Saturday, April 11, 2015

Decently and in Order [Part 1]

The Bible is not a textbook.

Some people treat it like one, but even a cursory look reveals it’s considerably more complex than that. It is a collection of history, poetry, ancient law, prophecy, doctrine, personal letters and more. Despite the fact that it is a compilation, the Bible is somewhat systematic in the sense that there are lessons taught consecutively from Genesis to Revelation that build on what has already been established. That should not surprise us if we believe it to be divinely authored. The final few books (from Romans on) are perhaps the most pointed and direct in addressing how the reader ought to respond to it.

But its format is not “textbook-y” in the least.

The Bible as Reference Manual

The Bible also makes a poor reference manual. We have come up with all kinds of neat tools like concordances and search engines that enable us to use it like one, but it does not seem as if the Bible was ever intended to be treated as a medicine cabinet to run to only in emergencies. After all, search engines can only find the tags (words, phrases, etc.) that they are built to find. Unless you know exactly what to look for you are almost guaranteed to miss something important, even with the wizardry of modern technology.

Internalizing the Bible’s lessons over the course of a lifetime gives one much greater confidence in times of distress and a much greater understanding of the character of God than any other method. Anybody who has made a practice of regularly dining on the word of God can certainly attest to that.

No Numbered Instructions

As long as we have clear expectations about what the Bible does and doesn’t purport to be and do, we will not be surprised to find that it contains no page-by-page set of numbered instructions for church life or church order. We have been given everything we need to please God when we gather together: sound moral teaching, general principles of orderly behaviour, historical examples and correctives to specific situations, not to mention the Holy Spirit of God. But there is no chapter in the New Testament on platform ministry, no how-to pages on ordination, no “Six Steps to a Successful Coffee Hour”.

This is doubtless a good thing. Human beings have a remarkable way of taking everything God made to be beautifully organic and rendering it rigid and mechanical over time. A textbook would have made the formalization and systematization of the church so much easier.

With enough time and effort, we’ve pretty much managed to do it anyway.

The Church Meeting

We are probably all familiar with the four things to which the early believers devoted themselves when they gathered together: the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers.

This is church life at its most organic, raw and uncalculated. The account in Acts is remarkably unspecific about how the early believers conducted their meetings. When the word of God spread outside of Judea and Christians began to gather in places like Antioch and Ephesus, we can be sure the same four principal elements: doctrine, fellowship, prayer and remembering the Lord were involved. After all, the teaching was coming from the same source.

When we move into the epistles, we can glean bits and pieces of information here and there about how believers met and what they did. On occasion there is an apostolic instruction or correction, and here and there an indication that certain things should be done a particular way “in all the churches of the saints”.

How It Looked In Practice

But we have little idea how that may have looked in practice. Local churches were not housed in their own buildings. Sound systems would not be invented for almost two thousand years, and the need for platforms, choirs, songleaders, praise bands, clerical collars, stained glass or even a “suitably reverent atmosphere” was on nobody’s mind. We know early church meetings were held from house to house and occasionally in public places and beyond that, not a whole lot.

Perhaps we picture the apostle Paul holding forth for hours to a rapt gathering of thirty or forty in a small upper room. No doubt it happened, but such an event would not accurately represent day-to-day church life. A visit from an apostle would be a rarity, not the sort of thing you could book for next April like a spring conference.

Most of our ideas about first century church order come from our imaginations, if we’re honest. The closest we come to a sort of “template” for the ideal church meeting is 1 Corinthians 14. And even this is not so much a list of instructions from the apostle as it is a series of observations about what the Corinthian church was already doing, rightly or wrongly, followed by a series of corrections provided by the apostle with a view to making their gatherings more “decent” and “orderly”.

An Experiment

Try this sometime: read the chapter and then sit through the standard evangelical or even high church Sunday service. A couple of obvious contrasts will jump out at you immediately, though you will certainly notice other things:
  • The Corinthian meeting has spiritual gifts on display — such as prophecy and tongues — that most Christians no longer possess or practice, at least not remotely in the form we find them in the New Testament.
  • The Corinthian meeting is open to participation: hymns, lessons, revelations, tongues and interpretations come from “all” (though Paul would introduce some limitations on this). Ours are largely restricted to two classes: performers and audience.
A Closer Look

So is this chapter really the New Testament pattern for church meetings? Sort of.

Two things about 1 Corinthians 14 should be kept in mind when we consider using it as a template:
  • It is largely corrective rather than prescriptive: Paul is dealing with a specific local situation and a group of fairly carnal Christians. His words are “the command of the Lord” but they seem mostly intended to rein in existing abuses of the format in the Corinthian church, not to set out a blow-by-blow description of the ideal church meeting. We can and should learn from Paul’s moral corrections so as to avoid the same errors, but the Corinthian church dynamic can hardly be called ideal.
  • Paul’s concern is sin, not technical glitches: The opposite of “decently and in order” is “indecently and in chaos”. When we put it that way, we see that Paul’s teaching is morally focused: it addresses issues of submission, charity, grace and maturity. Likewise, if a group of supposedly mature believers cannot gather and edify one another, I would suggest the problem is more moral than technical. In short, somebody (and probably more than one somebody) is sinning, whether the sin is self-indulgence, pride or simply a case of bad priorities.
If we take a lesson from this, it may be that the format of our meeting is considerably less important than how we conduct ourselves, how we think and how we treat each other.

Still, there are some neglected principles of church order revealed here that are well worth weighing as we compare ourselves to the early church.

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