In my study on the New Testament idea of “church,” I have been thinking about what makes a group of Christians the “church.”
I think about the oft quoted—yet, more oft ignored—concept that we are the church; not the event or place of meeting.
I think about the countless times I’ve heard preachers use the same illustration: “Two Christians sitting in a restaurant, discussing the Bible, isn’t a church.”
But, I’ve never heard anyone ask the same question about what we do every Sunday: can we call ourselves “the church” during our typical Sunday morning meeting? Can we call a group of Christians listening to a sermon, “the church?”
The modern order of service, with the sermon as the focal point, is a relatively new development in the church gathering.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Communion stood as the central element of the church meeting. While the idea of the sermon had already existed for some time, one of the few major changes of the Reformation concerning the meeting was that the sermon replaced Communion in its centrality. Biblical understanding was at an all time low due to the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Substantial teaching was much needed at that time. Since then, however, not much has changed in our methods.
Think about it. The sermon was not a central part of the church meeting until the 16th Century! What’s more, the idea of a regularly occurring sermon did not come into practice until the late 2nd Century. That means, even when some churches decided to have a regular sermon, it wasn’t even central to the church’s activities for another fourteen centuries.
Compare that to today’s practice.
“But,” you may say, “There are sermons all over the New Testament!”
I would not argue with this. However, upon closer examination, the New Testament sermons are nothing like the modern practice.
To understand this, we must differentiate between preaching and teaching.
New Testament preaching is most often done to groups of unbelievers for evangelistic purposes, though it can also refer to a one-on-one proclamation of the gospel. Teaching is done to believers within the meeting. The modern sermon is a strange amalgamation of the two, which results in misunderstanding of both.
Look at each a little closer…
Two different root words are translated from the Greek New Testament as “preach”: kerusso and euangelizomai. The former simply means, “proclaim.” The latter is transliterated into English as “evangelize,” with the well-known meaning of proclaiming the gospel. To my knowledge, there is no instance of “preaching” occurring within the New Testament ekklesia (church gathering).
Teaching, on the other hand, occurs in the ekklesia very often throughout the New Testament. I anticipate that some will assume that I deny any sort of teaching within the meeting. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, I advocate more teaching.
The question at hand is whether or not the modern sermon can be compared to New Testament teaching.
I submit that it cannot.
The New Testament account shows us that within the meeting several people taught as well as led in song, prophesied, read Scripture, etc. It was open for all those attending to take part in leading. One person’s teaching alone did not mark the meeting as this would have been counterproductive to the very purpose of the meeting, which existed so that Christ could lead his people. Scripture teaches us that he did that through giving each person in the gathering some sort of gifting to lead the others.
The modern structure does no allow for the kind of leadership Christ manifested in the early Christian churches. While lengthened teachings certainly have a place in church-life (see, for instance, Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders), there is no biblical evidence that it was a regular or prescribed practice for the ekklesia.
Even in the synagogues of pre-Christian Judaism the teachers would take turns in leading. One person did not hold a monopoly on the teaching ministry. Through the work of Christ, the priesthood and spiritual gifting of all believers widens the opportunity for leading to all who believe, not simply the trained or elected leaders.
Ekklesia is more than simply a “gathering” of believers. According to the BAGD lexicon, it refers to an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” In such an assembly, all members have the right and opportunity to bring something to the attention of those assembled. All have equal status and say in the teachings and decisions therein.
Is the modern meeting an event in which each person teaches, prays, prophesies, and reads, as Christ moves? Or is it an event in which one person teaches while everyone else listens?
Just as we cannot call two friends sitting in a diner, “church,” I would argue that we cannot call a large group of people listening to music and a monologue, “church.”
We are the ekklesia—the church—and we were meant to function as such.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that sermons can be wonderfully edifying. Often, I listen to sermons from Fred Craddock, Barbara Brown Taylor, or Will Willimon. I do not believe that we need to abandon the sermon altogether. However, we should understand that sermons are not central, or even required, for the ekklesia. We find through the New Testament that in order for something to be the ekklesia, Christ must lead through each person as one sings, another teaches, another brings a Psalm, another prophesies, speaks in a tongue, interprets, etc. We must distinguish between the ekklesia and listening to a sermon. The two are not the same.
Let me also say, Christ can certainly lead through the few who participate in the current system. I have been a part of many occasions in which Christ clearly used the musicians and preacher. However, we are being deprived of the ministry of others, as well as the opportunity to minister to others, when Christ is only allowed to lead through the few. In such an event, there is no mutual submission to one another. There is no mutual sharing or teaching. There is no “one-anothering” that is commanded of the ekklesia. If a person wants to share a spiritual gift, they must do so outside of the meeting, which is blatantly counter-biblical.
Granted, many churches allow for more sharing than others. Some allow a time for testimonies. More charismatic churches allow others to stand up and prophesy or speak in tongues. Some allow for open discussion. I do not mean to generalize all churches here. The Christian community involves a wide diversity of backgrounds, and each has its differences. For this reason, I would not make a sweeping generalization and claim that all are wrong.
However, the New Testament has much to say on the matter of how the church ought to gather—more than many would like to admit. It is crucial for us to follow the example of the church Christ and the Apostles established if we want to be the church.
Yes, we are “the church” as believers in a local body. But, are we truly enacting that fact by our current practices?
Think of it this way: if the members of a city council meet as a book club, can they call their meetings, “council meetings”? Not at all. In much the same way, can we call a meeting of Christians “the church” if they do not meet according to the New Testament teaching on “church”?
The writer of Hebrews says,
“…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
If our time of gathering is limited to listening to a sermon are we not neglecting the ekklesia, in which we stir up one another to love and good works? Are we truly gathering to encourage one another when the only time we are face-to-face during the meeting is during the designated time for shaking hands?