Elbert Hubbard was a prominent American writer, publisher, and philosopher before his untimely death aboard the Lusitania, the ship that was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in 1915. Hubbard was known as a man of profound quotes. One of those, in particular, strikes a chord with me. He called tradition “a clock that tells us what time it was.”
As we study the gospels, we find that Jesus was frequently in conflict with the man-made traditions of the Jewish religious elite. In particular, many incidents involved Him purposely breaking the time honored but erroneous rules that had been established for keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest (Matthew 12:1-13; Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-16). Of course, Christ’s actions weren’t surprising. In the Old Testament Hebrew, the Sabbath commandment consists of thirty-nine words. In accordance with those thirty-nine words, the Jewish rabbis devised their own list of thirty-nine ways in which a person could break the commandment. Then they took each of those thirty-nine ways and broke it down into thirty-nine divisions. This gave them a grand total of 1,521 ways by which one could break the Sabbath. Getting a tack in your sandal was considered carrying a burden on the Sabbath. Killing a flea was considered hunting on the Sabbath. Even eating an egg that was laid on Saturday was considered a violation because the hen had worked on the Sabbath. It’s no wonder that Jesus railed against such traditions.
While I certainly wouldn’t say that the traditions of the American way of “doing church” are as bad as those the Jews used to keep their Sabbath, they sometimes seem about as entrenched. Try changing something in the typical local church and see what you get! What’s surprising is that so many of our traditions have little or no scriptural basis.
Consider that for the first 300 years or so churches were simple “house churches” (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon v.1-2; James 2:1-3; Acts 2:1-2; 2 John v.10). That means no: committees, deacon boards, business meetings, Sunday schools, Bible schools, Bible conferences, church budgets, choirs, Christmas plays, Easter dramas, Fall Festival parties, missions boards, youth missions trips, senior-citizen outings, or Christian schools. The congregations didn’t have pew-filled sanctuaries, baptisteries, education buildings, fellowship halls, gymnasiums, or life-activity centers either.
So how did they “do church”? Well, there were multiple house churches in a city. When a congregation grew too big for the confines of a home, that was seen as an opportunity to begin a new offshoot house church. All of the house churches of a given city made up the one “church” of that city. There were pastors, men who were more typically called “elders,” “overseers,” or “bishops” (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; Philippians 1:1; Ephesians 4:11). There were deacons, men who performed necessary menial acts of service in the congregations (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 3:8-13). The congregations met each Sunday to commemorate the fact that Christ arose on a Sunday (Acts 20:7-8; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). Since many of the early Christians were slaves, and since the Roman empire did not consider Sunday to be a special day during this time (this was before Constantine’s reign), it is likely that services were typically held on Sunday night.
And what did those services look like? They were free-flowing services where each Christian was encouraged to contribute to the service by somehow using or exhibiting his spiritual gift (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 14:26; Ephesians 4:7-11). However, everything was to be done in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40). There was also praying (James 5:13) and singing (Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13; 1 Corinthians 14:15). Since the headings of many of the Psalms tell us those Psalms were written to be played on specific instruments, perhaps instruments were sometimes used in the services. Obviously, though, there wasn’t a piano or a pipe organ sitting in the corner.
There were no pulpits, but there was certainly teaching and what we now call “preaching” (1 Timothy 1:3; 4:6,13,16; 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; 2:1). It seems that the Lord’s Supper was observed each service. This was called “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42-47). In the earliest days, a “love feast” (a meal designed to help the poorer Christians) was served in conjuncture with the Lord’s Supper (Jude v. 12). Real wine was used during the Lord’s Supper and the love feast (1 Corinthians 11:21). The house churches were expected to practice church discipline as well (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Perhaps they did this by using the guideline laid out by Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17).
As for the money, the Old Testament law’s elaborate system of tithing (Leviticus 27:30-34; Deuteronomy 12:5-7,17-19; 14:22-29; Numbers 18:21-32; Malachi 3:8-12) was not taught. Why would it be? You couldn’t bring a tenth of your harvests and livestock to a house, and there was no longer a need to support the Levitical priests who ministered at the temple. So, what many now call “grace giving” replaced the commands concerning tithing.
Under “grace giving” cheerful and generous giving was expected as each Christian gave in accordance with his prosperity (2 Corinthians 9:6-15; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). And how did the congregations disperse the offerings? The money went to aid the needy (Acts 20:35; Ephesians 4:28; James 1:27), help fellow Christians who were struggling (Acts 11:29; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 6:10), support the apostles in their missionary work (Philippians 4:10-20; 1 Corinthians 9:1-14; 2 Corinthians 11:5-9), and meet the basic needs of the pastors (Galatians 6:6,10; 1 Corinthians 9:7,11; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
And make no mistake, each and every Christian was to be actively involved in hands-on service to Christ out in the real world. The role of the “preachers” was to equip all Christians with the doctrine and knowledge to be able to carry out the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). The pastors did have authority to lead the congregations (Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:5; Hebrews 13:7,17,24), but the leadership was to be the kind of servant leadership that Jesus exemplified (1 Peter 5:1-4). The ultimate authority in all the churches rested with the apostles (1 Corinthians 5:1-3). They were the ones who ordained the pastors (Acts 14:23).
But why am I telling you all this? Well, I assure you that I’m not trying to take us all back to those early days of the church. Even if we wanted to go back to such a seemingly ideal time, we couldn’t because we no longer have genuine apostles the likes of Peter and Paul. I’m also not saying that there is anything patently wrong with: church buildings, committees, Sunday Schools, Bible Schools, missions boards, youth missions trips, senior-citizen outings, Christian schools, etc. I mean, the fact that you are reading this on a very modern tool called the internet isn’t lost on me!
No, my purpose in this post is to help promote a little more tolerance among Christians when a church comes along and says, “We’re going to try something different.” Since what we consider to be the “traditional” way of “doing church” is as different from the churches of the New Testament as apples are from oranges, who are we to say, “Oh, that’s wrong; they can’t do that”? C’mon, we’re already so off the New Testament blueprint that Peter and Paul would hardly recognize us. So, surely we can use a lot less of the attitude, “Our way is the only way.”
Actually, the more I study the church, the more I realize that it is a living, breathing thing, and as such is constantly growing and evolving. The Lord doesn’t want congregations who are trapped back in the year 100, 1600, 1900, or 2000. He wants us out there on the cutting edge of society, relating to people where they are, and keeping up with the times. Think about it, isn’t that exactly how Jesus ministered to the people of His day? So, even though there is certainly a basic, Bible-based template for what constitutes a local church and how that church should function and be led, there is a lot of God-allowed (even God-ordained) play in the particulars of how a given church goes about its mission. And just because a congregation operates differently from your preferences, don’t automatically assume that it is in the wrong.