(A sequel to "Forsake Not The Assembly"? by this author in September's Examiner.)
This article is prompted by questions posed occasionally to this writer by well-intentioned Christians, and, a few not-so-well-intentioned. These questions condense into something like this:
"If you don't attend a regular church, but meet with Christians in houses, WHAT DO YOU DO?" Before answering this question, I want to examine three possible attitudes behind the inquiry. There is the,
Courteously Curious - These people have no intention to seek truth on any subject involving a strong commitment to Jesus. They could be called "peripheral Christians," if there is such a thing. Their curiosity is piqued when you state that you are not a member of any church, but you do meet with Christians in houses periodically. After answering their questions and making a few comments, i.e., "Jesus didn't die to save an institution, nor did He send His apostles out to establish one"; "Denominationalism and Sectarianism are man-made, not God-made, and are predicated upon the sin of division"; and "The cost of church buildings and staff salaries drastically curtail the amount of money used to help the poor and to preach the gospel to the lost in the world," after a few statements like these, the inquisitors usually respond with, "That's interesting," and then, promptly change the subject. They have no serious interest in spiritual discussion, or behavior. End of discussion! Then, there is the,
Prejudiced Prober - These folk like to raise questions just to determine where you are coming from. They have no serious resolve to seek truth on any subject that conflicts with their pre-conceived notions. They are the "don't confuse me with facts, my mind is already made up" crowd. It is not difficult to ascertain their true motivation: "I'm only asking these questions so I'll know how to save you." Being deeply entrenched in the peculiar doctrine of "their church," they cannot imagine living without institutional church involvement. They wonder why anyone would want to meet in houses when they can experience the beautiful "soul-lifting worship services" every Sunday, not-withstanding the fact that the same ceremonial, ritualistic liturgy is observed week after week (two-songs-and-a-prayer syndrome). It matters not to them that Christians of New Testament days simply came together periodically with no prescribed regimen or agenda, to edify (i.e. build up, strengthen) each other in the faith. Apparently, the perception is that what is done today in the so-called, "worship services of the church," fits exactly what disciples did back then. Finally, there is the,
Sincere Seeker - This Berean attitude wants answers to questions provoked by the perception that there are many fallacies surrounding "institutionalized churchism." He knows there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that: proliferates division, hatred, and strife instead of unity, love and tolerance; emphasizes spending millions of dollars on buildings of comfort rather than taking care of the poor in their affliction; produces arrogance, self-righteousness and condemnation, in place of humility, contrition and approval; drives young people away to idolize and acclaim rock stars of this world, not to adore and praise the redeeming "Rock of ages." I say to them, "You have a right to ask, What can Christians do when they walk away from the influence of the organized church?" Here are some ideas how you may serve God more effectively in spirit and in truth.
It is difficult for some people coming out of the institutional church to understand that it is alright for Christians just to get together without the usual planned agenda, i.e., two songs, a prayer, two songs, the Lord's Supper, etc. I have known of cases where disciples simply traded a church for a house in which to meet. Though they now meet in a house, they feel compelled to "begin the service" (whatever that means) at an appointed time, and proceed through the same routine adhered to at the "church-building." In fact, I know of groups who still conduct "Bible Study" the first hour, followed by a second hour of "worship." All they did was change buildings. They still are not free of institutionalized religion.
Isn't it interesting that when Christians come together there is a strong feeling that we must do something "religious?" and, for at least an hour! Like, it isn't a valid meeting unless we do! Think! Early Christians did not have Bibles they could read, as we do. They came together to encourage one another to do good works and to promote love of the brethren (Heb. 10:24-25). We can do the same today. How do you accomplish this? Does it have to be in a formal setting with a teacher and students. It could be, but must it be? It is encouraging and enjoyable just to meet with those of like faith, even if you do nothing but visit and talk about the lord, His teaching, and the work of discipling.
Here is another idea: does it have to be a study of some Bible topic? Or, could part of the time be spent just visiting with each other to find out what distress or problems exist? Are there financial, physical, or psychological challenges? What might be done to alleviate the suffering and to satisfy the needs? Do any of these qualify for reasons why Christians should come together periodically?
The institutional church fails miserably in this area. In the "church-building" setting, it is difficult for Christians to develop the close relationships required to discover the needs that others have, and to find opportunities to minister to those necessities. In the typical "church," very few people ever know about the needs of others in the group, let alone "minister" to them. If you are now a "member of a church," when was the last time you "ministered"? Isn't the normal routine: "go to church, go through the ceremony, greet some of the brethren, and go home"? Isn't it true that you seldom know, or become involved with the needs of others, as you go through your weekly routine of "attending church." That is why the institutional church fails!
Jesus taught that the kingdom is for those who care for others in His name:
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you took me into your home. I had no clothes, so you gave me some clothes, l was sick and you took care of me. I was m jail and you came to visit me (Matt. 25:35-36).
Jesus said that these are some things that Christians should be doing, and we may find out about them when we get together.
My point is: It is easier to become acquainted with and to administer to the needs of fellow Christians if you are with them in a very informal, in-the-house, get together, than in a formal, impersonal, auditorium setting of nameless people.
In the institutional church, you are taught that your financial responsibility is to make contributions to the "church treasury," giving a portion of your earnings "every first day of the week." First Corinthians 16:1-3 is the proof text used. In some circles, you are taught that your stewardship ends the moment you turn your money over to the "Eldership" of that congregation. This passage does not teach a "church treasury," nor does it teach an on-going responsibility to financially support the "church." The Bible nowhere teaches this brand of stewardship. The passage does teach that Christians in the apostle Paul's day were to make contributions to the support of poor Christians in Jerusalem. That's it, period. There is no law from God stating that you must give money into the institutional church coffers every Sunday! That teaching was totally conceived and perpetuated by preachers who derive financial support from the so-called "local church."
Here is something for your consideration: when small groups of Christians meet in houses already owned or rented by those living in them, there is no need to take up "collections" for the purpose of buying or maintaining "church buildings." In the first century, Christians with means offered their houses as meeting places. This practice persisted until the early part of the fourth century when building "churches" became vogue. Further, there is not one hint in scripture, that a collection was ever taken to pay for the building, maintenance fees, taxes, utilities, improvements, etc. In this way, the wealthy provided the meeting place for the poorer saints, as it should be. This left each Christian to use his money for the care of desolate individuals and the support of noble causes, as he judged necessary. So, he did as Paul instructed, "Therefore, when we have the chance to do good to anybody, we should do it, but we should give special attention to those who are within the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10). Too often today, those who are conditioned to give generously to the "church," when faced with other opportunities to alleviate suffering, almost always display an "I-gave-at-the-office" mentality.
Using your money to help others directly instead of supporting the institutional church, will get you involved in many ways. You may have to feed, cloth, and shelter them, and this takes time and effort. It may require an on-going responsibility and involvement if they are in a protracted need. This is much different than merely dropping a check into a plate on Sunday morning, but it is better for you spiritually and, it is something you can do!
Answers to the question, "What can Christians do?" in lieu of institutional church involvement, must include the obvious. We may sing spiritual songs, offer prayers, and discuss God's word. We should avoid falling into a rut. Sometimes, the group may feel more like singing than studying, or vice versa. You don't have to sing ... read ... pray, every time you come together.
The same is true of the Lord's Supper. Paul said, ...as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup..., which indicates there is no set time or frequency for the Lord's Supper. Christians may praise the Lord in this manner anytime they desire. No pattern is revealed in scripture, only that disciples honored Christ, remembering Him in this manner. Jesus instituted the Supper with His apostles at the Passover feast on a Thursday, the night of the betrayal. Does this argue for Thursdays as the official day of observance. Hardly! But, it makes as much sense as insisting that Sunday should be that day.
It seems that early Christians came together often to eat the common meal, and that the observance of the Lord's Supper was included at the conclusion. After the events of Pentecost in Acts 2, Christians in Jerusalem spent a great deal of time learning about their newly found salvation in Christ. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42) "Breaking of bread" simply means "eating," and is so translated in the Simple English Bible. Nothing else can be deduced from the word, not even the concept of the Lord's Supper. Meeting almost every day for a long period of time suggests that these disciples ate the common meal together often. "And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart..." (2:46). Here, "at home" is in contrast with "in the temple," scarcely the place to eat the common meal.
An attempt is made by some to make a distinction between the "breaking of bread" of verse 42 and "breaking bread" of verse 46. They conclude that the lord's Supper is in verse 42, not the common meal, and that the common meal is in verse 46, which cannot include the Lord's Supper. This is an arbitrary, unwarranted decision since it is the same Greek word in both verses. "Breaking bread" was a common expression of the day, referring to the usual meal. It is my opinion that these disciples of Jerusalem, now enjoying a close relationship in the Lord, met daily to engage in many exercises, including eating common meals together. After all, sharing a meal was considered to be one of the most intimate social activities of the times.
In First Corinthians l 1, we have a clear-cut case of saints coming together for the common meal, which was to be followed by the Lord's Supper. That some had turned the meeting into an occasion for drunkenness, making it impossible to honor Jesus properly in the observance of the Lord's Supper, does not change the fact that Christians were used to eating together and commemorating Jesus with the bread and the cup. This practice became widespread among the disciples. Both Jude (v. 12) and Peter (2 Pet. 2: 13) mention "love-feasts." W. E. Vine comments:
These love-feasts arose from the common meals of the early churches (cp. ICor. 11:21). They may have had this origin in the private meals of Jewish households, with the addition of the observance of the Lord's Supper. There were, however, similar common meals among the pagan religious brotherhoods. The evil dealt with at Corinth ... became enhanced by the presence of immoral persons, who degraded the feasts into wanton banquets, as mentioned in 2 Pet. and Jude. In later times, the agape became detached from the Lord's Supper (Vol. 3, p. 221.
The point of all this is to show that disciples came together often to eat a common meal and celebrate the lord's Supper. This event is more feasibly done in a person's house. It promotes a closeness difficult to duplicate in a "church-building" setting, without huge expenditures. Certainly, this is something Christians can do today.
The practice of institutional religion has taken a tremendous toll on the Christian's zeal and initiative. Playing the part of an observer in the assembly week after week has rendered him helpless on his own. Take away the "church service" and he cannot function. Therefore, the cry of anguish, "What do Christians do?" Part of the problem has to do with guilt-trips that leaders in the "church" have put on its members to keep them in bondage to the institution. One is told that if he "forsakes the assembly," which translates into non-support with attendance and money, he will face the wrath of God. No wonder he is perplexed as to what he can do without this "assembly."
Actually, it is very simple. We are saved by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by our works. Salvation is a gift of God (Rom. 3: 19-26; Tit. 3:5-7; Eph. 2:8-10). There are many things for the Christian to do, assembled with a group or acting alone, none of which is capable of saving him. "Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself." When you understand the full import of these scriptures, you won't have to ask anymore, "What do Christians do?"