Building A First-Century Church In The Twenty-First Century

What is Church?

In Strong's concordance, Church (1577. ekklésia) is defined as an assembly or congregation.

Many are familiar with this definition, but we still misuse the word in everyday language.

Do you still say, I'm going to Church?

What did you learn at Church?

If you use the original definition for the word Church, wouldn't these questions sound strange?

I'm going to assembly.

What did you learn at congregation?

The way we misuse the word Church tends to separate us from the assembly when in fact we are a part of that congregation.

It would be more accurate to say, I'm going to worship God or What did you learn from Holy Spirit?

This definition of Church sounds very simple, but what about all the structure, invoices, overhead, payroll, taxes, and leaders?

Is that also Church?

To answer that question, we have to look back to the book of Acts and see how the first century believers lived as the Church.

At that time, we can see the Church meeting together in houses and at Solomon's portico. Paul also went to synagogues to proselytize fellow Israelites, but that wouldn't be a conducive environment for fellowship since there was dissension about the Christ.

Meeting in homes and large public halls are both great spaces, depending on the people in the assembly. There could be two or three gathered together or over a hundred. Where you meet or how many people isn't the main issue, but how the church functions is what's really important.

In the first century, Christianity was not a sanctioned official religion and could not be registered. They did not have an agreement with the government for safety and tax purposes. Their foundation was the Apostles' teachings and their continual, ongoing direction.

When Paul planted a new Church in a city, he first preached the gospel, which included Jesus as Christ, and shared from the Jewish scriptures what truth is. Then, he trained and established elders, which is a group of men with high integrity and wisdom. He also laid his hands on the people for them to receive Holy Spirit and giftings.

What's even more remarkable, is Jesus himself (according to the letter of the Ephesians) gave special roles to certain individuals, including apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The purpose of these roles was to equip the assembly for ministry (service) to build up the whole body.

Elders were established by the Apostles to care for the Church.

Leadership gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers) were given by Jesus to equip the Church.

Spiritual gifts were given by Holy Spirit for the common good.

It is wise not to confuse these groups. Elders are established through wisdom and the gifts are established by heaven. They could overlap. John the Apostle was also an elder who displayed spiritual gifts. His role as an elder was to care for the Churches. His role as an Apostle was to go out to fulfill the Great Commission. His spiritual gifts were used to bless and accomplish the mission.

Within every Church, this was the structure in place to keep out heresy and immorality as well as to build up mature believers for ministry. No matter who you are, there will be correction and encouragement in the assembly so you can reach your full potential.

As I picture how the assemblies functioned, this is what I see. I see a family community where respect is naturally given for those older or wiser. These men, or elders, tend to the people and give them spiritual sustenance. The believers assemble together to sing psalms, teach each other, give a special revelation they received, speak in a new tongue, and offer interpretation as well. Those placed in special leadership roles by Jesus (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers) show the assembly how to function within these specific roles, and that causes each believer to receive more from Holy Spirit and offer what they receive back to the community. In this way, the assembly is always being built up together as everyone participates in different ways.

Elders are general overseers of the Church. They give it structure, wisdom, and guidance. Spiritual gifts are for the common good of the community. And leadership gifts are for equipping other believers. This is how the leadership gifts could work...

An apostle could take someone with them on a journey and walk with them as they plant a new assembly together. A prophet could correct an error in the community and impart a gift for discernment. An evangelist could impassion others to reach the spiritually lost by reasoning through apologetics. A shepherd could share the practical side of hospitality and service to those in need. And a teacher could reveal the secrets of how to pull out truths in scripture and clearly present them to the assembly. All of these leadership roles work as discipleship relationships to impart what they have to other believers.

These roles work together to ensure a balance in focus. If there were only apostles, the assembly would be dragged from place to place and there would never be deep roots firmly established. If there were only prophets, the assembly would always be judging what's wrong and never rest in the joy of salvation. If there were only evangelists, the assembly would only share with non-believers and never care for the condition of believers. If there were only shepherds, the assembly would only serve and grow in maturity, but lose focus on the specific purposes of each believer. If there were only teachers, the assembly would neglect their spiritual gifts and ignore special revelation Holy Spirit wants to teach them.

There are enough checks and balances so that even if someone starts misleading others or a false teaching comes into the assembly, it can be pointed out and dealt with. Paul's letters prove the need for correction and responding to immoral behavior with truth.

What about the Church today? Do we see this same structure in place? Are the same leadership gifts, spiritual gifts, and elders operating with these same functions?

The answer is quite obvious.

In the average Church today, the pastor (or team of pastors) is usually the main speaker and authority. Just because someone has the title pastor, though, doesn't mean they are operating in the gift of shepherd. They may be a very gifted leader or speaker, but struggle in caring for people. Or they could be a gifted shepherd, but that role will only partially equip the believers since the other leadership gifts are usually absent or neglected. Don't forget, the role of shepherd is to equip the saints for ministry. That means it should be the elders, not shepherds, who are ultimately tending the sheep. The shepherds give the Church the tools and means to carry out the role of shepherding.

The average Church will also have a board of elders, but they are not functioning in the same way as in the first century. Now, they are more concerned with practical decisions about finances, ministry direction, and operations (which used to be the responsibility of the apostles). You wouldn't lean on them for personal need or wisdom, but would probably look to the pastor instead. If the pastor has a shepherd gifting, they will give you a one-sided answer (since it only focuses on their leadership gift) that neglects the full council of what the first century could have had.

Finally, there is not much room for each believer to exercise their own specific giftings for the common good. It would seem rude to disrupt the flow of the service to give a psalm, teaching, prophecy, or tongue. When you look at these different components in the average Church, it's obvious that we need to shift back to the healthy model and structure of the first century Church. That doesn't mean we all have to meet in homes or go to Solomon's portico, but it does mean that the elders, leadership gifts, and spiritual gifts must retain their original place and purpose so that the whole body can be built up together as the spotless bride.

The consequences of ignoring this plain model in scripture makes the majority of the Church into spectators. We expect the pastor to tell us what is right and wrong and give us permission to serve. In reality, it should be the elders who are caring for and serving our needs and Jesus himself who gives us permission and instruction for how to live through scripture and revelation.

It's easy to test your own Church to see what is being done well and what is missing. Try to answer these questions honestly about your own congregation.

Elders
When you have a problem, do you call in a group of wise men to council and direct you, or do you call in the pastor?

Apostles
Are believers going out to start new movements and plant new assemblies?

Prophets
Are believers calling out evil in their city and practically working to eradicate it?

Evangelists
Are believers meeting and discipling non-believers to repent and walk in truth?

Shepherds
Are believers caring for each other and serving without being asked to do so?

Teachers
Are believers seeing new connections and truths in scripture and teaching them in everyday conversations?

Spiritual gifts
Is there space given for Holy Spirit to work through each person to build up the body during the assembly?

Based on these answers, you can tell where your Church is doing well and where you need to improve. Looking back at the early Church in a fresh way will inspire us to allow Holy Spirit to move freely in our assemblies and declare Jesus as Lord over our Church all to the glory of God the Father.

May these reflections inspire and bless you.

Amen.

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