Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Typical Assembly of Christians in the First Century

We tend to think of "going to church" in terms of 1950's ideology: get the family together on Sunday morning in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds, drive (or walk) to church, where the kids go off to their Bible class and the adults meet in an adult class, followed by a sermon-dominated "worship service" after everyone comes back into the assembly hall, where the main form of participation is singing the same songs everyone else is singing, bowing your head reverently in prayer, and listening attentively and quietly to the sermon, followed by a greeting and pat-on-the-back aimed at the preacher, finished up by a big Sunday lunch back home or at the restaurant, with just the immediate family, and maybe a few friends.

But if we're truly to be Biblical in our assemblies, we need to look at the assemblies we see in the New Testament.

Four of them come to mind:

Acts 20:7ff

The saints are assembling on the first day of the week to break bread.

We don't know if this is the Jewish first day (i.e. our Saturday night) or the Greek first day (i.e. our Sunday).

We don't know if this "breaking of the bread" is the Lord's Supper, a special meal that the church decided to gather for (either just because, or because it was a going-away supper for Paul), a regular weekly assembly for eating a regular meal just because the assembly is a family, the second Passover (for those who missed the first one), or what.

There is no mention of eating prior to midnight, but there is after midnight, which means that if it is the Lord's Supper, it took place on the second day of the week (if using Greek timing), or the intent of the assembly was to meet for eating on our Saturday night (if using Jewish timing).

So to make a "law" out of this example for us to eat the Lord's Supper on Sundays is to go beyond what the Scriptures reveal to us. All we really know is that the main emphasis for the meeting is to "break bread", to eat, either a normal meal, or the Lord's Supper "ritual", or perhaps a combined Lord's Supper "ritual" within the context of a full meal, which is most like the original, first Lord's Supper, being initiated within the context of a full meal.

Another thing we notice about this meeting is that Paul lectured a long time (v. 9 -- "discoursed"-ASV; "preached"-KJV; "talked still longer"-ESV), and bored a young man to literal death. It's interesting that after the young man was revived, Paul changed his format to "conversation" (v. 11 -- "talked with"-ASV; "conversed with"-ESV). Might we heed this Biblical warning against long one-sided sermons in favor of interactive discussions? (Keep this question in mind as you read the section below on 1 Cor 14.)

James 2:2-6

The word which James uses for "assembly" here is "synagogue" -- "If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in...".

So first off, we can see that the Christian assembly has been influenced by the Jewish assembly. This should be no surprise; the church was exclusively Jewish for the first fourteen or so years, and when non-Jews started being added to the church, there was a lot of pressure by the Jews to force the Gentiles to essentially become Jewish. Acts 15 speaks of the Jerusalem conference that settled this matter, deciding that Jews should be Christians in their distinctive Jewish ways (still keeping the Law of Moses, being circumcised, etc), but that Gentiles can be Christians without adopting the Jewish ways. Nevertheless, Christianity started out Jewish, so it's not surprising to see the Christian assembly as having its roots in the Jewish synagogue.

The main point of James' mentioning of the assembly is that we should show fairness to all, rich and poor alike, that there should be no distinctions based on socio-economic class.

Jude 12

Jude mentions the "love feasts", at which blasphemers feast with his readers. It would seem these "love feasts" are regular meals of some sort, although we don't have enough information to conclude much about them, not even if they are just ritualistic meals or real fill-your-belly meals.

1 Cor 11 - 14

We've already seen that eating seems to be a significant part of Christian assemblies. We see that again here in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians.

Paul tells the Corinthians that they're not really eating the Lord's Supper when they come together (v. 20), because of their divisions (v. 18). This Lord's Supper is obviously not just a ritualistic tidbit of cracker and a sip of grape juice/wine, but a full-blown meal, in which some people have eaten all the food and imbibed to the point of drunkenness, having no concern that they've left nothing for the late-comers who then remain hungry.

Paul scolds these people, telling them that if the only reason they're at the Lord's Supper is to satisfy their hunger, they should eat at home. He then makes it clear that the purpose of the Lord's Supper is not to fill your belly, but to remember the Lord's death until he comes, saying that if you eat the bread or drink the cup without recognizing the body, even those who arrive late, you're eating and drinking condemnation to yourself (vv. 27-29). Therefore, when you come together for the purpose of eating, wait for one another (v. 33). If you can't wait, eat at home, so that you won't come under judgment (v. 34).

In this passage, we see that, like in Acts 20, the assembly is for the purpose of eating. The eating is not a simple ritualistic snack, but a full-blown meal, incorporating the remembrance of Jesus' death. And like in Jude 12, it's a feast in which love is to be shown to one another, by recognizing the body (i.e. by recognizing that this is a group activity); it's a full-blown meal in which you are to wait and share with one another, in remembrance of Jesus.

Earlier in this chapter, we've seen that the traditions delivered by Paul (v. 2), and the customs of the assemblies (v. 16), allow for both men and women to pray and prophesy (vv 4-5), provided certain hair-covering regulations are observed. (At first glance this seems to conflict later with chapter 14.) So it would seem that if a woman were to be asked to say the thanksgiving prayer for the meal, that would be acceptable so long as she does so within the societal norms of what is proper concerning her appearance (in that culture, it was shameful for a woman to have her hair cut short or uncovered - v. 6).

In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, we see that within the assembly, different Christians will exhibit different God-given gifts; not everyone is an eye; not everyone is an ear. God has made us different, giving us different gifts, for the benefit of the entire body. Some might be law-observing Jews, some might be non-Law-observing Gentiles (v. 13, with Acts 15, 21, esp 21:20-25). So we can have lots of variety within the body (artsy people vs mathy people? drama performance people vs scientific data people? book-worms vs jocks?, introverts vs extroverts? holy-roller "spirit-filled" people vs text-oriented scholars?), so long as we're unified.

Chapter 13 is a side-bar concerning the value of love as a gift over other spiritual gifts.

Then in chapter 14 we get a wider view of a Christian assembly. In Acts 20 we saw that the church assembly in Troas consisted of "breaking bread" and talking/discussing late into the night. In 1 Cor 11 we saw that the church assembly in Corinth consisted of eating a big meal together in remembrance of Jesus' death. Now in chapter 14 we see what else goes on in the Corinthian assembly.

Everyone in the assembly has a gift to exercise for the benefit of the group (1 Cor 12:7) - some have a psalm to sing, some have a teaching, some have a revelation, some have a tongue, some have an interpretation (1 Cor 14:26). But all things must be done for the benefit of, the building up of, the assembly (v. 26). Things must be done decently, and in order, not a free-for-all (v. 40); people must take turns in exercising their gifts, "one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged" (v. 31). And it all must be done with understanding (v. 15), which means that speaking in tongues is to be discouraged unless there is an interpreter who can translate for the benefit of everyone else (v. 28), although it is not to be forbidden (v. 39). But the expectation is that the "whole church assembles together and all are speaking" (v. 23) in song, or in tongues, as an interpreter, in prophecy, or to evaluate what others have said (vv 26-29), all providing conviction and judgment as required (v 24).

What we do not see in this assembly is a passive sitting for an hour while one person lectures for a long period. We do see the lecture format in the beginning of the meeting in Acts 20, but even that changes after the lecture results in people going to sleep, into a more interactive conversational format.

Our church assemblies are centered on being mostly passive while listening to a lecture, with just a smattering of activity done in unison, exactly like everyone else is doing, with very few individuals addressing/contributing to others within the group. The New Testament assemblies seem to have been centered on everyone contributing to others in the group, for the good of the group, in conjunction with a common meal that focuses on one-another-ness in honor of Jesus' death.

Are we doing it wrong?


Nathan R. Hale said...

Great observations! Thoughts like this are what ultimate led me to a liturgical (literally, the work of the people) expression of worship.

Kent West said...

When we see assemblies in the book of Acts in which sermons dominate, they're mostly for the non-believers. When the assemblies are composed of believers, there seems to be less emphasis on one person dominating the meeting with a sermon and more of an emphasis on everyone making a contribution.

Still, even with the sermons, they tend to be short, and interactive. For example, Peter's first sermon in Acts 2 only takes two minutes to read aloud, and is a back-and-forth conversation wherein the people speak, Peter responds, then the people respond, and then Peter responds again. We see the same conversational back-and-forth when Peter and John are brought before the courts in Acts 4, again when the apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, and again when Stephen gets into disputations with the people in Acts 6:9. When Saul was converted, he didn't preach sermons to the Jews, but rather "conversed and debated" with them (Acts 9:29). When Pharisee Christians came to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas did not sermonize to them, or to the congregation there, but rather "engaged them in serious argument and debate" (Acts 15:2). When Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem, they gave a report and then the Pharisee Christians there had a chance to speak (Acts 15:5), which led to much debate (v. 7), with different speakers taking turns (vv 12-14), just like we see elsewhere (Acts 11:28; 1 Cor 14:31). (By the way, this illuminates the lie that there were no "denominations" in the first century church - there was a sect of Christians who identified themselves as Pharisees, who still kept the Mosaic Law, although such law-keeping was not bound on the non-Pharisee sect; yet they were united ("unity in diversity") with the larger church of Christ.) "As usual, Paul ... reasoned with" his students (Acts 17:2), rather than speaking at them for long periods. When Paul spoke at the Areopagus, again, we see an interactive discussion (Acts 17:18, 32). When Paul met unbelievers in Corinth, he "engaged in discussion" with them (Acts 19:8); when he met with believers, he "conducted discussions" with them (v. 9).

The point is not that sermons were never long and one-sided (see, for example, Acts 15:32); the point is that long one-sided sermons were the exception, whereas we've made it the rule, and have virtually eliminated the practice of open discussion and contribution by all, which seems to be the way things were done in the first century.

Perhaps it's time for us to work some more on restoring the first-century church....