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New Testament Church Practice – Part (2)

September 2003 | by Edgar Andrews

How did the local church worship in New Testament times? Last month we began to look at the issues raised by Jon Zens in his response to William Horsburgh’s review of his teaching (ET June 2003).

Our first article questioned the assumption that 1 Corinthians 14 was typical and normative of worship in apostolic times. Although blessed with an abundance of gifts, the Corinthian church was unruly, needing correction at many points.

Secondly, we saw that the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14, even after Paul’s correctives, would have focused on revelatory prophecy — the need for which would fade away as the New Testament Scriptures became increasingly available.

This implies a transition in the form of worship to something like current practice, namely, a service consisting of prayer, singing and preaching (or non-revelatory ‘prophecy’).

In this second article we consider the biblical evidence for such a transition. In order to do so, we shall visit two other issues — the so-called ‘clergy-laity divide’ and the ‘centrality of preaching’ in church services.

Clergy and laity

The ‘clergy-laity divide’ can be dealt with briefly. Firstly, the New Testament knows nothing of a priestly caste within the church, but describes instead a ‘priesthood of all believers’.

Writing to Christians generally, Peter declares, ‘You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood … that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).

Every believer functions as a priest because he has direct access to God through Jesus Christ and offers the sacrifice of praise to God (Hebrews 10:19; 13:15). This is not in dispute.

Secondly, however, God has appointed some in the church to exercise teaching and preaching gifts. ‘He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers … for the edifying of the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Here we do see a ‘divide’ — between those who preach, teach and pastor, and the generality of believers who make up the body of Christ.

This does not create a hierarchy, but simply expresses the general principle that different functions in the church are allotted to different individuals.

However, because of the fundamental importance of teaching, New Testament believers are exhorted to ‘remember those who rule over you [i.e. who lead you], who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow’ and to ‘esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake’ (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:13).

No free-for-all

Public ministry (of whatever kind) was never open to all-comers — spiritual gifts were assigned by the Spirit to specific people (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).

Even when ‘public ministry’ included tongues-speaking, interpretation and prophecy, there was no free-for-all. These ministries were allocated to selected individuals — ‘the Spirit distributing to each one individually as he wills’ (1 Corinthians 12:11).

I must disagree, therefore, with the implication of Jon’s quote from William Barclay — ‘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’.

If this were so, there would have been no place for specific Spirit-given ministries, not least the teaching ministries of Ephesians 4:11.

Participation

This does not mean that no one but the preacher may contribute vocally in a service, nor that those who attend corporate worship are mere onlookers.

Quite the reverse — for without their presence there could be no teaching, no learning, no mutual encouragement, no corporate worship, no agreement in prayer.

But the ministry of the word of God — with its content of edification, instruction, warning and exhortation — is not a free-for-all in which everyone is free to participate. It is a specific ministry exercised by men called and prepared by God himself.

Is it possible, however, that this public ministry took a form other than preaching? Was preaching largely restricted to evangelistic situations, as Jon Zens asserts, while Christians were edified by different means?

Preaching and teaching

It is true that the word ‘preaching’ in the NT relates mainly (though not exclusively) to evangelism. But other terms like ‘ministering the word’, ‘teaching’, ‘edifying’, ‘commanding’, ‘warning’ and ‘exhorting’ are applied chiefly to the instruction of believers.

Today, perhaps, we use the word ‘preaching’ rather inclusively, but so does Scripture itself. For example, Paul equates preaching and teaching in Colossians 1:28: ‘Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’.

The greatest ‘preaching’ of all time — the Sermon on the Mount — is identified as teaching in Matthew 5:2.

Furthermore, the gospel must sometimes be preached to rectify church errors. In 1 Corinthians 15:11-13, for example, gospel preaching refutes the heresy that there is no resurrection.

The real issue

But the distinction between preaching and teaching is not the real issue in the current debate.

What is being questioned is (1) whether the teaching and exhortation of believers should be done by selected individuals, and (2) whether such ministry should be delivered by means of monologue rather than dialogue ordebate.

Ephesians 4:11-16 holds the key to the first of these questions. We have already seen that teaching ministries were entrusted, not to the generality of believers, but to appointed individuals.

Whether apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers — they exercised their individual ministries ‘for the edifying of the body of Christ’ — that is, for the benefit of believers.

One or more?

In large New Testament churches there would have been a plurality of such people (e.g. Acts 13:1) — just as today a large church may have several pastors and teachers. Whether more than one preached or taught at a given meeting must surely depend on the length of the meeting.

At conferences and conventions today, two or more ‘preachers’ often speak in turn — but it would be difficult for more than one person to minister the Word in any depth in a sixty-minute service.

Indeed, we have the example of the apostle Paul, who addressed believers at Troas at the Lord’s Supper. He ‘continued his message until midnight’ — putting Eutychus to sleep in the process! (Acts 20:7-12).

Of course, the ‘visiting speaker’ was a distinguished apostle. But this was nevertheless a routine weekly worship service (see v.7) and no one seems surprised that Paul monopolised the ministry.

Pastoral epistles

The clearest evidence that preaching/teaching by a given individual was central to church gatherings in New Testament times comes from the so-called ‘pastoral epistles’.

These letters were written specifically to instruct Timothy and Titus concerning church practice: ‘I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15).

Although Timothy was to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:5) it is evident that his primary task was to teach and pastor the church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3; 2:1-15; 3:1-13; etc.). How was he to do so? Paul explains:

‘If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ … These things command and teach … give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine … Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will both save yourself and those who hear you’ (1 Timothy 4:11-16; 6:17).

The last clause — ‘those who hear you’ — is important. Timothy was to command their attention and they were to listen, learn and obey. There was to be a speaker and his hearers; a teacher and his pupils; a leader and his followers.

Monologue or dialogue?

There is not the slightest hint here that Timothy was to engage in dialogue, or allow others to interrupt because they felt ‘led by the Spirit’.

Rather, Timothy is to ‘Preach the word! Be ready [to do so] in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2). To that end, Timothy is told, ‘be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).

Similarly, Titus is to ‘exhort and rebuke with all authority’, reminding his hearers ‘to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work’ (Titus 2:1, 6, 9, 15; 3:1).

All these texts point to preaching/teaching by monologue and are not consistent with teaching by dialogue or discussion. Dialogue is used in the NT but usually to deal with opposition — e.g., Christ and the Pharisees (John 6:25-43) or Paul at Athens (Acts 17:17).

Why should NT leaders depart from the example of the Lord himself in his Sermon on the Mount — or from that of Paul, who ‘taught … publicly and from house to house … preaching the kingdom of God … [declaring] the whole counsel of God … [warning] everyone day and night with tears’ (Acts 20:20-31)?

Order in God’s household

The uniform teaching of the New Testament is that local churches are entrusted to the care of elders — pastors and teachers — whose responsibility it is to feed the flock with the pure word of God (1 Peter 5:1-4).

To do so, they must ‘preach the word’, thereby teaching, convincing, rebuking and exhorting those under their charge. In turn, the people must ‘esteem them highly in love for their work’s sake’.

By such a safe and trusting relationship is the church of Christ meant to grow and prosper. Apart from 1 Corinthians 14, which we dealt with last month, the NT nowhere suggests that the gathered church should be taught by the vocal participation of all and sundry.

Rather, we are given a view of order and dignity, of God-gifted ministries of teaching and exhortation, exercised by under-shepherds to whom the Great Shepherd has entrusted his flock on earth.

This is the new covenant norm — and what most of us seek to practise in our day.