Let’s start by taking a look at the NT references for gatherings of believers:
John 4:21-24 “Jesus declared, ’Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming, and has now come, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’”We can deduce several things from these passages.
1 Cor. 6:19 “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;”
1 Cor. 14:22-33 “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ”God is really among you!“
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two— or at the most three— should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
1 Cor. 11:17-33 “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good... When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk... That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.”
Acts 17:11 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
First, the Church is not a building but the believers themselves. Our physical bodies are called the “temple”, and the physical buildings we’ve all come to associate with Christianity are not prescribed for the church at all. Jesus made a point of saying that the old way of a physical building would be replaced by worship that is done “in spirit and in truth” without regard for any certain location. Paul concurred by saying that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who indwells each believer.
According to the church historian Unger, there were no church buildings for at least the first 200 years of Christianity. It wasn’t due to poverty necessarily, but to the fact that neither Jesus nor any of the Apostles even hinted at construction of a special sanctuary or house of worship. So where did the idea of special buildings come from? That’s right, the Roman Catholic Church, founded and designed by the Roman emperor Constantine. His goal was to blend Christian and pagan religions (sound familiar?) so that everyone would get along. The same people who filled the pagan shrines on one day would fill the “churches” on another, being in the familiar company of the gods they knew who were represented in the statues and icons-- which were given “saint” names for the Christians. It was a shrewd political maneuver which turned out to be wildly successful.
Second, the model of a single “head pastor” lecturing a group of pew-warmers is unknown to the NT. There were to be several elders in each church (local group of believers), and any number of prophets (those who give a divine message, not necessarily of the future) and teachers. All the people were to consider what was said and make sure it lined up with the scriptures (both OT writings and the apostles’ teachings, aka NT). The pastors were not necessarily prophets/preachers either.
Third, these gatherings of believers were not noisy free-for-alls but more like what we would call a Bible study, where people would teach and learn. This was not really what we’d call a “worship service”. Did the early believers worship? Yes, at first in the Jewish Temple, but as they scattered this was not practiced, especially among Gentiles. Worship in the NT for believers is not really specified, except in brief side notes. The passage above mentions the inclusion of hymns, but I don’t have documentation on what exactly that meant to the people of the first century. We should not automatically assume the somber, quite ones of 1800s America.
In Revelation we get a few glimpses of goings-on in heaven, and what I see there is everyone falling down and shouting and singing. No quiet reverence there! It’s loud and nonstop, filled with expressions of praise to God. There is a time and place for introspection here and now, but as Jesus put it, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.” (Mark 2:19). Heaven will be a place of celebration, so why should we be somber and serious in our worship here?
So what should we do? We can’t just suddenly overthrow centuries of tradition, can we? Hmm... There is a growing home church movement. We can slowly change the paradigm without overthrowing the old ways. We must be patient and considerate of those who have not been fed the meat of the Word and think “churchianity” is what the Bible teaches. But we can change it one person at a time.
It is important to keep the NT model in mind when discussing issues that affect the church body, such as how elders and deacons function and the responsibilities of all believers. It’s easy to get off-track if you think in terms of churchianity and not Christianity. We are all “priests”, all “parts of the body”, and all of equal rank or status. Elders have “authority” over the others only inasmuch as those others are not yet spiritually mature. Like good parents, they are to train up the “children” to be parents themselves someday. In contrast, most churches simply expect the children to remain so forever, always dependent upon (“covered” by) the almighty Pastor. This is nothing short of blasphemy, to put a human between any believer and Jesus.
On the “offices” of overseer and deacon:What offices? Although many English translations use the phrase “office of an elder” in 1 Timothy 3:1, the Greek literally says “... if anyone aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work”, and in verse 8, “Likewise, deacons must...”. If we want to know the full NT teaching on these servants of the church (deacon is from the Greek word for “bond servant”), we must consult many references, beginning with the Gospels. Jesus made it clear to his disciples that to lead is to serve, not dominate (Matthew 20:25-28, John 13:13-17).
In passages such as 1 Timothy 3 we read of the qualifications for overseers and deacons, including not only a high moral standard and good reputation within and without the church, but spiritual maturity and proper handling of the scriptures. One might conclude so far that these two groups are almost identical, yet we see them treated as separate in various passages such as Philippians 1:1, which actually lists three groups as composing the entire church: overseers, deacons, and saints. (Saints refers to all believers, with overseers, deacons, and the rest of the believers as subgroups).
Both overseers and deacons serve the church, but only overseers are charged with guarding it. Formerly I had always equated the commission of the Seven in Acts 6:1-6 with the formation of the “office of deacon”, but now I hold to the position that this was no more the establishment of a church office than any other commissioning of specific believers for specific missions. Looking at the context here, it seems obvious that this was not a universal sanction but the solution of a local food distribution problem that the apostles could not be distracted with. At any rate, it is never referenced in any of the (surprisingly few) NT texts dealing specifically with church service.
And it’s entirely possible that the reason the functions of deacons are not spelled out is because they were simply “elders in training”, that is, those who were being evaluated as future elders. That would explain the need for their nearly identical qualifications.
And our attitude toward gender issues in the church can be heavily influenced by our perception of church structure. If we keep the NT model in view, many of these problematic areas become much less so. After all, it could be argued that throughout church history more women than men have been servants of the church, and we see glimpses of this even in the NT when the idea of the equal woman was unheard of in almost all societies.
But the point I want to make here is that the NT church knows nothing of hierarchy, domination, or centralized rule. The authority of the church is Jesus, whose words are recorded in the Gospels, and whose teachings were given to the church through hand-picked apostles (the NT epistles). Those who know the teachings and live them are called to lead and protect those who are new in the faith or have not yet grown to the point where they can stand alone. Those who do not know the Word are to learn from those who do (and therefore are expected to grow!). This is the ONLY kind of hierarchy the NT knows for the church.