Let us go back in history to two points in time, two beginnings. The first commenced almost 2,000 years ago but, for the moment we will not discuss this. We will consider first the new beginning which took place approximately 150 years ago. At this time scriptural truths and principles, long hidden in ecclesiastical darkness, were rediscovered and there was an unprecedented movement of the Holy Spirit. His working in the hearts and lives of godly men was apparent, especially in Dublin, Ireland; in Plymouth and London, England; and in various places on the continent of Europe.
In later years, when church historians assembled all the facts, they discovered that this manifestation of the Spirit was not confined to Europe. In many parts of the world, the Spirit’s presence and power were evident as He drew men and women from religious and worldly backgrounds and gathered them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Among those moved by the Holy Spirit were brethren who were spiritual giants—some of them ordained preachers—who came to be esteemed and respected in evangelical circles for their scholarly and meticulous translation of the Sacred Scriptures. In retrospect, they may have been among the godliest of men, raised up by God to represent Him in the world. Deeply concerned about the low spiritual state of the professing church, they also were heartsick and discouraged over the unscriptural practices in the various churches with which they were affiliated. Their deep-seated exercise of soul led to a prayerful searching of the Holy Scriptures, to discern divine principles and practices.
The outgrowth of this spiritual awakening was the recovery of many precious truths which for centuries had been hidden in ecclesiastical tradition. You will observe that they searched the Book to discern the mind of God. They sought the Lord’s guidance through the Holy Spirit and if we, today, are to be acquainted with the mind and will of God relative to church principles and practices, we must get back to the Book. Many foreign practices not in accordance with the Scriptures are being introduced into some assemblies. In these days of declension and departure, we must get back to God’s Word and in simple faith follow the divine pattern.
What were some of the principles recovered at this time? By careful reading and analysis and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these brethren discovered:
1. The true character of the New Testament assembly
2. The position of the believers as being in Christ—the truth of the eternal security of believers
3. The priesthood of all believers—in contrast to that of officiating clergy
4. The sufficiency of the Name of Christ—no other name
5. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to the local body—presidency of the Holy Spirit
6. The pretribulation rapture of the Church
7. The premillennial coming of the Lord to the earth
8. The literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth
9. The keeping of the Lord’s supper on a weekly basis
These truths, long-hidden in obscurity, when rediscovered, led to an exercise of heart to practice them. It was a costly decision for some—they lost a great deal of this world’s prestige when they withdrew from their religious affiliations and established what they believed to be of God. Consequently, believers began to gather in a simple way in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the movement spread rapidly northward into Scotland and then into Northern Ireland. This phenomenal growth was attained because God was in it. Many spiritual believers were drawn by the Spirit from dead orthodoxy into these virile and dynamic New Testament assemblies, where New Testament principles were practiced with New Testament power.
These were brethren, whom God called out, met in simple places in a simple way, trying to preserve the New Testament simplicity. Gifted men, raised by the Holy Spirit, began to teach:
1. The precious truth of the one body
2. The Lordship and Headship of Christ
3. The Leadership of the Holy Spirit
4. They owed allegiance to no denomination
5. They took no sectarian names—they chose rather to be known as believers—Christians—disciples—brethren.
6. They recognized no human head.
7. They sought to return to the New Testament pattern for church: Simplicity.
Those godly men strove for collective unity. Here, also, is a point of interest. Two of their watchwords were: absolute unity and absolute purity. These watchwords ought to be sounded out from every platform, in every assembly. There has never been a time when we need to united, there never has been a time when we need to be pure and clean and holy in the sight of God, more than today.
During the years since these pristine days, much of the simplicity has been lost. Some have sought to introduce a sectarian spirit. Others have developed an organizational unity, rather than unity of the Spirit. Let us be careful when arranging our assembly curriculum, lest we program the Holy Spirit out of our gatherings. May God grant us wisdom to give the Holy Spirit His place in our meetings. Despite the declension and departure, we thank God for those who stand fast, and who seek to strengthen the things that remain, and strive to preserve the New Testament simplicity as practiced by the early church.
Let us now go back to the beginning of the Church in the first century and consider some of the distinctive characteristics which it displayed, and also consider the scriptural principles which it practiced:
They Gathered in the Name of the Lord Jesus
The first distinguishing feature that we observe is that they gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus was the gathering centre. The early disciples were held together by devotion to a Person, not by membership in an organization. Their lives revolved around the Lord. As they walked with Him, they learned from Him. They loved Him so much that they were willing to obey divine principles to glorify Him, even if it meant suffering shame for His name. Their love and enthusiasm were zealously manifested:
They preached in His name (Acts 4:12).
They baptized in His name (Acts 10:48).
They performed miracles in His name (Acts 3:6).
They defied opposition in His name (Acts 4:18-20).
They suffered willingly in His name (Acts 5:41).
When a local assembly is patterned after this divine principle, and gathered unto Christ, then He is central, He is supreme, He is Lord. Thank God for every company of believers who reject all sectarian names and gather unto the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament speaks of assemblies composed of true believers, gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus, in many localities. To name a few: Jerusalem—Corinth—Rome—Ephesus and the seven churches in Asia Minor.
They Were Independent
The second distinctive characteristic of these churches was that they were independent. They were autonomous and indigenous, that is to say, they were self-governing and self-producing. Paul describes these churches composed of believers, elders, and deacons. (Phil 1:1).
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a confederation of assemblies. There is no mention of a bishop over a diocese, and no superintendent over a group of churches. Each assembly was a sovereign unit; each was ruled by elders under the direction of the Holy Spirit; each was independent of the others. The elders of each assembly will give an account of their work and will be held responsible by the Lord, at the Judgment Seat, as to how they conducted His affairs in the local church. Each was in subjection to Christ alone.
There was a Spirit of Fellowship
Despite this evident scriptural autonomy, there was an obvious spirit of fellowship. These assemblies expressed their fellowship in practical ways:
1. They received all those whom Christ had received (Romans 15:7)
2. They accepted and supported the gifted servants of Christ who moved among them (1 Corinthians 16: 9-12).
3. They gave letters of commendation to those who traveled (Rom 16: 1-2). This is a scriptural practice which has almost fallen into disuse in certain circles. It is good and Scriptural to carry a letter of commendation with you when you travel in an area where you are not known.
4. Though these churches were independent, there were occasions when they rendered financial assistance to the needy in other assemblies (Rom 15: 25-27). They were willing to give of their substance to their brethren who were in need.
The aforementioned are good scriptural practices which were observed by the first-century believers. We would do well in the twentieth century to implement the principles of gathering unto the Name of the Lord Jesus, carefully guarding our independence and sovereignty as local churches, showing the love of Christ to all men, especially those who are of the household of faith. Such devotion and adherence to these divine principles would draw forth Blessings from a delighted God, that we would not be able to contain.
They Observed the Lord’s Supper.
One of the priorities of the firs century church was to observe the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42). They broke bread and partook of the wine in memory of the Lord Jesus. You may not have noticed this, that there were times when, in their fervency, these brethren may have remembered the Lord daily (Acts 2:46). The Lord’s Supper—the Breaking of the Bread—the Remembrance Feast was very special to them. Some years later, the churches adopted the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7).
The Lord’s Supper, in its simplicity, was another of the great truths which was lost in the rubble of ecclesiastical ceremony and antiquity. It was only 150 years ago that this important truth was rediscovered by godly men. From then until now, groups of believers have met each Lord’s Day in response to the Lord’s request to “remember Him,” until He comes.
The Breaking of Bread, then and now, is a unique characteristic of the New Testament church. It was, and is, the high point of their regularly scheduled meetings. My present knowledge leads me to believe that there are no other groups who keep the Lord’s Supper the way we do. This is another of the distinctives of the assemblies.
Occupied With the Lord Jesus Alone
The remembrance feast is unique in that we are occupied with the Lord Jesus alone. No gospel is preached, no prayer requests are made. It is a time of intense adoration and worship, followed by the breaking of the bread and partaking of the wine. This time of remembrance and worship is among the most precious experiences this side of eternity.
I exhort the elders of all New Testament churches to exercise the utmost surveillance so that the character of the Remembrance Feast will remain undisturbed. There are those among us that would reduce this time of worship into a sharing and caring meeting. Beloved in Christ, I beseech you in the Lord’s name, if you feel the necessity for a share and care meeting, then arrange it at an appropriate time but please preserve the simplicity, the Scripturalness, the sacredness, the sanctity, and the beauty of the Lord’s Supper.
The Simplicity of the Lord’s Supper
Note the simplicity of this meeting. It is wonderful that we do not have to grapple with the error of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and the wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Neither are we vexed by the misconception of consubstantiation, which states that the bread and wine, after consecration, are side-by-side with the substance of the body and blood of Christ. It is beautiful that we can meet together in simplicity and practice what the early church practiced: A simple table on which is placed a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. As we gather around these symbols, believing them to represent the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, how wonderful it is to meet in the simplicity of New Testament principles, in the Name of the Lord Jesus, to praise, worship, and break the bread and partake of the wine in loving memory of our crucified, risen, ascended, glorified and soon-coming Lord.
The Lord’s Return for His Church
Another of the truths rediscovered 150 years ago, was the truth of the Lord’s return for His church; the Rapture of the saints as a Scriptural principle, was lost in the medieval darkness of the middle ages. To these godly and Spirit-filled men, we owe a debt of gratitude. We will never understand this side of eternity the deep spiritual exercise accompanied by prayers and tears, as these men of God carefully researched and analyzed the Scriptures under the guidance of the Spirit. We should thank God for the glorious truth of the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church.
The first-century believers accepted this precious truth. They rejoiced in the imminent return of the Lord. This blessed hope buoyed them up in the midst of trial and adversity. As the first century believers left the Lord’s Supper, they were filled with love for one another. They also had a great concern for the lost and because of this concern, evangelized wherever they went. They not only told of the Lord’s death, they told of His glorious resurrection, His Ascension, and His coming again. These brethren were marked as men who were waiting for the Lord’s return. They were little colonies waiting for the return of their King. This was the blessed hope that lifted their hearts as they greeted each other with Maranatha—the Lord is coming.
O that we, today, could capture the blessed expectation of the Lord’s return. In the twentieth century, so many have become entrenched in this world. Most of us hade never had it so good, so long; we have become so absorbed with the things of the world that the truth of the coming of the Lord has lost its power in our lives. The Lord is coming—the Lord is coming—and He is coming soon, silently and suddenly, and every born-again believer will be raptured into His presence.
Expectancy, simplicity, spirituality and power were the hallmarks of the early church. Thank God for the faithful within the assemblies who seek to maintain the principles of the first-century church as they wait for the Lord’s return.
The Activity of the Holy Spirit
Another characteristic of the early church was the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. A careful study of the Acts brings to our attention the Ministry of the Holy Spirit. Not only did the Lord give the Church a Book, He also gave them the Holy Spirit to guide, corporately and privately. One of the truths that we need to relearn today is that the Holy Spirit is coequal, coeternal, and coexistent with the Father and the Son. May God help us all to understand this great truth and grant us the undying desire to give this Blessed Person His rightful place in our midst.
The apostles put great faith in the Holy Spirit. When the early missionaries left those little house churches behind them, they did so confidently, knowing that the Holy Spirit would lead them, empower and equip them.
They believed that He would raise up spiritual gifts for their growth (Eph 4:11).
Each believer was taught that he had a function to fulfill in the body (1 Cor 12:12).
Each believer was taught that he was the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).
They taught that there was no such division as clerisy and laity (Gal 3:28).
Most of the meetings were informal; they were unstructured for the most part. In mixed meetings, where brethren and sisters were present, the men took leadership (1 Cor 14:34). Some led in a hymn, some in teaching, some in prayer or worship, some in exhortation. In this God-appointed way, spiritual gifts began to develop.
In time, some would emerge as teachers, and would be recognized as such; through them. God spoke to the local church.
Others, by the Spirit, were gifted in the Gospel and became evangelists. Some were given shepherds’ hearts by the Spirit; these became pastors in the Scriptural sense. The Holy Spirit was in complete control! Do you wonder at the progress of these local churches? We would enjoy the same spiritual prosperity today if we crucified the flesh and gave the Holy Spirit His rightful place in our gatherings.
The Sisters’ Place in the Local Church
Another characteristic of the Scriptural assembly is the position it holds with regard to the sisters. Before continuing, let me say that we owe more to godly sisters among us than we realize or admit. The spiritual standards of our assemblies would be greatly impaired were it not for the impact of our godly women.
Following the example of the first-century church, we believe in the silence of the sisters in public meetings. The two outstanding scriptures which support this are 1 Cor 14:34-35, “And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church,” and 1 Tim 2:11-12, “Let the women learn silence with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Alas, the winds of change are blowing. There are many among us who have challenged, and are challenging, this particular truth. Despite these attacks, the unalterable principles of Scripture remain immovable and support the truth of the silence of sisters in the public meetings. The carrying out of this divine principle is God-glorifying.
While adhering to this teaching, we readily admit that there are many spheres in which sisters can serve, and in many instances more acceptably than brethren. We thank God for the faithful attendance at the meetings. Their absence would cut the audiences by at least 60 percent. Most assemblies could not survive without their financial support. Their work in visitation is invaluable. In work of this type, situations can arise which only a sister can deal with. Our Sunday Schools and extra-curricular activities among the young could not survive without their help. Our missionary endeavor would be greatly restricted were it not for the faithfulness and sacrifice of our dear sisters. Which one of us could estimate the value of their effectual and fervent prayers in any local gathering, or in the far-flung mission fields of the world. We should thank God for the dear sisters who, like Phoebe, are true servants of the church.
The Head Covering
Next, we come to the question of the head covering. It is unfortunate, but true, that many of the elders have become very lax in this matter. Some have turned a blind eye. All this, despite the teaching of 1 Cor. 11. Scriptural and spiritual assemblies believe and accept the teachings of the whole chapter. Not only do they believe in the weekly commemoration of the Lord’s Supper, they also believe in the head covering described in earlier verses.
You will notice that in this regard there are no problems with godly sisters. They are content to preach the greatest of all sermons, to man, and to angels, of the headship of man, the Headship of Christ, and the supreme Headship of God. Nothing brings more glory to God than this.
In these days of feminist movements, this position, with that of the silence of women, is being seriously challenged. May God give us wisdom to handle it Scripturally, honestly, and lovingly in the light of the Judgment Seat of Christ.
No Ordained Preachers
Another of the characteristics of the Scriptural Assembly is that we do not believe in ordained preachers. Scriptural assemblies hold the position that there is no distinction between clerisy and laity. In fact, they believe that clerisy and laity do not exist in any form among believers. Paul left each local church he established in charge of local elders. These Spirit-filled men had authority in, and the rule over, the local company. They were the guides and leaders. May we all recognize that there is no higher authority in the assembly than Scripturally qualified elders. This is God’s order.
Then there is the question of assembly economics. Assembly economics has always been a source of puzzlement to the uninitiated. A careful study will show that our financing of the Lord’s work, in all of its facets, is based on New Testament example. We should not, and do not, make public appeals for money. Despite this, God meets the recurrent needs, sometimes in unbelievable ways.
Another of the characteristics of the New Testament assembly is that we have no offerings when the unsaved are present. “Taking nothing of the Gentiles,” (3John 7). We also believe that there is sufficient instruction given in the Word as to how, when, and how much we should give (1Cor 16:2).
Our giving to God of our substance should be an act of worship (Heb 13:15-16). This is one of the reasons the offering is taken at the Lord’s Supper. We should consider this last point seriously. In worship, we not only give our praise but we give of our substance.
Support the Lord’s Servants
Finally, there is the way our missionaries are supported. This is so different from the normal practice of other groups. Our dear brothers and sisters have gone forth as sent by God, not by a missionary society. While on the field they are controlled by God and accountable to God. They live and work in the light of the Judgment Seat of Christ, knowing that they shall give account to the Lord of the Harvest.
Many of these dear ones have left lucrative positions and assured futures, humanly speaking, and have gone into places of hardship and danger, with no guarantee of financial support. Does this Biblical principle work today? It has been my personal experience, and that of every true servant of God, that God is able for every emergency and exigency. God is able to meet every need.
These, then, are some of the Scriptural principles recovered from the dust of ecclesiastical antiquity 150 years ago. These truths were practiced by some at great personal loss, but great spiritual enrichment. We, today, should give them earnest and purposeful consideration. They should not be lightly cast aside for the unstable whims of modern thought.