Thursday, December 18, 2008

Biblical Support?

Let me just ask straight up: why is the Sunday morning service so important anyway? We Protestants have the same religious zeal for it that the Roman Catholic Church has for the sacraments or the Pharisees had for the Sabbath and temple offerings. But we have much less Scripture to back up our making the Sunday morning service a priority than either the Catholics or the first-century Jewish leaders had for their practices. Yikes, is that true?!? Certainly the Jewish leaders at the time of Christ could easily point to OT passages commanding that we keep the Sabbath and observe the rites of temple worship. The Roman Catholics can easily point to texts commanding us to take the bread and cup and baptize. Granted, we may argue about what that means to us, but they at least have Scriptural commands to back their practices up.

We evangelicals give so much talk to holding firm to our Bibles in faith and practice, but in reality, much of what we consider most important is not found at all in the Bibles we preach from each Sunday. We emphasize sound hermeneutics and doctrine, but then we presume that our Sunday functions of preaching the Word from a pulpit to an audience is not only Biblical, it is central to what church is all about. While this isn't a bad thing to do each week, it is not commanded in the Scriptures and is not what church is all about in the NT.

Pick up your New Testament, open it, and read it as if for the first time. Search the Scriptures. Show me in the New Testament the verses that command us to gather together for a worship service, complete with sermons, announcements (commercials), tithes, and offerings. You will not find any verses that prescribe or even describe such a thing. What you will find are verses, chapters, and entire books dedicated to the church functioning as a spiritual family--loving Jesus and each other while on a mission to redeem the lost.

Many point to the first few chapters of Acts to defend the practice of meeting publicly for worship and teaching. Never mind that these are not prescriptive texts but merely describing what was done, and done for a very short time period. The practice found in these early chapters of Acts was not preaching to the saints as much as to the lost. In fact, the word for preaching in the NT is almost always exclusively used of presenting the gospel to those who do not yet follow Christ.

The rest of Acts does not describe such a gathering. Even in Ephesus where Paul says he was teaching them both publicly as well as from house to house (Acts 20:20), the public training was a discussion rather than a sermon, held in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). This was most likely daily ministry training rather than a once a week worship service. In the New Testament the pattern of church life was not a weekly worship service but it was a spiritual family, gathering regularly to live life together under the common headship of Jesus Christ with everyone fully participating. All attempts to squeeze something else out of the text are nothing more than trying to defend a traditional practice that is not biblically authoritative.

Some will say that Paul’s admonition to set aside a monetary gift on the first day of each week (1 Cor. 16:1-3) is a Biblical command to have a weekly worship service. I am sorry, but that is a HUGE stretch. It is simply telling the Corinthians, as he did with the Galatians, to have a time once a week where donations are received for help with the church in Jerusalem that was enduring a famine. It was a special project for a specific context to extend love for famine relief in another part of the world. It was not an instruction to take tithes or offerings on a weekly basis to sustain a local church’s ministry expense. Any time the verses are used to support such a practice they are being used out of context and abused. There are many Christians also abused by this.

Does the verse imply, however, that the Christians were gathering with each other on the first day of the week? Well, perhaps that is implied, but not commanded, and it is certainly not a large worship service but more likely a family gathering complete with a full meal (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Did they worship there at the meeting? Was there teaching? Actually, yes there was both teaching, singing and worship. Paul discusses that in the next passage of the same book. He describes it with the words: “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor. 14:26-27).”

The assembly is described as participatory and involving each person. Now, realize that this passage is addressing the need for clear communication when the church assembles together. You would expect something about the sermon being taught by the pastor, but instead it speaks about two or three prophets speaking in order (v. 29) and then says, “For you can all prophesy, one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted (v. 31).” One of the main points Paul is getting at in these paragraphs is to have order in the gathering. With that in mind, he does not suggest that all listen to one person speak even though that would certainly be very orderly.

I am not saying that the Bible doesn’t teach that we should get together as a family; I am arguing for the exact opposite. We are commanded to gather together (Heb 10:24-25), but not passively listening to a worship concert and a sermon. We must gather in groupings where we can all participate and function as a spiritual family together. If the “one anothers” cannot be accomplished in the gathering than there is something wrong with the way we are doing our assemblies.

It is actually easier to justify having a meal together each week as biblically prescribed than having a sermon each week. Think about it. We not only reduced the meal to a lifeless cracker and a thimble of grape juice every now and then, but we elevated the role of sermonizing as central to what church is all about.


Anonymous said...

wow. amazing stuff. we need to have you come out to detroit for an organic church conference.

Neil Cole said...

I would love to. If you are interested, on our website all our events around the country (world actually) are listed and at the bottom of the page is a link to let us know if you want to host a Greenhouse training event or one day workshop.

Anonymous said...

I 'd like to make a few comments, although I am definitely nowhere near you Neil, and your understanding of this topic.
I want to believe that before our modern, industrial, time efficient culture, those who served the Body of Christ as pastors, teachers and evangelists did so in a much more organic, simple way. The cultural norms then prescribed it. Real community existed. Eating together, helping with projects of building structures, supporting through illness, mishaps, deaths. Everyone was expected to share in the daily and weekly aspects of life. It was natural to their life back then. Very much like places in India, China and other rural communities that the simple, organic, missional church is flourishing in today. And without any "paradigm" shifting.

When we lost the sense of real community and our family structure began to dismantle, the church also became more and more abstract from our daily lives. Body life became "services" and were removed to a slot in our week that was convenient for our now, industrially busy lives. Clergy was seen as just another profession, with a limited and specific function.
I often wonder if the revolution in what needs to happen to bring us more in alignment with the true model of "church" is less about redefining the roles of clergy, the structures of fellowship etc. and more about rediscovering true community and relationship.

Neil Cole said...

Katie, great thoughts, I think you should work more on that and write something!

Unknown said...

Does 1 Timothy 4:11-16 relate?

Neil Cole said...

Greg, good addition to the conversation. Yes, of course it relates. The thing we need to realize is that we read a lot into these texts from our experience. Personally, I do not see these books as "pastoral epistles" because I do not see Timothy as a pastor at all. But we read our own experience into things. Timothy was trained to be apostolic and functioned in that role. If anything else, someone could argue that he is an evangelist (but not I). He is being instructed to establish elders more than how to be one himself.

If you look at 1 Tim. 4:11-16 as putting him in an apostolic role he may very well be presenting the gospel publicly to those who are not yet under the reign of Christ.

Feral Pastor said...

I'm with you on the idea that what we typically do on Sunday mornings isn't mandated in Scripture. Under our freedom in Christ, we can order our life together that way or not as "seems good to the Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28.)

Bu I think we need to go farther in challenging our faith practice here. I think the Sunday morning norms are counterproductive and have become a "sacred cow." Luther suggests that whatever we "fear, love and trust above all" is, in fact our god. I think we'd all do well to gut-check our devotion to Sunday mornings along those three themes.

Large group gatherings are not bad. But as the centerpiece of faith practice they can never be effective in spreading or nurturing the faith. That requires face to face, heart to heart conversation, which is notoriously difficult to have in a pew, disrespectful during the preaching, and drowned out by the performance be it the organ or the band.

(That last bit I pulled from a blog post here: Hope that wasn't too tacky to quote myself!) ;)