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New Testament Church Practice

August 2003

In our June issue William Horsburgh reviewed the teaching of Jon Zens (and his magazine Searching together) on the subject of church practice.

Following publication of that article, we received a most gracious and courteous reply from Jon, which runs as follows:

Reply

‘Dear Friends at ET: Several UK readers of ET pointed out to me that a brief article had appeared in the June 2003 issue concerning my views of church practice.

‘Mr Horsburgh had previously written a very lengthy paper, which he presented at a gathering of pastors, concerning my understanding of how the church should function.

‘I appreciated the effort he made to allow me to go over the manuscript several times in order to ensure that the historical facts unfolded accurately.

‘On the whole, this distillation [the ET article] of his larger piece is quite accurate and satisfactory. However, there are a few spots that could use further elucidation.

‘For example, William’s remark that the type of meetings I advocate possess “a recognised human leader” is not correct. I believe the NT teaches that meetings are to be led by and open to the Holy Spirit’s leading, but that does not rule out some pre-gathering preparation.

‘As William Barclay notes in his commentary regarding 1 Corinthians 14, “the really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and obligation of contributing something to it”.’

Radical or not?

Jon Zens continues: ‘Mr Horsburgh expresses concern about my “aggressive radicalism”. But isn’t the touchstone of our practice the NT? If the traditions of men have possibly clouded the NT vision, must we not return afresh to the inspired documents to discover what is so?

‘For example, if 1 Corinthians 14 is the largest chunk of information we have about Christian gatherings, why do we by our practice ignore it? Where are the kind of meetings outlined in most church “orders of service” revealed in God’s Word?

‘Is there not perhaps validity for serious concern if our gatherings actually squelch what is revealed in the NT?

‘Is it really “radical” to question the clergy-laity divide, when Biblical scholars of all stripes confess that it isn’t to be found in the NT documents? Is it “radical” to question the “centrality of preaching” in church services, when it cannot be denied that in the NT it is largely an evangelistic activity carried on among outsiders (cf. David Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question, Paternoster, 1996)?’

Alarming rate

The letter concludes: ‘Those who have sat in the pews for years are exiting institutional churches at an alarming rate, both in America and the UK. Because of this, and a number of other reasons, is it not within the bounds of propriety to seriously question, as Mr Horsburgh calls them, the “prevailing ministry practices” (cf. Jeremy Thompson, Preaching As Dialogue: Is the Sermon A Sacred Cow?, Grove, #68)?

‘With regret I must point out that, because of serious personal problems in his life and ministry, we no longer recommend Frank Viola’s materials.

‘My biggest concern with Mr Horsburgh’s article is that he seems to assume that the status quo is sacrosanct. It appears that he assumes fear will rise in the hearts of his readers just by listing some of my convictions that question commonly accepted church practices.

‘But the issue is, and always must be, “Is God’s Word our guide or not?”

In the bonds of Christ, Jon Zens.’

Worship at Corinth

As we consider Jon’s reply, the first issue to arise is the treatment of 1 Corinthians 14, which he rightly says ‘is the largest chunk of information we have [in the NT] about Christian gatherings’.

The assumption seems to be that an extensive passage of Scripture must, ipso facto, be normative for the matters it treats. But is this necessarily so?

We need to ask why Paul devotes so much space to the subject in writing to the Corinthians, while saying little about it to other churches. The answer is, of course, that the Corinthian church was disorderly and stood in need of correction at many points.

For example, the Corinthians were factional and divided (1:10-17) and unduly enamoured with ‘wisdom’, due no doubt to the prevailing Greek culture (1:17-2:16).

The church was ‘carnal’ and retarded in spiritual understanding (Ch. 3); judgmental and boastful (Ch. 4); indulgent towards immorality (Ch. 5); litigious (6:1-11); and so we could continue.

Such serious deviations from the norm called for extensive correction – requiring correspondingly extensive passages of Scripture. But that does not transform the deviation into the norm.

The Lord’s Supper at Corinth

The point is exemplified in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, where we have ‘the largest chunk of information’ in the NT about the conduct of the Lord’s Supper (the account in John 13 is arguably longer but includes a lot of other narrative material).

Do we therefore hold the Corinthians’ practice normative for our celebration of the Supper? Not at all. Rather, we avoid their errors and heed Paul’s warnings and explanations.

This is highly relevant to 1 Corinthians 14, which was clearly written neither to describe nor prescribe a normative form of worship service, but rather to warn against certain errors and excesses.

Furthermore, the 14th chapter of the epistle cannot be divorced from the 12th and 13th chapters, which are also couched in terms of admonition and correction. Chapter 13:11 is particularly apposite, referring as it does to the need for the church and its members to grow up spiritually, from childhood to maturity.

All that matters?

It will no doubt be argued that, regardless of its primary purpose, 1 Corinthians 14 reveals what actually went on in a NT church meeting, and this is all that matters. But is it?

The 11th chapter also reveals ‘what actually went on’ – at Corinth – at the Lord’s Table. But no one would dream of adopting ‘what went on’ in Corinth as the apostolic pattern for that celebration.

It may be argued that the abuses condemned in Chapter 11 were far greater than those highlighted in Chapter 14. But remember that Paul’s treatment of ‘public worship’ begins in Chapter 12 with a warning against calling Jesus accursed (12:3) – and immediately follows his strictures concerning the Lord’s Table.

The point to grasp is that Paul does not specify in chapter 11 how the Lord’s Supper should be observed, but contents himself with correcting the worst abuses. He clearly saw a need for further remedial action – his closing words on the subject are: ‘If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgement. And the rest I will set in order when I come’ (11:34; emphasis added).

Is it not likely that he exercises the same restraint concerning worship in Chapters 12-14? Paul corrects their errors and excesses and accepts what remains – but this does not mean that ‘what remains’ is either typical or definitive of early church gatherings.

Prophecy

But even if 1 Corinthians 14 were the norm, it still does not mean that we should follow the same pattern today. After applying Paul’s corrective advice, the meeting described would have involved mainly prayer, singing and prophecy – with a strong emphasis on prophecy.

But what should we understand by ‘prophecy’ in this context? From 14:29-30 it seems clear that prophecy (in keeping with overall biblical usage) referred to the utterance of immediately revealed truth.

This is confirmed by Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, where the New Testament prophets are described as those to whom (along with the apostles) the new gospel revelation was given.

This revelation, of course, resulted in the New Testament writings – which is why the prophets can be described as foundational in Ephesians 2:20.

But how could the New Testament church benefit from New Testament revelation before it had the New Testament? It had the apostles, of course, but they could not be everywhere!

The answer seems to be that each local assembly had prophets whose role it was to receive and teach the newly revealed ‘mystery of Christ – which in other ages was not made known … as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets’ (Ephesians 3:1-5).

As the New Testament writings began to circulate, such revelatory ministries gradually became redundant, though the prophets themselves may well have continued to teach in a normal, non-revelatory, manner – expounding the Scriptures of both Testaments.

Transition

The passing of revelatory prophetic ministry would indeed have represented a transition from childhood to maturity as taught in 1 Corinthians 13:9-11, and would inevitably have led to changes in the form of worship.

No longer would one prophet have to defer to another as new truth was revealed from heaven during the progress of the meeting (14:30) – normal teaching or preaching requires no such extraordinary provision and can be planned and prepared in advance.

But is there support for such a transition elsewhere in the New Testament? This we will pursue next month.