Thursday, March 31, 2016

One Corporate Setting

What is the “whole church” anyway?

Crawford Paul says, “Home studies, conversation studies, group prayer times etc. do not fall under that condition [the instructions of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 about church order in which women are silent and men teach and lead, long as the whole church is not expected to attend or be gathered in one corporate setting. In these cases, men and women are free to participate in those activities.”

But what scriptural authority does Crawford have for this freedom of audible participation for both sexes in situations in which the “whole church” is not expected to be present but any combination of its members may be? If he has any, he does not cite it.

This may be because such authority does not exist.

The Whole Church

Crawford uses the term “whole church” in a local context, so we will stick with that. “Whole local church” is what we mean.

Today, when we talk of the “whole church”, most of us mean all the people we can fit in a single building who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. Some would limit that in various ways, perhaps to those who are considered “in fellowship” or “members”. Others would look at baptism as the litmus test, or whether a particular individual habitually breaks bread in a particular congregation.

Some might just break out the church phone book and call it a day.

But regardless of the metric used, because most of us meet in buildings, it is the size of our building that meaningfully defines the term “whole church” for us. For Harvest churches, then, the “whole church” means 2,500 or 3,000 people in an auditorium. For more traditional evangelical gatherings, it may mean two hundred.

Structure Without Structures

This is quite a natural way of looking at the “whole church”, but there is nothing specifically biblical about it. Why? Because there are no church buildings to be found in the New Testament. None.

(No, the hall of Tyrannus does not count (Acts 19). That was a two-year arrangement in Ephesus during which Paul taught the disciples who were no longer welcomed by the local synagogue, but at no point is their gathering called a “church”, nor does it appear to have functioned as one. Likewise, the meetings at Jerusalem in the porch of the temple were a temporary arrangement that would have been impossible to sustain in times of persecution.)

Those who define meetings of the “whole church” on the basis of building usage are on thin ice if they are looking for New Testament support. Home studies, conversational studies, group prayer times and other meetings of Christians that Crawford considers “not meetings of the whole church” have no meaningful counterpart in the New Testament by which we may judge their “churchiness” or the lack thereof.

The Apostle is in the House

In fact, the closest thing we have to a pattern from New Testament church life is the house church. Prisca and Aquila had a church in their house. Nympha had a church in hers (or his, depending on your translation), as did Philemon. Even the original church in Jerusalem is said to have broken bread “in their homes”, and indeed no other arrangement would have been possible, given that the believers were only physically gathered in a single location when they “attend[ed] temple together”.

The early church in any given city was “together” in a spiritual sense, united in heart and interconnected by a web of new and existing relationships, but unless we are prepared to imagine that the number of converts in Gentile cities (where Paul spent as much as two whole years) was so small as to be able to fit comfortably in a single domestic dwelling of the period, the idea that the “whole church” in any given city met together on a weekly basis has little to support it. What seems most likely is that they met in small, fairly elastic groups, probably very much as the original church in Jerusalem did: from house to house.

We can imagine that any number of ways. I imagine many homes in Jerusalem were open to believers in which the more intimate aspects of church life were practiced, and it is likely that Christian Jews were free to move from house gathering to house gathering at will or convenience.

But that’s just my imagination. The point is, we’re not told. What should be evident is this: In the absence of the large, common buildings we have today, in an era where persecution was common and with house churches as the norm, except in places where there were only a handful of believers, the “whole church” in any given location was almost never all physically together in one place. The only reason to assume they were is if we read back our own cultural setting into the New Testament.

Oops. Culture creep.

Given this, how exactly is a small group of Christian men and women of all ages meeting in a home, library or basement room of a church building today different in any way from a New Testament house gathering?

It is for small groups meeting primarily or exclusively in houses that the instructions in Corinthians and Timothy were originally given.

The Modern Era and the “Whole Church”

But there’s a further cultural complication with the idea of “whole church” as a modern metric, and that’s this: What exactly is the “whole church” in, say, Toronto?

Because that’s how the New Testament refers to local churches: by the name of the city in which they met. There is the “church in Ephesus”, the “church in Smyrna”, the “church in Pergamum”, and so on. How exactly would that work today, when down the road from any given local church is a hall full of Baptist believers, three blocks over is a Pentecostal gathering, across the street from that is Our Lady of Something or Other, and so on and so on? There are genuine believers to be found in every one of these places; anyone who would deny that truth is an exclusivist so extreme that he is unlikely to have concerns about church order in home meetings.

Time and time again, denominationalism has bifurcated, trifurcated and quadri-furcated the organic unity of the local Body of Christ in any geographic location. With this in mind, from the vantage point of heaven (the only view that matters), what does this term “whole church” even mean? Is it meaningful or scriptural the way Crawford is applying it?

If we stick with a scriptural concept of the church (meaning all believers of every denomination in a given geographic location), the chances of getting the “whole church” in any city (even a small one) together in one place today are precisely zero, so I’m not proposing we try that. That ship has sailed.

Still, it doesn’t hurt us to keep in mind that our brothers and sisters meeting down the street are just as much in Christ and part of his church as we are.

Getting the Whole Church Together

But even if all we mean by “whole church” is everybody who generally attends meetings in our particular building, we are going to have great difficulty using it as a metric. Unless your church is highly exclusive, its composition changes almost monthly. People come, people go. You get genuine believers who may attend for weeks, months and years without formally “signing on” via whatever method is available to them (whether it is called membership, fellowship, baptism or getting your name printed in the directory). You have people who claim to be believers and are not, and thus while physically present in the building are not actually part of the church at all. You have people who are sick and aged, and people who are away traveling. These are not present in the building but are very much a part of the local Body. You have people who attend the Sunday morning meetings but not the Sunday night or Wednesday meetings. You have people who come to hear preaching and teaching but don’t appear for worship or prayer meetings.

At which of these regular gatherings is the “whole church” present? If we’re honest, probably none of them.

Not only is the concept of the “whole church” exceedingly difficult to define (and even harder to identify) in the first place, I guarantee you that no matter what metric you may choose to define it, on any given week in the year there is not a church meeting of any sort at which the “whole church” is present.

How, then, can we realistically speak of ANY meeting at which “the whole church” is “expected to attend or be gathered in one corporate setting”?

Composition and Makeup

Perhaps the best answer to the problem is found in looking at the composition of any subgroup of the local church rather than its size. I am highly suspicious of any impulse to dispense with New Testament gender roles in church subgroups with demographics similar to the church at large. After all, the smaller numbers and more intimate relationship dynamics of such gatherings may well be identical to that of entire New Testament church meetings concerning which the apostolic instructions about gender roles were given in the first place. This includes any gathering to which Christians of all ages and either sex are welcomed, regardless of its size.

Meetings that “stratify” the church (like youth groups, ladies’ Bible studies or men’s prayer breakfasts) are obviously not included in this category, but these are not the sort of gatherings about which either Crawford or I are concerned. Such gatherings are extra-biblical, not anti-biblical, but if there are specific limitations on what sort of person may attend, they can hardly be meetings of the church. I would also exclude from the category of church meetings any gathering of which the purpose is primarily evangelistic, even if there are a number of Christians present. Each must obey his or her conscience in deciding how to approach such events, but a meeting that has the primary purpose of reaching unbelievers is not, by definition, a church meeting.

So here is my (tentative) amendment to Crawford Paul’s proposal:

If meetings OF ANY SIZE: (i) are held in connection with a local church under the authority of its elders (whether or not they are physically present), (ii) have prayer, worship or the ministry of the word of God as their purpose, and (iii) are open to anyone in the entire body of believers, then numbers are irrelevant. The “whole church” concept doesn’t enter into it. The meeting is a church meeting and ought to be ordered accordingly no matter where it is held, in a home or in a church building.

If we desire the presence of the Lord in our gatherings (big or small, in or outside a church building), we need to be prepared to acknowledge his authority. Headship, after all, is the reason these instructions were originally given.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

1 comment :

  1. Each of the activities in Acts 2:42, whether engaged in by the whole local church or by smaller groups, only has value (in heaven) in the measure in which the believers gather in His Name.

    This is not true of us simply because we advertise it as being our banner or announce it on a board in front of a building. It is expressed when there is a conscious effort to act for the glory of the Church's Head.

    It is not determined by any location, building or hiding place in a forest where it is usual for us to gather. Its privileges are enjoyed only as the Lord Himself is the focus of our thoughts rather than concern to follow any routine except that we do what He asked us to do. The order or timing of our acts of obedience are not His concern. We could break the bread and drink of the cup at any time during our gathering. It is convenient to us to do it more or less at the same time each week, but there is no rule that we must follow in order to be more pleasing to Him. He had simply asked we take the bread and wine in remembrance of Him.