In our approach to present day assembly testimony, it is always helpful and desirable to review church fellowship and practice in New Testament times. In those days all who belonged to the Lord in any locality comprised the church there. Assembly life must have been elementary at first, but even as they developed collectively in spiritual things and elders and deacons emerged, they continued to meet in simple fashion as taught by the Lord and His followers, bereft of formal ritual and religious dogma. The priesthood of all who were born again was acknowledged and exercised in their assembly gatherings, which often took place in the humble environment of believers’ homes.
These churches were autonomous as to oversight and conduct of affairs, but were united in their acceptance of Christ as Lord among them, and in the leading and unction of the Holy Spirit. They were further unified by the common teaching of the apostles, and by a oneness of purpose giving expression in zeal, and vigour in local testimony and missionary enterprise.
Such spiritual idealism, so pleasing to God, inevitably became the object of the wrath and subtlety of Satan. When bitter external persecution only the more strengthened the testimony, he raised and actuated ‘grievous wolves’ within to take control. Alas, by the end of the third century, simplicity of church order was changed into a material church system. The Lord’s place amongst His people was usurped by a visible church head; unity of the Spirit of God was replaced by man-made organisation and catechism; oversight became hierarchy impressively arrayed, and common priestly privilege was suppressed to divide believers into clerisy and laity. Spiritual darkness descended, thereby almost completely obscuring the light of the Gospel, but Mr. Broadbent’s book ‘The Pilgrim Church’ shows that even during those dark ages there was ever, though small at times, a New Testament pattern testimony.
Many centuries were to pass, however, before we find any real measure of re-enlightenment or recovery of the great scriptural doctrines. Access to the Scriptures in our own language became possible through the work of dedicated servants of God such as Wycliffe, Tyndale and other translators, at the cost of prison and martyrdom. Spiritual revival and evangelical renaissance followed, but sadly resulted in the confusion of denominationalism, which has so bewildered and divided God’s people down the years. Nevertheless, spiritual revelation continued to spread, with increasing numbers of believers turning away from religious systems to gather in the simplicity of New Testament church order. Foremost among recovered truths was that of the priesthood of all believers. This restored to those who loved the Lord that freedom of expression around His table, which had for so long been denied to them by the clerical system. (This great truth of common priestly privilege, and the unity of all God’s people which is such an essential ingredient thereof, is the main distinguishing feature between the denominational mode of worship and that of assemblies). Ardent gospel activity and diligent collective Bible study and prayer resulted in the widespread re-establishment of autonomous and uncomplicated apostolic pattern assemblies. Perhaps we who take this type of church gathering for granted, and to whom these great truths are almost commonplace, fail to enter into the new-found holy joy of these emancipated believers of only a few generations ago.
Today a greater number of God’s people are gathering in this manner than ever before, whilst the missionary enterprise from assemblies is numerically stronger, and covers a greater world area than most of the many excellent missionary societies and groups. Nevertheless, in a day when moral, social and religious standards are being lowered, when false religious cults are making rapid headway in both the home and mission fields, when the masses are pleasure-bent and heedless of the Gospel (doubtless a prelude to the Lord’s return), it is vital that each local assembly should be maintaining an effective testimony in every aspect of church life. Indeed the ominous cry today for unity in world-wide Christendom is apt to obscure the far greater issue of seeing those around us won for God and gathered into the fellowship of His people locally. Many are, sad to say, going down to a lost eternity, whilst servants of God travel far and wide, seeking some kind of ecumenical compromise. Of far greater moment is internal unity, where all the members of the local family act together, and all channels of service are tributaries of the mainstream of assembly function and purpose. Individual action should be motivated by the desire to serve collectively and should be evaluated according to the measure in which the assembly is served.
As in all corporate activities, a first essential is enthusiastic and vigorous leadership – leadership which singles out and calls into harmony the various gifts and qualities of assembly members; leadership by men who teach, guide and inspire, giving generously of time and talent, ever ready to counsel and instruct. These must be men of firm conviction that assembly practice adheres to scriptural injunction and accordingly is more pleasing to God than other forms of gathering. These must give a clear example in godly living and should be sensitive to the spiritual condition of the company, in church gatherings being exercised and ready to give a clearly defined lead. Oversight must be regarded as a work to be done, and never a position of prestige on a governing body. Earnest shepherding is undoubtedly the basis for assembly progress and spiritual wellbeing.
It was in connection with the remembrance of the Lord in the breaking of the bread that our spiritual forefathers of the last century forsook pulpit-led worship for the more scriptural pattern of common participation and contribution. It is still this priceless privilege that we should cherish in this day and we should strive wisely to bring all who love the Lord into its joy and blessing, since it is indeed their birthright. The purpose of gathering to remember the Lord is to give to God rather than receive from Him; how full and prepared, then, ought we to be, so that this service will be an example of dignity, reverence and unbroken worship, ascending to God. How important it is to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into meditation on the Person of Christ, even when apart during the week, since it is this same Holy Spirit who will lead us when together in our expression of Him. Quiet moments can be precious and the spirit of worship sensed. But if such quiet moments, oft-times prolonged, are due to a lack of exercise arising from overmuch feeding of the mind on things not convenient, worship will be lean and spasmodic.
The absence of a musical instrument at this meeting with which to lead the singing is, by general consent but not by rule, more fitting. Because of this, however, our singing should be no less joyful, dignified, hearty or meditative as befitting the words; certainly careless and half-hearted song would be unworthy of the Person whom we remember. Choice of tunes wedded to the words, known by those present and pitched within the comfortable range of the voice is so essential. Knowing our hymnbook, too, leads to its more effective and intelligent use, and thus contributes to the quality of the worship. Rising then to the meaning, majesty and greatness of this holy occasion, having regard to its theme, and seeking to maintain consistent worship throughout the meeting, we will bring delight to our God and honour to His Son. This will then have a bearing on all else in assembly life and a profound effect on our Christian living.
An assembly well-taught will, of course, be more effective collectively. Whilst individual Bible study is indispensable, we must also learn together and share our scriptural knowledge and experience. It is vital that teaching is planned according to the needs of the assembly. Too often the only preparation for platform ministry is obtaining a speaker, usually a different one from the previous week. This week-by-week diversity of speakers opens up before the listener a variety of quite unrelated avenues of study; these do not lead him to any conclusive understanding of any subject, resulting often in frustration and apathy. Some attend from a sense of duty; many stay away. Nevertheless, a single address of exhortation often brings great blessing, but teaching must be consecutive, with a subject fully pursued before a fresh one is introduced. Since, however, not all gifted platform speakers are gifted teachers, and not all gifted teachers are also gifted platform speakers, there is wisdom in the interchange of ministry with Bible discussion. The ‘Bible reading’ is consecutive and affords opportunity to those who are gifted accordingly, and also to the elders to impart such teaching as is essential in local concept and application. To be profitable, the Bible reading must be both wisely led and well prepared for by the more responsible members of the assembly. Friendly firmness, too, will direct the thoughts of the ‘wanderer’, the ‘monopoliser’ and the ‘dogmatiser’ into helpful channels. It is also important that questions are carefully answered, and that before the end of the gathering the variety cf thoughts and expositions expressed are summarised and blended, and perhaps helpfully simplified.