In a day and age when an ecumenical spirit pervades modern Christendom, ecclesiology is relegated to individual preference, and people take a pick-and-mix approach as to what church they should join. We all need reminding of what the Bible teaches on this particular topic.
Is church truth up for grabs or has God mandated how His people should gather?
After a person is saved and baptized, they often wonder how they are to live for God and serve Him. Some think that it’s God’s will for them to attend a Bible College or Seminary, while others consider social causes and para-church organizations. However, New Testament Christians considered none of the above. Rather, they became part of a fellowship of believers in a local church. This was designed by God to provide the perfect balance of spiritual care and nourishment for His people as well as the opportunity to flourish and exercise their gifts – there is nowhere else like it. The local church is the school of God and He desires that every Christian attend.
The word ‘fellowship’ means ‘a relation between individuals which involves a common interest and a mutual, active participation in that interest and in each other’.1 The first time we read of this particular use of the word is in Acts chapter 2 verse 42 at the birth of the church, where ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship’, ESV. They shared a common salvation and adherence to the whole counsel of God (the apostles’ teaching) – there can only be fellowship with both. This was the foundation that bound them together and from which they worked – it affected and instructed everything they did.
Fellowship in the early church was not casual, haphazard or lukewarm, rather they devoted themselves entirely to it. The idea of fellowship is close to being a partner in a business. The partnership involves complete commitment in one enterprise, Luke 5. 10. Loyalty cannot be divided. These early Christians did not have one foot in their careers and hobbies and another foot in the local assembly, but every other interest was subservient to their partnership in the spiritual enterprise called the assembly.
The idea of fellowship involves the privilege of building together with God, 1 Cor. 3. 9, 10. Although it can be time consuming and hard work, God will reward faithfulness to the local assembly at the end of time, v. 14. Such is the value that God places upon the local assembly that we read that He has purchased it with His own blood, Acts 20. 28. Does our commitment and devotion to the assembly reflect that high evaluation?
One of the great themes of the Bible is that God desires to dwell amongst His people. After redemption from Egypt, God told Moses, ‘let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle … so you shall make it’, Exod. 25. 8, 9 ESV. Not only does God desire that His people dwell with Him but He expects that they meet with Him on His terms. God did not leave the construction of the Tabernacle to the imagination of the people but gave Moses specific plans about how to build it.
Although the church is significantly different to the Tabernacle, there is an underlying principle that is exactly the same; God’s house is regulated by God’s rules. The design of the Tabernacle was ornate and detailed, but the design of the church is minimalist and simple. God’s design for the church is not to be added to or detracted from; we cannot go outside the pattern. When the New Testament is silent regarding certain issues, this doesn’t give us licence to fill in the blanks. God’s pattern is positive and prescriptive, and because He owns the local church we need to obey humbly.
Paul explains as much to Timothy by saying, ‘I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God’, 1 Tim. 3. 15 NKJV. Simply put, it is God who owns and occupies His house. It is a tremendous privilege to meet with Him, but this also confers great responsibility upon each individual in assembly fellowship. We should respond as Jacob did by saying ‘surely the Lord is in this place … how dreadful is this place!’ Gen. 28. 16, 17. We do not merit God’s presence but, by His grace, when we obey the pattern laid out in His word He deigns to meet with His people. The Lord Jesus said in the context of a church gathering, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, Matt. 18. 20. Just as there is one way of salvation, there is only one way to gather: it is not to the denominations or systems of men, but to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we appreciate that Christ is in the midst, it will affect everything we do. The thought of the house of God thrilled the heart of David when he said, ‘Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth’, Ps. 26. 8. May it thrill our hearts too, as we seek to meet where God has placed His name.