Marks of a New Testament Church
How should a New Testament church function?
By Steve Hulshizer
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The word "church" in the New Testament does not refer to a building where professing Christians gather, or to a denomination. The Scriptures use this word to speak of those who have been "called out of the world by God." The New Testament Church is really an "Assembly" of "called-out-ones." Those who have been called unto the Lord Jesus Christ and out of this world. (1 Pet. 2:9).

With the spread of the Gospel many "local assemblies" of Christians were formed. In the beginning the apostles provided teaching and guidance to the churches. (Acts 2:42) While we do not have such men in the Church today, we do have their ministry in the inspired Word of God to guide us. This should lead us to ask, "According to Scripture, how should a local New Testament church function?" Let's consider this question briefly.

The Berean Attitude Paul said of the Bereans, "they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." (Acts 17:11)This must be our attitude as we approach the question under consideration. Our reasonings, experiences, and traditions must not direct our thinking, but must give way to God's Word. "What saith the Scriptures" must be our chief and only concern.

Marks of a New Testament Assembly
As we read through the New Testament we see four things which marked the early New Testament churches. These will still be present in any assembly which is functioning in accordance with God's Word today.

1) The Scriptures will be its Charter.
2) The Saints will be its Circumference.
3) The Savior will be its Center.
4) The Spirit will be its Conductor.

Let's briefly consider these marks of a New Testament church.

1. The Scripture Will Be It’s Charter
And they continued stedfastly in them apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2:42

Living by Faith
Much has been written concerning the need for Christians to live by faith, and yet many have little idea of what it really means. Many view faith as a force by which we can make things happen which are normally beyond our natural ability. Others simply see faith as believing in the unseen and often speak of "blind faith."

Biblical faith is related to God's Word. "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Rom. 10:17) It is "believing God when He speaks." It is taking God at His Word.

The Bible contains many accounts of individuals who took God at His Word, often doing what was contrary to human reasoning. (Isa. 55:8) The eleventh chapter of Hebrews records many accounts of individuals who took God at His Word and acted accordingly.

Living by faith is simply living by God's Word and letting it guide our thinking and our actions, despite what the world around us may think or say. Despite too what our own minds and hearts may think and desire.

We must not allow human reasoning to have greater weight than God's Word. Paul spoke of this when he said, "Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

The word "imaginations" means our "reasonings." The reasonings of the natural man are contrary to God's thoughts. Thus we often rationalize, or explain away God's Word. What we really do is reject His Word. This rejection of God's Word results in disobedience.

One of the most well known passages in Scriptures regarding disobedience is found in 1 Samuel chapter 15. Saul was instructed by God, through the prophet Samuel, to destroy all the Amalekites and all their animals. Rather than taking God at His Word, Saul disobeyed God and spared king Agag and the best of the animals.

When confronted by Samuel, Saul rationalized his behavior by declaring his intention of offering the animals to the Lord. At this point Samuel tells Saul one of the great principles of Scripture regarding obedience to God's Word.

"Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (1 Sam. 15:22)

The great lesson for us to learn is that "when God has spoken on a matter there is never justification for deviating from His expressed will." Not even with good intentions! God wants us to obey His Word by faith, even when it means giving up some "good idea" of ours. God wants our obedience to His Word above all else! Even above "results!" In God's thinking, "the end does not justify the means!"

Assembly Faith
We generally think of "living by faith" with regard to the individual Christian; however, the Church, and in particular, the local assembly must also live by faith. If a local gathering of Christians is to function properly it must do so in accordance with God's Word. It too must live by faith! It too must be obedient!

Like the reformers, the local assembly of God's people must say, "Solo Scriptura!" -"Only the Scriptures!" The ideas and practices of man must be set aside and the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament teachings on the Church, must be our sole guide for faith and practice.

We must remember that "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart." (1 Sam. 16:7) We tend to look at the external appearance of a church. We look at its size, programs and activities, and facilities to make our judgments. The Head of the Church, Christ, looks on the heart of the local assembly. (Rev. 2-3) He sees its works, but also knows that despite all of its programs He may not have first place. (Rev. 2:2-4; 3:20) He also sees beyond what the world would consider weak and appreciates obedience to His Word. (Rev. 3:8)

In the infant New Testament Church they "continued stedfastly (persevered) in the apostle's doctrine (teaching)." (Acts 2:42) The apostle's teachings are recorded as part of inspired Scripture for us today. These give us the PLAN for the Church. These show and tell us how the Church functioned in its purest state. Could we follow any better plan today?

Are the Scriptures the sole guide for the local church where you fellowship, or have man's reasonings and traditions been given greater importance? Is there a willingness to change current practices if they do not conform to Scripture, or is the deviation from God's Word simply rationalized away?

One mark of a New Testament church is that the Scriptures are its only charter.

One, writing in 1904, said, "What Christians have to do in the present day of Church crisis and Church difficulty is to take their eyes off every man, and every system man set up, seek to learn what God says about His Church in His Word. I believe that today God would turn His people back again to the Holy Scriptures for light and guidance as to the Church." This is certainly no less true today!

2. The Saints Will Be It’s Circumference
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2:42

The local assembly is to be made up of believers. We read of the early assembly, "And all that believed were together... (Acts 2:44), and "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (Acts 4:32).

The primary functions of the local assembly are given to us in Acts 2:42. They are teaching, worship, and prayer. Christians gather to be edified through the teaching of God's Word.

They gather too for corporate worship as they remember the Lord in the Breaking of Bread. They also come together to pray as a church. It is not simply a gathering of individuals who pray, but the church comes together to pray together, as a unit. (See Acts 4:23-31)

The New Testament never presents the idea that the church is to be attractive to unbelievers, or to be a gathering center for them. This is simply the product of man's reasoning and has resulted in many local churches becoming worldly, and in a failure to go out with the Gospel. The unbelievers are invited to come in, while the saints fail to go out. (Acts 1:8)

In far too many cases the testimony of a local assembly has been lost, as over time the number of unbelievers became greater than the number of believers and eventually determined the direction the fellowship would take.

Now there were no denominations in the early church. These came about as men became followers of men. (1 Cor. 1:10-17) Today the Body of Christ is divided into many different groups. Some have taken the name of a man (Lutherans), others have taken the name of an ordinance (Baptists), others have rallied around a phenomenon (Charismatics), still others have taken a name in accordance with their church structure (Episcopalians). The list could go on and on.

In a New Testament assembly the only circumference will be saints-Christians who make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. As such, all believers in Jesus Christ are welcomed.

The assembly will be a PARTNERSHIP of believers. The word "fellowship" in Acts 2:42 is a noun and comes from a root word meaning "partners." (Lk. 5:10) The local assembly will be a partnership of believers in Jesus Christ. Each partner in the partnership will contribute to it as enabled of the Lord (1 Cor. 12:18), and the partnership, the assembly, will care for the individual saint. It will truly be "One for all, and all for one".

The idea of the local assembly being a supermarket to which saints come to get what they want, when they want it, and simply pay someone to manage it is foreign to Scripture. Such an organization is also the product of the natural mind.

This partnership could be described as a family. A family made up of brothers and sisters in the Lord. As such the members of the family will be very close, such as we read concerning the early church, "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul." (Acts 4:32)

This spiritual partnership could also be looked at as a body, with each member of the body contributing to its operation as enabled of the Lord. (1 Cor. 12:18) This body, while organized, is not an organization, but an organism. It is a living and functioning body of believers.

The only names given to those in this fellowship will be those which Scripture gives-brethren, brothers, sisters, saints, believers, etc.. There will be no titles or positions given to men which are not in accordance with Scripture. There will be none who are "over" the saints. There will be no special class known as the "clergy." All will be viewed simply as brothers and sisters in Christ and one's social status, education, or title will have no bearing on their place in the local assembly.

Now while the saints are its circumference, and all Christians are to be welcomed, this circumference is not only "inclusive," but "exclusive" as well. As stated previously, those who make no profession of faith in Jesus Christ are to have no part in this partnership. However, there are professing Christians who may have to be placed outside the circumference as well. The local assembly is not to ignore sin and thus it may become necessary to administer discipline. In accordance with Scripture, individual believers may have to be placed outside the fellowship for a variety of reasons.

So while the local assembly is to be "opened" to all believers, it is to be "closed" to unbelievers and those believers who are in need of discipline. [It should be remembered that the ultimate aim of such discipline is always restoration to fellowship. (2 Cor. 2: 1-8)

Is your local assembly a partnership of believers or is it a supermarket managed by a supervisor? Does it recognize all believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters in Christ with no special titles or positions? Is it open to all believers and closed to those who make no profession of faith in Christ? Does it administer discipline in order to maintain its testimony to the Name of Christ?

One mark of a New Testament assembly will be that the Saints will be its Circumference.

3. The Savior Will Be It’s Center
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2:42

The Church faces great dangers from without. There are many who would bring in false teaching concerning the Person of Christ and the way of salvation. However, there is also great danger from within. Paul warned the Ephesian elders of both of these dangers when he spoke to them for the last time.

For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29, 30)

There is always the danger that the saints will be drawn away from Christ. Even the church itself, with all its programs and activities, can take the place of Christ.

This is exactly what the Head of the Church said to the church at Ephesus. He was well aware that they had all their doctrine right and protected the assembly from false teachers, but He then adds, "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." (Rev. 2:4)

Later, speaking to the Laodicean church, a picture of the professing church at the end of the Church Age, He speaks of their blindness to their true condition. They thought things were wonderful, when in fact Christ was on the outside of the church looking in. (Rev. 3:14-20)

Remember Me
Christ is to be the center of the church (Matt. 18:20). He is to have the preeminence in all things (Col. 1:18) So that the saints would not get their eyes off of Him and unto other men or things, the Lord instituted the Lord's Supper and asked the saints to come together and remember Him in the breaking of bread. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)

Now the breaking of bread was not a means of grace, nor was it simply added on to the end of another meeting of the local church. In Acts 20:7 we are clearly told that the early church came together on the first day of the week specifically to "break bread." They were to remember, or draw the Lord to mind as they partook of the bread and the cup. It was not some hasty thing which brought a special grace to the partakers. It was time of reflection and certainly as they reflected they worshipped!

One mark of a New Testament assembly will be that they will come together on the first day of the week to take time to reflect on Christ and to respond with worship. It will be a time of giving to the Lord, unlike when it comes together to hear a message from the Lord. (Notice that Paul's preaching was in addition to the breaking of bread. The breaking of bread was not added to the end of Paul's message.)

(Now we must be aware that the mere formality of breaking bread on the first day of the week is not in itself evidence of spirituality. The Lord spoke of those who "draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. [Matt. 15:8] Worship is the overflow of a heart which has been occupied with Christ throughout the days preceding the first day of the week. Let us not assume, as Israel did with the ark, God's approval simply because of the presence of the bread and cup.

However, let us not assume that it is not necessary to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread each Lord's Day, for the risen Lord Himself made His desire known very clearly. [1 Cor. 11:23-36]

The Headship of Christ
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. 1 Cor. 11:3

Christ is to be the One to Whom the church gathers and as such it is to recognize Him as the Head of the Church. (Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18) No man is to take His place and put himself over the church. The Head of the Church has given gifted men to the Church to build up the saints (Eph. 4:11), but these men are not to rule over the saints. Those whom the Holy Spirit raises up as leaders are to function among the saints, not "over" them as a special class. (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2)

The order of headship which God established in creation, with Adam as head of the human race, was lost in the Fall. The wonderful story of the Bible is that this order has been restored in "new creation" under Christ. (1 Cor. 11:3) This order of headship under Christ, with the man (the visible representative of Christ) being head over the woman (a picture of the church), is to be seen in the Church. (That this order does not imply inferiority of the woman can be seen in the fact that Christ, Himself God, voluntarily placed Himself under God in order to accomplish our redemption.)

The mark of a New Testament assembly will be that it practices this order of headship in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament Scriptures. Men are to lead the local church, in guiding it (1 Tim. 3:1-11) and instructing it (1 Tim. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 14:34).

This order of headship is also to be demonstrated in the church by the uncovered head of the man and the covered head of the woman. This was not simply a cultural practice, but is rather a reminder to the saints and a declaration to the angels of the wonderful story of redemption and the restoration of God's order in New Creation. (Keep in mind that the angelic hosts can not read our hearts as God does, but look on the outward appearance!) The uncovered head of the man and the covered head of the woman demonstrate the church's submission to God's order of headship.

The Spirit Will Be It’s Conductor
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2:42

The early New Testament church came together to pray together. They were united in their prayer. 'They lifted up their voice to God with one accord" (Acts 4:24). There were no prayer books. No prearranged program as we see so often today. The assembly was like an orchestra and the Spirit of God was the Conductor.

We might note here that the early Church prayed together. (Acts 1:14; 4:22-31) Power came not from the number of prayers or the number of people who prayed, but from their unity in prayer. Many local churches today divide the assembly up thinking the more people who pray, the greater the power. The truth is, it is unity in prayer that brings power. Sadly, true corporate prayer is not a common practice in many local churches.

When the church came together to worship, pray, or to hear ministry, there was freedom for the Spirit to use any brother to lead or edify the assembly. (1 Cor. 14:26) However, despite the lack of a human leader and human organization there was order.

"God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." (1 Cor. 14:33) The Scriptures give us the order for such gatherings. "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak" (1 Cor. 14:34). "...let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course" (1 Cor. 14:27). "For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. (1 Cor. 14:31).

Thus in the gathering of a local assembly there will be freedom for the men to lead the assembly in collective worship and prayer, and in the ministry of God's Word. However, they will pray or speak one at a time, and when gathered for the ministry of the Word of God no more than two or three will minister.

In the early church the gifts of prophecy (direct revelation from God) and speaking with tongues (foreign languages) were present. With the temporary setting aside of the nation of Israel, the formation of the New Testament Assembly, and the passing of the apostles and prophets, the sign gifts have ceased.

However, one may prophesy today by setting forth the mind of God on a matter as seen in the Scriptures, and when this is done the order of the gathering must follow that given in Scripture. (1 Cor. 14:26-40) The Holy Spirit is to be given freedom to use various brethren and all things must be done in an orderly fashion and to the edification of the church.

When it comes to the teaching of God's Word, which is different than prophesying and the preaching of the Gospel (Rom. 12:6-7), the Scriptures do not prohibit the selection of the teacher or preacher by the assembly. However, the Scriptural teaching regarding the silence of the women and the orderliness of the gathering must be followed.

In addition to the Spirit's freedom to conduct the gatherings of the local assembly, He will raise up elders, or shepherds, among the Lord's people. (1 Pet. 5:2) "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God" (Acts 20:28).  These shepherds must meet the qualifications outlined in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1-11). There is absolutely no man-made requirements for seminary degrees or ordination. These have been introduced into the Church through the reasoning of man and are foreign to Scripture and have no place in a New Testament church. In a New Testament church there will be no division between the "clergy" and the "laity," as such distinctions are not only foreign to Scripture, but contrary to its very teaching. (Matt. 23:9)

The Bible teaches the "plurality of leadership." No one man is to be recognized as "'The Pastor." The Scriptures never use the terms "elder or pastor" as titles. They are used to describe a mature individual or the work he is doing among the Lord's people. The question has been well asked concerning a one man leadership, "Where in Scriptures is there warrant for one man to be appointed the leader and authority over the church?" The truth is, there is no such warrant.

The Scriptures also clearly teach that every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has been given one or more spiritual gifts. (1 Cor. 12:4) As such, every member of the local partnership of believers is necessary. To have one man do all the teaching or preaching is to say that there is only one individual in the local church with that gift. This, of course, prohibits the use and development of gift by others in the fellowship. (This does not mean that every man has the gift of teaching or preaching the Gospel, and thus the pulpit must not be assigned without consideration of gift.)

We might ask ourselves, "Where also is the notion that the public ministry of the Word is to be confined to one man in a local church, and that is contingent upon him being ‘ordained' by some human authority?" What saith the Scriptures?

Summary
Remember the question when we began, "According to Scripture, how should a local New Testament church function?" We have seen four marks of a New Testament assembly which is gathering and functioning in accordance with God's Word.

If a local assembly of Christians functions in accordance with God's Word these four things will characterize it.

1) The Scriptures will be its Charter.
2) The Saints will be its Circumference.
3) The Savior will be its Center.
4) The Spirit will be its Conductor.

Many man-made practices and traditions have been brought into the Church which have no grounds in Scripture and are, in fact, contrary to its teaching. What man has interjected into the church has taken away the simplicity of the early church and added much complexity. Despite this obvious fact many today rigorously continue in their practices as if they were sanctioned of God.

Despite the clear teachings of Scripture on these truths related to the operation of a New Testament church, many ignore them and consider them unimportant. Like Saul, they feel that what they are doing will certainly be pleasing to the Lord, and failing to understand that God desires obedience in all things, even in the operation of a local assembly of believers.

Remember, there is never justification from deviating from God's revealed will. "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam 15:22).

A local church should search the Scriptures like the Bereans. "They received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11)

A local church should live by faith, believing God when He speaks, including what He says about the operation of a local New Testament assembly!

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