the early church prayed that God would reveal Himself powerfully by miracles, signs and wonders, and miraculous healings, and that when God worked powerfully in answer to their prayers, many were saved:

29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:29-31).

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed (Acts 5:12-16).

Do we also not have to come to terms with the fact that God works powerfully through suffering? The death of Stephen102 sparked a missions movement which rocked the world and continues to do so today. Then there is the arrest, beating, and imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Acts 16, resulting in the conversion of the Philippian jailor, his household, and perhaps many others. The same could be said for Paul’s journey to Rome for trial:

12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel: 13 The whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ, 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment, now more than ever dare to speak the word fearlessly. . . . 21 Give greetings to all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers with me here send greetings. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household (Philippians 1:12-14; 4:21-22).

How many of us see suffering as a privilege, and the means by which God may choose to glorify Himself? Does this mean that we should not pray for God to heal the sick and to protect His children from suffering? Not necessarily, but if we are living a cross-centered life, we must always keep in mind that our Lord’s suffering was, among other things, a pattern for us. We, too, must take up our cross to follow Him. Thus, I must be careful that my prayers are not dominated by the success syndrome of today, and by our aversion to suffering. Surgery may not “go smoothly,” and pain may not be taken away. And if this is the case we should rejoice, knowing that this is God’s purpose for us, and that in the process we will be drawn closer to Him, and others may come to faith.

Doing things God’s way (including “doing church”) is not a guarantee that we will become prosperous, famous, or successful in this life. It is not a guarantee that if we do so our churches will grow large. But we can be assured that He will be pleased and glorified. And that should be all we need or desire.

76 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 5 in the series, Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 2, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

77 Beginning at verse 4.

78 I realize that God did not create Eve (verses 18-25) until after He had communicated the prohibition to Adam (verses 16-17). But it was already clear that God did not leave any deficiencies uncorrected. Thus, God does everything well, and He meets every valid need.

79 See Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17.

80 As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t believe that Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) are these men (see 1 Corinthians 4:6). Instead, Paul has used the names of these legitimate leaders to expose an error promoted by those who will eventually be exposed as false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11.

81 By the way, the immorality we see exposed in 1 Corinthians 5 is closely related, I believe, to the doctrinal departure (the denial of the resurrection) Paul deals with in chapter 15. As Paul indicates, if we believe that the Lord will not return and that we will not be raised for reward or punishment, then we might as well “eat, drink, and be merry” (1 Corinthians 15:32; see also 2 Peter 3).

82 See John 1:42.

83 See Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22; see also 4:15; 5:23.

84 See Ephesians 3:10; 6:10-12; 1 Peter 1:10-12.

85 I will focus on New Testament principles, but there are also Old Testament principles that are applicable as well. For example, see 1 Corinthians 9:1-18, especially verses 8-10.

86 See Mark 3:1-6.

87 See Mark 2:23-28.

88 More literally, “Let all things be done for edification.”

89 See chapters 8-10.

90 See Luke 16, especially verse 2; also see Matthew 25:14-30.

91 Philippians 2:1-8.

92 This topic will be the subject of a future lesson in this series on the church.

93 I prefer the rendering of the NKJV: “that in all things He may have the preeminence.”

94 This text must be understood in the context of other biblical texts, such as those which speak of the gift of teaching (e.g., Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), and 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7-9, which speak of teaching as one of the responsibilities of an elder.

95 Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.

96 Philippians 2:1-8.

97 When we consider texts like Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17, it would seem that we are given considerable freedom as to when we worship, although I do believe that we should regularly do so.

98 This seems to be the position of Frank Viola and George Barna in their co-authored book, Pagan Christianity?

99 Their identity as false apostles is revealed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11, especially verse 13.

100 Multnomah Books, 2006.

101 See Luke 9:23-25 cited above.

102 See Acts 6:8—8:4ff.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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