1. The church in the first century
For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
It has long been said we don’t know how the first churches functioned. After all, it is said, the information found in the book of Acts is “scanty.”
Actually there is a fair amount of information on the first churches in Acts. The problem is, most Christians don’t see their churches in there, for the reason that there is little resemblance.
Part of the problem is when Christians look for “church rules” in Acts when there are none. What we find instead is indicated practices. These are also called “normative practices.” One controversy in the churches is over whether or not normative practices must needs be imitated. Some say no, others say yes. (I say yes.) But many or most in the churches are indifferent to the issue because, after all, “we’ve always done things this way.”
However the end of the argument is found, not in Acts but in the New Testament epistles, for that which is modeled or indicated in Acts is expressly taught or inspired practice in the epistles. Let me restate this because it is an underlying tenet of this book: a key to confirming primitive (as it is called) or apostolic (because it was established by and during the time of the apostles) or early church function and polity is found in the epistles rather than the book of Acts, for the reason that the examples found in Acts are confirmed in the teachings and practices found in the epistles.
This is such an obvious statement of truth it may seem ludicrous to the reader that an entire book should be devoted to it. Every Christian who has thought about the subject (many haven’t) will likely agree with the statement above. And yet we say we don’t know how the first churches functioned!
The first churches had the distinction of having the apostles of Jesus Christ in their midst. These churches would surely have functioned in accordance with the apostles’ teaching revealed in the New Testament epistles. And when the churches didn’t function in this way, they were rebuked, admon-ished, or corrected by the apostles as it is recorded in these same epistles.
The churches have used “we don’t know how the first churches functioned” to ignore—yes, ignore—the teaching in the epistles and to do what seems right to men.
I once heard a man teach that we cannot use the epistles for instruction in early church function. He asked, rhetorically, “Which church is the model? Galatia? Colosse? Thessalonica? Corinth?” Not only was this condescending (the attitude is “we don’t have problems like they had in Corinth”), he threw the baby out with the bathwater. These churches had problems and were corrected by Paul for the benefit of the churches that would follow. We are to learn from all the churches and not just one of them. (Although, I will say, the book of Philippians was given as a model church for our instruction. I will take this up later.)
Assuming that we find instruction in early church function primarily in the epistles and not the book of Acts, we should not be surprised to find the most important teaching concerning the church in the book of Romans, for no other New Testament epistle so completely describes the Christian faith “from first to last.” No NT book better establishes a context for the church and its operation. (The book of Ephesians is nearly as important; the teaching in Ephesians 4:7-16 figures prominently in this book.)
Here is the context for Romans 12. In Romans 1:1-3:21 every individual, both Jew and Gentile, is addressed. All are concluded under sin. We are ungodly and worthy of eternal hellfire. In order to be saved from the wrath of God each of us must first recognize that universal sin is not just a theory but it applies to me. Each of us needs to feel sorry for his or her sins and see them the way God sees them. This is repentance. Once we recognize this, and not until then (for how can one be saved except he recognize the need?), God provides a way out for us. In Romans 3:21-4:25 “a righteousness from God” is revealed, received solely through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Chapters 5-8 describe the Christian life and reconcile our legal standing in Christ with our daily experience. Victory is in the Spirit of God. Chapters 9-11 are parenthetical and concern the logical question, with the institution of the church what place Israel now has in God’s plans.
Not until Romans 12 does Paul speak of the church corporate, though of course all the believers addressed in Romans 5-8 are a part of this church. Romans 12-15 concern the church and how Christians are to relate to one another and to the world. (Chapter 16 stands as a beautiful testament to Christian fellowship.)
Here I am most concerned with what Paul chose as his very first teaching concerning the church. It stands to reason that what Paul chose to teach first about the church is of primary importance. The principle is “first things first.” Now what is described here? It is a ministry of all the saints. It is a mutual or one-another ministry. We need one another, based on our personal experience described in Romans 5-8, and thus there are no spectators in the church of Jesus Christ.
Not only is the teaching important because Paul teaches it first, it is important because it is the best and most general indicator of church operation (along with Ephesians 4:7-16 and I Corinthians 14)) found in the entire New Testament. We may even call Romans 12:3-8 a controlling passage in that all the details concerning church function and polity found elsewhere in the NT square with the general description found in Romans 12.
So what do we find in Romans 12:3-8? We find, first, that all the saints receive a spiritual gift from God, “according to the grace that is given to us.” Not a member of the body of Christ is excluded. No, not one. If a man or woman does not have a spiritual gift it is because he or she has not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. So we should not expect to find unbelievers ministering in the churches. However believers are to minister.
“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” I Cor. 12:7. The manifestation of the Spirit is the spiritual gift. And since the Spirit is received at conversion, Eph. 1:13, so is the manifestation of the Spirit. We find no qualification by Paul concerning “entrance into the ministry.” Conversion is the qualification. Of course it is necessary to develop one’s gift, but this does not preclude its early exercise. Indeed, development requires exercise of the gift at every stage of spiritual growth.
Certainly the ministry of the saints is regulated by other directives in the New Testament, but the only concern here is qualification for and entrance into the ministry of the saints. Churchianity (a.k.a. ecclesiasticism) stipulates rules and regulations not found in the New Testament. It says, “Do not touch, do not handle, do not taste,” cf. Col. 2:20-23. In other words Churchianity says, “Do not minister,” or “Do not minister yet,” or “Do not minister unless...,” or “Do not minister until...” The spiritual gifts are to be governed by love, I Cor. 13, but against the ministry itself there is no law.
Advocates of Churchianity will say mine is a recipe for anarchy in the churches. But those are Paul’s words in Romans 12:3-8, not mine. Paul did not advocate anarchy in Rome any more than he did in Corinth (I Cor. 14). The difference between Christianity and Churchianity is that in the former Christ gives the marching orders for ministry; in Churchianity “men direct the various ministries.” What did Paul say? If one’s gift is prophecy, then “prophesy according to the proportion of faith.” If ministry (serving), “let us wait on our ministering.” Etc., etc. Believers are commanded to minister in the churches. No “director of ministries” needed.
“Ministering” in Romans 12 means serving. This is obvious in a context in which ministering is distinguished from teaching, prophesying, exhorting, and ruling. But this is simply consistent with the way ministering is used in the entire New Testament. It always means serving, either through the gift of serving, or through exercise of any and all of the spiritual gifts. Ministering is what the apostles and prophets did. Ministering is what the evangelists and pastors and teachers do. And ministering also covers the exercise of all the spiritual gifts, including the specific gift of serving. “And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.” I Cor. 12:5. The NIV has it, “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.” The NASB says, “And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” In the New Testament the pastor is never called the minister. But in the churches a large part of the Christian ministry has been supplanted by one we call “the minister.” What are the rest of us doing, then? Is this semantics? We are said to be trifling and idly disputing words! This is not an idle disputation. The churches long ago corrupted the meaning of “minister.” The churches have not held fast the meanings of sound New Testament words.
Second, we find in Romans 12 an equality of the brethren. “All members have not the same office” necessarily infers that all have an office, as Paul goes on to describe. There is no limitation of “office” to a few of the saints. Other Bible translations render it “all the members do not have the same function,” (NASB), or “these members do not all have the same function,” (NIV). Not all are apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, etc., I Cor. 12:28-30. Some parts of the body are “comely,” others “uncomely.” Of the parts of the body “which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.” I Cor. 12:23. So there is no contradiction between Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12. There are simply different offices.
“All ye are brethren,” said Jesus. We are to call no man “master” (teacher) or “father.” By what logic, then, are we free to call a man “pastor” or “reverend?” It is setting up a church office, an “office” contrary to the offices found in Romans 12. “Pastor” and “teacher” are functions and not titles. Exemplifying this, Paul never once called himself “the Apostle Paul.” No, it was “Paul, an apostle.” When Jesus taught that we are all brethren, He did not deny a distinction in spiritual gifts, in function, or in office, but He surely did command that we not set up men in titled offices which would have the effect of making them mediators between the Head of the church and His brethren. “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master (Teacher), even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” Mt. 23:8. We say Christ is Head of the church, but when we set up men as masters we deny His real, practical, and effectual Headship.
Third, some of the spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12 find expression in the church, meaning the assembly on the Lord’s day; the rest of the gifts find principal expression out of the church. The distinction is between speaking and serving gifts, a distinction made in I Peter 4:11. The speaking gifts find occasion for expression both in and out of the assembly, while the serving gifts mostly find occasion for expression out of the assembly. The speaking gifts in Romans 12 are prophesying, teaching, exhorting, and ruling; the servings gifts are ministering, giving, and mercy. Both speaking and servings gifts are exercised in the church, “the church” meaning either 1) the called-out assembly of the saints, or 2) the members of the one body of Christ universal; the speaking gifts are exercised in both venues, the servings gifts principally in the second venue.
The question, then, is whether any of our churches function after the model of Romans 12. My answer is that churches functioning this way are rare, remote, and mostly unknown. Not only so, but this has been the case for at least seventeen hundred years, or most of the church age. It isn’t that the churches are barely missing the mark but that in no way, shape, or form do they function in the way Paul indicated. Indeed, does not Paul’s description of the church in Romans 12 seem foreign to us? We don’t do church this way.
Before we go on I’d like to revisit the book of Acts, for it does indeed provide one very big indicator of early church function. This is found in the transition from the Jewish synagogue to the Christian church. The transition appears almost seamless.
The word synagogue appears almost as frequently as church in the book of Acts, with nineteen instances of the former and twenty-one of the latter. By contrast, the gospels of course feature synagogue with but three references to church (Mt. 16, 18). And after the book of Acts synagogue disappears from the New Testament, with the exception of two uses in Revelation 2-3.
Here is the pattern of usage:
gospels Acts epistles (except Revelation)
synagogue 34 19 0
church 3 21 68
The word synagogue appears twice in the book of Revelation, both times as “the synagogue of Satan,” Rev. 2:9, 3:9. The synagogue, formerly used by Jesus as recorded in the gospels and by the apostles as recorded in Acts, was now—that is, at the time Jesus spoke these words to John late in the first century--no longer the place where the truth of God was preserved and taught. It had been replaced by the church and was now simply one of Satan’s places for disseminating “the rudiments of the world,” cf. Col. 2:8, 20, i.e., world-religion, including false Christianity, which always and without fail mixes faith and works. Thus, “the synagogue of Satan.” The appearance of synagogue twice in the book of Revelation, with a negative connotation, does not disparage the truth that many Jews were converted to the faith of Jesus Christ in the synagogues and that they continued in these synagogues for a period subsequent to this. Also it does not disparage my point that the synagogue was predecessor to the church.
What to make of the pattern of usage indicated above? While the synagogue has no place in New Testament doctrine, it has a very important place in New Testament history. The synagogue was not only replaced by the church, it was a type or prototype of the church. This is not “replacement theology” in any way, shape, or form. “Replacement theology” teaches that the church has forever replaced Israel in God’s plans. The discussion here is confined to the synagogue and the church. The church universal did not replace Israel, cf. Rom. 9-11, but the local church certainly did replace the synagogue. In many ways the Christian church was based on the polity of the synagogue. This after all was the tradition to which the first Christians were accustomed.
Here is why the transition from synagogue to church was easy for Jewish converts to the faith of Jesus Christ.The features of the synagogue were 1) elders ruled, meaning they were responsible for keeping order and upholding sound doctrine (although the synagogue had a chief ruler, this tradition was not passed on to the churches); 2) the law and the prophets were read, accompanied perhaps by a brief teaching or exhortation; however it was the Word itself that was primary; 3) all were free to read from the law and the prophets and to speak, thus the Lord and His apostles were not prohibited or preempted from speaking there; and 4) dialogue was, if not featured, certainly permitted, as Paul “went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 19:8. Therefore it should be no surprise that the first Christians, Jewish converts all, had no problems adapting their worship to the New Testament church. There is not a hint of difficulty concerning a transition to church meetings. (Instead, the difficulties concerned the transition from a dispensation of law to one of grace, as manifested in the controversy over circumcision and keeping the law of Moses as a means either of salvation or of sanctification. This controversy was once and for all resolved by the counsel of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, cf. Acts 15.)
So we are to understand that while the book of Acts says little about church function, it indicates a great deal, and what it indicates is completely consistent with the church operation revealed in the epistles.
A second indicator of church function in the book of Acts is found in Acts 2:42, again completely consistent with the teaching in Romans 12 that the church is a mutual ministry of believers. It says, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The key word is “they.”
Proponents of the reigning church order and polity will have many and varied objections, qualifications, or “refinements” to the church functioning most generally and concisely described in Romans 12:3-8. And that is the reason for this book.