Christian Basics Handbook
Relating to our Fellow Believers
The word in the original Greek text of the New Testament usually translated as “church” is ekklesia, which means a gathering or assembly of people. Though it was a common word in those days, and was even used in the Bible to refer to an angry mob of unbelievers (Acts 19:32), it came to refer to the group gathering because of their common faith in the risen Jesus. The New Testament always uses it in reference to such gatherings in a region or in a person’s home. It never meant a building or place of worship.
What does the New Testament say about worship?
The New Testament really doesn’t say much about what worship is or how to practice it. Jesus said that whenever even 2 or 3 people gathered because they belong to him, there he would be (Matthew 18:20). He told a woman in Samaria that the time had come for people to stop going to special places to worship God, but instead to worship genuinely and spiritually (John 4:21–24). James 1:27 says that genuine worship is to care for orphans and widows, and to keep from being polluted by the world. Paul says in Romans 12:1 that true worship is to offer your body as a living sacrifice. In 1 Corinthians 14:26–33 Paul corrects the people’s chaotic gatherings by teaching them to do everything in a controlled and orderly fashion— but this really has more to do with meetings than with the actual worship of God.
What we don’t find in the New Testament is a liturgy, a sacred calendar, places of worship, rites, or festivals. People simply shared their lives and helped each other. In fact, Paul spoke out strongly against falling back into traditional worship practices (Galatians 4:8–11). At best, we can see that people met on the first day of the week in honor of the day Jesus arose, and that they shared meals to remember Jesus’ sacrifice.
Must all Christians “go to church”?
Given that there is no sacred place to go, and that such places are not churches, the real question is whether Christians should meet together, and the answer is “yes”. Hebrews 10:25 tells us to meet together to support each other, and how or when would we use our spiritual gifts if we kept them to ourselves? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that these gifts are for the common good, and he goes on to list some of them.
Do families get together? We are the family of God, all brothers and sisters, so it seems obvious that we should want to be with each other. Beyond that, there is no command in the New Testament concerning such meetings except for what was already pointed out about doing things in an orderly way.
Are there levels of authority in the church?
We as Christians are all parts of one body, as Paul illustrated in 1 Corinthians 12:12–26. No part can take control over another part, and the hand cannot demand that the foot stay clean or hold a spoon. Yet as Christians we often think it is our duty to police other believers and dictate their behavior or methods. The worst things we can do are to usurp the Holy Spirit’s authority to direct other believers, and to rebuke each other in front of unbelievers.
Then what about elders, overseers, pastors, and teachers? Though it was to Jewish disciples before the church age, Jesus made it clear that the greatest in his kingdom were to be the least, the humble and lowly (Matthew 20:20–28, 23:8–12, Luke 22:24–27), who exercised no authority over others as the world does. By washing the feet of his own disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus showed what a leader is like. We see also in Philippians 2:5–11 that Jesus humbled himself to stoop down and lift us up, even though he is God. And in Matthew 23:8 Jesus stated that we are all brothers and sisters, not parents and children. There is no support in the New Testament for any kind of hierarchy among sisters and brothers in Christ.
What the New Testament does say about elders, overseers, pastors, and teachers, is that they are servants and guardians rather than bosses and authorities. Even Hebrews 13:7, 17 does not speak of authority as many translations present it, but rather mentoring and leading by example. So it would seem that the most ambitious to wield authority are the least qualified to have it. What Jesus wants in a Christian leader is humility, faithfulness, compassion, strong faith, and dedication.
Are there levels of authority in marriage?
Considering the principle Jesus established about authority between believers, it would seem obvious that there is even less support for hierarchy in the most intimate of relationships. It is impossible to claim equality of being while making one’s flesh the only reason for putting someone under your authority for life. God has not begun to play favorites or judge by the flesh (1 Samuel 16:7, Acts 10:34, James 2:1). Rather, the scriptures teach mutual submission, meaning we defer to each other as each one has the gift or skill to lead in a particular area for a particular time.
Likewise, it would be lazy to use our flesh to allow someone else to take spiritual authority over us so we can avoid personal responsibility. We have only one mediator between ourselves and God, and that is Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Each of us will stand alone at the judgment seat of Christ, and give an account for our own lives.
Is there ever a situation where a person must be expelled from a church?
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul orders a man wallowing in sin to be expelled from the church, and the “sinners” of that church were to do the expelling as a group. The man’s sin was bringing shame upon the faith, and the church had to remember to be holy and not just compassionate. Paul also stated in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 that people who wallow in sin will not enter the kingdom of God. Since Jesus has cleansed us from our sin, it is especially grievous for us to return to it.
Now what if another person has wronged us personally? In Luke 17:4 Jesus said that a person must repent in order to be forgiven; after all, even God requires repentance. Without repentance, forgiveness enables more sin, since there are never any consequences, not even a show of remorse. This also punishes the victim twice, since they were wronged and then made to feel like a worse sinner if they didn’t forgive unconditionally. Certainly we should hope for reconciliation, but it takes two to reconcile.
What about non-Christians attending church meetings? The Bible does allow them to observe (1 Corinthians 14:16, 24–25), but they are not to be considered brothers or sisters in Christ, since Jesus said that he would be with those who gather in his name (Matthew 18:20), and only those who have been adopted bear his name. No one can be called a sister or brother in Christ if they are not in Christ; a church is a gathering of believers. It would be pointless to distinguish between the church and observers if they were both the same.
Do love and forgiveness mean sin doesn’t matter anymore?
It would be challenging to read the New Testament and reach the conclusion that sin no longer matters. Sin separates us from God, or at least strains the relationship, since we are displeasing him. Suffice it to say that one might as well throw away the whole Bible if sin doesn’t matter anymore. God is not just loving, he is also just and holy.