Over all the years and in all the different places I've gathered with the Lord's people, I have always found the scriptural way of gathering, over any other, the most spiritually beneficial. Many, however, have objected to the idea of returning to the scriptures to determine the form and function of the assembly. The early church, they contend, was a church in infancy. They insist that, because the world today is different from the world of the first century there needs to be a different form than the one presented in the New Testament. The apostles, they believe, could not have intended to set up a pattern that was to remain throughout the age but they would have expected the church to change to fit the times. They conclude that the scriptures are not definitive concerning how we are to assemble but only that we assemble. In contrast, we believe, the instruction given in the scriptures, through the apostles' teaching and example, is God's unchanging design and is intrinsic to the purpose of God, the spiritual well-being of the Church's members and its witness to the world and to the heavens.
Under the Old Covenant, in type, we are given reason to believe as we do. Israel was instructed in minutest detail how to build and serve the Tabernacle. Man's mind, his ideas, played no part in it at all. This was because the Tabernacle was not just a covering for the Ark of the Covenant and the rest of the furniture but was itself the dwelling place of God. It, therefore, in its very design, nature and substance, bore an essential relationship with God in His desire to dwell with His people. This Tabernacle, also called the tent of meeting, that is, where God was to meet with man, foreshadowed, again in type, the body God would prepare for His Son in the incarnation. By extension, this all has application to the church, as the body of Christ, for the church is also compared to the Tabernacle, during this age - the place where God meets with His people in Christ. Seeing how marvellously wonderful these truths are and sensing how reverently and soberly we should therefore approach them, let us understand that the church, as the habitation of God, should center itself around Him and His will and not ourselves and our will. For the church is first and foremost God's house and we are to bend to Him and not He to us.
Knowing, then, that God's presence, as realized in the apostolic church, is nearly universally absent from that which is today called the church, it seems unfitting to think of the early church as in infancy and today's church as in maturity. In truth it is the reality of God's presence in the first century church we all long to experience as a community today. Now, we are not so naive as to think it is just a matter of outward form. No, it is primarily a matter of the heart. Purity of heart is paramount in order for us to draw near unto God and for God to draw near unto us. However, the first step in manifesting a true heart for the Lord is to obey Him! In matters outward as well as inward, He is to be honored as Lord. He is to rule over us. Thus, we should please Him and follow the direction He has given in His Word, laying aside our own judgement in all things, including how we should gather together.
Now, the church is the community of believers in any area in which they live close enough to each other so as to be able to meet together. That definition is rather simple and should be kept that way in our minds. The church is simply made up of all that call upon the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. There are to be no schisms, parties, divisions, sects, denominations, etc. These are all the works of man's flesh, which God hates. Christ is not divided. What then are we to do seeing that the world is full of them? We are to be a church without walls, viewing all believers as essentially one in Christ; not compromising so as to take part in the divisiveness, but receiving and fellowshipping with all, as individual believers, no matter what institution they belong to. It is simple, we seek no controversy, we just do not recognize the institutions while yet receiving our brothers and sisters in them. If the institution causes a break in fellowship, then we are content to leave it to God.
When the church comes together it is for the purpose of serving God; and it is His will that His love for us, in His Son, be expressed through us one to another in our service to Him. It is through this love that we are to build up and encourage one another. Therefore, when we gather we are to do all things unto edifying. No one is to be occupied with edifying him or herself but all are to be tending to others. God has so designed the structure of the meeting for the realization and expression of this principle of mutual edification. All, therefore, can through a disposition of giving in love participate in edifying one another. Some may offer up prayer, praise or thanksgiving, for example, while others may offer an inspirational gift, such as prophecy. Then there are those that teach, those that exhort, those that encourage, those that deal with administrative issues, those that give wise counsel and those that offer discernment; all, possibly through different individuals, for the benefit of the assembly as a whole. All these ministries, and more, can find their expression in the assembly through the brothers and sisters, according to the capacity the Lord has given to each.
Not all members must contribute every time they meet, neither should we expect all the gifts to be operative at each and every meeting. However, that which must be manifest is the principle of mutual edification operating through whatever gifting, according to the Spirit, is present with the members. (Whether there are inspirational gifts or not is solely left to the discretion of the Spirit of God and if there are manifestations we are to judge all things in light of the scriptures. The truth is that most all the so-called gifts of the Spirit I've seen displayed in today's movements and institutions, home churches and conferences have been false. We must be honest if we are to go on with the Lord. However, since the churches in scripture had the entire list of gifts operative my comments are as if referencing those churches with the hope of these things becoming operative with us as well. We today are still to earnestly desire the gifts so as to be able to edify others in the fullness God desires.)
In our experience, sometimes the Lord, through the leading of the Spirit, has impressed a subject so firmly upon our hearts that immediately we are in prayer and supplication before the throne of God, with little or no singing and with no ministry of the Word. At other times our hearts have been so full of thanksgiving for the Lord's faithfulness in answering our prayers that in joy and even tears we spend much of the time in praise and adoration. Generally, however, there is a healthy fullness of different offerings in which we all fellowship together, as worshippers of God. It is not according to a program that we do what we do but according to the reality of knowing God as a "living God", that is, one who is real to us. For this to be a true experience we must always be real with Him and real with one another, having no pretentiousness, being without hypocrisy and not just going through the motions.
Going through the motions is all too likely a result of one's walk with the Lord having been diminished, the cares of this life having taken residence in the heart or a secret sin having gained hold and a compromise having been made. Then, no matter what form there is, when this spiritual decline spreads to one another (for we do affect one another), gathering together will end up being empty spiritually. The assembly, its structure and order as taught in God's Word, will, nonetheless, help in averting this demise as conducive context for the Lord in His disclosure of our true spiritual state to those that love us. For in a meeting open for all to contribute, it becomes obvious, to those who know and love each other and are sensitive to the Holy Spirit, when there is a change in one's spiritual state, when one is just going through the motions. Then the Lord is able to move on the hearts of the fellow members of the body to pray and intercede in secret before God's throne of grace for the loved one, even thereby holding at bay the spreading of the blight to others.
Guidelines for Orderliness
So that a free-for-all is not created, there are guidelines for orderliness provided in the scriptures but for the most part they simply amount to good manners. The one who is speaking in a meeting, for instance, is not to dominate the whole time but should give the floor if another feels the Lord has directed him to speak as well. Neither is one gift over another to dominate the gathering but after two or three expressions of any particular manifestation there should be no more. All things are to be comprehensible so as to be edifying. All are to be of a nature that can be readily judged in light of the scriptures.
Also, the Lord would have the order He has established in relation to the creation of man apply to the assembly as well. As it was when man was first created, as man and woman, and so a family was established, we are to recognize the family order, even as God does. Therefore, no individual or even the church collectively, is to usurp the authority and violate the sanctity God has established in the family but the families that make up the community of believers are to be respected as God respects them. The head of each family is the husband and so the church is to recognize him as such. As a result, all leadership in the church community, in harmony with the order God has placed in the family, is then left to the men, all teaching and decision making, correction and exhorting, etc.
Woman, in harmony with her role as helper in the family, serves God in the community along with the men in all other areas in prayer and fasting, supplication and intercession, testifying and sharing the gospel, etc. While the brothers are not to be argumentative in their leadership role but given over to peace and oneness in the Lord, the women are to serve alongside the men in a quiet spirit. The atmosphere in the assembly and community is to be one of order and reverence. This disposition of gentleness, peace and quietness God prizes very highly and we should all avoid the offence of introducing a different character into God's house. All service is to be in humility, love and devotion; and in this framework the community of the righteous opens up much opportunity for all to serve God.
Children and the Assembly
Concerning the children, while the brothers and sisters are assembled, the scriptures seem to present them as being present in the meeting. Even so, we know that there are problems that present themselves concerning children and that we, therefore, have the liberty to entreat the Lord to know His will in regards to our situation. However, I would caution any from falling back into the established form of the institutions, that is, Sunday school. The responsibility of the parents to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord is not to be assumed by the church. To what extent the church will help in this regard may differ according to the particular circumstances of each church; but we must not, as a church, take on responsibility God has given to individuals. Nonetheless, let us discern the Lord's will for our situation.
In our case, we have done things differently as situations changed over the years concerning the children. Some things, however, seem to be constant. The very young are not able to spend the whole time in the meeting without suffering to some extent and as a result, if forced, will likely cause disturbances. Nevertheless, children cause disturbances, it is the way God has made them and we need to accept this as part and parcel of our gathering experience. The mothers will need a place to go and tend to the children when it happens. She should be assured that to come and go is fine and acceptable with the whole assembly. No one should ever be made to feel uncomfortable because of their children being children. As well, no parents should allow themselves to be offended if indication is made that it might be best if their children were corralled to some extent, as parents of the young over time tend to develop higher toleration levels than those without kids. It has been our practice to excuse the smaller children, after a point of time, to go and play together with one of the teenagers or someone else volunteering to watch over them. A caution may be appropriate here. For one of the brothers to watch the children, with those that know each other well, may be no problem at all. For those visiting or those still new to the assembly, to be expected to leave their children under male supervision, may be asking too much. It can be a real stumbling block. They will most likely have great difficulty in making their feelings known and will probably just leave as a result. Even for those who are not new this may be more of a problem than some realize and extremely difficult to address. So, I would recommend that you spare yourselves the whole issue and have the sisters tend the children. We encourage parents of the older children to have them attend the whole time but exceptions are frequent. This is the thing: we can adjust to the needs and circumstances which involve our children.
Once we had a number of nursing mothers in the assembly and the way the Lord accommodated them was beautiful. They did not want to miss the meeting and yet that age of child is very demanding. The home we were gathering in at the time had an extra-large living and dining area joined so a good number of people could come together. The nursing sisters would sit slightly away from the others who were in the living room, in a row of rockers in the dining room. The children old enough to walk could go into the large bedroom, which opened into the dining area, to play in full view of the mothers. Every few minutes, as is usual for children that age, they would run back to their mothers for reassurance only to leave again for more play. All the while the singing and sharing, prayer and interacting were going on in the meeting. There was no disruption and the gentle sound of children playing in the background seemed to add something special to the atmosphere. Along with the meeting held in reverence before God, the presence of children and the smell of the food cooking for the meal to be shared afterwards, seemed to sanctify our family life and to make one conscious of our very homes as holy.
This sort of impression, where association with the assembly sanctifies the common is not left with the adults alone but has an effect on the children as well. They grow up seeing their father and mother participating in ministering Christ to others, including ministering to the parents of their friends. They grow up seeing the parents honoring one another and receiving from one another as receiving from the Lord. They who ministered the Word, and in doing so, blessed certain parents one week, are blessed the next week by what those parents minister. It is not as in the institutional churches, where one man stands in front as the "minister" and the rest as followers, which can cause an unconscious lowering of one's opinion of their parents' spirituality in contrast with the "professional". But as a result of gathering the scriptural way, in the children's minds their parents hopefully are viewed as godly and beneficial to others spiritually. The children thus may grow up regarding their homes as holy places of worship and the church community as one extended family of God.
Now, the community can be a beautiful experience but not all goes as smoothly as we would like. We have an enemy and we have our flesh as well. The institutions, to some extent, shield us from the intimacy that exposed us in fleshly terms, but oh, at what a cost. The scriptural way of meeting, in contrast, is beneficial only when love transcends selfishness, only when Christ fills the hearts of those present. If love is missing it can be a very hurtful place to be. For the Lord is working through the gathering to change us into the likeness of Christ, to make real to us a life of sacrifice and self-denial...the way of the cross. When there are fights among the families, it can be terribly devastating to all but it can be especially spiritually harmful to the children. Remember this for your children's sake if you are to venture out and gather in this way: you must have the disposition to die to yourselves, to refuse to take offence, and to be always ready to lay down your own rights in your relationships with others in the church. Not at all times, sad to say, will everyone be as readily willing to go the way of the cross in practice and so we must bear with each other as the Lord deals with us. But let us be at peace with all men as far as it depends on us.
Differences in Doctrine
Another problematic area is that of differences in doctrine expressed in the assembly. It is safe, so the institutional leaders tell us, to belong to their "traditional" churches just because of this fact. In their churches no one other than the "Pastor" is allowed to speak and he must not speak other than what the organization has determined as correct and scriptural. Thus, sadly, institutionalizing generally congeals the group so that no further light is permitted. They seem oblivious to this fact and, as a result, have ceased expecting new discoveries of God's truths and have become guardians of what they think they possess. They act as if they have all that God would reveal to them, all understanding of the Word and so anything new or different is greeted as false and viewed as a threat. Teachability is virtually gone. Freshness of revelation, which gave birth to the group, is now past. We have heard of "Pastors" warning "their flock" to be careful not to get involved in these open "home meetings" that generally end up as cults, there being no walls to guard against the false entering in. This thinking evidences fear within the leaders. They honestly fear that "their flock" might become deceived but they also fear losing control, losing distinction or simply getting in trouble with the denomination. They must devalue, in their own minds, the spiritual capabilities of those in "their flock", while elevating themselves, believing that they are the only ones capable of discerning the true from the false; thus practicing a dictatorial form of church government. As a result God's people are conditioned to be dependent on man and not God. Fear is instilled by leadership so that members refrain from venturing out to seek personal apprehension of the truth, while the ache of spiritual hunger within remains.
It is fallacious that institutionalization legitimizes a church, yet regrettably this argument is widely accepted by God's people. When the truth institutionalizes by so doing it stimulates the false to institutionalize as well. The organization of the false is more readily accepted by the world just as the churches are more acceptable to the world when institutionalized. Let us remember that what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination to God. We are never told the world would accept us and, in fact, if it does there is reason for concern. God is not impressed with size and the glory which the world places on it.
Large buildings and great numbers of people, worldwide programs and many possessions impress the world and the worldly-minded; they should not impress us. For the Lord has said "Narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few are they that find it". (Now, I am aware of the present day phenomenon of independent institutional churches forming networks of loose association with the banner of come experience things new, different and exciting but this is a whole different subject and would take too much space here to go into. Traditional denominations are in mind here.)
The scriptural way of gathering is the safest, since the whole assembly is involved in the evaluation and questioning of what is shared. As a result the need for everyone to have a real knowledge of the scriptures and a true walk in the Spirit is much better understood. Mutually acknowledged responsibility has a way of encouraging us in diligence and spiritual growth, whereas non-involvement promotes passivity and spiritual development is impeded. A scriptural knowledge of our accountability to the Lord is also a motivator in spiritual things. The realization that each one of us will answer to the Lord as to whether we followed a man or followed Him while on earth will serve both to deter the harmful elevation of man and encourage the exaltation of the Lord and our occupation with Him.
Disagreements are not necessarily negative, but a door for the Lord to enlighten and strengthen the whole church. However, no one who holds doctrines of their own devising or that which they have received outside of the assembly, is to use teachings as wedges to cause division. No one is to promote a following after himself, his views or his doctrines. Nor is any to create a group within the group on any grounds. These things are much greater sins than being wrong concerning a secondary doctrine. But, together with the other brothers and sisters, we are to look to the Lord for revelation in unity. We as a church are to do nothing without unity of mind. To maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace should govern our relationships. If disagreements remain then we must ensure that we not make them a bone of contention but rather wait for one another to be given more light. The Lord is able to bring us into more light and to lead us into all truth if we truly desire Him to do so. Let us believe Him and not take matters into our own hands; for we can give no one ears to hear. For that we trust God.
We, likewise, cannot bring light to ourselves and are therefore not to assume we are beyond mistake. We are to humble ourselves in this regard. It is only in this spirit of humility that is open and teachable, when all, including teachers, will be enlightened by the Lord and know His mind. We must realize, and remind each other, that offence taken when challenged, should be evidence to one's self, as well as to the assembly, of self-ownership of the doctrine or the action proposed and, therefore, evidence that what is proposed may very well not be from the Lord. The church should desire to receive only from the Lord and not man, no matter who delivers the doctrine. Unprejudiced evaluation of all that is taught is needed. No friendships, no family alliances, no preferences of teachers, no partiality whatsoever should be allowed to influence our evaluation. God corrects us individually and collectively and He may do so through anyone He chooses from within or outside of the assembly. Therefore it is essential that we give honest consideration to all that is shared, not allowing prejudice to preclude our understanding fully what is spoken and to prevent an edifying honest response if required.
When correction is offered to us personally, then from our heart let our actions highly esteem him who has challenged our views. Let us acknowledge that he also has a relationship with Christ and what he has shared should be given consideration as well. Then if it turns out there is agreement among the assembly in opposition to what we have taught, let us in all sincerity, humility and fearfulness re-evaluate our view before the Lord with a heart open to what the brothers have offered. At that point, after re-evaluation in honesty and not rivalry (the Lord knows our hearts), if we are still convinced of our views, then we are to have the mind that we have done our duty and delivered the message. It is now to be left to the Lord to deal with the matter in each of the hearts of the individuals.
We are not to harass the assembly with frequent repetition of the challenged understanding. The church is the House of God and we need to walk by faith that God's Son is the Head. If anyone from wrong motive of heart, whether it be pride, jealousy or lust for power, is contentious (God knows the hearts), it is God Who has promised to destroy him who destroys His Temple, His church. Let us walk in fear of answering to the Lord for harming His people. Let us ask the Lord to search our heart's motives in all our words and deeds and reveal it to us if we are distorted. However, the Lord's way uses no force and therefore the factious brother or sister, after twice being warned, is simply to be avoided by the others. If he or she persists though not invited or received, the Lord will deal with them.
When believers are filled with the Spirit of God a wonderful thing happens: they become one. The love of God is shed abroad in their hearts and they love one another. This love is expressed in sharing. So, even as it was during the first days of the church when they shared their possessions, it is ever so where the Spirit's fullness abides. This has led some to live communally but as in everything we must know the Lord's will. The spirit of sharing is from God, the knowledge of how to share needs to be received from Him as well. The scriptures teach that the church has no earthly possessions as an entity in itself. All possessions belong to the individuals that make up the church. Therefore the community corporately owns no property nor takes on a worldly identity through corporate legal form so as to be able to own property. Heaven recognizes the church whether the world does or not. We as individuals cannot give "to the church" as generally understood. Money or possessions are entrusted to those chosen to bear the responsibility of distributing for agreed purpose. They are simply members of the Body working as instructed by the Lord through the church. Distribution among members is never to be done in a way causing the members to believe they have received the gift by right. No member owes anyone in the church anything except love. How to manifest love is between each believer and God. The member is responsible to provide for his own household. We are not to individually or collectively make demands on each other or coerce one another to give for any purpose. The Lord's will is that each believer give according to his own volition.
The church should never acquire wealth or debt. The church is nothing other than the people who are its members, and amidst them God has established autonomy of household, both individual and family. Any member of the body of Christ can acquire wealth or debt, but they are his to do with as he pleases, they do not become the property or responsibility of the church under any circumstances. If this truth, that the church can have no possessions were understood then the Body would never have been thought of as an institution and "church history" would have been gloriously different.
Enterprising persons from the best of motives, have formed church-owned companies to meet the needs of the saints or the work of the Lord. This violates the scriptures. The church cannot own anything. Neither is the church something that can be owned. Only individuals can own businesses. They may employ members of the church but they cannot employ the church as if it were an entity separate from its members. They will be responsible to pay employees because they are employees but not because they are church members. Such business members or their employees may share what they have earned with the members of the church but never in a way that makes them indebted to the body as a whole or vice versa. Each is free as to whether or not they share anything. If the owner of the business departs, the business does not become the property of the church.
Communal living in scripture requires autonomy of the individual in giving, each has the power to share or not share. There is no coercion or forceful expectation to participate. Each is responsible for their own needs and there is no thought of anything being owed to anyone from the church as a body.
The Hosting of the Assembly
The preference in scripture seems to be for the saints to gather in their homes but where this is not possible meeting elsewhere is not forbidden. To be dogmatic insisting on meeting in homes implies that churches should not exceed 2 or 3 families, because that is all the normal living room can seat, and is contrary to scripture. For instance, the Lord has stated that when a brother has a problem with another brother he, after addressing the brother, is to bring with him one or two others and approach the brother. Then, if he is still not cooperative the matter is to be brought before the whole church. So the four brothers, each probably having their own family, are to then bring it before the church. This instruction gives us clear understanding that the Lord referred to an assembly exceeding four families and, therefore, the church might have been of considerable size. The size of the assembly will determine whose homes are suitable for gathering. God may bless some with large homes with this purpose in mind. It is an honor for the Lord to give a household this responsibility and it should never be forced on anyone. Some have rotated hosting the meeting so that many homes take part in the privilege. This is not presented in scripture. Under this system there is a risk of a sense of obligation, so that they who have not a heart to open their homes might do so under compulsion. Hosting is then thought of as a burden, which must be shared. This is not the Lord's will. It is better to rent a building if this is the attitude. Therefore let one or two families be honored with hosting and let others share in that honor by volunteering to open their homes when the more permanent hosts are not available.
Relationships with Other Assemblies
We are to have relationships with other assemblies. We are to pray for them, cooperate with them and be conscious of connection with them spiritually. We are to share with them and bear their burdens. Any exclusive tendency where there is no desire to have fellowship with other assemblies is symptomatic of spiritual illness. Love for the Lord's people transcends just our own church. The believers everywhere make up the body of Christ of which we are part.
Likewise, the tendency to create a "network" of churches of similar mind betrays a sectarian spirit, as does association with only churches of similar heritage, race or economic status. All assemblies, whatever their problems or differences, should be received in love. Yes, we need to be careful that we are not infested with their problems or wrong dispositions but we do not do this by distancing ourselves from them. Not that we should have anything to do with assemblies that condone immorality or are part of a movement or denomination; those we should distance ourselves from. They have an agenda. So, it is very important we understand the ground rules for fellowship with other assemblies and those outside the assembly such as religious "ministries".
Each assembly is to be autonomous. All relationships with other assemblies are on that ground. A decision one church makes is not binding on other churches; there is no "Mother Church". There is also to be no federation of churches, via any council of churches or satellite churches. Each church is to deal with their own affairs, not the affairs of others.
Relationships with "Ministries"
There are workers itinerant in nature. They come to the church, not the church to them. The church is to judge them personally as to their moral lives as well as their ministry. Let us never have the mindset that we belong to a group of churches that come under any particular brother or sister's ministry such as that of assumed apostle, prophet or teacher. Those that teach that a gathering of the Lord's people is not a biblical church unless they are established by, or come under the ministry of, an apostle or some other human authority should be avoided. They are all too ready to supply such authority and control. They are zealous to win you that you might look to them and not the Lord. The assembly is to judge the purported apostles. The assembly answers to the Lord, not to men. Be assured that wherever two or more come together in the Lord's name that is sufficient basis for a church.
An assembly can invite other assemblies to hear an itinerant worker who is visiting. They may even rent a building for the purpose. But it is the responsibility of the hosting church to judge the speaker. If there are any problems with what the brother says, then that church should be responsible to make clear to the visitors their judgement's conclusion. They should also respond to any criticism and inquiries from those they've invited. There should be no committee of representatives from different churches formed to collectively put on a "conference". This violates the autonomy of the churches and helps create a relationship that is denominational in nature. Also, there should be no ministries to the church members outside of the individual church context and sidestepping the authority given to the churches and thus creating schism. In scripture the ministry to believers is generally through speaking to the assembly. Itinerant ministers are to be assembly speakers.
Let us embrace the church as a community of believers where children are taught to honor and obey their parents; men and women see each other as brothers and sisters, and the elderly are honored as fathers and mothers, all in the fear of the Lord. A community where all are to live quiet lives, supporting themselves, and not entangling themselves in the affairs of the world, so as to be able to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, whole heartedly. Where all things are done in unity and in love. Where there is no coercing, nor politicking, but a waiting for God to bring all into the knowledge of His will. Where the freedom of each man's conscience is respected and no man or groups of men are ascribed a mediating position between man and God but where all encouragement is given for each to grow in the knowledge of the Lord. Where the community sanctions no holy days but the individual stands before God with regard to esteeming one day over another. Where the community collectively owns no property and takes on no worldly identity through any legal status. It is the individuals which form the church and it is before heaven that the church is recognized. A community which does no business as a community, owns no business, but where members individually own all possessions. All "ministries" are ministries of those in the church but not of the church collectively. Where the community strives after holiness so as to be prepared for the Lord's coming, and therefore all forms of fornication, immorality, covetousness, and any other unrepented overt sin is purged from the community by separation from them that commit such things.