The Church – Then and Now

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house. (Act 20:20)

The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. (1 Cor. 16:19)

Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. (Col. 4:15)

       The New Testament term church (Grk. ekklesia – “called out ones”) is used both in a universal and a local sense, as an organism and an organization.  The universal church refers to the global existence of the body of Christ (Acts 9:31; Eph. 1:22-23).  The local church refers to those who regularly meet at a specific location (1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 1:2; Rev. 2-3).  The Church, which is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), is a company of believers, from Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor. 10:32), who have been spiritually united with Christ by means of the baptism of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-28).  The church was not known in the Old Testament and was first mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  Speaking about the future church, Jesus stated, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [future tense]; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).  The church began in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost and formed the body of Christ (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 11:15-16; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22-23).  The church is distinct from the nation of Israel, as the apostle Paul declares, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32).  The church, as the body of Christ, was fully revealed to the apostles in the New Testament (Eph. 1:22-23; 3:1-12; 5:32; Col. 1:24-27). 

     First century Christians met in homes (1 Cor. 16:19; 4:15-16).  Home churches were necessarily small and the fellowship probably tended to be personal, with an emphasis on learning God’s Word and enjoying Christian companionship.  We know from Scripture that first century Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Act 2:42).  We also know the first century church had problems.  Churches then, like churches now, are no better or worse than the people who make up their fellowship.  Christians who were immature, carnal and selfish, tended to cause trouble.  Churches struggled with problems such as jealousy and strife (1 Cor. 3:1-3), fornication (1 Cor. 5:1-2), selfishness and drunkenness (1 Cor. 11:21), relationship problems (Phil. 4:2), and legalism (Gal. 5:1-12).  God expected all to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), and to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16).  The result would lead to spiritual maturity and the manifestation of “the fruit of the Spirit”, which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).  In the church, Christians were to love one another (1 Thess. 3:11-12; 4:9; 1 Jo. 4:7-11), pray for one another (Jam. 5:16), encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), edify each other (Rom. 15:1-2; Eph. 4:29), be kind and forgiving (Eph. 4:32), and serve one another (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:10).  These attitudes and actions were important, for as goes the spiritual health of Christians within the church, so goes its life and productivity.

       The Bible does not command a location for Christian fellowship, and Christians in the early part of the first century probably gathered in homes because it was simple and relaxed. Later, Roman persecution kept church fellowship small, as they were unable to meet openly in large places.  Homes were safe and Christians could worship in peace.  We also know Christians gathered and worshiped underground in the catacombs of Rome.  The early church really did not meet in large public buildings until after the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, when Constantine made Christianity legal.  By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was made the state religion of Rome, and that opened a whole new set of problems for the church. 

       It’s nice when a church building is aesthetically attractive, as nobody wants to fellowship or worship in a dump.  However, it seems most churches today tend to rely on aesthetic appeal (i.e. have a charming pastor, a beautiful building, a grand stage, theater lighting, great sound, etc.) while deemphasizing Christian education and spiritual living.  The result is larger churches with happy Christians who are biblically illiterate and spiritually ineffective.  I know pastors who “burn out” from working in these kinds of churches, and some walk away from them.  Often what they’re walking away from is not Christian ministry, but a perversion of it.  Many pastors and churches have failed to be all that God intends.  Society needs Christians who have spiritual integrity and are scripturally competent to provide godly answers about eternal life and hope for the future. 

       The church should not try to please the world or be like the world.  The world does not need a worldly church; it needs a biblical church that stands on biblical values.  The world needs a church that holds to God’s truth and loves people enough to tell them about the Gospel of Christ that they might be saved by grace through faith.  The functions of the church should agree with Scripture, Glorify God, and spiritually edify His people.  The main concern should be on knowing God (Eph. 1:17; 1 John 5:20), learning His Word (2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2), and walking with Him in truth (1 John 1:5-7). 

Also, see my article, Choosing a Good Bible Church.

Steven R. Cook, M.Div.

About Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2017 from Tyndale Theological Seminary. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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2 Responses to The Church – Then and Now

  1. Thanks for sharing Steven,

    I have a theory and no idea how to prove or disprove it, however, here it is:
    It is not possible to have any sort of deep, personal relationship with more than a few people.

    When local church congregations grow beyond the level of deep personal relationship among the members, discord ensues. Soon more effort is being put into maintaining peace among the participants than the worship of God. When non-believers observe the goings on of a bloated “Christian” church they are seeing the “acts of the sinful nature” on display and are understandably not interested in learn how to get into relationship with Christ. They might even ask themselves, “if that’s what Christians are like why would I want to be one?”

    One-to-one personal and intimate interactions are a more effective method of sharing the Gospel than large corporate worship/preaching services, in my opinion.

  2. Pingback: The Biblical Qualifications for Church Elder | Thinking on Scripture

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