A Summary of the Discussion at Counter Thought Sunday, January 8, 2012, with thoughts contributed by those attending.
Knowing the purpose of church enables you to get the most out of it and allows you to know when you’ve found it. A wide variety of reasons are given when people are asked why they attend church services, many of which have little biblical support or which have been skewed from the original biblical intent.
1. Evangelism: I grew up with the idea that I should invite my unsaved friends to church so that they could hear the Gospel. While I have no objection to this practice, biblical evangelism should take place primarily outside of church meetings. Acts 2:47 says: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” They didn’t go to church and believe; they believed and went to church.
2. God Requires It: The New Testament has much to say about how to conduct meetings of believers, but not many commands to meet together. In fact, only one passage comes to mind—Hebrews 10:25. We will examine that passage in a moment. The context indicates that the emphasis is not so much, “Thou shalt assemble,” as to describe the benefits of meeting. I suspect that most people who attend church out of a sense of obligation are more concerned with what other people think than how God feels about it. Some are genuinely concerned about God judging them for not being there, though that idea has no biblical support, but for most, the judgment of fellow believers is the primary driving force.
3. Being Fed: Certainly in the early church, believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), and there is great value in listening to those who are called to be teachers. However, this has generally become an excuse for not studying. A frequent reason given for changing churches is, “I was not being fed.” If you’ve been a believer for three days, that statement might carry some weight, but if you’ve been a believer for twenty years, isn’t it about time you learned to feed yourself? In the first century, only about one person in ten knew how to read and the teaching and public reading of scripture were the only way most could learn. We don’t have that restriction today.
4. Worship: Worship was a significant part of early church life (Acts 2:47). And it should be a part of our experience. Interestingly, Acts 2:46 describes them as “praising God” in the context of breaking bread in their homes, not in the assembly. That’s not to say worship is not desirable when we gather, but it certainly should not be restricted to Sunday morning. Modern worship is often little more than a concert. Genuine worship is a matter of attitude more than form. It is not restricted to a musical format, though music is good, nor is it restricted to church services. Worship as an acknowledgment and declaration of God’s greatness and his virtues is an integral element of believers gathering together, whether it be hundreds in a meeting singing or two people talking over coffee.
5. Fellowship: When pressed to examine their feelings about what brings a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction from church, the strength of relationships is almost always a factor. Those who love church have strong friendships. Those who hate church don’t. Great benefit comes from the unity of being on a journey together, the sense of belonging to a group of people with shared values and experiences. The community is what makes meeting together important. This is consistent with Jesus’ encapsulation of the law into two commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). “Love God” doesn’t require meeting together, but “Love your neighbor” does.
The Greek word for church is ekklesia. The choice of this word indicates nuances that give us some insight into how the first century believers viewed themselves and their mission. The general meaning of the word is “assembly.” But there is more to it than that. If New Testament writers just wanted to call themselves an assembly, it’s odd that they didn’t use the much more common word sunagoge.
One reason suggested for this was that they wanted to distance themselves from the Jews, who called their meeting places synagogues. That seems unlikely to me, however, since the church was made up entirely of Jewish believers in the beginning, and the fact that the influence of synagogue practice and organization, even on the Gentile church, was significant for a long, long time. (See In the Shadow of the Temple by Oskar Skarsaune if you want to delve into the subject further.)
Rather, I believe the history of the word ekklesia carried meaningful subtleties that the early believers appropriated to their mission and purpose. Ekklesia originally referred to assemblies in the Greek city-states of the classical period. Three characteristics especially defined those meetings:
1. Only citizens were allowed.
2. Participants were specifically summoned to the meeting.
3. The purpose of the meeting was to conduct the business of the city.
By the first century, ekklesia was no longer a commonly used word. The early church seems to have adopted it to reflect some specific characteristics. To be part of the church, you had to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. Citizens were summoned to the meeting, by the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the meeting was to conduct the business of the kingdom.
This concept further emphasizes the idea that evangelism is intended to be outside the assembly. Share your faith with unbelievers, bringing them into citizenship in the kingdom, then bring them to the meeting. The altar call was not the main focus in the first century.
The primary difference between the meaning of ekklesia and sunagoge is in the summoning. To put it in an oversimplified paraphrase, the synagogue was just a meeting, while the church was a meeting of chosen and called people with a specific purpose to accomplish—conducting the business of the kingdom. The Jews, of course, believed they were chosen, but the followers of Jesus saw themselves as the fulfillment of the Jewish mission, and therefore sought to add the nuances of ekklesia to their identity.
What is the business of the church? Here the context of the command to assemble is enlightening:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25)
The assembly of believers is the culmination of a line of thought that begins with the goal of entering the Most Holy Place. Assembling is seen as the means of bringing that goal to fruition. We meet together to encourage one another (verse 25) and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (verse 24). This is made possible by our unswerving hope in the faithfulness of Jesus (verse 23). Our hope rests on the intercession of our “great priest over the house of God” (verse 21), who sprinkles our hearts “to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (verse 22).
From this I gather that the business resulting from the command to assemble together is to encourage one another to move toward the Most Holy Place, that is, the presence of God, with confidence and a clear conscience. I especially find the “clear conscience” part of this interesting, since so much of what I’ve experienced in church was designed to make me feel guilty and ashamed for not being more committed to the program.
A final thought concerns fellowship. The New Testament word is koinonia. It is rich in meaning, denoting fellowship, partnership participation, communion, aid and relief. Fellowship, by definition, requires community.
Church without community is unfulfilling, unsatisfying, ineffective and miserable. Church based on community is life itself. Remember that Malachi 3:16 says healing from the curses on Israel came through the community of believers interacting with each other, not directly with God:
Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.