What is a Church meeting for?

image Some thinking I’ve been doing on this question. Not a final answer, but part of the journey as they say!

“We are meeting together to conduct the affairs of the kingdom as the church grows and expands – there is scarecely anything more important we could be doing.”[1]

 

Introduction

Historically, and roughly speaking, Bible believing Christians have organised their churches in one of two ways. They have tended to be either congregational or presbyterian in governance. In congregational church government, decisions have been made by the congregation. In presbyterian church government, decisions have been made by the presbyters, more commonly referred to as elders.

One of the issues that faces Baptists as people with a congregational heritage and a conviction to be Biblical is that the Biblical evidence for congregationalism is thin – but it is there!

I want to reflect on the question “What is a church meeting for?” This is not a final answer, so much as a reflection on the passages where we see the early church meeting in order to take or affirm decisions.

What a church meeting is not for:

1. A Church meeting is not a way of governing the church in a democratic way. A number of years ago I knew a retired National Union of Mineworkers Shop Steward. He could be very sweet, but he did consider a Church Meeting to be a kind of Christian version of an NUM meeting. That made for some interesting Church meetings. From time to time he insisted that; “This is a democracy.” To which I had to answer “No its not!”

Democracy is about the will of the majority prevailing. Church life must be about discovering the will of Christ. After all, the Biblical record does not tell us that the majority are always right! (See Numbers 13)

What do we observe the ‘church meeting’ doing in the NT?

I want to look at the church’s involvement in decision making in the NT, and will try and show that in the NT we can see that: The church gathers in the context of worship under the Word of God to choose leaders and to work with those leaders, with a concern for the gospel, and to exercise loving church discipline.

So to the four principle Biblical texts.

Acts 6:1-7: ‘Choosing leaders’ under ‘the Word of God’

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Here we see that: The Church as it meets, the “Church meeting” is given responsibility for choosing Servant ministers under apostolic authority.

I’m being deliberately careful about the use of words with that phrase. First we see that The church are to choose. They are to “pick out from among you” It is interesting that Luke (the author of Acts) almost goes out of his way to show us that the church is to choose.

Second, we see that they are to choose servant ministers. Is the church choosing leaders at this point? My short answer is “sort of!”  Those chosen are to be appointed to the ‘duty’ of ‘serving at table’, as a means of resolving the neglect of the Hellenic widows without the apostles neglecting the task of serving in prayer and word. What is being described here is one of the practical caring ministries of the church, which even though it is a practical ministry, must be carried out by those who are of “good repute”, and “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” These individuals are being selected for a ministry that involves organising and overseeing one of the ministries of the church. In that sense, this would seem to be a leadership role.

It is important to note that the two identifiable sets of ‘leaders’ here are to be engaged in a activity that is described as serving, but are to serve in different ways. The word translated ‘ministry’ in ‘ministry of the word, is the same word translated ‘serve’ in ‘serve at tables.’ “The apostles serve as servants of the word and prayer, and the servants “at tables”

Finally, the choice is made under apostolic authority. The process happens at the initiation of, and under the guidelines of the 12.

We need to ask, what is the equivalent of apostolic authority in the contemporary church? There is only one satisfactory answer to that question. It is the Bible. The church meeting has no authority to make decisions, or set the church on a trajectory which is clearly contrary to the Word of God.

Acts 15:22: “Working with leaders”

A reader of the N.T cannot help noticing that the churches of the NT had those with different titles who seem to function as leaders. How do leaders and church meeting relate?

In Acts 15:3 The church in Antioch sends a delegation to Jerusalem, looking for a resolution to the question of how gentile converts should be included in the church. In particular, some, from Jerusalem have suggested that it is necessary for gentiles to be circumcised.

James says:

Act 15:19-21 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues."

Then we read:

Act 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,

So what part is the ‘church meeting’ playing here?

It seems to me that they are affirming the decision of the apostles and elders.

It’s interesting to note that…

1. The apostles and elders gathered (v6)

2. There was much debate (v7) Obviously matters were by no means clear at the outset.

3. Peter speaks and the debate is silenced (v12)

4. James puts the events described into a Salvation history framework, (vs13ff) Makes a judgement (v19) and suggests a letter to Antioch with certain stipulations. (v20)

5. This decision is affirmed by the elders and apostles AND the church. We need to ask why Luke, the author of Acts clearly introduces the church into the account at this point. It seems that he wants us to know that the decision was affirmed by the church.

The ‘church meeting’ is affirming the decision of the apostles and elders. What we see here is actually quite a helpful principle. The church is to appoint leaders, and allow them to lead. In a sense they are to hold leaders accountable.

Sometimes, especially when church life has been going well the accusation has been made that Church meetings merely “rubber stamp” the leaders decisions. I’m uncomfortable with the assumptions that often seem to underpin that accusation.

There should be times where the leadership report their activities to the church, in order to be accountable to the church. Many times, it will be the reporting itself reporting which is necessary. It becomes an opportunity for the leaders to establish whether or not they think and speak as the church, and whether they are in reality serving the church.

IN the worst case congregational church government can descend into an hour and a half discussing whether the church should buy a ‘Dyson’ or ‘Henry’ vacuum cleaner. This kind of thinking leads to stagnation.

On the other hand presbyterian models can produce controlling leadership that results in fragmentation, as the church votes, but with its feet.

The Biblical picture seems to contain elements of both, and in so doing provides a safeguard against both extremes. The church, humbly, prayerfully, worshipfully and under Biblical authority seeking the mind of Christ, and Leaders appointed to serve, humbly accountable to the church, and under the authority of the Scriptures.

Acts 13:1-3: ‘In the contest of worship’ & ‘with a concern for the gospel.”

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

We come to Acts 13:1-3 as the last of our passages from Acts. I’ve kept it until last as there is a question as to who the “they” in v2 refers to. Is it the prophets and teachers mentioned in v1? Or is it the church, also mentioned in v1?

Having seen Acts 6 and Acts 15 we can at the very least suspect that the whole church were involved in “worshipping the Lord and fasting.”

If that is the case, then the church meeting discerns the will of God in the context of devotional activity. Sometimes the phrase “business meeting” can give the impression that there will be no devotional activity. The church meeting must attend to the business of the church, but it must do so in the context of prayer, reading of the word, worship and at times perhaps fasting.

We should also take note of the decision that the ‘church meeting’ made here. They recognise the calling of gospel ministers, missionaries called to work in preaching the gospel elsewhere. This was a costly decision for the church at Antioch to make. As a result they said farewell to two of their most gifted and able leaders.

1 Cor 5:1-5: Exercising loving discipline.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

The church in Corinth has proudly tolerated gross sin on the part of one of its members. It may be that the church considered their toleration something to be proud of.

When the church is assembled, the ‘church meeting’ is to exclude this man. They are to ‘hand him over to Satan’ which probably means put him out of the church, which is God’s realm and into the world, which is Satan’s realm.

This may not seem like a very nice or loving thing to do, but first we must understand that given what this man had done it would not be loving for the church to allow him to believe that he is one of God’s people. He may not be (See for example Gal 5:19-21) and should not be encouraged to think he is unless he is repentant.

Secondly we should notice that it is to be done with the hope that the act of discipline might precipitate the man’s repentance. Paul’s hope is that the result of the process will, in the end, be that the man’s “spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

Finally, as we read on in the text, we discover that Church discipline is a way of ‘loving’ the wider church. Such sinful behaviour is likened to ‘leaven’ or yeast which will ‘leaven’ the whole. If the church becomes a place that tolerates sinful behaviour, then that will effect and afflict the whole church.

So…

Towards an answer…

The church gathers in the context of worship under the Word of God to choose leaders and to work with those leaders, with a concern for the gospel, and to exercise loving church discipline.


[1] Mark Dever, The Deliberate Church p 102

[2] Acts 15:22

[3] Our only source of apostolic authority is the Scriptures

[4] See 1

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