On the Focus of Weekly Gatherings

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about church ontology or how we ‘do church’.  Most in our Western tradition have a mentality of church being the geographical presence of God on earth. This has always struck me as interestingly temple-oriented and not found anywhere in the New Testament record of early church life.  They gathered weekly to break bread, learn, pray and encourage one another and were constantly devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings (Acts 2:42); however, the notion of a formalized ‘service’ as we know it today is not to found in Scripture as the mandated means of corporate gatherings.  We have submitted to a mode of corporate church gathering that has more to do with never getting out of an impersonal, passive audience, we’re-still-thinking-in-terms-of-the-temple type of worship and togetherness.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

I’m not trying to be a renegade nor do I think I can advocate for the dismal of other traditions that I deem as dregs of the not-yet-fully-reformed movement of early centuries.  What I’m after is a form and practice of weekly gathering that actually models what we see in the New Testament descriptions and prescriptions of New Covenant church life.  And I am convinced that we rarely see it.

Enter this article I recently found that actually puts into words where my head has been on this topic. It’s by Rick Owen and I don’t really know him, but I believe what he’s written expresses my current convictions.  Read it and let me know what you think.

The Regulative Principle of Ekklesia

By Rick Owen

Many who love Reformed theology have pointed out that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough in its reformation of church practices. Its ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) perpetuated the distinction between the clergy and the laity of Roman Catholicism. The clergy were the ordained religious specialists (priests, clerics, preachers, ministers) who dispensed spiritual things to a largely passive laity (average church members). This was and continues to be unbiblical. The New Testament represents the church as one unified body under the headship of Christ — not two groups consisting of clergy and laity. (See “Building Up the Body — One Man or One Another?”) [1]

The word “clergy” comes from the Greek word kleros. The fundamental meaning of this word is “portion, lot, inheritance.” [2] In reference to God’s people, it may allude to the inheritance God has given to His people; or it may refer to God’s people as His own portion or inheritance who belong to Him and have been entrusted to the spiritual care of church leaders (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:3). This word never refers to ordained religious professionals who lead a church or its services, baptize people, dispense the Lord’s supper, or conduct weddings and funerals. This word applies to all God’s people.

The word “laity” comes from the Greek word laos. The basic meaning of this word is “people.” [3] In reference to the church, this includes all God’s people — those who lead as well as those who are led. Every believer is part of God’s people (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:17, 68, 77; Rom. 9:25-26; 2 Cor. 6:16; Titus 2:14; Heb. 8:10; 1 Pet. 2:9-10).

The Reformed “Regulative Principle of Worship” speaks of approaching God in the only way He has approved and appointed: through Christ alone, in spirit and truth. This part of the definition is important and essential. Unfortunately, there is more embedded historically in this concept than this. The underlying assumption is that a worship service consists of people in the pew (the laity) sitting in front of specialists in the pulpit (clergy) who preach to them, pray for them, pronounce certain blessings upon them, and then part from them, as each one considers his or her religious duty completed for the week. The specialist’s role is similar to that of an Old Testament priest standing before a congregation of Israelites. In addition to these underlying assumptions, it is considered a ‘given’ that the reason a church meets is to have such a worship service. These ideas are apparent in this fairly typical article on this topic: “The Regulative Principle of the Church.” [4]

Worship in the New Testament

The New Testament never states that the reason a church meets is to have a traditional worship service as we usually conceive of this and practice it in the modern church. This is not to deny that Christians should worship God in various ways when they come together. How can Jesus’ disciples help but honor and glorify God as they consider the amazing truths of Scripture together, sing His praises, fellowship in His Spirit, share the Lord’s table, encourage and exhort one another, and pray? Such collective activities clearly constitute meaningful spiritual sacrifices or expressions of worship (literally, “service,” Greek: latreuó) to God. God-centered devotion should be the overarching purpose and outcome of all we do in the Christian life (Rom. 12:1), including when we assemble as Christ’s church. But this is like saying a husband should love his wife all the time. Loving his wife is not (or should not be) limited to special occasions.

My point here is that the New Testament never states that a worship service (whether we conceive of this as an orthodox, traditional or contemporary service) is the reason for Christ’s brethren gathering as His church. As Daniel Thompson has written,

“There are few doctrines in the New Testament that give us as much surprise as the doctrine of worship. One might even say we are stunned. Although there are references to worship in the Gospels, the book of Acts and Revelation, the New Testament Epistles — the doctrinal/explanatory part of the New Testament — is completely silent as to worship. This is all the more incredible when we consider: First, 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 is an extensive treatment of church life and interaction with no mention of worship. Second, 1 Timothy was an epistle written to make known ‘how thou [Timothy] might behave thyself in the house of God.’ Surely one would expect a reference to worship here, yet there is none. Third, our Lord tells the Samaritan woman that ‘the hour is coming … and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in Spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship Him’ (Jn 4:21-23). With such a definitive statement of future devotion, it is inconceivable that worship would be passed over completely in the instructional part of the New Covenant, the Epistles, yet this is exactly what we find.” [5]

Old Covenant Model versus New Covenant Model

Advocates of the regulative principle often say we should not offer “strange fire” (or do unapproved things) in approaching God. (This is an illustration from the Old Testament cited in “The Regulative Principle of the Church” referenced above.) This imagery, however, applies primarily to the removal of sin in salvation. It is true that we cannot approach God any other way than He has appointed through Christ. But this paradigm was fulfilled by Christ through the offering of Himself once for all time (Heb. 10:10-14). We gather as Christ’s people on the other side of the Cross. The veil of the holy of holies in the earthly temple was split in two when Christ offered himself to God in the holy place of heaven (Heb. 9:11-12). The days of sacrifices are over. Christ is seated now at the right hand of God, ruling with all authority until His enemies are made His footstool (Heb. 10:12-13).

The Roman Catholic church re-sacrifices Christ in the mass as if an Old Testament priest were presenting an offering to God on behalf of a gathered assembly for the forgiveness of sins. This is an idolatrous misuse of an Old Covenant paradigm which became obsolete when Christ fulfilled it (Heb. 8:13). New Covenant believers gather together to remember, proclaim, celebrate and share in the New Covenant realities they now possess together in Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23; Rom. 8:32), as God’s inheritance and chosen people, through the perfect and complete work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:15-23). The church is not reenacting the Day of Atonement when it gathers as God’s people. It celebrates the blessings of Pentecost poured out by a risen Savior (Gal. 3:14). God’s people live now in light of the good news of an empty tomb and a reigning Lord (Heb. 12:22-24).

The Regulative Principle of Ekklesia

The first disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to be sent to them in a powerful way after Jesus’ ascension and session at the right hand of God. The outpouring of His Spirit resulted in specific Christ-magnifying practices which remain with us today as the core essentials for New Testament churches. We might call this the regulative principle of Christ’s ekklesia (the New Testament Greek word for God’s “called-out assembly”). This is the New Covenant model which the church should practice when it gathers as God’s people.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42 ESV). This is how Jesus began building His church (Matt. 16:18). And He continues the same work in the same powerful way today as His followers obey His command to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:18-20).

1. “the apostles’ teaching” = revealing Christ from Scripture

2. “the fellowship” = relinquishing our spiritual and material gifts to God and one another

3. “the breaking of bread” = remembering the Lord in His covenant meal

4. “the prayers” = relishing God (adoration, confession, petition, thanksgiving, intercession)

These elements represent an interactive matrix which connects us to God and one another. They form a cohesive process which nurtures us as the body of Christ toward spiritual maturity. These four areas are not strictly divided. Various activities mentioned in the New Testament easily intermingle and overlap.

For example, Ephesians 5:18-20 connects singing with being filled with the Spirit and fellowship. Colossians 3:16 connects it with the word of Christ dwelling in us richly as we teach and admonish one another. Romans 15:8-12 connects singing with praising and worshiping God in prayer (cf. Heb. 13:15; Rev. 5:9). Likewise, the Lord’s supper is connected to both symbolic and verbal proclamation of Christ (1 Cor. 11:26). Such proclamation could include Christ-centered teaching, singing, praying and conversation (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 5:8).

Jesus died to save people who would praise God (Rom. 15:8-12). Each activity of Jesus’ called-out assembly is meant to magnify the Lord and build up His body to God’s glory.

1. The apostles’ teaching

Teaching is obviously very important in the church. But this involves much more than preaching traditional sermons to a passive audience. The word of God is God’s gift to Christ’s entire body. The whole church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Every believer is to earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). Therefore, not only should pastors and teachers encourage and instruct God’s people, as the apostles originally did. Each member of Christ’s body should encourage, instruct and admonish his or her brethren at some level according to sound doctrine — not necessarily as an appointed teacher, but — as a fully-functioning member of God’s royal priesthood who has been set apart by God to proclaim His excellencies (Acts 20:32; Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 14:1, 31; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:19-21; Titus 2:3-4; Heb. 5:12; 10:23-25; James 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:9).

Hermeneutically sound, Spirit-enlightened, Christ-revealing teaching is not limited to expository sermons. It can employ several kinds of speech and engage other believers in the body of Christ. We find the apostle Paul using three types of communication on the same occasion when addressing the church in Acts 20: lecture (Greek, logos) and dialogue (Greek, dialegomai) in verse 7, and personal conversation (Greek, homileo) in verse 11. The last two obviously include other people. All speaking and teaching, of course, should be done in a way which edifies the church (Rom. 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor. 14:12, 26; Eph. 4:15-16, 29; 1 Thess. 5:11). Wise and effective church leaders use a variety of methods in teaching; and they train others to do the same so that God is magnified through His word (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:10). Jesus gave us an example in making disciples as He walked, talked and served alongside His brethren.

2. The fellowship

Our fellowship connects with all we share together in Christ through His word, breaking bread and prayer. It includes loving and caring for one another by meeting both spiritual and physical needs (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). We see the early church doing this enthusiastically. Through a process of generous, loving hospitality and joyous fellowship, God added more people to the church (Acts 2:46-47). Jesus was building His church and expanding His kingdom as He said He would, and He was doing so in very personal and practical ways. Christian love proves that we are children of God as we care for even the least among Christ’s brethren according to His new commandment (Matt. 25:40; John 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 11:22; 1 Jn 3:11-24).

3. The breaking of bread

The Lord ’s Supper is called “breaking bread” and “the Lord’s table” in the Bible. To break bread meant and still means to share a real meal. The Greek word deipnon is used to describe the Lord’s supper. [6] This word consistently refers to the evening meal (dinner or supper), or a banquet or feast. Breaking bread (or the Lord’s supper) was a primary reason — in fact, the only reason stated as a purpose clause in the Greek — for meeting on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33). Most churches need to learn how to make a church meal of the Lord’s supper — as a Christ-centered covenant feast — and make the Lord’s supper of their church meals. (See “The Table of the Lord” for more on this.) [7]

We see from Scripture that the meal begins by breaking and distributing one loaf representing the sacrificed body of Christ which brings us eternal life. This is followed by eating the bread and meal together. Then “after eating supper” (from the Greek deipneo), the meal is completed and concluded by dividing and distributing the cup which represents the New Covenant which was signed, sealed and delivered in Jesus’ blood (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). So the biblical pattern is bread > meal > cup. On whose authority or by what better tradition than that of Jesus and Paul should the church vary from this?

4. The prayers

Christians are to pray not only in their daily walk with God (1 Thess. 5:17), but especially when gathered as His people (1 Thess. 5:25). This is because believers in Christ — all believers — are fellow priests who should praise and petition God and intercede for one another (2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 13:18; James 5;16). God delights to answer prayer (Luke 11:9-13). He brings glory to Himself as we rely upon Him to do what we are unable to do (2 Cor. 1:11; cf. John 17; Heb. 5:7).

Prayer should never make a spectacle of us (Matt. 6:5). It should focus on God’s greatness and goodness (Luke 11:2). God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5). Therefore, we should humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God when we pray (1 Pet. 5:6-7). We gather to call attention to God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27; 15:6; Eph. 1:18-19; 3:14-19; 6:18; Jude 20).

Putting This Into Practice

The New Testament does not give us a specific meeting agenda to follow — only the various elements of what happens when the church gathers. Here are a few suggestions for encouraging the church to function as a body instead of an audience in front of a platform with a keynote speaker.

An average-size congregation (anywhere from 50-150 people) can implement these core church practices very simply, but it will take commitment from the whole body to follow through with this and learn how to do it well over it time. The biblical role of elders is to encourage and cultivate these practices as mentors and co-participants in (not substitutes or proxies for) the New Covenant priesthood. [8] They are to be examples to the flock, showing God’s people how to do these things (1 Pet. 5:2-3).

Instead of setting up the church meeting with conventional auditorium seating, try using an arrangement similar to a prayer breakfast, business luncheon, or wedding banquet. This creates a clear visual for what the New Testaments states is our purpose in gathering as Christ’s people. We “come together to eat” (1 Cor. 11:33, ESV) or “break bread” (Acts 20:7) in Jesus’ name — to remember, celebrate and proclaim Him, as we feed by faith upon Him as the true Bread from heaven. A room full of tables highlights Christ’s gathering as a time of mutual participation in Him (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The entire group can be addressed by elders, teachers, and any others who might speak, while everyone is seated comfortably at each table. Singing, prayer and the Lord ’s Supper can flow in any order which works best. Instruction, discussion, fellowship, prayer and praise can easily precede the Lord’s supper or follow it to the conclusion of the meeting. Children can be included and the whole process can flow as naturally and simply as a family gathering.

May the Lord give us wisdom, discernment and grace as we seek to understand and follow His will.



[1] http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/bodybldg.htm

[2] http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=2819

[3] http://www.searchgodsword.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=2992

[4] http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritanworship/mcmahonregulativeprinciple.htm

[5] http://www.solidrock.net/library/thompson/worship.php

[6] http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=1173

[7] http://comingintheclouds.org/church/basics/table_of_lord.pdf

[8] http://www.bible-researcher.com/knaub.html

About ostrakinos

Pastoral sojourner in the world. Raising up four daughters. Citizen of earth. Resident of heaven. Taking ten looks at Christ.

Posted on March 21, 2011, in Doctrine/Theology, Experiential / Application, Meditation/Reflections, Pastoral. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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