This article will list some of the features of churches in New Testament times, with the conviction that every effort should be made to imitate the biblical model. In prayerfully reading and checking the inspired scriptures, we should seek out a company of believers who endeavour to follow the New Testament pattern and associate with them.
In the New Testament, buildings were never called churches. Buildings accommodated churches, so the building itself was not the church. Similarly, today there are denominations with various titles, such as ‘Church of England’. In Bible times there were no such ‘national churches’. When the New Testament refers to the church in a country or region, the word ‘church’ is always plural.1 For example, we read of the churches of Galatia, and not the church of Galatia, Gal. 1. 2. There were independent churches scattered throughout the region, and no equivalent of the modern day national ecclesiastical organization. Thus, a church in a locality was the group of believers who gathered for worship, prayer, teaching, and service. The word ‘assembly’ would better express the sense of the Greek word ekklesia, normally translated ‘church’ in the King James Version.
Consider some of the features of these New Testament assemblies.
New Testament churches had no sectarian title
Normally, each denomination in Christendom bears a title to distinguish it. Some, like Wesleyans, take their name from a founder. Others, such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are identified by their form of church government. Some are known by a doctrine that they hold, and so there are Baptists and Pentecostals. To willingly take any name is the sectarianism that is condemned in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 10-16. New Testament assemblies did not gather under the patronage of any denomination, but they did gather in association with the name of the Lord Jesus. Said the Saviour, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, Matt. 18. 20.
At least two things are suggested by the phrase ‘gathered in (or unto) my name’. First, identification with the Lord Jesus. That is, the believer abandons all man-made ecclesiastical systems, and identifies with the rejected Christ. The Epistle to the Hebrews urges this upon us all, ‘Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach’, 13. 13. ‘The camp’ in that day was Judaism, and its modern equivalent is Christendom into which many of the features of Judaism have been absorbed. We have to reject sectarianism and be associated alone with Him who is ‘outside the camp’. Second, subjection to Christ. When the Saviour is seen in relation to the local church, the name most frequently used by the Holy Spirit is that of the Lord Jesus Christ, particularly in 1 Corinthians which relates to assembly matters. So, gathering to His Name implies acknowledging His authority as the Lord Jesus. His lordship affects every department of life, and this includes our church life. We should gather to His Name, owning no authority but His and no other rule-book but His word.
New Testament churches had no earthly headquarters
Most modern denominations consist of a central authority with numerous congregations responsible to that central office, a concept alien to the word of God. New Testament churches were churches of God, 1 Cor. 1. 2, and thus responsible to God alone. This is demonstrated in the letters to the churches in Asia, Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
Autonomy is a safeguard against false teaching. Error affecting one assembly need not corrupt another. If the devil infiltrates a central authority, false doctrine will then be pushed out to every congregation in the group to become the compulsory creed for all.
New Testament churches were restricted to Christian membership
Many Christians are connected to religious systems in which believers and unbelievers are linked. That was never the norm in New Testament times. In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 2, Paul described the composition of the assembly at Corinth as, ‘them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’; every member was a genuine believer. Assemblies were ‘churches of the saints’, 1 Cor. 14. 33.
Believers who are members of a mixed religious society argue that if they withdraw their light the darkness will be all the greater. They see unsaved fellow members as a mission field. In actual fact, the Bible shows that light and darkness are incompatible, ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers … Come out from among them, and be ye separate’, 2 Cor. 6. 14-18.
New Testament churches were guided by overseers
Responsibility for leadership in assemblies is devolved to overseers, (often translated ‘bishops’). They were also described as elders, men of spiritual experience, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7. They were not elected, but appointed by the Holy Spirit.2 Qualifications had to be met, and these are outlined in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and Titus chapter 1. Their responsibilities were varied, but were summarized by both Peter and Paul.3 Overseers have to attend to every spiritual need of the flock. That is why the metaphor of a shepherd is used to describe them.4 The word translated ‘pastor’ is the normal Greek word for ‘shepherd’. The concept of one ‘pastor’ caring for the flock has no biblical warrant. There was always a number of overseers in one church,5 and not one bishop over a number of churches.
New Testament churches were instructed by various preachers
Christendom has developed the clerical system in which one man has almost the sole responsibility for preaching weekly. That is not based on Bible teaching for, in New Testament times, various men ministered to God’s people. Indeed, every believer had some part to play, for the assembly is likened to a human body with each member contributing. Everyone has a spiritual gift that has to be employed for the good of the whole body. To pay one man to have exclusive responsibility for helping God’s people is to deny the ‘body of Christ’ aspect of the local church, 1 Cor. 12. 27.
The word ‘minister'6 is a translation of the Greek word diakonos. Elsewhere it is rendered ‘deacon’, an anglicized form of the Greek word. It simply means a ‘servant’. Some of these men preached the gospel, Col. 1. 23, and others taught the believers, 1 Tim. 4. 6, but there was always a number of them in each local church.7 There is no suggestion that they wore distinctive clerical attire. That practice is an import from Judaism in which the priesthood was a distinct class. Now, every believer forms part of the priesthood.8 As far as the teaching and preaching were concerned, a number of appropriately gifted men shared that responsibility. They had no formal college training for the task, but simply used the spiritual gift that they had.
New Testament churches had no audible female participation
The New Testament shows that women played a crucial part in God’s work, but they did not contribute audibly in the gatherings. That may sound strange in an age of equal opportunities but it is the clear teaching of scripture. The general statement is, ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak’, 1 Cor. 14. 34. The context shows that the prohibition extends even to asking a question in a public gathering. Elsewhere, it takes in public praying, for only the men (Greek word meaning males) should pray.9 It excludes public teaching by the sisters.10
The difference between the genders should also be seen in appearance. 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 2-16 shows that in the gatherings, men, with short hair, should have their heads uncovered, and that women, with long hair, should have their heads covered. These are visible tokens of the man acknowledging Christ’s headship, and the woman acknowledging the God appointed headship of the man.
New Testament churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by the Lord before He died, and He commanded His disciples to perpetuate this ordinance to remember Him. The book of Acts gives guidance regarding the ‘breaking of bread’. Chapter 2 reveals that the participants were people who had been saved by responding to Peter’s preaching. Subsequently, they were baptized and, among other things, they continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread, v. 42. That scriptural sequence should not be disturbed. The Lord commanded baptism for His disciples, Matt. 28. 19, and there are constant references in the Acts to baptisms immediately after conversion. They were baptized as believers and not as infants; there is no precedent for infant baptism in the Bible. They were baptized by immersion in water. The Greek word baptizo means ‘to dip’.11 So, then, the converts of Acts 2, having been saved and baptized, shared the fellowship of the local church, of which the Lord’s Supper was a part.
In Acts chapter 20 verse 7, guidance is given regarding when the breaking of bread should be, ‘upon the first day of the week’. Paul deliberately waited at Troas to be with the disciples to break bread that day. The word ‘often’ implies a frequent remembrance of Christ.12
New Testament churches met for prayer
Prayer was an important function of the early churches, and should still be a priority for every assembly.13
We are told how to pray, blending supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings. We are told for whom to pray, and why, and, really, the command to pray for ‘all men’ provides wide scope for public prayers. As noted earlier, verse 8 indicates the public participants, men.
New Testament churches preached the gospel
It was said of the Thessalonian assembly, ‘From you sounded out the word of the Lord’, 1 Thess. 1. 8. The continued existence of every assembly depends on an energetic gospel outreach. This is the primary method by which sinners are saved and added to the company. In scripture, the assembly is likened to a golden lampstand, Rev. 1-3. The illustration indicates that the witness of every local church should be such that the light of the gospel penetrates the moral and spiritual darkness that pervades our communities. New Testament churches comprised people who were burdened to reach others with the life-changing gospel.
If these are the distinctive features of New Testament churches, we all have to ask, ‘Does the group I am linked with match this pattern?’ If not, we have a responsibility to respond to the teaching of scripture and to meet with believers whose principles of gathering correspond to that biblical pattern.