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Gatherings in the Early Church

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 06-02-2012


Sharing Christ with One Another . . . Not Listening to a Pulpit Monologue

Jon Zens

Although I have problems with some of William Barclay’s views, the following observations on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14, taken from his The Letters to the Corinthians [1], may be the best concise summary of the spirit of early church meetings that I have ever seen. I have added headings that are not in the original text, and will make several comments after Barclay’s excerpts.

Liberty, But Not Disorder

Paul comes near to the end of this section with some very practical advice. He is determined that anyone who possesses a gift should receive every chance to exercise that gift: but he is equally determined that the services of the Church should not thereby become a kind of competitive disorder. Only two or three are to exercise the gift of tongues, and then only if there is someone there to interpret. All have the gift of forth-telling truth. but again only two or three are to exercise it; and if someone in the congregation has the conviction that he has received a special message, the man who is speaking must give way to him and give him the opportunity to express it. The man who is speaking can perfectly well do so, and need not say that he is carried away by inspiration and cannot stop, because the preacher IS able to control his own spirit. There must be liberty but there must be no disorder. The God of peace must be worshipped in peace.

The Saints’ Gathering: Freedom within Structure

It is true to say that there is no more interesting section in the whole letter than this, for it sheds a flood of light on what a Church service was like in the early Church. There was obviously a freedom and an informality about it which is completely strange to our ideas.

[1] Westminster Press, 1st Edition, 1956. pp. 149-150.

A “Pastor” is Not the Only Source of Edification

Clearly the early Church had no professional ministry. True, the apostles stood out with a very special authority: but at this stage the Church had no professional local ministry. It was open to anyone who had a gift to use that gift. Has the Church done rightly or wrongly in instituting a professional ministry? Clearly there is something essential in that, in our busy age when men are so preoccupied with material things, one man should be set apart to live close to God and to bring his fellow men the truth and the guidance and the comfort which God gives to him. But on the other hand there is the obvious danger that when a man becomes a professional preacher he is at least sometimes in the position of having to say something when he really has nothing to say. However that may be, it must remain true that if a man has a message to give his fellow men no ecclesiastical rules and regulations should be able to stop him from giving it. It is certainly a mistake to think that only the professional ministry can ever bring God’s truth to men.

The Priesthood Prepared To Function

There was obviously flexibility about the order of service in the Early Church which is now totally lacking. There was clearly no settled order at all. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message to give to give it. It may well be that we set far too much store on dignity and order nowadays. It may well be that we have become the slaves of orders of service. The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came with a sense that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it. A man did not come with the sole intention of being a passive listener. He did not come only to receive, he came also to give. Obviously this had its dangers for it is clear that in Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices: but nonetheless the Church must have been in those days much more the real possession of the ordinary Christian. It may well be that the Church lost something when she delegated so much to the professional ministry and left so little to the ordinary Church member; and it may well be that the blame lies not with the ministry for annexing those rights, but with the laity for abandoning them, because it is all too true that there are many Church members whose attitude is that they think far more of what the Church can do for them than of what they can do for the Church. and who are very ready to criticize what is done but very unready to take any share in doing the Church’s work themselves.

Comments on Barclay’s Remark

Barclay’s statement that in our “busy age” it is good to have “one man set apart to live close to God and to bring his fellow men the truth and the guidance and the comfort which God gives to him” lacks Scriptural support. There is certainly nothing wrong with an Elder receiving financial help from the church, but such support is by no means limited to “one man.” It would be good for the church, depending on available resources, to help as many elders as possible. But such support has nothing to do with “busy times,” or some special “Pastor” status. It is simply a means to relieve the Elders (plural) from the need to produce an income so that they can be free to spend more time ministering to the needs of the church.[2] The fact is that there is no similarity between the description and function of the Elders in the NT and the “professional ministry” that appeared later in the history of the church.

Some argue that 1 Cor. 14 must be “qualified” by later NT revelation. Al Martin, for example, alleges that “churches are taking on their more permanent form under the direction of Timothy and Titus and you see a transition. The directions of Paul with regard to the life of the church at Corinth are materially different from the directions in the Pastoral Epistles.”[3] Just what is “materially different”? Is I Cor. 14 in some way at variance with the 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? Of course not! Was the Corinthian church functioning without elders when Paul wrote 1 Cor. 14? We have every reason to believe that they had elders just as did all the other churches. Thus, we must conclude that there is nothing incompatible between 1 Cor. 14 and later NT revelation. The idea that as time went on the early church gatherings saw an increasing focus on the ministry of elders and a corresponding decrease in the ministry of the general priesthood is without Biblical foundation. The full ministry of elders is completely compatible with the full functioning of the priesthood. But post-apostolic church life quickly moved away from the simplicity of NT polity to a position where the church hierarchy swallowed up the ministry of the spiritual priesthood.

As I have studied this issue, I have observed that a good many commentators generally agree on the freedom-within-structure nature of the NT church gatherings. Consider, for example the following comments on “let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Curtis Vaughn observes:

There may be an illusion to the free and unstructured worship of early Christian assemblies (James A study Guide. Zondervan. 1960. p. 35).

Similarly. Earl Kelly notes:

It is possible that contentious Christian babes were taking advantage of the informal style of worship in the early Christian church to produce wrangling (James: A Primer for Christian Living, Presbyterian & Reformed. 1974. p. 69).

This begs the question: if it is acknowledged widely that such structured informality existed in the early church meetings, on what basis do we no longer practice the basic principles found in I Cor. 14? Why was it good for them, but apparently unworkable or dangerous for us? Must we not also ask whether the traditional order of service that is so widely adopted today faithfully reflects such structured informality, or is it instead a closed formality that effectively stifles the intended “one-another” ministry of the gathered “priesthood of believers”?

{2] Cf. Greg Hufstetler, “The Support of Elders in the NT,” Searching Together, 7:2, pp. 46-50.

[3] “Law and Gospel,” message given in Toronto, February 11, 1980 (recording).

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