One of the purposes of Parenthesis is to equip young men and women to serve in your local assemblies. A big piece of that is to arm you with an understanding of what constitutes a New Testament assembly, and why that matters. Here are some basic principles that might be helpful.
You’d be hard pressed to find a church or denomination that doesn’t draw it’s authority from some central body, some creed, or some tradition (historical precedent), in addition to the Bible.
The Bible is the basis.
New Testament assemblies (sometimes called New Testament pattern assemblies, Brethren, or Plymouth Brethren) claim the Bible (and in particular the New Testament) as our sole authority in matters regarding the local church—who is in charge, what our functions are, who we serve and how, priorities, discipline, and other practices.
While you might think this is a pretty common thing (who doesn’t want to follow the Bible?), you’d be hard pressed to find a church or denomination that doesn’t draw it’s authority from some central body, some creed, or some tradition (historical precedent), in addition to the Bible.
The implication is that when the Bible speaks, we agree; when the Bible is silent, we are silent. The Bible provides guidance in both prescriptive form (“Do this in remembrance of me…”) and descriptive form (“they continued steadfastly…”). The instruction it gives provides a functional model that can be applied in any place and time.
A group of overseers.
In each example of a local church in the New Testament, the assembly (church) is overseen on spiritual and discipline matters by a group of men (always men, and never just one). The Bible calls these Christians elders, overseers, bishops, or shepherds. Their characteristics are outlined in several places, including 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
…everyone should aspire to have the qualities of an elder (and even do the work of an elder).
Generally, these are taken to be characteristics by which you can recognize elders, not qualifications (in the resume or job application sense). So, everyone should aspire to have the qualities of an elder (and even do the work of an elder), but only brothers with these characteristics, who do the work, will be recognized as elders.
Notice that all local churches have elders (plural). This is very important for a number of reasons (that are characteristic of the New Testament assembly). When you have plural elders:
- you avoid favoritism, nepotism, or self-service
- you avoid falling into error (which can happen when you are overly subject to one man’s voice, preferences, or opinions)
- plurality of elders means plurality of gifting (one brother has suggested that an ideal group of elders will include a gifted pastor, a gifted teacher, and a gifted evangelist—thus fulfilling the core functions of the Church—lead, feed, tend, and defend the sheep, and see to the preaching of the Gospel)
- you avoid having to worry about succession planning, since the loss of one man does not bring down the whole assembly
Autonomy of the local assembly.
Just as the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the Church (universal), so He is the head of each local church (assembly).
Each local assembly is unique in the community it serves…
…the social and political climate of its neighbors (and even those in fellowship), the maturity level of the Christians, the particular practical needs of those in fellowship, the relationships among the Christians. For this reason, the Lord has provided guidelines for church structure and practice, along with great flexibility for applying those guidelines.
Each local assembly is autonomous, not answerable to any denominational structure, central governing body, or other assembly’s elders. The elders of a local assembly are responsible for managing (if not doing personally) the teaching, evangelism, and practical pastoral activities. These are guided—through prayer and study—by the scriptures themselves (the sole authority of the New Testament assembly), as taught and applied by the Holy Spirit, under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Autonomy of local assemblies provides certain advantages:
- Because the authority of local oversight is limited to the local body, any error or bad practice that creeps into an assembly is isolated in that assembly and does not spread to the whole universal Church.
- Because the local body is rooted in the community it serves, it has nearly infinite flexibility to serve that community in ways that are unique to the needs at hand.
- In the mission field (and especially under great persecution), it is very easy to plant an assembly (eight or ten people get saved in a village or neighborhood and there you go), and very hard to stomp out the work (you can’t destroy an assembly just by getting rid of one man, and even if you do destroy an assembly, you’ve only dealt with one assembly out of, maybe, hundreds).
Common teaching and practice.
Acts says that they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of bread (literally the breaking of the bread), and the prayers.
Speaking of the first local churches in Jerusalem, the book of Acts says that they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of bread (literally the breaking of the bread), and the prayers. As you go from one local assembly to another, you’ll see a broad spectrum of application, dress, personality, meeting spaces, aesthetic preferences…because the Bible provides for autonomy.
However, you’ll find that all New Testament assemblies (at least all we’re aware of) take these four functions of the assembly very seriously.
The Apostles’ doctrine.
The apostles’ doctrine is the collective teaching that came from the Lord Jesus Christ (or by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to the Apostles (including Paul), and then were taught to the gathered Christians, first by oral teaching, and later by the epistles, which we have collected in the New Testament.
This body of teaching provides us with instruction regarding worship, prayer, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, sin, redemption, sanctification, baptism, Heaven, Hell, eternity, future things, personal holiness (morality), marital relationships, relationships between parents and children, bosses and employees…the preaching of the Gospel, discipline within the churches, reception and fellowship. Everything we need for a life that pleases God, and for a local church that fulfills his directives is contained in the body of knowledge we know as the Apostle’s doctrine.
The fellowship, is actually translated from a Greek word that means enterprise or partnership. So, New Testament assemblies, unlike other models for the local church, function as joint enterprises or partnerships. In a local assembly, everyone has a share in the work, according to his or her Spiritual gifting and calling.
The idea of Biblical fellowship is absolutely crucial for local assemblies, because we are depending on each other to get all the work done. If you are aware of someone who needs comforting, you can’t call the “comforting pastor” and get it done. You need to do it!
It is a common error, in today’s western culture, to see “church” as a service you subscribe to. The inference of this is that you go for the things you like, don’t go for the things you don’t like, and shop for various things (music programs, teaching, study, social relationships, children’s programs, competitive endeavors) here and there, as they can be found. But think about this…
If you are part of, say, a fishing business, but you only like the parts of the business where you ride around on a boat getting a tan, where you eat what you catch, and where you divide up the money at the end of the day…but you don’t like the part where you mend nets, buy bait, cast nets, pull in the nets, clean the fish…then you are probably not much of a partner. And eventually, either you will be asked to leave the partnership, or the whole enterprise will go under. Same applies to the local church fellowship.
The breaking of bread.
It’s important that the accurate translation of the breaking of bread is specifically the breaking of the bread. Some Christians want to make this example apply to whenever everyone gets together for a meal. Now, getting together for meals is a great thing…an important thing even. But that is not what they continued steadfastly in, when they continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread.
Clearly, they continued steadfastly in the practice the Lord Jesus instituted, when he said, “do this in remembrance of me.” Elsewhere in Acts, it is clear that the early churches so commonly came together on the first day of the week “to break bread,” that Paul scheduled his travel in order to be in a particular place on the first day of the week, so he could see all the Christians, when they came together “to break bread.”
So, by example, we have a picture of a local church, in which the remembrance of the Lord Jesus in the prescribed sharing of the loaf and the cup is a central purpose and activity when the Christians come together. They come together “to break bread,” and secondarily to do other things.
This is why, with all of the variation of autonomous New Testament assemblies, every one we are aware of has a weekly schedule that revolves around the Lord’s supper. This is something that occurs every single week. And it almost always happens on Sunday (the Lord’s day).
It is evident by the example of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and by the recorded prayers in places like Colossians 1, that prayer was central to the lives of New Testament Christians in the early Church. They prayed for the lost. They prayed for each other. They prayed for faithfulness. They prayed for courage. They prayed for wisdom. They prayed for provision.
Individual prayer is sadly lacking among 21st Century Christians. And sadly, the meetings of local assemblies for the purpose of corporate prayer are some of the least attended meetings of the week. Perhaps a contribution of the Millennial generation to the furtherance of the work of the New Testament churches could be through the ministry of prayer.
Every saved person is able to pray and know for sure that the Lord hears. Not only that, but Hebrews tells us that we have a high priest, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who intercedes for us. So, even if we pray something goofy, selfish, outside of the will of God, the Lord is able to hear our hearts and translate our prayers. What a concept!
New Testament assemblies have common practices, when we get together for a called meeting, that are quite distinctive among modern churches. Because we take the Bible as our only authority, we take things seriously that many Christians have set aside. Among these are the instructions regarding men and women, found in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, as well as 1 Timothy 2.
Some of the implications of these passages are complex and typological, if you want to understand it. But in reality, do you have to understand it in order to follow it? Thank the Lord we are not saved to the degree that we understand the doctrine of soteriology. Why do we have to understand other doctrines, in order to obey the instruction?
But let’s save that discussion for another time.
So, why does it matter?
Some people are just searching for authenticity.
There is a lot to defining a New Testament assembly. And you might ask the question, why does it matter? Some have asked why we bother with this, unless we think it’s the only correct way to serve the Lord. Well, here are just a few thoughts:
- The New Testament model, as imperfectly as we apply it, is the ONLY model that claims the Bible as it’s sole authority
- We can say with confidence, whether or not other models are acceptable before the Lord, that He has endorsed by example the practices we can gather explicitly from His word. So, we know for sure that we are not displeasing him.
- It works—anywhere, anytime. There is no circumstance under which a New Testament assembly cannot function. It can function in secret (in a basement). It can function when there is only one couple or family in fellowship. It can function under persecution. It can function in a home, in a hotel, or in a palace.
- It’s simple. No smells. No bells. No stained glass. No pipe organs. No special guys in special clothes. Just simple Christians. Meeting simply, unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ alone.
- It’s authentic. Some people are just searching for authenticity. Millennials are famous for this—the inventors of artisanal everything! Well, if you’re looking for an authentic local church, made with the original recipe, the New Testament assembly is as real as it gets.
Parenthesis is a New Testament assembly work, created to inspire Millennials to look into the person of Jesus Christ, by looking into the Bible. Find out about (and register for) upcoming events here.