Timeless truths about the local assembly
The Church – its order
God’s pattern for leadership in the local assembly is centred around men who are shepherds of God’s people and who have the responsibility to oversee the activities of the assembly (YPS 2/1).They are called elders and there should ideally be more than one of them in each assembly. It is God who has equipped them and called them to this work. The Chief Shepherd of God’s people has left undershepherds to do His work.
Gifted people and gifts for people
God has not only left His people shepherds, He has also given them gifted people to teach and preach. ‘He gave some [to be] apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers’, Eph. 4. 11-12.The universal church is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone’, Eph. 2. 20. Now that those apostles and prophets have passed away,we see in the church of today evangelists and pastor/teachers of God’s word.This is true both of the universal church and the local church.
God has also given spiritual gifts to each one of His people, 1 Cor. 12. 4- 31. The way in which the church should order its gatherings, and its conduct when it meets together, is to give opportunity for the Holy Spirit to use these gifts. The priesthood of all believers is a very important doctrine in the practical experience of the church. In Old Testament times only some could be priests; in New Testament times all are. All believers can say to Christ, ‘Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God … and hast made us unto our God kings and priests [a kingdom of priests]’, Rev. 5. 9-10. John writes to all believers and says to them, ‘Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and hath made us kings and priests unto God’, Rev. 1. 5-6. Each and every believer, no matter how poor or uneducated, and whether they are male or female, is a priest before God, and can therefore bring his or her worship directly to God through no person other than the Lord Jesus Himself. The New Testament does not teach the hierarchy of manordained priests purporting to come between the average Christian and God, and any system that teaches or encourages us to think there is such an hierarchy is wrong.
When Christians meet together, then, there should be freedom for all believers present to worship God and exercise their God-given spiritual gift within the constraints given in the New Testament. Man-made systems of worship, or systems of worship that put one man in the pulpit to do all the public preaching and teaching in that church, limit the exercise of these gifts. A one-man ministry is unbiblical; the elders, and through them the church, should give time and opportunity for the Holy Spirit to lead any who are gifted to preach and teach and also to worship and to pray. Are there any principles that govern how we should do this? There certainly are.
The first is godly order, not confusion. ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ is a command from God to the assemblies of His people, as He is ‘not the author of confusion but of peace’, 1 Cor. 14. 33, 40. When Christians gather together to worship, pray, or preach,we are not to expect a free-for-all. Despite being free to worship as the Spirit leads, there is a godly order from which the Spirit will not lead us.An ‘anything goes’ mentality is not of God; after all, ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’, so each believer is to be aware of the way others are being led of the Spirit, and is to control his own behaviour and contributions accordingly.
The second principle is that all things should be done to edifying,1 Cor.14. 26. In other words, public praying, preaching and teaching should be profitable, instructive, and lead to the building-up of believers. There is no room for preaching and teaching that is incomprehensible and therefore a waste of time, that is self-promoting or that is erroneous. Others should listen and judge whether the teaching is profitable or not, 1 Cor. 14. 29. No one should be encouraged to preach and teach if they are not gifted to do so. A one-man ministry may be wrong, but so is an any-man ministry.
A third and important principle in the order of worship in an assembly meeting is that there should be a clear and distinct difference between the roles of men and women.In any gathering of the assembly, God expects the differences between gender and headship to be clearly and visibly followed.In chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians,women are told to ‘keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak’, v. 34. Yet the men are encouraged to take public and active part. This prohibition is repeated when Paul writes to Timothy and says,‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’, 1 Tim. 2. 11-12. Though there is no difference between men and women as far as salvation is concerned there is a difference as far as service is concerned. That ‘ there is neither male nor female’, is true when it comes to conversion – God will save any and all who come to Him in faith, Gal. 3. 28.Yet God does see gender difference in service and in life in the assembly and between husband and wife in the home.
This gender difference is to be clearly shown in the assemblies of God’s people. First of all, men are to uncover their heads in public worship, and women are to cover theirs, 1 Cor. 11. 2- 16. This action of the taking off or putting on of a head-covering (the idea that a woman’s naturally long hair is a covering merely reinforces the idea that nature tells her she should put on another one over it) publicly acknowledges that God sees men and women as different, and even the angels are interested to see this done, 1 Cor. 11. 10. Secondly, men are to wear their hair short, and women are to have theirs long, 1 Cor. 11. 14-16. This means, in practice, that a man should be seen to be masculine and a woman to be feminine, and all attempts by men and women to blur the distinctions between the sexes are not of God. Thirdly, the men are to take public leadership in the gatherings of God’s people, and women are not, 1 Cor. 14. 34-36; 1 Tim. 2. 8-15. When these differences are seen in practice, it shows that the people of God are content to follow God’s principles of conduct, not the world’s, and that the headship of God over Christ, of Christ over man and of man over the woman is publicly acknowledged, 1 Cor. 11. 2-5.
It is natural and inevitable that such principles of clear distinction between the appearance and the public role of male and female in the church are unpopular and frequently challenged. First of all, we are told, ‘it is Paul who taught that women have to cover their heads and keep silent in the church, and we all know that Paul hated women’. This argument, aside from being untrue (for Paul commends Phoebe in glowing terms for her work for the Lord in Romans 16, and calls women ‘fellow-labourers’ with him) thoroughly undermines the important doctrine that it is the Holy Spirit who inspired men to write the word of God, and that nothing is their own opinion. Would anyone dare say the Holy Spirit despises women? Secondly,we are told that the teaching about head-coverings in 1 Corinthians relates to a problem that believers had in Corinth alone. In other words, head coverings are a cultural matter and as we are not living in Corinth in the first century they do not apply to us. Yet Paul does say in 1 Corinthians 1. 3 that he writes ‘to all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord’, and he also says if anyone disagrees with the principle of visible gender difference in the assemblies shown by length of hair and covered and uncovered heads,‘we have no such custom,neither the churches of God’, i.e, churches everywhere apart from Corinth, 1 Cor. 11. 16.The matter is hardly, therefore, a cultural one.
In addition to this, the word of God justifies the silence of women when it comes to teaching the word of God in public or leading in worship with reference to history, not culture.Women are not ‘to teach nor to usurp authority over the man but to be in silence’ because ‘Adam was first formed, then Eve’, and ‘Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression’, 1 Tim. 2. 11-14. From creation God intended the man to be the leader, and when the woman usurped the position of leadership she was deceived and she was wrong.
Any local assembly of believers which gathers together to pray, worship, and teach the word of God, waiting quietly and reverently before God, visibly displaying their acceptance of the principle of headship and leaving themselves open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the public exercise of God-given spiritual gifts, is a wonderful place to be. Despite its shortcomings, that assembly is a place where God can be found.Don’t give it up, and don’t run it down. There is no more special place on earth.
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