What does Christian church look like?

1 Corinthians 14:26–32

Christian church

  1. What then shall we say, broth­ers? When you come togeth­er, every­one has a hymn, or a word of instruc­tion, a rev­e­la­tion, a tongue or an inter­pre­ta­tion. All of these must be done for the strength­en­ing of the church. (verse 26)
  2. If any­one speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and some­one must inter­pret. (verse 27)
  3. If there is no inter­preter, the speak­er should keep qui­et in the church and speak to him­self and God. (verse 28)
  4. Two or three prophets should speak, and the oth­ers should weigh care­ful­ly what is said. And if a rev­e­la­tion comes to some­one who is sit­ting down, the first speak­er should stop. (verse 29–30)
  5. For you can all proph­esy in turn so that every­one may be instruct­ed and encour­aged. (verse 31)
  6. The spir­its of prophets are sub­ject to the con­trol of prophets. (verse 32)

Nowadays distorted practice!?

Christian church nowadays

  1. What then shall we say, broth­ers? When you come togeth­er, the wor­ship leader has a hymn, and the pas­tor has a word of instruc­tion, a pre­sen­ta­tion or a joke. All of these must be done to cre­ate an atmos­phere.
  2. If any­one speaks in a tongue, every­one should speak at the same time so that no one else can under­stand.
  3. If there is no inter­preter, they should speak even loud­er.
  4. Only one guest preach­er should speak and the oth­ers should accept what he says with­out test­ing it. If any­one sit­ting down has a ques­tion he should keep it to him­self and ask the pas­tor after the ser­vice.
  5. For the pas­tor can proph­esy because he has a the­ol­o­gy degree.
  6. The con­tent of the ser­mons is sub­ject to the con­trol of the pas­tor.

In the last evening before his death Jesus gave a new com­mand­ment to his dis­ci­ples:

A new com­mand I give you: Love one anoth­er. As I have loved you, so you must love one anoth­er. By this all men will know that you are my dis­ci­ples, if you love one anoth­er. (John 13:34–35)

By this com­mand­ment Jesus declared that he want­ed his dis­ci­ples to have deep broth­er­ly fel­low­ship with one anoth­er based on the same love and devo­tion that they saw in Him. We see the first real­iza­tion of this fel­low­ship at Pen­te­cost, in 30 AD, after the ser­mon of Peter:

When the peo­ple heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the oth­er apos­tles, “Broth­ers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be bap­tized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the for­give­ness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spir­it. The promise is for you and your chil­dren and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many oth­er words he warned them; and he plead­ed with them, “Save your­selves from this cor­rupt gen­er­a­tion.” Those who accept­ed his mes­sage were bap­tized, and about three thou­sand were added to their num­ber that day. They devot­ed them­selves to the apos­tles’ teach­ing and to the fel­low­ship, to the break­ing of bread and to prayer. Every­one was filled with awe, and many won­ders and mirac­u­lous signs were done by the apos­tles. All the believ­ers were togeth­er and had every­thing in com­mon. Sell­ing their pos­ses­sions and goods, they gave to any­one as he had need. Every day they con­tin­ued to meet togeth­er in the tem­ple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate togeth­er with glad and sin­cere hearts, prais­ing God and enjoy­ing the favor of all the peo­ple. And the Lord added to their num­ber dai­ly those who were being saved. (Acts 2:37–47)

This fel­low­ship was the work of the Holy Spir­it and remains the mod­el of church for all times. Times change but God’s will and Jesus’ com­mand­ment will nev­er change.

What can we see from this descrip­tion and oth­er pas­sages of the Bible about the fea­tures of the church?

Christians are brothers and sisters: Brotherly love in the church

They devot­ed them­selves to the fel­low­ship … All the believ­ers were togeth­er and had every­thing in com­mon … Every day they con­tin­ued to meet togeth­er … (Acts 2:42, 44, 46)

For the first Chris­tians accept­ing Jesus as the mes­si­ah was not only a the­o­ry, nei­ther was it some­thing mere­ly per­son­al between them and God but under­stand­ing God’s love awak­ened deep love and devo­tion in them for each oth­er and for all peo­ple who had not heard the Good News yet. Their love and thank­ful­ness towards Jesus was man­i­fest­ed in broth­er­ly love, as John writes in his let­ter:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one anoth­er. (1 John 4:11)

If any­one says, “I love God,” yet hates his broth­er, he is a liar. For any­one who does not love his broth­er, whom he has seen, can­not love God, whom he has not seen. And he has giv­en us this com­mand: Who­ev­er loves God must also love his broth­er. (1 John 4:20–21)

Love among Chris­tians means tak­ing care of each other’s spir­i­tu­al life:

See to it, broth­ers, that none of you has a sin­ful, unbe­liev­ing heart that turns away from the liv­ing God. But encour­age one anoth­er dai­ly, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hard­ened by sin’s deceit­ful­ness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firm­ly till the end the con­fi­dence we had at first. (Hebrews 3:12–14)

Learn­ing from Jesus’ love who gave his life for us, Chris­tians want to give their lives for one anoth­er to help that every­one will reach the aim. They encour­age, admon­ish, and build each oth­er up.

A clear sign of the first Chris­tians’ love for each oth­er was the readi­ness to have every­thing in com­mon. Nobody pre­scribed it to them; they did it vol­un­tar­i­ly as a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of love. Shar­ing their spir­i­tu­al lives with each oth­er result­ed in shar­ing their mate­r­i­al prop­er­ty as well.

Brotherhood instead of hierarchy: The right structure of the church

Love is the base of the right struc­ture of the church. If there is broth­er­ly love among Chris­tians there is no room for any hier­ar­chy as the aim is to love and not to rule over each oth­er.

Jesus called them togeth­er and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gen­tiles lord it over them, and their high offi­cials exer­cise author­i­ty over them. Not so with you. Instead, who­ev­er wants to become great among you must be your ser­vant, and who­ev­er wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ran­som for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28)

In the first Chris­t­ian church we see that there were apos­tles, elder broth­ers (elders—Greek: πρεσβύτεροι = pres­byteroi) who were also called over­seers (Greek: επίσκοποι = episkopoi—translated some­times as bish­ops) or pas­tors1; we also read about evan­ge­lists, prophets, teach­ers etc. These are, how­ev­er, no titles or ranks like in world­ly orga­ni­za­tions but gifts, tasks, and ser­vices giv­en by God to build up the church.

It was he who gave some to be apos­tles, some to be prophets, some to be evan­ge­lists, and some to be pas­tors and teach­ers, to pre­pare God’s peo­ple for works of ser­vice, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach uni­ty in the faith and in the knowl­edge of the Son of God and become mature, attain­ing to the whole mea­sure of the full­ness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teach­ing and by the cun­ning and crafti­ness of men in their deceit­ful schem­ing. Instead, speak­ing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held togeth­er by every sup­port­ing lig­a­ment, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph­esians 4:11–16)

Every mem­ber par­tic­i­pates in the edi­fi­ca­tion of the church accord­ing to his gifts. Some broth­ers are elder in faith or God entrust­ed them more respon­si­bil­i­ty but the aim is that every­one can grow in matu­ri­ty. If every­one devotes him­self there is no need of a leader who orga­nizes every­thing. Such a monar­chic struc­ture (one pas­tor sys­tem) is far from the New Tes­ta­ment. The church has one head, this is Jesus and we as broth­ers are all mem­bers of his body. If we read about elders or lead­ers in the NT we always find them in plur­al and always in the above sense, i.e., like elder broth­ers in a fam­i­ly who help the younger and weak­er ones to grow and reach matu­ri­ty so that they can also bear more and more respon­si­bil­i­ty in God’s king­dom.

Jesus said that using titles is a phar­i­sa­ic, hyp­o­crit­i­cal behav­ior and con­trary to broth­er­ly rela­tion­ship:

Every­thing they do is done for men to see: They make their phy­lac­ter­ies wide and the tas­sels on their gar­ments long; they love the place of hon­or at ban­quets and the most impor­tant seats in the syn­a­gogs; they love to be greet­ed in the mar­ket­places and to have men call them “Rab­bi.” But you are not to be called “Rab­bi,” for you have only one Mas­ter and you are all broth­ers. And do not call any­one on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heav­en. Nor are you to be called “teacher,” for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The great­est among you will be your ser­vant. For who­ev­er exalts him­self will be hum­bled, and who­ev­er hum­bles him­self will be exalt­ed. (Matthew 23:5–11)

When Chris­tians gath­er togeth­er every­one has some­thing to share—not only one per­son (i.e., the pas­tor for the major part of the ser­vice):

What then shall we say, broth­ers? When you come togeth­er, every­one has a hymn, or a word of instruc­tion, a rev­e­la­tion, a tongue or an inter­pre­ta­tion. All of these must be done for the strength­en­ing of the church. (1 Corinthi­ans 14:26)

In this chap­ter Paul encour­ages the Chris­t­ian church in Corinth that they should respect the Holy Spirit’s work in each oth­er and should not exalt them­selves think­ing that the gifts of some mem­bers are more pre­cious than those of the oth­ers.

The base of all this is the fer­vent desire of every­one to devote them­selves for God and each oth­er. If this is miss­ing then it is very con­ve­nient that one appoint­ed per­son con­ducts almost every­thing and the oth­er mem­bers just have to attend a pre­pared pro­gram.

Every Christian lives a holy life: Sanctification in the church

… they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the oth­er apos­tles, “Broth­ers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent … Save your­selves from this cor­rupt gen­er­a­tion.” (Acts 2:37–38,40)

They under­stood that they had to change rad­i­cal­ly and Peter con­firmed it when he said that they had to repent. Repen­tance means to give up the old life of sin and to live as God’s holy peo­ple.

There­fore, pre­pare your minds for action; be self-con­trolled; set your hope ful­ly on the grace to be giv­en you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obe­di­ent chil­dren, do not con­form to the evil desires you had when you lived in igno­rance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is writ­ten: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13–15)

As every mem­ber of the church strives for holi­ness the church itself is the holy assem­bly of God’s peo­ple:

But you are a cho­sen peo­ple, a roy­al priest­hood, a holy nation, a peo­ple belong­ing to God, that you may declare the prais­es of him who called you out of dark­ness into his won­der­ful light. Once you were not a peo­ple, but now you are the peo­ple of God; once you had not received mer­cy, but now you have received mer­cy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sin­ful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glo­ri­fy God on the day he vis­its us. (1 Peter 2:9–12)

The church by its holi­ness is a light in and for the world. Peo­ple should be able to see the dif­fer­ence between the church and the world:

No one else dared join them, even though they were high­ly regard­ed by the peo­ple. Nev­er­the­less, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their num­ber. (Acts 5:13–14)

The first church was not attrac­tive to those who want­ed to con­tin­ue their sin­ful lives but it was a clear invi­ta­tion for those who want­ed to repent. As we see through the exam­ple of Ana­nias and Sap­phi­ra (Acts 5:1–11), God him­self guard­ed the holi­ness of the church. Jesus gave author­i­ty to the church to exclude from among them­selves those who do not want to give up their sins (Matthew 18:15–18). A prac­ti­cal real­iza­tion of this is vis­i­ble also in 1 Corinthi­ans 5:1–13. The church can only ful­fill its mis­sion in the world if it does not accept peo­ple who want to con­tin­ue in their sins. It should be an assem­bly in which those peo­ple who want to be holy can sup­port each oth­er in their fights against sin not only with words but with their liv­ing exam­ples.

All Christians are one in heart and mind: The unity of the church

The con­di­tion to become a mem­ber of the church is repen­tance and the deci­sion to obey Jesus in every­thing. Jesus is one and those who want to fol­low him under­stand his teach­ing in one way (not in dif­fer­ent ways). The Holy Spir­it is also one and leads the believ­ers to the same under­stand­ing of God’s word. This is what we see also among the first Chris­tians:

All the believ­ers were one in heart and mind. (Acts 4:32)

… and this is what Jesus prayed for:

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanc­ti­fy myself, that they too may be tru­ly sanc­ti­fied. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their mes­sage, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have giv­en them the glo­ry that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to com­plete uni­ty to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:18–23)

Being one as Jesus was one with the Father is a very deep uni­ty which is not restrict­ed only to some basic doc­trines of the Bible (like believ­ing in the Trin­i­ty, the divin­i­ty of Jesus, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith through Jesus etc.) but it refers to every­thing that Jesus and the apos­tles taught.

Con­se­quent­ly, you are no longer for­eign­ers and aliens, but fel­low cit­i­zens with God’s peo­ple and mem­bers of God’s house­hold, built on the foun­da­tion of the apos­tles and prophets, with Christ Jesus him­self as the chief cor­ner­stone. (Eph­esians 2:19–20)

Uni­ty does not mean uni­for­mi­ty but obe­di­ence to God’s lead­ing in doc­tri­nal as well as prac­ti­cal ques­tions of life.

The fact that nowa­days there are divi­sions and dif­fer­ent teach­ings among peo­ple who call them­selves Chris­tians is a sign that the Holy Spir­it can­not work among them because they oppose Him with their own human inter­pre­ta­tions based on their wish­es.

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doc­trine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gath­er around them a great num­ber of teach­ers to say what their itch­ing ears want to hear. (2 Tim­o­thy 4:3–4)

This can in no ways be accept­ed as some­thing nor­mal or part of nat­ur­al human diver­si­ty. Paul saw a great dan­ger in the divi­sions which occurred among the Corinthi­ans even though they did not have doc­tri­nal dis­uni­ty.

I appeal to you, broth­ers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one anoth­er so that there may be no divi­sions among you and that you may be per­fect­ly unit­ed in mind and thought. My broth­ers, some from Chloe’s house­hold have informed me that there are quar­rels among you. (1 Corinthi­ans 1:10–11)

As we see in Jesus’ prayer (John 17:21) uni­ty is an impor­tant part of our mis­sion in the world because through this the world should real­ize that Jesus was not just a reli­gion founder like many oth­ers before and after him but what he found­ed was the work of God, which can­not be imi­tat­ed or repro­duced by human efforts. In the world there are many orga­ni­za­tions and reli­gious move­ments which are held togeth­er by some com­mon aims and prin­ci­ples. The Chris­t­ian church, how­ev­er, is dif­fer­ent: the dis­ci­ples of Jesus are one in everything—this is not pos­si­ble by human effort only through the pow­er of God.

Christians obey God’s Word, the Bible: The apostolic teaching of the church

They devot­ed them­selves to the apos­tles’ teach­ing. (Acts 2:42)

As the first Chris­tians received the right teach­ing from the apos­tles, all Chris­tians lat­er on also have to build on the same base (see Eph­esians 2:19, quot­ed above). What the apos­tles heard from Jesus and what the Holy Spir­it revealed to them was hand­ed down by them to the first Chris­tians. Now we have it in writ­ten form as the books of the New Tes­ta­ment. This was the base in that time and remains the base for­ev­er. No one can add any­thing to it or take away any­thing from it.

But even if we or an angel from heav­en should preach a gospel oth­er than the one we preached to you, let him be eter­nal­ly con­demned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If any­body is preach­ing to you a gospel oth­er than what you accept­ed, let him be eter­nal­ly con­demned! (Gala­tians 1:8–9)

Chris­tians will nev­er accept new teach­ings or tra­di­tions con­trary to the New Tes­ta­ment.

The church is uni­ver­sal2 in the sense that the belief of Chris­tians has been every­where and always the same. It is not iden­ti­cal with the belief of the big orga­ni­za­tions which claim to be the orig­i­nal church­es found­ed by Jesus but it has been always and every­where the belief of the assem­bly of those peo­ple who have clung to the right teach­ings in spite of the decep­tion in the name of Jesus.

The church is uni­ver­sal also in anoth­er sense:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All author­i­ty in heav­en and on earth has been giv­en to me. There­fore go and make dis­ci­ples of all nations, bap­tiz­ing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it, and teach­ing them to obey every­thing I have com­mand­ed you. And sure­ly I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)

All peo­ple are invit­ed into God’s King­dom. In the church broth­er­ly love and deep uni­ty can be real­ized inde­pen­dent­ly of coun­try or nation­al­i­ty:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were bap­tized into Christ have clothed your­selves with Christ. There is nei­ther Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gala­tians 3:26–28)

Conclusion

Some­one who wants to take the above things seri­ous­ly is very like­ly to face the objec­tion: “Do not try it, there is no per­fect church.” Even though the lat­ter part of the state­ment is true the first part is a severe decep­tion. The first Chris­t­ian Church was not per­fect either but they were striv­ing for per­fec­tion. We have to fol­low their exam­ple, only in this way we can be pre­pared when Jesus comes back to meet his bride the church:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glo­ry! For the wed­ding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made her­self ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was giv­en her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the right­eous acts of the saints.) (Rev­e­la­tion 19:7–8)

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Foot­notes:
  1. About the inter­change­abil­i­ty of the words elders, over­seers, and pas­tors com­pare Acts 20:17 (elders) with v. 28 (over­seers, feed­ing the sheep) and Titus 1:5 (elders) with v. 7 (over­seers).  
  2. The Greek word for uni­ver­sal is καθολικός (katho­likos) from which the term catholic is derived. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the orga­ni­za­tion which bears this name has not ful­filled with its exam­ple what the word actu­al­ly means.