LOCAL ASSEMBLY BASICS PT1 by MICHAEL PENFOLD
(Michael Penfold, Bicester, England)
It is common nowadays to ‘choose a church’ based on personal preference. If the kids’ programme is ‘cool’, the Pastor is easy to listen to and the band is trendy, what more could one want? However, in light of the fact that the Bible contains several epistles that give detailed doctrinal instructions about the function, character and purpose of a local assembly,¹ a ‘choice of church’ must of necessity involve spiritual convictions and an intelligent commitment to Biblical doctrine. This should come as no surprise. Biblical Christianity has never been about personal preferences. At its most basic level, Christianity means ‘God reveals His truth and I obey it.’ When the first local assembly was formed in Jerusalem, its members “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2.42); not ‘in their own personal preferences’. That doctrine, now enshrined in all its fulness in the New Testament, includes not only all we need to know about our Lord and Saviour, about the Gospel of our salvation, about walking by faith, and about the coming Kingdom, but also about the whole spectrum of local assembly principles and practices.
Doctrine matters to serious Christians. The history books are full of examples of faithful believers who, often at great cost to themselves, took a stand for Biblical truth. Though the simplicity of assembly order was, for the most part, buried for centuries under the liturgy, ceremonies and rituals of Christendom, when the Bible was translated into English (and the mother-tongues of many other nations), believers’ eyes were opened. They saw through the extra-Biblical ecclesiastical traditions of men, and earnestly desired to get back to the simplicity of New Testament doctrine, both concerning the way of salvation and also church doctrine and practice.
How things have changed! In the 21st century it is not purity of doctrine that church-goers want – they do not seem to want doctrine at all! They want a church free from doctrine. No doctrine, no demands and no duties. The common attitude “Let’s just have a fun time, avoid debates about ‘non-essentials’, and not judge anyone or anything” is one that is very far removed from the emphasis of the New Testament:
“Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim 4.13); “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine” (1 Tim 4.16); “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine…” (2 Tim 3.16).
So, doctrine matters and, in the realm of ‘assembly truth’, no less than in any other area of divine revelation, it is vital that we get a clear grasp of the basics. This will help us to form our own settled understanding of first principles. So, here are eight purposes of a local assembly:
In this series of articles we will look at these foundational issues, commencing with:
The Local Assembly Exists for Divine Glory
Twenty-first century Western culture is, by and large, self-centred. The one-time Hilton Hotel motto, “Welcome to a world that revolves around you”, neatly sums up the spirit of entitlement and self-gratification that characterises this present age. By contrast, a local assembly exists first and foremost for God, and for His glory! It is not my assembly, or even the leadership’s assembly: it is God’s assembly. The Bible describes it as “the flock of God” (1 Pet 5.2), “the temple of God” (1 Cor 3.17), and “God’s husbandry” (1 Cor 3.9). It is His, and it exists for Him and for His glory. Think of it this way: Creation – the universe and everything in it – exists in Christ, through Christ and for Christ (Col 1:16). The Lord is simultaneously creation’s architect, builder and owner. The same is true of a local assembly of Christians.
First, the local assembly exists in Him. Writing to the assembly in Thessalonica (in ancient Greece), Paul addressed them as follows: “unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1.1). That is quite a statement! Each local assembly exists in the sphere and power of God and of Christ. Second, the local assembly exists through Him. There would be no assemblies without the instrumentality of the Lord Jesus. That is the thought in Acts 20.28, where it speaks of “the church of God [in Ephesus], which he hath purchased with his own blood.” How costly a gathered company of Christians is! It is composed of redeemed sinners, each one the fruit of the atoning sufferings of Christ. Every local testimony exists through His cross-work, and through His working in salvation in localities all around the globe. That is why each assembly belongs to Him! Third, the local assembly exists for Him. When God asked Moses to construct a house for Him, at the time of the exodus from Egypt (1,500 BC), He said “let them make me a sanctuary” (Ex 25.8). The Tabernacle, and the later Temple, existed for God! And so it is today. The assembly is a ‘house for God’. It exists to manifest His glory, to represent Him, and to promote His interests. How precious this is! In this “present evil world” (Gal 1.4) that rejects Christ, there are assemblies dotted all around the world that exist ‘for Him’.
If the local assembly exists ‘in Him, through Him and for Him’, our first considerations cannot be “Are we attractive to the world?”, or “Are we coming across as exciting to millennials?”, or “Are we impressing the business professionals among us?” Everything must be gauged as to whether it is acceptable and well-pleasing to the Lord. That said, the quality and condition of our Gospel literature, or hymn books, or buildings, should not give anyone a valid reason to think we are neglectful or that we do not take Christianity seriously. There is no excuse for laziness, coldness or carelessness in assembly testimony. But the modern trend of borrowing from the business world, from the rock music scene and from the celebrity culture around us, in order to attract bigger crowds, is a fundamental misunderstanding of why an assembly exists. It exists not for the eye of men, but for the eye of God. We need not expect the ungodly to be impressed with what is spiritual and Scriptural unless, of course, the Spirit of God is working in their hearts and they are seeking God. Lost people, with their ungodly ways of thinking, will not find a company of pilgrims gathered to the name of Christ “without the camp” (Heb 13.13) appealing or attractive. So, if our culture ‘doesn’t do group singing anymore’, that should not affect our determination to follow the Bible’s exhortation to assemblies to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). If our culture says it no longer finds public preaching “the best way to absorb information”, and would rather the emphasis was placed on multimedia, music and mime, that should not sway us from our duty to ‘proclaim the Word as a herald’. Public preaching is God’s appointed method for the spreading of the Gospel and the teaching of the Word (1 Cor 1.17 – 2.5). All of this must be understood and settled in our hearts, or we will be forever chasing the latest fad in Christendom in an attempt to make the assembly look ‘cool’ in the eyes of the world, rather than starting from the premise “What saith the Lord?”
The fact that the assembly exists for God’s glory not only reorients our thinking about who the assembly is for, but also dignifies and elevates our service in connection with it. If the assembly exists for God’s glory, then the midweek prayer meeting is significant and worth attending. All of the assembly’s meetings and activities are of interest to Heaven. In a results-orientated, pragmatic society, we must remember that Sunday School work, Gospel literature distribution, open-air preaching, and series of Gospel meetings are all primarily conducted with a view to the Lord’s glory – and He is honoured and pleased with such service, whether or not it ‘produces results’ (2 Cor 2.14-17). As we revisit the basics of assembly testimony, there is no more fundamental and important truth than this – the local assembly exists for the glory of God.
¹ The word ‘assembly’ rather than ‘church’ will be used throughout this series, as it more accurately expresses the meaning of the original Greek word ekklesia.
(To be continued …)