The Church Outside The Camp
Scriptural and Practical Notes For Isolated Believers (Part One of Two)
This article is written to address the thoughts, needs and concerns
of people who have already made the decision to worship
"outside the camp" for good and proper reasons.
What this article is NOT
This is not written to encourage believers to leave their fellowships if they have good, sound churches where there is no danger of deception.
Nor is it encouragement to those who simply have a grievance or are unwilling to submit themselves to discipline, to come out of their churches for those reasons.
This is not written from the viewpoint of any one denomination or group; nor does it have ANY connection to cell churches or the "Open Church" restoration system.
This is also not written as a practical handbook on "how to worship in small groups" although I agree such a handbook might be useful.
Almost every day I get another e-mail from a desperate Christian saying something like this: "we have been uneasy about our fellowship for some time, and now the pastor has visited Brownsville and he's come back preaching all kinds of strange doctrines. The elders rebuked us when we tried to point out where they were scripturally in error, and in the end we just had to leave the church. Some of our family members are still there and we feel sad to have left them, and we are worried about them. Now we cannot seem to find anywhere suitable to go, as all the local churches are importing Toronto manifestations and suchlike. We just don't know what to do or where to go for fellowship. Can you help us?"
Does this sound like you? Do you know people in this situation? At one small meeting in the UK the speaker called for a show of hands of those who were currently outside the conventional church system, and over 50 percent of those attending raised their hands. Nationwide we have a tremendous movement out of the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, and there is nothing to replace them.
Decline in Church Attendance
A recent national survey discovered that 71% of the UK population believe in "a god" (although two thirds of these believe in a spirit-force or non-personal god), 70% believe in a soul, 58% in heaven and 68% know about and believe in the Ten Commandment, but when asked how many go to a church building to worship, it was found that 40% of the population NEVER enter a church building, not even once a year.
Fewer than 8% of the population have been going to church with any regularity. But in this last year alone nearly a quarter of those stopped attending! Clearly there is something wrong. Without pinning the blame on the Church for a decline in belief (which I think would be unfair) it must be said that the traditional church system is failing.
There has also been an exodus from the Penetecostal/Charismatic churches, but for different reasons. Although the Restoration/house-church fellowships are the only churches gaining in popularity and numbers, they are doing so by moving large numbers of "traditional" worshippers out of the system. This might have been a good thing if it denoted a genuine revival of true Christianity. However, ever since the outbreak of the so-called toronto-blessing in 1994, and increasingly since that time, genuine bible-believing Christians have been leaving their fellowships because they have refused to compromise.
Some are driven out, and some choose to leave because they have had enough of deception, abusive authority, and the lack of regard for sound biblical doctrine. in addition, the spiritual needs of believers are just not being met.
Some of these exiled Christians find other places of fellowship; many do not. Charismatics, especially, get a raw deal when looking for fellowship. They are "neither fish nor fowl", being too "religious" (as they are told!) for revival churches, but not half religious enough for the traditional non-charismatic denominations.
Those who have been used to informal, Spirit-led worship and the use of spiritual gifts do not want to go back to a formal, ritualised service with no free expression of their love of God. But they want to avoid the revival excesses as well. Frequently they end up nowhere, just sharing with family members or one or two others who feel the same way.
This article is addressed to such people, amongst whom I count myself.
In the United Kingdom
In many ways, the British Christian experience is worse than in other countries, and offers less opportunity for finding a good church. Historically, religious worship has taken place in the staid, and often dead, traditional denominations, which as we see are now in serious decline. I see this in part as a judgement for the high level of ecumenism, interfaith activity, homosexuality and liberal doctrine we see in those churches, not to speak of the revival, globalism and so forth.
In terms of church history, the Pentecostal denominations never made a major impact on British religious life. Independent fellowships were practically non-existent. Only from the 1970's have independent churches (house-churches and the like) sprung up, but over the years these have come under the wing of the Restoration (= Latter-Rain/Revival) leaders. The Assemblies of God and Elim Pentecostal groups, in the main, have now both succumbed to Toronto. Thus it is rare to find a good solid and doctrinally sound 'pentecostal' fellowship, although pockets of reliable fellowship do exist.
The situation here in the UK (and from my observations America is fast catching up) is an impressive, well-heeled, powerful majority of aligned restoration/ reconstruction style churches in the "revival-river" or going down the road of globalism; and a minority of bible-believing individuals of all denominations, who keep loose contact with one another by letter and phone calls and who meet up occasionally at larger conferences given by a handful of reliable speakers. Most of these individuals do not "go to church" as we say (unbiblically!) but meet privately in small groups at home, or fellowship just with their own family members.
This group of believers is not organised in any way, and consists of many different people, some of whom are rock solid in their faith and some of whom are very insecure and frightened by the whole experience of being "outside the camp."
May I make a few observations from my encounters with dispossessed Christians and summarise the feelings they may have:
- Am I the only one, or is my family strange in not "going to church"?
- Will God rebuke me for not going to church?
- Have I really done the right thing - perhaps I am just in rebellion?
- Have I sinned against the elders in my former church
- Should I have left my friends behind in the fellowship - am I just being selfish?
- Am I now outside the Kingdom of God?
- Will I be able to survive as a Christian outside of organised worship?
- What about the children?
- What about taking communion?
- Should I just go to any local church, for the sake of being under authority?
- Who will teach me?
These and many more questions, I believe, spring to mind once the decision is taken to quit the fellowship. There are all kinds of questions apart from these, and I don't propose to answer them all. Only God can lead a believer to peace and to a right understanding of these things. However, if I can point the way, I am pleased to do so.
Many of these questions will be answered by fellowshipping and talking with others who are in the same situation. The pain and guilt is eased when somebody shares the burden. There are those in the "remnant" as we have come to call it who have a pastor's heart and are capable of upholding and ministering to the weaker ones. Without any "ordination" beyond the calling of God, some will minister effectively to others. This is precisely how the BODY of Christ should function and I believe we are beginning to see a return to bible-based church life.
It is also becoming plain that God himself is taking his beloved children on a journey, that involves a different type of fellowship with HIM and with EACHOTHER, an informal destructuralised Church. This has been likened to the Church "Outside the Camp".
"The bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come." Heb 13:11-18
Outside the camp, for the Jews, was a place of reproach, excommunication and defilement. It was a place for cursing, punishment, garbage, human excrement and dead bodies. (Lev 13:45-46/ Lev 24:14/ Num 5:2-3/ Deut 23:12-13/ Num 31:19/ Num 15:33-35).
But like Paul we are considered by the world as "the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things" (1 Cor 4:13) and it's unlikely their opinion will change between now and the return of the Lord. so we'd better get used to it. Our place is with the crucified Lord, outside the gates of the citadel of conventional religion.
While some may see this as a disaster, I no longer do. Instead of seeing this exodus from the churches as a destructive thing, I see it as a positive opportunity to recover some of the most precious gems of scripture, lying hidden for ages underneath layers of historical dust.
I also see it as a move of God to both protect his people from error and to preserve a genuine expression of faith and worship in a time of growing apostasy. (You could argue that we are witnessing a TRUE "revival"!)
We go to the Tabernacle Outside the Camp
There is an incident during the Exodus that I want to bring to your attention. In the long wait for Moses to return from the Mount, the people had tired of an unseen God and wanted to have "more, more". They wanted to feel and see and touch their god, and to enjoy ecstatic worship such as they'd seen in Egypt. (where religious rituals often descended into an orgy of sex and drugs and abandonment to other "delights" of the flesh)
As you may know, the people donated their gold ornaments and created a calf of gold, and then they partied! When Moses returned, he heard the noise the people were all making and thought there was a war going on. Imagine, then, the shouting, screaming and dancing there must have been. It was religious mayhem. (Exod 32:17-18) Furthermore, they were NAKED, clearly indicating the nature of their "worship". (Exod 32:25)
Oh and by the way, did you know that these idolatrous Israelites also experienced GOLD DUST? Yes, for Moses "took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it." (Exod 32:20) They had to drink gold dust! Perhaps the revival worshippers should recall that the first mention of gold dust in the Bible is of sin and judgement!
The first thing Moses did was to identify any who dissented from this apostate worship. "then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him". (v.26).
So here was a gathering out of the dissenters, or remnant, who were grieved by the idolatry and disorder
As for the others, God pronounced judgement on them. About three thousand men died as a result of that sin. The remaining people for some time were under a cloud of God's displeasure.
Even though God had saved the Israelites from Egypt, caused them to escape Pharaoh and provided for them in the wilderness, He now said "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book." (Exod 32:33). Compare Deut 29:18-20 and also Rev 3:4-5
"Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels."
Then God told Moses, "…I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way." (Exod 33:3)
Next we read that the Tabernacle of His Presence was set up OUTSIDE THE CAMP!
"For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee… And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the LORD went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp". (Exod 33:5-7)
I think Matthew Henry's commentary on this verse is excellent:
Here is one mark of displeasure put upon them for their further humiliation: Moses took the tabernacle… and pitched it without, afar off from the camp (v. 7), to signify to them that they had rendered themselves unworthy of it, and that, unless peace was made, it would return to them no more. God would thus let them know that he was at variance with them: The Lord is far from the wicked. Thus the glory of the Lord departed from the temple when it was polluted with sin, <Ezek. 10:4, 11:23>. Note, It is a sign that God is angry when he removes his tabernacle, for his ordinances are fruits of his favour and tokens of his presence; while we have them with us we have him with us….Though the tabernacle was removed, yet every one that was disposed to seek the Lord was welcome to follow it.
A Pattern in Scripture
You must know, if you are a lover of the word of God, that there is a pattern concerning the Temple, and the people of God. God establishes his presence amongst his people as a whole, but then the majority turn to the worship of false gods, thus God withdraws from them, leaving only a despised and forsaken remnant, often persecuted and driven into the wilderness, there to exist in isolation until they are raised by God.
Notice how Matthew Henry above mentions the departure of the Holy Spirit from the defiled Temple in Jerusalem. Long after the golden calf incident in the wilderness, once again idolatry caused God to depart from his dwelling place with man. (Ezek chapter 10)
Even so, a remnant remained, and in time the Holy Spirit returned to a Temple made without hands, initially Jesus and then also His Body - a temple of living stones composed of the remnant of Israel and converts from the Gentile nations. (John 2:19-21/Mark 14:58/2 Cor 6:16)
We now see this pattern once again in our own time, so we should not be too surprised or dismayed at events.
Despised and Rejected of Men
Those who held to the truth, both in the Old and New Testaments, were usually in a despised minority. When Jesus left this earth after three years of open ministry, he left behind such a small band of followers that they were considered a nonentity. They were hounded from place to place, driven out of their former places of worship, despised by their friends, rejected by their families and even put to death for daring to believe what Jesus had shown them. (Despite all that, the victory of the gospel can be seen all around the world.)
Our experience of Westernised "Christianity" being in the majority with whole nations supposedly "Christian" - or at least church-going - is an exception rather than the rule. We have been living on borrowed time.
You will recall that, of all the Israelites who set out to reach God's Promised Land, the great majority failed to enter into that blessing, and as scripture reminds us "Who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? " (Heb 3:16-17)
To set out as chosen, blessed and led of the Lord is no guarantee of reaching the ultimate goal safely. Many churches and denominations were originally raised up by the Lord but now we see them "fallen in the wilderness", and we have to move on from there.
The small and Insignificant
Throughout the Bible, God chose to work with a small, insignificant, or unusual band of people. David the shepherd-boy became the greatest Jewish ruler; Joseph the runt of the litter, rejected by his brothers, becomes a great man, second in command in the land of Egypt and the provider for his entire family. Jonah is called as a prophet despite being fearful and disobedient; Gideon's army is reduced in numbers to a size that would (in natural thinking) be unable to achieve any great victory; and a great walled city is felled by a small band of worshippers blowing trumpets!
Also notice how many of the Bible's great leaders were obliged to spend a time of growth and preparation hidden in the back of beyond. Moses for example only came to greatness after becoming an outcast in Midian, and David was driven out of his city and forced to live like a wandering tribesman with a rag-tag band of followers. Jesus, too, immediately after his baptism and call to ministry was "led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil." (Matt 4:1) So we are in good company.
Returning to my first scripture, it seems obvious by the examples given throughout scripture, and supremely the example of Jesus being crucified "outside the camp", that genuine believers are often called to be outcasts from the main stream of organised religion, just as Jesus was rejected by the majority of his own people, the Jews.
Guilt and Fear
Now to look more specifically at the questions I raised at the beginning of this article, I want to point out that the established (priestly) church system - and that now includes a great number of Restoration fellowships - preaches that the Church world-wide is the DOOR to the kingdom, and that coming under the authority of church leaders is mandatory for salvation.
The Roman Catholic church has taken this to extremes, considering anyone outside of its system to be "separated brethren" and unfit for heaven. It also uses the punishment of "excommunication" believing that anyone denied the benefits of the Roman rituals can never be acceptable to God. They base this on their interpretation of Matt 16:18-19 in which Peter is given the keys of the kingdom. Therefore the pope (the supposed successor of Peter) is believed to have the power and responsibility to open or close the gates of heaven.
While this may be an extreme, we now encounter the same thinking in Protestant/Charismatic churches. It is often found in strongly authoritarian dominionist fellowships and cults. The first time I met a man belonging to the "Bugbrooke Community", now better known as the Jesus Army, we exchanged comments on the pillar of fire that rested over the camp of God, that led the people through the wilderness.
However, while I used the term 'camp' in general to mean all believers, he spoke of only ONE camp upon which the Holy Spirit rested - his own Community and denomination! He explained that his fellowship WAS "his Father" - God - to him and if he left his community, he would no longer be in God's kingdom. This appeared to be what was taught the disciples in that cult.
The concept of the church being God and/or the kingdom, encourages the leaders to threaten any dissenters with what amounts to "excommunication". That is, they warn anybody opposed to their rule that to leave the fellowship and to challenge their authority is tantamount to challenging God Himself and falling away from the true faith!
Those who leave the church are told they put themselves outside the hope of salvation. Clearly this is enough to frighten some into staying.
Jesus is the Door
The teaching that the CHURCH is the Door of Salvation (thus people have to "belong" to a church in order to be fully saved) is not biblical. It is Jesus Christ who is the Door. (John 10:9). It is by Him that we enter into salvation and eternal life, and we are made HIS disciples, not the disciples of men.
If any individual were to find true salvation in Jesus Christ in a place were no church or pastor existed, that person would still be truly saved. The Church, according to scripture, is the assembly of "called-out ones" or the world-wide body of genuine believers, joined to one another by invisible spiritual ties, and ALL having Jesus as their Head.
There is only ONE Body, even though there may be many local expressions of it. However, once people begin to see their own local fellowship or group of fellowships as the only true church, they have moved outside of the biblical terminology. There is always a temptation to claim that your own denomination is the only true one, but we must be willing to accept that people knowing Jesus as Saviour exist in every denomination and therefore the invisible Body of Christ is composed of many different races, denominations and styles of worship.
Having established that, such questions as "will God judge me for not going to church" become meaningless. Although we use the phrase "go to church" what we actually mean is "go to a local building set aside for a particular denomination's style of worship".
Attending a local church is good and useful, and to be recommended as a general tenet of the Christian life. Nevertheless, once you consider the differences between belonging to the Church (the Body of Christ) and attending a local service you realise that God does not require as a part of your salvation that you attend any particular local expression of worship, especially if that worship is harmful to your faith!
I have never been able to grasp the reasoning of some who go to a dead church or a revivalist church (where the worship either has no reality, or is seriously out of line with scripture) just for the sake of "going to church" - as if God required them to spend one hour of their weekend accruing points on a religious scorecard. If we are not participating in genuine, spiritual, meaningful and biblical correct worship, and meeting with those who really know the Lord - then what is the meaning of "church?"
Nor are we commanded to come under the authority of a man who has never been called of God, has raised himself to a place of authority without regard to other people and merely for the love of power or money, and who regularly preaches error! Yet some will force themselves to sit as the feet of such a man, believing that if they are not "under authority" of some kind they are out of the will of God.
This is lunacy, and I believe it can only be fear and threats that make people act in such a way. If you speak to them, they KNOW their faith is suffering, and they KNOW they are being fed poison but week by week they quietly and patiently go and submit themselves to such a man, simply for fear of "not going to church".
I know one fine young woman who is genuinely called of God and has a superb grasp of scripture, as well as being in active service to the Body in a number of important ways. Yet despite all this, come Sunday she sits under the spiritual authority of a domineering leader who teaches all kinds of errors. This poor woman endures unbiblical teaching, and many offensive practises at the church she attends, things she freely admits are terribly wrong - YET when challenged she will not leave that fellowship for fear that she will no longer "be under a covering". How very sad.
What does Bible have to say about "church" and worship, and how can we obey the Lord in these things?
Notice, I am not, and never have, argued for Christians to give up meeting together, nor to abandon the biblical kind of eldership. All I argue for is a correct interpretation of these things, so as to avoid forcing people back into a system that is damaging.
Has God commanded in his word a particular order of service? Has God shown us what we are to do during a "church service?" Are there biblical commands requiring once-weekly attendance at a local fellowship? The surprising answer is - NO.
The bible (and a study of the Early Church) can show us what is necessary to maintain a healthy body of believers, but it cannot lay out an order of service, nor give instructions on how to set up "a church".
Custom or Command?
Let us here establish one principle of the Christian life - that we are bound to heed and obey the specific COMMANDS of God, but with regard to TRADITIONS and CUSTOMS, we are free to pick and choose!
God commanded certain things in the Bible that are necessary for our Christian life, but throughout Church history men have added their own interpretations and traditions that are not mandatory. Therefore, we should not allow ourselves to be pilloried or condemned for failing to keep the traditions of men. And we should not be cowed into believing we are being disobedient to GOD, when in fact all we are doing is disputing with MAN.
You should know we cannot find weekly "church meetings" as we know them today either in the New Testament or in the history of the believers up to the third century! (At that time, as many of you know, Constantine legitimised Christianity and elaborate worship buildings began to be built for public religious services.)
Biblical Worship and our worship to God
Putting it simply, the biblical way of meeting with, relating to, helping and loving others is close personal relationships, not large public meetings.
The Bible tells us to let the Holy Spirit lead and guide us in all things, including our worship of God (John 4:24). That kind of spontaneity is almost completely ruled out when a church "service" is organised down to the smallest detail. Permitting the direct leading of the Spirit in a large meeting often leads to disorder, whereas it is much more feasible in a small intimate group. This alone tells us much about genuine biblical worship.
"Going to church", as we know it, (attending weekly services in a religious building), is the exception rather than the rule in the Bible! Noah, Abraham, Job - none of OT saints, though truly called of God, 'went to church' yet their experience of God was rich and real. When at last a tabernacle was provided for more formal worship, it was not a fixed structure for formal worship meetings. God dwelt with and moved with the people, and this we know was a pattern of the temple to come, the "temple not made with hands."
Later on, once the people had settled in one place, they were permitted to create a fixed structure, Solomon's Temple. However, that was still not the fulfilment of God's promises with regard to his dwelling with man, but a mere shadow of them. We see from scripture that God was looking far forward into the future, to an invisible, spiritual House of God, Jesus Christ and his Body of living stones. (2 Sam 7:12-13)
It was the OLD covenant, the shadow not the reality, that had "ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary". (Heb 9:1)
The New Testament confirms that the only true House of God in this present age is the invisible Living Temple of the Body of Christ, (1Pet 2:5) and that this was always the intention of God in dealing with his people, for "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands."
"Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest?" Acts 7:48-49
Even with a fixed building in place, the OT people of God did not "go to church". for there was only one Temple, in Jerusalem. If you lived outside Jerusalem, then most of the time your religious rituals were conducted IN THE HOME amongst your own family.
Although commanded to "keep the Sabbath", the Jews did not see this in terms of going to a place of public worship. A passage in Neh 13:15-22 shows that the Sabbath was more about refraining from work and trade than about public worship. (In fact, travelling to a public meeting would have been impossible due to the Sabbath Day restrictions.) Nehemiah rebukes the people in the above passage for many instances of Sabbath-breaking, but missing public worship was NOT among them!
In later days the Jews set up local synagogues for public worship. Was it at that time God's people were commanded to attend regular services? Certainly synagogues were established, but not because God commanded it in scripture.
Once the Temple worship has been corrupted, the building destroyed, the people dispersed and the Spirit departed, the loss of the rituals and festivals was keenly felt by the exiles and so they created "mini-temples" wherever they happened to be, and this became the normal method of gathering together. However, there was no Ark, no Holy of Holies, no Presence of God between the cherubim! The synagogues were places of prayer and education, but they could never bring back to Israel true, spiritual, God-given worship such as the Lord intended!.
However useful for preserving the teachings of God, and for administration, synagogues were empty shells and not a genuine biblical expression of what it meant to be the children of God. They (like many similar religious buildings today) offer "a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof:" (2 Tim 3:5)
This explains why those Jews who accepted Jesus were eventually thrown out of their synagogues. The two expressions of faith were so far apart that they could no longer mix. If Jewish believers continued to "go to church" or the synagogue, it was only for practical reasons of evangelism. They went where the Jews congregated in order to preach to them! (Acts 13:14-16/ Acts 14:1/Acts 18:4)
In the New Testament era, there were NO buildings for the purpose of Christian worship. This is a fact that surprises many. Christians became increasingly persecuted and eventually met "from house to house", that is, in their own homes, sharing the task of hospitality between them.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
Notice the use of the word "church" in the above verse, where it applies to the entire body of believers, not to one local house or building!
We see this again in the following verse, which identifies the Church as the saints (believers):
"Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours". (1 Cor 1:2)
As I said before, there were NO purpose-made buildings or huge congregations meeting regularly for services. Although on particular occasions there would be a larger public gathering, the normal pattern for "assembling yourselves together" was small informal groups in homes.
"Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house." (Col 4:15)
"The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house". (1 Cor 16:19)
This pattern is now being re-established today, as small groups of believers meet infrequently and informally, but also on occasion gather in larger groups from a wider area for conferences or public meetings.
The conventional church building, and set service, is actually copied from Jewish rituals and practises, with more than a few pagan religious practises thrown in (such as an altar of sacrifice) but few of these can be found in the word of God. They are man-made rituals, CUSTOMS of men, not the requirements of God!
This is not to say that they have no merit, or that Christians cannot make use of such services. Of course God will meet with Christians wherever true heartfelt praise is given, but the fact remains that we not bound to submit to the customs of men with regard to our experience of worship.
What can we say about the practice of coming together on a Sunday morning and/or evening? Is this commanded in scripture, and do we offend God if we miss the Sunday meeting?
Again, there is surprising little in the Bible to show on which day the believers met. I suspect they met whenever and wherever it was safe and convenient. I also believe they had been liberated from the fear of not properly "keeping" a day of worship set aside and now sought to love, serve and worship God at all times, continually.
"Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ". (Col 2:16-17)
"But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word". (Acts 6:4)
"By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name". (Heb 13:15)
In the early days of the Church, in Jerusalem and where believers were mainly fresh out of Judaism, the convention of keeping the Saturday Sabbath was doubtless observed, but NOT because it was God's law for the Church. Here we see Christians happily mixing tradition with biblical command, and if there is no real clash between them, well and good. Meeting with other Jews at the synagogue certainly gave the early believers an opportunity to speak about Jesus to their friends. (Later this became impossible.)
However, there was no binding obligation or law requiring regular attendance at synagogue. Paul clearly felt free either to attend at the synagogue or not, as the occasion demanded. He also in Gal 4:9-10 chided those who "observe days, and months, and times, and years" things which he described as "weak and beggarly". (which means impotent and impoverished, unable to do us any real good).
It is difficult for us to understand that when the Church first began Sunday was not a day off work, a rest day, or a religious day at all. The Gentile world had no weekly rest day, just irregular pagan feastdays. The "day of the sun" was just another day like all the rest.
It is often claimed that the Christians met on the "first day of the week" , or Sunday. (This would now equate to our Monday, the first working day of our week, so if they did meet on a Sunday it would have been an ordinary working day and not kept as a "Sabbath".)
Looking at the Day of Pentecost meeting, in Acts 2:1, we see believers gathered in one place, praising the Lord. It was a Sunday, but only because Pentecost fell on that day.
Another reference in Acts 20:7 tells us nothing about regular meetings, and Paul's advice to the believers, in 1 Cor 16:1-2, to set aside an amount of money on the first day of the week may simply have been a practical measure. Beyond that, there is NO reference in scripture to help us decide when the believers met for worship! The single reference to the Lord's Day (as it is translated) in the Bible (Rev 1:10) seems to refer to the eschatological Day of the Lord, not to Sunday.
The Empty Tomb
Another argument often given for worship on "the first day of the week" or Sunday, is that Jesus rose at sunrise on that day.
However, the disciples and those who were at the Garden Tomb knew otherwise. The women hastened to the tomb as soon as they could after the Sabbath restrictions, having only a short nap and setting off for the tomb long before dawn. When they arrived, just before or at dawn, they found the Lord HAD ALREADY RISEN. The tomb was empty. (Matt 28:1-6/Mark 16:1-6)
For a number of reasons too tedious for this article, I believe that Jesus rose shortly after sunset on Saturday evening and NOT at sunrise the next morning, so there would have been no sense of sacredness about Sunday amongst the early Christians.
Therefore, it is an open question as to whether the early believers held any one day to be more special than the others, more sacred, and therefore more fit for worship.
Historically, Sunday did not become a regulated, legalised "Christian" worship-day until the 4th century AD. We know that the choice of that day had as much to do with reverence for the sun-god as to Church custom. Certainly it had nothing to do with the Bible. It is a fact of history that Sunday became a "sacred day" ONLY when the Church had defected from its early purity and had begun the downward slide into ritualism.
Assembling Yourselves Together
Of all the scriptures used to unsettle or even to condemn those who have chosen to worship "outside the camp", this one is supreme:
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Heb 10:25)
Does this verse not command regular worship in church? Let's see. We do see here that the first Christians "gathered together". But look at what this verse DOES NOT tell us:
- how often they gathered;
- on which day they did so;
- how many there were,
- what they did,
- where they gathered (though other verses explain this was in their homes as we have already seen).
Why do people read into this verse a command to "go to church"? Perhaps it is that word "assembling"? But the word simply means "gathering" nothing more or less. It is not talking about going to a church on Sunday mornings!
We must certainly gather together with other believers, but I do believe there is no lack of desire and willingness to obey that scripture amongst the Remnant. Why else would they be desperately seeking for fellowship?
If it really were true that the "Remnant" outside the camp were disobeying the scriptures and "forsaking the assembling of yourselves together" then they would be contentedly playing computer games and going to the beach, instead of desperately crying out for fellowship! If ever a group wanted fellowship more, then I have yet to find it! No, there is no want of desire, but the opportunities are just not there in many cases.
Does this "assembling" necessarily mean a regular weekday event, in which one lapse is tantamount to "backsliding"? Looking at 1 Cor 14:23, Paul uses the phrase "IF therefore the whole church be come together into one place…" not WHEN. I suggest that his choice of words indicates that larger public gatherings of the kind described in 1Cor 14 were not necessarily regular events.
In any event, we have no scriptural command to "assemble together" on any specific day, nor regularly, but we are to keep close contacts with other true believers (even if one or two) such that we can form meaningful relationships with them, pray for one another, give practical help and do the other things that build up our faith, such as study the Bible together, pray and praise. Even those totally isolated and without the support of their families can find such fellowship on an irregular basis, sharing on the phone, through e-mail, letters, and occasional visits.
Although not ideal (obviously) this is still in fulfilment of the scriptures on assembling with one another. No one should feel intimidated or condemned when the Hebrews verse is thrown at them by critics of their stand for truth. A refusal to compromise with biblical error, and a determination to obey the spirit rather than the letter of the word, is more highly commended by God than a slavish following of church customs!
The impression is often given - and indeed some preachers make a point of teaching - that Christians should go to a local church no matter what they find there, simply for the sake of obeying scripture.
But see how God HATES religious assemblies when there is no genuine meaning or heart obedience to Him. (this surely also applies to meetings where God's own word is contradicted and the worshippers entertain themselves rather than worship God.)
"When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. …. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.." (Isa 1:12-17)
'Then the Pharisees and scribes asked [Jesus], "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." And He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.' (Mark 7:5-9)
The 'Organised' Church
Is the only alternative to the 'organised' church, a church of disorder? Many seem to think so.
Organised worship has its place and can be uplifting, but tends to become ritualistic. Every activity, however spiritual to begin with, loses its relevance when turned into a conditioned response.
I remember the early days of the renewal in the 1970's when clapping or raising hands in worship was a very novel and sometimes astonishing thing to do in church! However, what began as a spontaneous outburst of joy and praise, soon became a charismatic "tradition" and then many raised their hands in every song just because it was "the thing to do". It had lost touch with its spiritual roots and become "organised".
Almost all "church" worship (even in charismatic churches) is a case of "here's one I prepared earlier!". This encourages laziness. If one or two people have all the responsibility of laying on "worship" then performing it on behalf of several hundred, then not only does that place on them a heavy burden, but it allows all the others to 'cop out' of having to think for themselves.
That way, thousands of Christians have grown up believing themselves to be at a peak of spiritual fitness, whereas in fact they are totally dependent on others. In any sudden crisis they find themselves unable to pray, ignorant of the scriptures, and out of touch with God.
I believe that God would far rather receive the stumbling prayer of an immature believer feeling his way in personal worship, than any amount of eloquent prayers said by rote. It is better to say "Jesus! Jesus!" out of a heart full of praise, than to recite a thousand words that have no spiritual life.
Does this mean that those meeting "outside the camp" will reject any kind of order or organisation? Absolutely not. We must not descend into anarchy, where anything goes. We must strive to keep a balance between spontaneity and disorder.
If there is a genuine reverence for God (and especially in a small group) there will probably never be a need for organisation; but in larger groups containing children, new converts, the immature or those with a tendency to dominate, somebody with God-given abilities will need to keep an eye on the meetings and steer them in the right direction. That does not mean electing somebody to do EVERYTHING, which is the equal and opposite error.
Does being out of the church system mean that we reject all organisation? While encouraging informal meetings, I am not advocating total disarray!
On the one hand we can be too formal, forcing everything into a rigid structure for fear of awkward silences, or disruptions; on the other hand we can become altogether too spiritual and end up like a Quaker meeting where everybody is silently waiting for the inner prompt and scared to say anything in case it is not a direct word from the Lord!
Organisation and planning, in themselves, are not cardinal sins. There are some things that would never happen unless we organised them. On the other hand, when it comes to following the Lord's leading in worship, we should be careful not to overrule the paths God has laid out for the meeting, refusing to follow his lead because it does not fit into our planned schedule. Once again, keeping a balance between the two is the goal.
The biggest problem in fellowships is people! There are so many different personalities to cater for, each at a different stage of growth. It takes a wise shepherd to lead all these folks to pasture.
You will probably find the first hurdles to your new-found freedom to worship are two sets of people coming from different ends of the spectrum:
- Those who never say anything and never contribute, no matter how much you encourage them
- Those who have a desire to lead and set themselves up as authorities over you.
The first set of people are shy to the point of reclusive, and pretend to be incapable of doing anything. They tend to drain the other members and ask for support in everything they do. If you are not careful, these people end up getting the lion's share of attention, and never contribute a thing. You must be firm in drawing these people out of their shells and requiring them to make a start by reading from the Bible or saying a short prayer.
The second set of people are generally arrogant, and believe themselves to have a God-given right to lead the group. They sense an opportunity to elevate themselves, but you must make sure the message of the BODY is repeated regularly so that everybody feels they have a place, and a role to play. Only if you give in and allow domineering people to take over will they present a problem. I find such people usually leave the group after a time, because they are not getting their own way.
It is the fear of some that they cannot survive outside of conventional church life, because the church lays on social activities, and arranges neat packages of teaching, worship, prayer and bible study. Some feel that, outside the motivation of those activities, they will fail to thrive as Christians.
But our Christian lives should not be motivated by others. Jesus called men and women to be HIS disciples, not the disciples of the leadership. We sit at the feet of Jesus, in spirit, not at the feet of learned scholars and preachers. If you see yourself more as a member of your church/denomination than a disciple of Jesus Christ, then your focus is wrong. If your sense of belonging centres on your fellowship, rather than Jesus Christ, then you are setting yourself up for a fall.
If a Christian is unable to survive without the impetus that others provide, then he/she desperately needs to mature and develop some independent spiritual virtues. Anyone today who is looking to OTHERS to lean on will have a nasty shock when persecution and troubles come along. Even in the absence of persecution, it is a wise Christian who stands on his or her own spiritual feet, able to seek God directly for help and guidance, knowing how to pray, and having a good working relationship with God.
Unstructured worship in a small group of believers, as I have said, encourages this independent spiritual life. Yet independence must always be tempered with respect and honour for the other members, for we all depend on one another. In the Bible the Body is pictured as a functioning composite of equals parts, each with a role to play (some greater, some lesser) but all working inter-dependently for the good of the whole.
In your physical body, each organ and member not only has a unique role, but each is dependent on all of the others. We know how quickly a sick stomach throws out all the other organs, and the whole body feels ill. similarly, in Christ's Body, the Church, each member must be encouraged to find his or her God-appointed role, and to function fully in that role as an independent member of the Body, yet dependent on all the other members.
There is one reason for seeing the small home-based fellowships as a positive sign of Christian growth today. That is, God may be in the process of training and equipping people to endure the coming persecution.
In almost every country where persecution broke out the Christians had to retreat to small, hidden, home-based fellowships. Those who could only function as Christians within an organised structure had a hard time surviving, but those whom God had called out and trained beforehand were ready to provide sanctuaries and refuges for the persecuted.
God had raised up leaders in those countries amongst the ordinary folk (knowing that most of the ordained church leadership would be imprisoned or killed). When the time came, there was a provision made for those who needed help and counsel. There was also a network ready to offer practical help, to house the widows, give financial aid and minister to the sick. This similar move to house-churches in our own nations may be God's provision for our day and age, so we do well to avoid despising the "day of small things". (Zech 4:10)
Leadership and Authority
Being outside the camp does not mean we no longer have any authority structure or that we do not need elders. The Bible indicates that elders are a vital part of any Christian church. However, I do draw the line at demanding (as some do) that all Christians put themselves under the authority of a specially accredited and ordained minister, just for the sake of being "under a covering" as if there were something magical about having a man to lead you in the faith. This is a hangover from the old days of priesthood, where believers could not speak to or hear from God direct, but were forced to go to the Prophets or the Temple Priesthood for all their religious needs.
As most of you already know, we have been liberated from the NEED to follow the teachings of a Priest or spiritual Father (or whatever else he might be called). Christianity is unique in that it offers full, free, unrestrained and personal contact with God by the individual.
Jesus came calling God "my Father" and although the Jews found this utterly shocking, and rejected the idea, we Christians perhaps take it for granted without discerning its meaning. We are not bound by laws to an overbearing Master so much as in a family relationship with a Father. We owe him respect, obedience and praise. We do not follow him out of a sense of duty but because of our love for Him, and His for us!
This glorious, unique one-to-one relationship should not be jeopardised by excessive cow-towing to Authorities and Leaders. Too many Christians submit themselves to leaders and ministers to such an extent that they end up being unable to think for themselves and can do nothing without "guidance" from others! This is a recipe for disaster, especially in these latter days when every individual is under personal attack by deceiving spirits eager to divert his or her minds from the truth.
The church system has its own way of appointing elders, which reflects the traditions of many years. However, once 'outside the camp' we no longer need to search in the religious newspapers for an ordained minister to come hundreds of miles across country to "lead" us. We do not appoint a stranger to be our shepherd, but we expect and pray that God will raise up elders from within the Body.
Nor do we make an artificial and unscriptural division between "clergy" and "laity" where a small number of men are given rulership over the majority.
The pattern throughout the NT is that elders were appointed, after a certain time for God to mature the new converts, from amongst the fellowship - not from out of town. However, these elders did not become well-known names with important international ministries, with certificates pinned to their office walls and a diary to regulate appointments with the church membership.
In fact, some 20 years after Pentecost, Paul still describes the leaders (including such figures as Peter, James and John!) as those who SEEMED to be in a place of leadership. There was no blatant, man-led Church Government apparent here, even after more than two decades of Christianity. (Gal 2:1-9)
Ministry And Service
Leadership was low-key and "of the people" with a minister seeing himself as servant to the Body, not an important figurehead and Supremo holding the reins of church government! It is interesting to look at the various words used to denote leadership in the New Testament Church because they give an impression very different from our modern-day concepts:
- MINISTER (1) - diakonos; one who runs errands, attends on others, who waits upon, who serves others. (We get our word "Deacon" from this)
- MINISTER (2) - huperetes; a subordinate, assistant, (under-oarsman in a boat) (Acts 13:5)
- MINISTER (3) - leitourgos; from LAOS (people) and ERGON (deed or work) - a public servant or functionary or public benefactor, who performs works on behalf of the people
- DEACON - (see above) (1 Tim 3:10)
- BISHOP - episkopos; an overseer or guardian from EPI (over) and SKOPOS (to peer about or watch, from which we get our word sceptic).
- PASTOR - poimen; a shepherd (literally or figuratively): (1 Pet 2:25)
- ELDER - presbuteros; a senior; specifically in scripture, a member of the Jewish Sannhedrin (also figuratively, member of the celestial council) or a member of the church council. (1 Pet 5:1-7)
Each word above has to do with service not lordship! The task of the elders is explained in 1 Pet 5:1-7. It is to "feed the flock" (also see Acts 20:28) and to "take the oversight" that is, be guardian of the flock. But this oversight must not be done "by constraint" nor "as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock". The scripture continues with an admonition for all -
"Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you."
How are elders appointed? God will point out those who are able and gifted to be elders, having a care for all. The word "ordination" that has come to mean working for a degree in a theological college of some kind, actually denotes a simple appointment to a task. The word used in Heb 8:3 is kathistemi which simply means "to designate".
We need wise and loving shepherds who will keep the sheep from straying, and protect them from wolves. Those with a pastor's calling will already be exercising this role in a minor way, and we will often know instinctively who is being called to "lead" a group. (Do not assume this is the most experienced or most forthcoming of the group! Remember God's choice of David as king of Israel.)
Leadership, however, should unobtrusive. Biblical leadership is not authoritarian (indeed, Jesus commanded that it must not be so in Mark 10:42-44). However, when God does appoint leadership over a body, however large or small, he expects that all will respect and abide by their decisions:
"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you". (Heb 13:17)
Wise Christians will acknowledge and respect the leadership that God has provided for them, without becoming enslaved to their every opinion. Dissent is allowed so long as the members of an assembly can show where the elder has strayed from scripture or from God's wisdom. But in normal every-day running of the assembly or group we can treat the elder's decisions as a welcome hand upon the rudder, knowing that they have a concern for the fellowship as a whole.
Elders in the worship meeting
One mistake that elders often make is assuming they must take charge of and run every meeting. But the Bible calls for EVERY believer to take part in and contribute to the worship. This is simply not the exclusive province of the eldership. Yes, they must watch over and sometimes steer the direction of the meetings, but nowhere in scripture do we see elders or other ministers taking over every meeting and imposing their own teachings, thoughts, prayers, choice of songs and whatever else happens in the course of worship.
The most productive meetings in terms of growth and spiritual life are those in which the eldership sits on the sidelines and encourages others to take part.
Not everyone wants to contribute, and many feel too timid or think they lack the essential biblical knowledge. However, every Christian should be growing in his or her role and gifts in the Church, and to allow some to sit back doing nothing is a failure for all, not least the elders who ought to be actively encouraging everyone to take part in worship.
There should be a gentle persuasion for people to pray, read a scripture aloud, share a thought on the scriptures, play an instrument, sing or do whatever else is genuinely helpful to everybody else. Nobody, however young in the Lord, has NOTHING to contribute to an assembly of believers!
Elders are needed to step in when the meeting goes seriously off the rails, veers into error or gets bogged down. They should be there (and be known to be there) to rebuke the dominant ones, check unbiblical behaviour, encourage the weak, but NOT to take over completely with their own agendas! It is not even necessary for the elders to teach at every meeting.
Wise elders give place to some of the other members who also have a word from the Lord and want to share it. They are sensitive to the Holy Spirit's leading and if there is something God wants to impart, they allow Him to do so using the person of HIS own choice, not necessarily the elders or recognised teachers.
"Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints". (1 Cor 14:29-33)
This verse is primarily about prophecies, but it also applies in other situations. Notice how Paul states that "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" - in other words, Christian ministry is not being "taken over" by the Holy Spirit to the extent that one is FORCED to speak or prophesy, compelled to utter a word regardless of whatever else is going on in the meeting.
We should all be sensitive to one another and to the meeting as a whole. If somebody else has a revelation or word, at the moment you opened your mouth to speak, then hold your peace and wait for another opportunity. Everybody clamouring to speak at once leads to bedlam and disorder, which is not of the Holy Spirit.
© 1995-2013 Tricia Tillin of Banner Ministries. All rights reserved. Cross+Word Website: http://www.banner.org.uk/ This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information. One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.