To get an understanding of what the church should look like today then a good place to start is by looking at the early church. Lets look at the last words which Jesus speaks at the end of the book of Matthew as He instructs His disciples on what to do after He departs them;
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Matthew 28:19-20
In the book of Acts we learn a lot about the early church. It is an expansion and fulfilment of the promise “you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). By following Jesus’ instructions, the apostles preached the Gospel and made disciples and these disciples became the church of Christ or the body of Christ. This is the same for us today, wherever the Gospel is preached the church comes into existence there.
In Acts chapter 2 we read about the day of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, empowering them for the work which the Lord had called them to do. If we look at Acts 2:37-41 we can see the first account of how the early church was established. Peter proclaimed the gospel and the Spirit brought conviction to the hearts of those who heard.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Acts 2:37.
They ask Peter the question “what shall we do?” and he gives the answer in Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
And we see the result in Acts 2:41, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.”
The gospel continued to be proclaimed in the following days and more and more people were believing and being baptised as we see in Acts 2:47, “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
So thousands were being saved by the Lord because they responded to the gospel which was being proclaimed by the disciples. These people were the first members of the church – the church being the saved. The body of Christ began to grow and in Acts 16:12-15 we see how God directed Paul and those with him to Macedonia and specifically Philippi where the first church in Europe was planted. When Paul arrived in the city of Phillipi these people believed the gospel and they were immediately baptised and counted among the people of God. They, like those on Pentecost, were part of the church Jesus had come to establish.
So as the numbers increased and Christianity began to grow there was a need to ensure that what they were hearing was correct. In Acts 17:10-11, a group of people were listening to one of Paul’s sermons and this is how these people responded to what Paul said:
“Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were morefair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
During this period of time, potential converts didn’t automatically accept the words of a preacher like Paul. What they did instead was study the Scriptures on their own to determine the accuracy of Paul’s statements.
We know the importance of knowing Gods Word as we can see in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So Paul was in agreement with the Bereans regarding the examination of scripture as we can see in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21:
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.”
They were testing (examining) what he said against the scriptures and Paul was not against this as he goes on to say that those listening to sermons should retain what is good by seeking out Gods truth.
If you look at 1 John 4:1, we can see the apostle John felt the same:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Here John was explaining how evil spirits inspire “many” false preachers. So we can see that every Christian is responsible for testing and proving that those who claim to share Christ’s teachings are indeed telling the truth.
Everyone preached in the early church and this new style of hierarchy which we see today within the church was not practiced during the early years of Christ’s Church. Look at what the apostle Paul wrote to the early Corinthian brethren about their gatherings as believers in Christ:
“Let two or three prophets speak…” (I Corinthians 14:29-31).
Now the original greek translation of the word prophets means either prophet or inspired speaker. Inspired here obviously meaning a spirit filled believer who is led by the Holy Spirit. So here Paul was referring to those believers who reveal inspired messages among Christian fellowships.
So Paul continues
“… and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy (share inspired revelations) one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.”
We can learn a lot from these early Christian fellowships which we read about in scripture. They had a personal responsibility to study scripture, then share and discuss revelations of scripture revealed to them by The Holy Spirit. Every Christian within the fellowship shared their spiritual insights and others within the fellowship had opportunities to relate to their spiritual knowledge. These revelations and teachings were shared and open for discussion not only with the rest of the congregation but also interested non-believers. So preaching was not reserved to a few educated leaders who follow a man made statement of faith or statement of beliefs like we see now. The fellowship educated itself.
It also shows us how a congregation should operate. There was no single speaker as we find today but rather Paul tells us that at least two or three people should speak at every assembly. He suggested that during a sermon, if a listener felt something was revealed to them by the Holy Spirit, then the speaker should allow that person to interrupt to share that revelation. Furthermore the assembly should “pass judgment” on what was being spoken about which strongs concordance defines as to ‘separate thoroughly’. So as a congregation they would assess and discuss the sermon, sharing their opinions and then reaching an overall view on the legitimacy of the speakers sermon. Again Paul reemphasises how all believers present should share their inspired thoughts with the rest of the congregation.
These practices aren’t recognised and don’t seem to be allowed in the church today. I have been in a church where they have someone known as a ‘gatekeeper’ at the front where if someone has a revelation during worship or a sermon then that person must go to the gatekeeper to seek permission to share this with the rest of the church. If the revelation doesn’t relate to the sermon on the day or if that person is not well known within the church then they are told to go and sit back down as it doesn’t fit into their narrative. And I am unaware of any congregation which holds group discussions to assess the authenticity of the sermon preached which Paul instructs us to do.
Sadly with Christian fellowships today, too much emphasis is put on the person on the front. Pastor, vicar, bishop whatever the title is, it’s just assumed that they know what they’re talking about and the rest of the congregation has nothing to offer. Many Christians share the viewpoint today that if a preacher, pastor etc has been to college or they are good speakers then they just trust them regardless, and as we have seen there are thousands of different Christian denominations and many contradictory doctrines. Without recognising and acknowledging the issues we have looked at then things stay the same. The body of Christ is limiting itself. I believe that we have enough evidence from the scriptures we have studied to see the shape of what the future church could look like which we will look at in our next article.
Church Rethink Series
Part one: Churchianity
Part two: 44,800 Christian denominations
Part three: Religion
Part four: Legalism
Part five: The Tithe
Part six: The Early Church
Part seven: The Future Church