“See that mound over there?” the Israeli guide asked our tour group. “It’s covering some 20 civilizations.” As our minibus continued around Israel, we saw many sites where archaeologists were unearthing evidence of long-forgotten ways of life.
The Mound of Traditions
In a somewhat similar way, the participatory meeting patterns of the first-century church lie buried under layer upon layer of church traditions. As the centuries came and went, the church lived through the spiritual equivalent of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Each left its coating of sand, silt, or debris. Leaders, faced with disunity, twisted teachings, and selfish ambition, put into place practices they thought would meet the crisis of the moment. Many remedies, perhaps justified as temporary measures, stayed put as succeeding generations made them sacred.
As a result, church meetings today deprive us of the one-anothering called for in Jesus’ new command and practiced by first-century believers. So twenty-first-century century Christians find it difficult even to imagine what went on in those original church gatherings. How can we get to the buried treasure? We need scriptural “shovels” to dig our way through the traditional strata to unearth the shared-church ways followed by those early believers.
I recently came across such a useful “shovel”—an article by Michael Konomos. “Participatory Church” appeared in the website of the International Teaching Ministry of Douglas Jacoby. In it Konomos looks at the clues that point to what first-century Christians did when they met. Below are excerpts from his article (in italics), followed by some concluding comments of my own.
I am taking a closer look at the case for participatory church meetings outside 1 Corinthians 14. I will concede that 1 Corinthians 14 is the closest that we have to a model/command to do so, and that in general there is a dearth of scriptures describing church meetings. One might argue that means it is up to us to do as we wish, or one might argue that the structure of the meeting was assumed. Whatever the conclusion one draws in light of these unanswered questions, it would be foolish to simply ignore the evidence that we do have. With that in mind, I posit the following...
In general, we are not left with very many instructions in the NT regarding meetings of the church, but what little that we do have seems to point to a more participatory meeting than what we are used to seeing in modern churches.
The clearest case for this type of meeting is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church.
1 Cor 14:26-38
v26- “Everyone has”... All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.
A good exercise is to consider the “one another” passages throughout the NT. After reading each of them, follow it with a “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader” and see if it sounds like it is in keeping with the plain meaning of the passage.
I am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”
Speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”
Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom...sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”
1 Timothy 2:8
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”
There are other fragments of evidence scattered throughout the NT pointing to a more participatory meeting.
The believers that belonged to the party of the Pharisees were apparently able to stand up during a meeting express their convictions. These were notably not the elders or apostles (v.4).
The apostles and elders, together with the whole church, make a decision.
Paul may have been “dialoguing”
Perhaps the most powerful argument of all is to think of all the teaching sessions/‘church meetings’ that Jesus held. Were they participatory or rigidly structured? Did people ask questions or sit silently in their chairs? Look through countless scriptures in the gospels—Jesus taught through dialogues much more often than monologues! Jesus “taught” by asking questions—and often not rhetorical ones!
What is the likely format in a church in which all of the members were ‘priests’ that was born in the synagogues and met in each other’s homes? Would it look like the old Priest-officiating-over-the-wretched-people-model?
This is clearly not an air-tight case for participatory meetings. The truth is that, as with many questions we have, we are not left with 100% certainty about the answers. Surely Ockham’s Razor [the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one] would seem to be an appropriate philosophy when posed with these questions. The simplest explanation is that the early church had clear, dynamic leadership and participatory meetings in which the various members of the church were able to exercise their gifts. The reasons that modern churches are not conducted in this manner have much more to do with centuries of tradition than they do with a careful study of scripture.
Tradition versus Scripture
The conflict between those two stretches back a long way. Jesus fought in that battle: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3-4). Paul warned that human traditions can actually gain control over us (Col. 2:8).
Check your own church’s constitution or statement of faith. It may say something like, “the Bible is our only rule for faith and practice,” or “Scripture is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.”
Put differently, God’s Word in the Bible—not human tradition—is to have the say-so in both what we believe and what we do. In many cases, although the Bible gives no explicit believe/do command, we discover God’s will by seeing what several passages—taken together—point to. Here’s a “believe” example. Nowhere does Scripture say, “Believe in the Trinity.” Yet we believe in the threeness of the one God because of what Scripture says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And here’s a “do” example. No commandment says, “Meet on Sunday.” But most Christians do so because we see that pattern in Acts 20:7 and I Cor. 16:2 and because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.
As the Konomos article points out, the New Testament does not command us in so many words to make our meetings participatory. But the bulk of the evidence says first-century church meetings were highly interactive and relational—shared church. And that makes total sense. Would the all-wise God have given a spiritual gift “to each one of us” (I Cor. 4:7) only to have us bury it unused during Sunday meetings? How does the many-membered, multi-gifted Body of Christ mature? It “grows and builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).
Search for yourself. Can you find any evidence that New Testament church meetings looked anything like the passive-audience format most churches now follow on Sundays?