Tag Archives: -Acts 20:7

Anabaptists, Flat Bibles, and the Sabbath

When I was a teenager, on many a weekend we youth from our small church drove for 3-1/2 hours to spend time “down south” with church friends. Then on Sunday afternoon or evening, after a fine (or angst-laden) time in the Kitchener-Waterloo region with friends who sported last names like Bauman, Biehn, Martin, Frey, Horst, Martin, Koch, Weber, Martin, and Zehr, we would reluctantly hit the road north for Parry Sound and home. Usually our homeward journey took us through the little town of Arthur. There we would fill up with cheap(er) southern gas.

Yes, you read correctly. We bought gas on our homeward Sunday journey. I don’t remember ever buying supper in Arthur, however. Gas was a necessity. Food was not. If we were fortunate, our weekend hosts had already stuffed us with food. But not always. I clearly remember the hunger I felt during many long trips home, stomachs rumbling in the car as we rolled past many a welcoming restaurant.

If we timed things just right, the story ended more happily. I also remember many Sunday nights, driving home late after perhaps an evening revival meeting, when we rolled into the city of Barrie just as the clock struck midnight. On such nights–after 12:00 but not a moment before (usually!)–McDonalds was more than a welcome bathroom break. It was also the scene of happy teenagers scarfing cheezeburgers and fries. Ah, the salty satisfaction of stepping out of the sphere of the Law! McDonalds fries never tasted better.

This morning in Sunday School we discussed the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Our class had an interesting and profitable conversation. But it wasn’t until the sermon that this post started to form in my mind. The sermon this morning was more  of a teaching session, perhaps because the preacher recently returned from several weeks as a Calvary Bible School instructor. His presentation today contrasted Anabaptists and Protestants, explaining how differing theologies have led to differing behaviors. Some such presentations stick in my throat on the way down, but this one contained enough caveats and compassion that I thought it was quite helpful. Beliefs do matter, after all, and different beliefs do tend to produce different results, and I do find myself affirming a higher percentage of Menno Simon’s beliefs than those of Martin Luther.

One of the contrasts between Anabaptists and Protestants that was mentioned today was in our approach to Scripture.  Protestants, we heard, have tended to have a “flat Bible.” That is, they have tended to draw principles and practices from both testaments quite equally. Thus, they while they affirm salvation through Jesus’ blood, drawing this from the New Testament, they usually also affirm that Christians can go to war, swear oaths, and baptize infants–often basing these affirmations on Old Testament precedents. Anabaptists, in contrast, have historically interpreted the OT through the NT, reading all through the “Jesus lens” (as a recent evangelical book encourages us to do!). Thus Anabaptists have rejected practices such as war, oaths, and infant baptism based on the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

This general distinction is historically true. But, while talking with friends after the service this morning, I realized there are important exceptions. For example, my mind drifted back to our Sunday School topic: the Sabbath.

Let me state two theses for the heart of my post:

  1. I think that many conservative Anabaptists today take a very “flat Bible” approach to the question of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.
  2. I think that this is due, at least in part, to Protestant influence. Update: And also due to much older influence—Constantinian law.

Let me briefly defend my first thesis and suggest research pointers for me second.

Many Anabaptists that I know are much like the teenaged me. Without even thinking about it, we tend to assume that the Lord’s Day replaces the OT Sabbath. More specifically, we believe that, just as the Sabbath was the day of rest for OT saints, so the Lord’s Day is the day of rest for NT saints. But this idea is not taught anywhere in Scripture.

Here are some things I do find in Scripture:

  1. Christians are not bound to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8). This command given to the Israelite nation. As NT believers, our general relationship toward the Law of Moses is that we are not under its authority (Rom. 6:14; Rom. 7:6; 1Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:10, 23-26; Gal. 5:18; Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:12; etc.). While Jesus reaffirmed 9 of the 10 Commandments as part of new covenant ethics, he never clearly reaffirmed the Sabbath command. If we only had Jesus’ direct words, you might be able to argue fairly convincingly that Christians should observe the Sabbath. But, after his resurrection, Christ clarified many things through his Spirit and his apostles. Paul answers our question very clearly: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in question of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17; cf. Rom. 14:1-6; Gal. 4:9-11). If you want to hang onto the Sabbath law, then please enjoy your kosher meat and your new moon celebrations! The author of Hebrews makes a similar point. In his argument that Christ is “better than” all things previous, he notes that Israel’s rest in Canaan was not the final fulfillment of God’s seventh-day rest (Heb. 4:4-8). Rather, “we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). And in classic already/not-yet tension, he adds, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:9-11). To supplement our rest in Christ with Sabbath laws makes as much sense as insisting that we must also move to Canaan and rest in that earthly promised land.
  2. We find examples, but no rules, regarding the Lord’s Day. Our Sunday School booklets asked the blunt question: “Is there anything unlawful for us on the Lord’s Day?” To answer this well, we first need to ask, “Does Scripture give any laws about the Lord’s Day?” The answer is “no.” Here are some of the things we do find about the “Lord’s Day.” This term is use only once in Scripture–in Revelation 1:10, where John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” John does not say which day of the week this was. However, based on what we know of early church use of this term, it seems reasonable that he was referring to the first day of the week. Elsewhere in the NT we read of other Christian activities on the first day of the week: meeting to break bread and receive apostolic teaching (Acts 20:7) and setting money aside for collections for poor believers (1 Cor. 16:1-2). It seems reasonable, again based on early church history, that the reason Christians began meeting on the first day of the week was because this was the day that Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1) and also the day when the Spirit was poured out (based on calculations for the date of Pentecost).

In summary, Scripture makes it clear that : (1) Christians are not bound to obey the Sabbath. (2) We are not required to observe any other holy days. (3) Rest in and through Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath law. (4) The origin of the Lord’s Day is unrelated to the Sabbath. (5) No rules are given for the Lord’s Day.

At this point some of you may be thinking: “But what about Genesis 2? What about God’s example of resting on the seventh day–an example that precedes the Law of Moses?” Good question!

Here is how I think that question can be answered:

  1. It is crucial to note that God’s example does not overturn the clear statements of the NT: Christians are not bound to observe any holy day.
  2. However, I think God’s example–as well as his institution of all sorts of Sabbaths (weekly and otherwise) in the Law of Moses–reflects the reality that all of creation flourishes best with regular times of rest. This is a creation fact, and I know it to be true in my own life: I flourish best with regular days of rest.
  3. However…! (This is where some of you may finally fall off my train.) I don’t think we should expect to enjoy now all of God’s original provisions for our flourishing. Put more bluntly, I don’t think Christians have a right to demand a weekly day of rest. A comparison may help. In Genesis 2:3 we read that God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” And in Genesis 2:18 we hear God say, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” This blessing, the blessing of a wife, is the greatest blessing that God gives to man in Genesis 2. Most men–myself included–generally flourish best if they are married. (I’m speaking here as a male; most of what I’m saying is true for women, too, I think, although I have a hunch that on average single women fair slightly better than single men. Let’s put the lid back on that can!) So we have these two great Genesis 2 blessings provided for humanity: a day made holy because God rested, and marriage. But when we come to the NT, what do we find? Well, what might Paul say? Let’s listen:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion… 

27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 27-35)

This is uncomfortable theology for many of us, but I think Paul possessed exceptional insight. Given life post-Fall, and given the NT call to proclaim the gospel, Paul sees that marriage is not for all. Indeed, for those who can do without, marriage is sometimes actually a hindrance, a distraction from serving the Lord. God said “It is not good that the man should be alone,” but Paul knows we no longer live in the Garden, so he writes, “It is good for them to remain single.”

What does this have to do with a weekly day of rest? Well, back to a question from our Sunday School booklets:

Can resting on the Lord’s Day become laziness? (Consider Proverbs 10:5 in light of Matthew 9:35-38.)

Proverbs 10 teaches that a prudent son will gather during harvest. Matthew 9 records Jesus’ command to pray for more laborers in the spiritual harvest and describes him working hard in this harvest–including on each Sabbath, when he was “teaching in their synagogues.” Jesus did not rest his body on his Sabbath day; he knew there was a harvest urgently awaiting laborers.

Jesus did not have a flat Bible. Neither did Paul. But I fear that conservative Anabaptists sometimes have flatter Bibles that we realize. While discussing this after church, a friend suggested that we also have a flat Bible approach to our understanding of who is or is not authorized to preach. I agree that at least some of our ideas about leadership seem to arise as much from OT kingship and priesthood as from the NT. Our thinking about ordinances has suffered in similar ways. (I have not forgotten that essay.)

What did the early Anabaptists believe about a weekly day of rest? I don’t know, and don’t have time now to check. Edit (5/4/2015): John D. Roth, writing in his book Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness, summarizes early Anabaptist belief on this topic:

Initially, the Anabaptists do not seem to have elevated any particular day of the week above another for their worship. They gathered for prayer and Bible study throughout the week, and some even went out of their way to work on Sunday as a public expression of their opposition to the Catholic mass. By the end of the sixteenth century, however most Anabaptist groups had settled into a pattern of Sunday worship. Traditionally, Mennonite groups in North America took God’s example of Sabbath rest quite literally. Although practices varied widely, many Mennonite communities prohibited their members from all forms of buying and selling, from participation in sports, and from most forms of entertainment on Sunday. (pp. 157-58)

How did we get to where we are today, so that most of us have grown up believing it is wrong to work on Sunday? Again, I don’t know all the influences. I do know that the Puritans in the 1600s enacted laws prohibiting work and pleasures on Sunday. And I do know that there was a Sabbatarian movement again in the 1800s and early 1900s, when “blue laws” were enacted prohibiting businesses from being opened on Sunday. Both of these are examples of Protestant influence. I also know that this Protestant influence was codified in Anabaptist thinking in part through the efforts of Daniel Kauffman, who wrote the following of the Lord’s Day in his Doctrines of the Bible:

It is a day of rest… This is not a mere arbitrary command, a religious dogma, a scriptural “blue law” to restrain man of his liberties… Let us give this beneficent provision of an all-wise God our respect and obedience by laying all secular labor aside on the Lord’s Day. (pg. 177-78)

Edit (5/5/2015): I now have confirmation that the idea of Sunday as a day of rest goes back far beyond Protestant influences. Dom Gregory Dix, writing in The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), summarizes how early Christians contrasted the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, and how this changed:

It is still too often assumed that the observance of the christian Sunday is a continuation on a different day of the jewish sabbath. It is more than likely that the idea of such a weekly observance was suggested to the first jewish christians by familiarity with the sabbath; hellenism [Greek culture] furnishes no close analogies. But the main ideas underlying the two observances were from the first quite different. The rabbis made of the sabbath a minutely regulated day of rest, the leisure of which was partly filled in by attendance at the synagogue services which were somewhat longer on sabbath than on other days. But though the sabbath rest was emphatically a religious observance, based on the fourth commandment, it was the abstinence from work, not the attendance at public worship, which pharisaism insisted on; and indeed this was the only thing the commandment in its original meaning prescribed.

By contrast Sunday was in the primitive christian view only the prescribed day for corporate worship, by the proclamation of the Lord’s revelation and the Lord’s death till He come… But there was no attempt whatever in the first three centuries to base the observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment. On the contrary, christians maintained that like all the rest of the ceremonial law this commandment had been abrogated; and second century christian literature is full of a lively polemic against the ‘idling’ of the jewish sabbath rest. Christians shewed no hesitation at all about treating Sunday as an ordinary working day like their neighbours, once they had attended the synaxis [gathering for prayers, readings, and psalms] and eucharist [Lord’s Supper] at the ecclesia [church gathering]. This was the christian obligation, the weekly gathering of the whole Body of Christ to its Head, to become what it really is, His Body. It was only the secular edict of Constantine in the fourth century making Sunday a weekly public holiday which first made the mistake of basing the christian observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment, and so inaugurated christian ‘sabbatarianism’.

Early christian documents on the contrary go out of their way to oppose the two observances. So e.g. the so-called Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 100-130) introduces God as rebuking the whole jewish observance of the sabbath, thus: ‘“It is not your present sabbaths that are acceptable unto Me, but the sabbath which I have made, in the which when I have set all things at rest, I will make the beginning with the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” Wherefore we (christians) also keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens’. Here Sunday is a festival, but not a day of rest…

It seems likely, therefore, that Sunday was from its first beginnings a christian observance independent of the sabbath, though its weekly observance was probably suggested by the existence of the sabbath… [Dix also suggests that Jewish Christians, probably from the earliest times, observed both a weekly Sabbath and the Lord’s’ Day, but with differing purposes for each.] (pp. 336-37, emphasis added)

Later Dix explains how Sunday’s role was reevaluated during the time of Constantine, as the year-long Christian calendar was developing. With the development of liturgical events such as Holy Week observances, the role of weekly Sunday worship evolved:

A new basis was therefore found for Sunday by making it what it had never been before, a weekly holiday from work. In A.D. 321 Constantine issued an edict forbidding the law-courts to sit upon that day, and the enforcement of an official holiday brought daily life to something of a standstill (as in the case of a modem Bank Holiday). The result was in large part to carry out Constantine’s design of rendering attendance at christian worship possible for all his subjects, christian or otherwise-it was largely a propaganda measure; though the church had difficulty in some places in securing that its provisions were extended to that large proportion of the population who were slaves. (p. 360, emphasis aded)

Thus, the idea of Sunday as a day of rest has a very long history—but a history which is clearly post-biblical in its origin, and unbiblical as a mandated practice.

Well, much more could be said, but this is nearly enough work for one Lord’s Day! Before going to some final exhortations, let me summarize how I now make decisions about work and purchases on the Lord’s Day. In short, I follow two principles:

  1. I remember all the above: I am not under any rules about any holy days.
  2. However, I also remember the multiple NT instructions for believers to gather together regularly for exhortation, teaching, worship, and more. I ask myself, “What can I do to make it as easy as possible for others to gather with God’s people? What can I do to make it easy for both saved and unsaved to gather under the sound of the gospel?”

Since Sunday morning is the time when it is easiest for most people in America to obey these NT commands to gather under the gospel, I do what I can to make it easy for others. I am free in my spirit; I sense no compulsion. If the goals of the gospel will be best accomplished by me working or buying on Sunday, so much the better. Most times I find that it is best to help others to be free from work, and to take Sunday as an opportunity to take a break from my own non-essential work.

Except of course when it is time to do the work of writing a blog post. 🙂  But now I better stop. It’s time to gather again with God’s people to do the work of worship!

If you agree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:

  1. Honor your neighbor. Don’t flaunt your Christian liberty before those who do not yet understand the freedom you possess (Rom. 14:19-20). Remember how long it took for you to reach your current understandings; remember those topics where you are still uncertain about the limits of your freedom. Give your neighbor the same time for growth that you require.
  2. Honor the Holy Spirit. Despite the freedom God has given you, there may still be times when God says, “For you, for the next while, I am calling you to regular Sabbath rest.” You have been freed from the Sabbath law; don’t replace that law with another that forbids the Holy Spirit from ever calling you to Sabbath observance. Even Paul, who thunderously forbade mandatory circumcision (Gal. 5:1-4), still practiced it at times for strategic reasons (Acts 16:3).
  3. Honor God’s Word. From time to time, when you can do so in love, teach others about what the New Testament says about holy days. Share your Scripture-based convictions with others. Don’t let fear of man keep you from honoring God in this way.

If you disagree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:

  1. Honor your neighbor. Your neighbor has been instructed to not “let anyone pass judgment” on him “with regard to… a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). Make it easy for your brother to obey this verse! Don’t set rules for your neighbor or expect him to live up to your conscience on this matter. But do…
  2. Honor your conscience. Don’t work or buy on Sunday if you truly feel it is wrong to do so. Your conscience is one of the ways that God guides you (Rom. 2:15), and to reject your conscience is to act without faith–to sin (Rom. 14:5, 14, 23). So don’t trample your conscience. Rather, train it: Study and…
  3. Honor God’s Word. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11-12)! You might be surprised to find, as the Bereans did, that the good news is even better than you imagined.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Which New Testament Church Practices Are Normative for Today?

(Old Facebook post, lightly revised 7/23/2016.)

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post three years ago. I wish I had more time for such study and writing today. But I am thankful that I am now living what I wrote then more fully than ever before. Prayers are welcome as I prepare to teach tomorrow (the Lord’s Day) at our little church (in a friend’s house).

How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? That is, how do we know, when reading of what the New Testament church did, whether the church today should imitate them? (To be clear, I am not asking about NT commands; that is another valid question for another time.)

Test Cases: When and Where the Church Gathers

For example, when and where should the church today gather to worship? Let’s talk about when first. The NT church commonly met on the Lord’s Day. Yes, early in the book of Acts we read of the church gathering “day by day.” But the history of the early church shows that gathering on the Lord’s Day rapidly became the standard practice of the early church. This practice has remained the norm for most of the world-wide church to this day. Is this simply a matter of tradition or preference? Or does this example carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

Before we answer, let’s consider the second part of our question: Where should the church gather to worship? Again, while early in Acts we read of the church gathering in the temple, the pattern of the rest of the NT becomes clear: the early church normally gathered for worship in private homes (and sometimes also in public spaces). The history of the early church clearly shows that this practice became the near-universal norm for the first several hundred years of the church. In fact, church historians regularly report that Christians built no buildings specifically for worship gatherings during the first several hundred years of the church. Since the time of Constantine, however, the regular practice of most of the church has been to build special “church buildings” for worship. So again we ask, is the NT example simply a matter of tradition or preference, or does it carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

We imitate the NT practice for when the church meets, but not for where it meets. Why? The contrast between these examples gives us an opportunity to evaluate our theological understandings. It should cause us to scratch our heads and sift our assumptions. But first, let’s examine the historical and theological evidence for both NT church practices a little more closely.

Examining Historical Data

Again, let’s address the when question first. By my count, there are two places in the NT where we read of the church gathering on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Besides this, we also read of John being “in the Spirit” (though presumably alone in exile) on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Judging by later historical evidence, this was likely a reference to the first day of the week. In addition, the disciples were gathered on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to them. This happened twice, judging by John’s idiomatic expression “eight days later.” But it could be argued that this hardly counts, because during these post-resurrection weeks the disciples were gathered most every day! If I missed one or two references in my summary here, the point remains the same: we have only a handful of NT references to the church meeting on the Lord’s Day.

In contrast, the host of references and allusions to the church gathering in private homes is too long to summarize properly in a paragraph. For a list of only the clearest evidence, see Acts 2:46; 12:12; 20:8; Romans 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 1:2. For example, four of these references speak of “the church in so-and-so’s house.” In addition, given the clarity of this evidence, a range of other references also appear to fit the house church pattern: Acts 8:3; 20:20; Philippians 4:22; 1Timothy 5:13; 2Timothy 3:6 and 2 John 1:10 (more could be added). For example, Acts 8:3 speaks of Paul “entering house after house” as he searched for Christians. 2 John 1:10 warns not to “receive [a false teacher] into your house.” The internal and external evidence is beyond dispute: the normal practice of the NT church was to gather for worship in private homes. In fact, if we look at the NT historical data alone, the evidence for house churches is much stronger than the evidence for Lord’s Day worship.

So, what should we do? Today the typical American church gathers on the Lord’s Day, but not in homes. In fact, the average American Christian (including the average Mennonite) would be quite uncomfortable if “church” was switched to any day besides Sunday. But many of the same people are rather suspicious of those who gather in homes for worship. Are we inconsistent here? Or is there a theological distinction between the two examples that I am missing?

Examining Theological Purposes

Here is one factor that I have delayed mentioning: the Lord’s Day is called the Lord’s Day because it was on this day that our Lord rose from dead. Church history clearly shows that the reason the church met on the first day of the week was because they wanted to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In addition, it appears that the Holy Spirit was first poured out on a Sunday (the Pentecost of Acts 2). Indeed, the first day of the week (sometimes called the eighth day) was the beginning of the new creation. No other day of the week has been graced with such a high honor! It can be argued from this theological symbolism that there is great value in meeting on the Lord’s Day. Every time we gather on the Lord’s Day we are (or should be) reaffirming our faith in our risen Lord and celebrating the outpouring of the Spirit.

No such rich theological meaning is tied up with meeting for worship in houses. Right? Not so fast.

First, we should note in passing that the NT nowhere mentions the above theological motivation for gathering on the Lord’s Day; this connection is only found in later historical writings. It is almost certain, however, that the NT church shared this theological understanding. (This is an example of how historical study can help us understand the Bible better.)

Second, neither persecution nor poverty can explain the practice of house churches. Persecution, though severe at times, was sporadic and localized during most of the first three centuries. And while many Christians were poor, others (such as Erastus the city treasurer and members of Caesar’s household) would have possessed the funds to build church buildings, much as the Roman officer who built a synagogue in Jesus’ day (Luke 7:1-5). Yet, for nearly three hundred years Christians were “one of the few religious groups at the time that did not make use of some sort of sacred buildings or structures” (Rad Zdero, author of the helpful brief book The Global House Church Movement).

Third, we should not overlook the ubiquitous NT references to imagery of the church as a household, a family. Here, again, the evidence is too overwhelming to properly demonstrate in a paragraph. As Paul S. Minear writes in his classic work Images of the Church in the New Testament, “the salutation ‘brothers’ was in the New Testament the most natural (and therefore most quickly conventionalized) way to address fellow Christians or a congregation as a whole.” The word “brothers” is found 183 times in the ESV NT, many times used to refer to fellow Christians. In addition, we find a host of other familial terms, such as the family of God, little children, God’s household, children of God, God as our heavenly father, Jesus as our brother, adoption, heirs, fellow heirs, and inheritance. Consider a few typical examples:

  • Jesus to his disciples (Matt 12:50): “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15): “…The household of God, which is the church of the living God…”
  • Paul to the Ephesian church (Eph 2:19): “…You are… members of the household of God…”
  • Peter to some scattered saints (1 Pet 4:17): “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God…”

See also John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5, 30; 6:10; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 1Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 1:4; 2:11; 12:7; 1 Peter 1:4; 1John 2:1, 12-14; 3:1; 2John 1:1—varied references that demonstrate that the household imagery was shared widely by many NT authors. In addition, given the nature of the first-century household, which included more than the just the “nuclear family” of parents and children, we should also probably consider the use of terms such as servant/slave, master, manager, and elder.

Thus, both the time and the place that the NT church met are filled with rich theological significance. In both cases, the link between NT church practices and theology is never made explicit in the NT itself. Nowhere do we read that “we meet on the first day of the week because that is the day Christ arose.” No text says “we meet in houses because we are a family, the household of God.” Yet in both cases, the practice was both a natural outflow of their theological understandings and a natural result of imitating the practices of the apostles.

Must We Gather Today on the Lord’s Day and in Homes?

So, are we obliged to meet on the Lord’s Day? Are we obliged to gather in private homes to worship? Here’s the best answer I can give: No, and no; but we should not overlook the possible blessings of doing so.

Regarding the time of meeting: Since this was a major point of conflict in the first century, it is addressed clearly in Scripture. Christians are no longer compelled to observe a weekly sabbath: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16; for a longer answer to this question, see here). Romans 14:5 broadens this freedom to all days, implicitly including the Lord’s Day: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Therefore, Christians are free. I bless my brothers and sisters in Muslim lands who gather on Friday, the one day of their week when they are not expected to be at work. On the other hand, let us never forget our Lord’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit! I bless all who gather on the Lord’s Day with these gifts in mind. I enjoy this practice myself.

Regarding the place of meeting: This also was of major significance in the first century, but in a different manner. The temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, was eclipsed by Christ who freed us to worship anywhere as long as it is in S/spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24). However, the Jews already also worshiped in synagogues, so NT Christians did not argue over the place of meeting as they did over the time of meeting. They were already used to the idea that there was not only one place where worship could happen. Therefore, the NT does not speak prescriptively about where Christians should meet. This, too, is a matter of freedom in Christ. I bless Christians who meet in barns, offices, and caves. I even bless those who meet in “church buildings.” However, let us never forget that the church is a family, a household!

I will add this: Perhaps we need to consider afresh how the architecture of our meeting places sometimes inhibits NT church family life. For example: we often add a concept of “sacred space” that is very foreign to NT Christianity, calling the building “the church” or “God’s house.” On the other hand, we lose the interactive familial exchange of participatory worship when we sit in rows like spectators, staring at the backs of each others’ heads. Our love feasts have shriveled into mere symbols of a symbol. When did we forget that eating a full meal together in communion with Christ can be a central element of our worship services? Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians suggests that such love feasts may not be essential (1 Cor 11:22, 34). But they are certainly possible and even desirable, if they be true “love feasts” (Jude 1:12). (Paul does not argue against love feasts in 1 Corinthians 11, only against their abuse.)

Too often our church buildings become sterile, safe places where our Sunday best becomes armor that shields us from each other. If you really want someone to get to know you deeply, where do you invite him to meet? In a coffee shop, an office, or a warehouse? At a concert hall—which is the secular venue that our modern church sanctuaries are perhaps most closely patterned after? Or do you invite him into the intimacy of your own home, where he can see your economic status, your hobbies, your family, and all your worst and best up close? And what about when you are someone else’s guest? Which location makes you most feel like you are being included as part of the family?

In sum, just as I have a slight preference to meet on the Lord’s Day, so I also hunger for the kind of NT church family life that often comes most naturally as we gather to worship, eat, and pray within our own homes.

Summary: Guidelines for Imitating NT Church Practices

To return to our initial question: How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? Our dual case studies suggest a few guidelines:

  1. We should not automatically assume that we are obligated to woodenly imitate every physical practice of the NT church. Historical precedent is not necessarily prescriptive.
  2. We should remember that one repeated NT command was to imitate the actions of the apostles and other faithful leaders (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess 3:7-9; Heb 13:7)—even though no specific list of mandatory actions is ever given.
  3. We should try to be consistent, not turning historical precedent into prescription in one area while feeling smugly superior to those who imitate NT church practices literally in another area.
  4. We should examine closely the possible benefits of freely imitating NT church practices and not simply react against others who have abused them.
  5. We should aim to chose practices that naturally express the rich theological truths of our Christian faith.
  6. We should remember that the same theological truths may be expressed through a variety of practices. Where Scripture does not speak clearly, we should allow much diversity and bless our brothers and sisters who serve their Master in ways different from us.

Each of these, I think, are worth further reflection.

What do you think? Is it helpful to imitate the NT church in their practices of meeting on the Lord’s Day and in houses (and public spaces)? Do you have other biblical observations, or other guidelines for weighing NT church practices? Share your insights in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

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