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.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Choosing a Good Bible Church

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb. 10:23-25)

      As Christians we are to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:24-25). Choosing a good Bible church is not simply for fellowship, but for prayer, worship, and above all, learning Scripture. We learn how to pray because the Bible teaches us. We learn good Christian fellowship because the Bible reveals what good Christian fellowship really is. We learn to worship because the Bible teaches us what genuine worship ought to be. The Bible alone provides the necessary information to live the Christian life, and if we close its pages, we know nothing. Even what we think about God comes from what He has revealed about Himself in Scripture. A good Bible church will place a priority on learning the Bible, because Scripture alone provides the necessary information that makes the other activities meaningful and proper. Without a biblical basis, the church is just another social club.

       A person becomes a member of the body of Christ—the church—when he believes in Jesus for salvation (Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 1:22-23). The church was not known in the OT but was revealed to the apostles in the New Testament (Eph. 3:1-12; 5:32; Col. 1:25-27). The local church was identified geographically (1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 1:2; Rev. 2-3), and local churches met in people’s homes.

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. 4:15-16)

       Biblically the church is ALWAYS an assembly of believers and NEVER a building! Too often we say “we’re going to church” as though the church is located down the street. A more correct way would be to say “the church meets” at such and such a location. You can change the location, but the church, as the body of Christ, always consists of Christians who assemble for worship.

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

       Biblically, the church’s emphasis should always be on: 1) learning Scripture, 2) having quality fellowship, 3) partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and 4) praying together. Certainly there can be other activities, but these four should be present and prioritized in every church. Scripture never puts an emphasis on the quantity of members or the attractiveness of the facilities. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a clean facility and I am not against numbers, I just don’t measure a church by those things. Mormons have large congregations that meet in beautiful facilities; yet they’re spiritually dead because they’ve trusted in a false savior, having been led astray by a false prophet named Joseph Smith (Gal. 1:8-9).

       It is a real blessing to get into a Bible church where the pastor teaches Scripture verse by verse, paying attention to the original languages of Hebrew and Greek when necessary, explaining the history and culture behind the text, and always giving the plain sense of the passage as the author intended it for his original audience. A good pastor will bridge the language and historical gap, communicating the text in freshness with conviction. Some characteristics of a good Bible church include:

  1. Expositional Bible teaching (Eph. 4:11-16).
  2. Love for one another (1 Thess. 3:11-12; 4:9; 1 Pet. 4:8; 1 Jo. 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11).
  3. Willingness to meet the needs of others (Phil. 2:3-4).
  4. Encouraging one another (1 Thess. 5:11).
  5. Edifying one another (Rom. 15:1-2; Eph. 4:29).
  6. Serving one another (Gal. 5:13).
  7. Being kind and forgiving one another (Eph. 4:32).

       There are no perfect churches but there are mature ones in which mature believers place an emphasis on learning Scripture, showing love and grace, and striving to glorify God in all they do. The growing church looks upward to God in faith, outward to others with the gospel, and inward to Christians with love (Col. 3:1-16). The joy of good Christian fellowship is rewarding in so many ways as the growing believer benefits from, and adds to the spiritual prosperity of a church.

This article is an excerpt from The Christian Life, pages 121-124.

Also, read my article, The Church – Then and Now.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.