8 February 2011 (Shleshi/Bikkurim)|
Day #329, 5934 AM
The New Covenant Assembly
Part 4: Earliest Assembly Meetings
Continued from Part 3
7. Forms of Assembly Meetings
Communities are shaped and defined by the people who make them up. Thus on gentile soil, and independent Christian community-life grew more rapidly than in Judea. Though they were Torah-obedient, they would not have faced the same temptations and pressures as their fellow Judahite brethren in Judea living in a community with very similar beliefs as fas as Torah lifestyle was concerned, but with all the additions of the "traditions of the elders". Many of these Judean converts continued to adhere to these traditions and try to impose them not only on their fellow Judahite brethren but also on the new gentiles converts. The first generation of Torah-obedient gentile believers did not meet on the first day of the week as they have been accused of doing by modernists with allegiance to Protestant and other (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox) agendas, but were sabbatarians. They met together on the seventh day for worship and testimony, like their fellow Judahite brethren.
There can be no doubt that at first gentile meetings may have resembled the synagogue-worship with which many must have been familiar, but in Corinth at least these meetings took a more distinctive form, becoming at one point the 'Wild West' of the early Messianic Community. Indeed, the type of meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14 must have resembled a pre-Second World War War Welsh Revival meeting! There would be no liturgical form of prayer or appointed reading from the Scripture such as there might be in a service on the synagogue-model, but the meeting would be open for any one to take part and the ministry would be spontaneous. One would break out into glossolalia, or the supernatural speaking in foreign languages, which a neighbour might find empowered to translate either naturally or supernaturally. More than one with the gift of prophecy (containing moral insight and power - vv.18-18,24) would contribute a word of encouragement to believers or direct or an appeal to the unconverted. Personal testimony probably played some part in such meetings. One might feel led to sing or to receite a psalm, while another would offer prayer. Men and women alike took part according to their Torah-rôles (1 Cor.11:5). As in the Welsh Revival, so in those enthusiastic gatherings in the assembly, several might be praying and prophesying at the same time. Against this disorderliness Paul had to warn his friends who were in danger of identifying the spiritual with the irrational and the confused (1 Cor.14:26-33).
The subsequent history of prophecy shows that this type of meeting was not confined to Corinth. In the early days many believers may have exercised the gift of prophecy intermittently and on occasion, but some felt a call to speak more constantly and travelled in the ministry as prophets along with apostles and evangelists. Visiting prophets and teachers must have contributed not a little to the life of the early Messianic Community (Church) and it is clear from the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (a little manual of instruction and Assembly order, belonging to the end of the first centiry and probably connected with Syria) that the prophets were allowed considerable liberty in guiding the worship of the Assembly. But as time went on, the itinerant prophetic ministry seems to have fallen into some discredit (much as it has in the modern pentecostal and charismatic movements), owing to the self-seeking of some who made mechandise of Christ, and owing to erratic teaching of others. Tests had to be applied to visiting ministers such as are suggested on 2 John 10-11 (cp. 1 Cor.12:2), and letters of commendation from individual assemblies or assembly-leaders were found to be very desirable (cp, 2 Cor.3:1; Ac.18:27).
Besides these meetings for testimony and exhortation to which outsiders were welcome, there were regular meetings of the fellowship to eat the Lord's Supper together and to transact business. Paul speaks of certain abuses which arose at Corinth in connection with the common meals, at which instead of the spirit of comradeship and equality, the spirit of faction and the display of economic inequality seems to have been dominant. The apostle apparently urged the wisdom of separating the act of breaking the bread and drinking the wine together, from the common meal, thus leading to the dissociating of the Lord's Supper from the Agapé, or love-feast. But in gentile assemblies, as in the first community at Jerusalem, the common meal, whether Lord's Supper (Eucharist) or Agapé, was intended to link the believers to their Master and to one another in one body. At the regular assembly meetings, letters from beloved leaders would be read (Col.4:16), cases of discipline would be considered (1 Cor.5:4ff.; 2 Cor.2:6),
and, no doubt, cases of sickness and distress reported in order to be acted upon.
The practical and spiritual needs of the local asemblies required the development of the local leadership. It is not clear that these officials were all appointed in the same way, or that the offices themselves were all conceived on the same model. Pastors and Elders were certainly appointed in the first generation by the apostles as they planted new congregations (Ac.14:23). Prayer and the laying on of hands seem regularly to have been associated with appointment to any office or form of ministry. Sometimes prophets were involved in the selection of leaders (2 Cor.8:19; Ac.13:2-3).
With apostolic communication between the congregations rarely easy as it is today, it seems that there was considerable divergence in approach until the fossilising influence of the later Roman Church began to exert hegemony. Though some divergence is tolerable and inevitable, it can often go too far, as with Corinth both in Paul's time and as later history attests (see extracts of 1 Clement in A Message to Charismatic Christians). By the time of the death of the apostles, disorder had become a major problem to be sorted out by the sub-apostolic fathers in the second generation. Meetings were simple and structured around the modern equivalent of a house-church or cell, as they shall be in the very end times too.
Continued in Part 5