In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul begins a long (3 chapters) section of the letter addressing spiritual gifts. In the first part (chapter 12), Paul focuses mainly on the variety types of gifts and the importance of all the gifts working together for the benefit of the whole church. In the next part (chapter 13), he tells his readers that demonstrating love is more important than exercising any kind of gift. (In a rhetorical exclamation, he announced that even exercising great faith is nothing if the person is not showing the love of God to others.)
Finally, in the last section of this teaching about spiritual gifts, Paul turns more toward the use and exercise of the various gifts when the church gathers together. Since he primarily discusses the gifts of prophecy and tongues, some believe that the Corinthian church struggled with those two gifts. This is possible, perhaps probable.
But while correcting the way that the Corinthians were practicing or emphasizing spiritual gifts, Paul gives them (and us) a key principle: everything that is said or done when we are gathered with other Christians should edify those others. In fact, the only reason (according to Paul) that prophecy is preferred to tongues (uninterpreted) when the church is gathered together is that prophecy directly edifies the church while speaking in tongues does not.
When Paul comes around to laying down some general guidelines for speaking when gathered with other believers (1 Corinthians 14:26-40), he again divides his instructions into two parts: one set of instructions for speaking in tongues and another set of instructions for prophesying. Among the instructions for prophesying, Paul adds the importance of “discernment”: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV)
So, while Paul believes that prophesy directly edifies the church, he also says that prophesy should be weighed. He says something similar when writing to the church in Thessalonica: “Do not despise(AD) prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 ESV)
This discernment (or judging/weighing) becomes even more important when we think about other forms of speaking when the church gathers together. For example, I would think that teaching is directly edifying also (like prophesying). Thus, teaching would fall under the same guidelines as prophecy, and any type of instruction should be judged also. The same would be true of other types of speaking such as encouragement or even admonishment.
But what does it mean to “weigh” what someone says? What is discernment? Who should judge what is said and for what reason? What examples of discernment do we find in Scripture? I hope to examine each of these questions in the next few posts.
But let’s be honest. For the majority of Christians who gather together (at least in the Western world), discernment is not and cannot be part of their gatherings. Usually, only one person speaks. If someone else speaks, that person must first be given permission to speak. Then, if someone has a question about what is said, or if someone disagrees, there are few avenues of asking questions, much less discernment. (Yes, I understand that some “preachers” or teachers allow for questions and disagreements. But for most Christians in America and the West, this is not allowed or encouraged.)
In spite of this, discernment was important to Paul. Plus, this is a topic that I have not studied much. So, I’m looking forward to looking at various passages of Scripture that I think are related to this topic.
What passages would you study in order to understand discernment? Do you think everything said among the church should be “judged”? Why or why not? When something is spoken, what about that should be “weighed” by others?
As we’ve looked through many early writings, we’ve seen various descriptions of early church meetings. Each author had their own reason for writing about church gatherings.
Some writers focused on the activities that occurred during the meeting: reading Scripture, singing songs, instructing and exhorting one another, collecting and distributing to those in need, eating a meal together.
Some writers focused on the reasons for believers to gather together: protection from the works of Satan, protections from sin, discussing things that lead to mutual benefit.
Many of the writers encouraged frequent meetings and harmony between brothers and sisters who come together.
Some of the writers seemed to indicate mutual service while others placed more responsibility in the hands of one or more believers (the bishop, the presbyters, or the president).
What do we make of all of these different descriptions of early church meetings? First, we should recognize that different groups of believers met in different ways. Second, we should recognize that we should return to Scripture to determine how believers should meet together. While these early writings help us understand the history of the early church, they were not and should not now be accepted as Scripture. Yes, some were thought to be Scripture early on, but they were generally accepted only by some groups of believers but not accepted universally.
So, as we continue to study church meetings, we should study this historical records, and then compare them to Scripture. What does Scripture say about activities during the meeting of the church? What does Scripture say about the purpose of the meeting of the church? Who does Scripture say is responsible for the meeting of the church?
In the next week or so I will be working on a series to discuss these questions. Since I have examined different writers concerning their view and descriptions of early church meetings, I plan to balance those views by looking at the passages of Scripture that discuss or describe the meeting of the church. We should be able to compare and contrast the scriptural view of the meeting of the church both with the views of these early church writers as well as our own views.
As we continue to examine some early church writers to determine what they believed about the church meeting, we come to Justin Martyr. He lived from about 100 to about 165 AD, and wrote several apologies (defenses) and treatises. His most famous apology is called the First Apology, which was probably written in the 150s AD. Chapter LXVII (the next to the last chapter) of the First Apology is presented below:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
First, notice that Justin uses a different word to specify the normal day of the church meeting. Literally, he says they meet “on the day of the Sun.” This probably refers to the same day as “the Lord’s Day” which we’ve seen previously, but it is interesting that Justin uses the Roman day names: day of the Sun, day of Saturn, etc.
Also, Justin spends more time describing what is done when the church meets than describing the purpose of the meeting itself. Some of those activities include public reading (probably OT and NT Scriptures), instruction and exhortation, prayer, partaking of the Lord’s Supper (bread and wine and water), and contributing to and sharing with those who are in need.
Justin places a lot of emphasis on an individual that he refers to as “the president.” He uses a unique term here – one that we do not find in the NT and one that we have not seen in other early church writings. If there is a connection between “the president” and the elders or deacons, Justin does not specify the connection in this passage.
The “president” is given the responsibility of instructing and exhorting people to imitate what has been read in the Scriptures. Likewise, the “president” is given the responsibility of praying over the Lord’s Supper elements, and of distributing what had been collected to those who are in need (orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, strangers).
Finally, instead of telling his readers why the church should gather together, he tells them why they should gather on Sunday. He says that the church gathers together on Sunday because that is the day of Christ’s resurrection.
The Epistle of Barnabas is a very early Christian document. It was probably written sometime between 70 AD and 132 AD, but it was probably not written by the Barnabas who was a friend and fellow-traveller of Paul. The epistle was included in Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament.
In at least one passage, the author writes about the the gathering of the church:
Now, because I want to write many things to you, not as a teacher, but as suitable for one who loves you, I have taken care not to fail to write to you from what I myself possess, with a view to your purification. For this reason, we should be attentive in these last days; for the whole past time of your life and faith will be of no benefit to us, unless now in this wicked time we should stand against coming temptation, as is suitable for children of God. Therefore, in order that the Black One may find no means of entrance, we should flee from every futility (frustration?), and we should completely hate the works of the way of evil. Do not live separate lives, by each going his own way, as those who have already been justified; but by coming together in harmony, you must discuss what leads to the benefit of all. For Scripture says, “Woe to those who are wise to themselves, and have understanding in their own sight!” We should be spiritual; a complete temple to God. As much as depends on us, we should meditate on the fear of God, and we should strive to observe His commandments, in order that we may rejoice in His requirements. (Epistle of Barnabas 4:9-11)
Once again, we see the important of gathering together in unity with other believers. This has been a very important common theme to many of the early Christian writers.
Furthermore, according to the Epistle of Barnabas, there is a danger to every believers going their separate ways without gathering together with other believers. That danger is described as the entrance of the Black One, and – according to the Scripture quoted – pride in assuming that each believer has enough wisdom and understanding on their own.
The remedy is to come together in order to discuss things that lead to the benefit of the entire group. The phrase that I translated “that leads to the benefit of all” is very similar to Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 1:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. (1 Corinthians 10:23)
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7)
While Paul seems to focus on each person speaking and serving for the benefit of others, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas has a different focus – the individual. The individual benefits when he or she comes together with other believers to discuss mutually beneficial things. Thus, Paul and this author are talking about the same type of meeting, but from different perspectives.
Given the close proximity, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas may also be connecting the gathering of believers with meditating on the fear of God and striving to keep God’s commandments. If so, then a meeting of believers should aid all present in thinking about God and in obeying him.
One final note, the verb that I translated “discuss” in the phrase “you must discuss what leads to the benefit of all” is a Greek verb that means “discuss,” “carry on a discussion,” “dispute,” “debate,” or “argue.” It is a compound verb combining the verb “to seek” with the preposition “together with.” You can find it in many passages in the gospels and twice in Acts (Acts 6:9, Acts 9:29). This verb is stronger than the verb that is usually used to describe “discussion” in the church such as in Acts 19:9 where Paul “spoke to” or “dialogued with” Christian disciples in the school or Tyrannus or in Acts 20:7 when Paul “spoke to” or “dialogued with” the church in Troas.
At the time of the writing of the Epistle of Barnabas, the church meeting had not turned into a time for one teacher to present a monologue type sermon.
Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.