On April 13, 1970 the astronauts of the Apollo 13 lifted off on a journey to explore the surface of the moon. Although the mission began with all the expectation and excitement of Apollo 12, all hopes were soon dashed when an explosion blew a gaping hole in the spacecraft’s #2 oxygen tank. In abrupt fashion, the Apollo 13 mission was scrubbed, as 205,000 miles of space separated the men from earth. If that was not enough, the unit which filtered the carbon dioxide in the lunar module was insufficient to support three astronauts; a make-shift air purifier would be needed. Orders came from mission control in Houston for the men to create two air purification units, using spare materials from within the command module, dubbed the “Odyssey.” They were ordered to explicitly follow the verbal directions. As the astronauts listened to scientists in Houston and worked according to their instructions, they were able to build the needed units. (1). They followed a unique design and it saved their lives.
This incident demonstrates the importance of structural design in the realm of science and also serves to illustrate for us the significance of the unique design of the church. Since intelligent design was crucial in a technologically advanced spacecraft, how much more then, on a higher level, should the principle of unique design be needful in the New Testament church? The consideration of this question is essential for those serious about establishing churches according to the biblical mandate. For the church of God is a divine institution, framed in the eternal counsels of God, established by the Lord Jesus Christ, and indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament apostles and prophets were divinely called to lay its foundations, and their inspired writings form its only standard and rule. When God created the vast universe in all its raw beauty and majesty, He simply spoke and the world came into being; through the power of resurrection, God brought life out of death by His word; in giving sight to the blind and speech to the dumb, He reached out in compassion and touched, and it was so. However, in establishing the church, the cost was greater, God sent forth His Son to give His life for it! (Eph. 5:25)
The Blueprint’s Importance
Unfortunately, many evangelicals today are arguing that the form and structure of the church are unimportant. They contend that the debate itself distracts the church from more crucial issues of spiritual life and the evangelistic mission to the lost. Although there is a seed of truth in these arguments, it would be a serious mistake to render the structure of the local church trivial and insignificant. It would be an even greater mistake to introduce a new and more modern structure to replace the New Testament pattern. Highlighting this danger, respected Bible teacher and author, G. H. Lang, writes, “Nor is there need, nor can there be a hope, of improving upon the Lord’s ordering. He knew perfectly the purposes which His church is to serve on earth, and knew fully the conditions of human affairs amidst which the church must work; and He instituted through His apostles the very best arrangements and methods for doing the intended work under the given conditions. To assume otherwise is to impute folly unto God.” (2). A careful study of the New Testament will convince us that we cannot, and must not, treat the church pattern as merely cosmetic or irrelevant.
The great weight of biblical teaching shows that it is of the utmost importance that a the church be governed after the principles and patterns of the New Testament. At the very outset of the New Testament, it is striking that the Lord Jesus Christ through the apostles labored to establish only one institution, and this was the His church. Although important, they did not seek to establish Bible colleges, evangelistic organizations, or social welfare organizations; but rather, they labored tirelessly to establish churches. The Apostle Paul stated, “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon” (1 Cor. 3:10). This indicates that the local church lies at the very heart of God’s program for the church today. Indifference to the role and doctrine of the church is certainly indifference to the plan and counsels of God. The local church matters to God, and it ought to matter to us. Undeniably, the church was intended to be a relentless lightbearer of God’s truth. To this end the word of God states that an assembly of Christians is “...the house of God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Therefore an assembly must be on guard that absolutely nothing take place which will hide or diminish the shining forth of the truth of God. The Lord would not leave the church to her own devices to accomplish this mission. The divinely-given blueprint would be used. The language of the New Testament indicates that there was but one divine pattern, and that it was unwaveringly followed.
The Blueprint and 1 Corinthians
The calling and ministry of the apostle Paul was unique. He was singularly gifted to expound with keen insight the principle of an enduring church pattern. In 1 Corinthians, he writes concerning such a principle, which is applicable to all churches in all regions and all cultural backgrounds in every time period. * 1 Cor. 4:17 – ”...my ways which are in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” * 1 Cor 7:17 – ”... hath called every one, so let him walk. ...so ordain I in all churches.” * 1 Cor. 11:16 – ”...if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” * 1 Cor. 14:33 – “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” * 1 Cor. 14:34 – “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak…” It is noteworthy that the apostle drew out instruction from the well of one divine blueprint for all that he taught and ordained and commanded in the churches. In 1 Cor. 4:17 he states, that these things “I teach everywhere in every church”. That must be understood to mean the churches in every geographical region, in every linguistically diverse region, and in every culture. The New Testament indicates that Paul was directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and development of at least 18 different local churches in 12 geographic and culturally diverse areas. This would indicate that one divine, cross-cultural, trans-geographical church blueprint was usedby the apostle, and therefore, by necessity, should be used and valued by all Christians.
The Blueprint and Practice of the Church
One may question if there is sufficient internal biblical evidence that would make the New Testament pattern incumbent churches today. A careful review of God’s word will reveal five principles which attest to the timeless constitution of the New Testament church.
THE BLUEPRINT WAS PRESCRIBED
The qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7), the order of worship and ministry of the word (1 Cor. 11-14, 1 Tim 4), and assembly discipline (1 Cor. 5:9-13), are all prescribed in orderly detail (not just described, as if adherence was merely optional). Notice Paul’s language in listing the requirements of an elder. He writes, “a bishop must be blameless…” (1 Tim 3:2); likewise in Titus, “For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God.” (Titus 1:7). Similarly, concerning financial giving, Paul writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches…” (1 Cor. 16:1). Further, concerning discipline within the local church, Paul writes, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother thatwalketh disorderly and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6). Therefore, the divine blueprint of the New Testament church, which was received through revelation by the apostles, is obligatory, and does not consist of optional principles for the followers of Jesus Christ.
THE BLUEPRINT WAS COMMANDED
Paul makes known the spiritual challenge and responsibility of the divine blueprint when he commands Timothy, “These things I write…that you may know how you must conduct yourself in the house of God.” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). In the Greek text the verb “must” (Gk. dei) is in the imperative mood, which indicates a command. It is the manner of the apostles not simply to suggest but to command. It then follows that only when the divine blueprint is followed can the church be all that God intends. Therefore to Titus, Paul writes, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority” (Titus 2:15). The teaching of the New Testament was not simply to recommend, but to command.
THE BLUEPRINT WAS OBEYED
Time and again assemblies of Christians in the New Testament are seen practicing the biblical principles taught to them by the apostles. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” (Acts 2:42). Moreover, their obedience surpassed established cultural and geographical boundaries. Concerning this principle the apostle writes, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). The last phrase of this verse, “as I delivered them to you,” is noteworthy. The Corinthians did not comprehend fully the meaning of the apostle’s teaching, for he goes on to say, “I would have you know” (1 Cor. 11:3). But they “held fast” the teaching of the apostle according to the letter and spirit in which it was given. For this response the apostle extends to them the warmest of commendations when he writes, “Now I praise you.” It might also be added, how commendable it is today for an entire assembly or individuals to labor to obey the Word of God, not because all understand every theological implication, but because it is a commandment of God!
THE BLUEPRINT WAS ENFORCED
In the New Testament, assemblies were corrected when they deviated from the order commanded to them by the apostles. The epistles of Paul are full of vivid examples. In Galatians the correction comes concerning the controversy between law and grace that sought to splinter the church; in 1 and 2 Timothy there are warnings concerning false teachers in the church; in 1 Corinthians there is correction concerning unbridled personalities and moral and doctrinal decay in the church. Concerning the Corinthian situation, Paul sums up the principle that would serve as a rudder to steer the church through the theological tempests of the day. Once again drawing truth from the blueprint he had received, he writes in 1 Cor. 14:37, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize the things that I write to you, that it is the Lord’s commandment.
THE BLUEPRINT IS CHRIST-CENTERED
Assembly order is not bound by culture or time because its source is Christ, the living Head and Builder of the church. He is the focus and attraction of all who belong to the New Testament church. Hearts full of competing interests must give way to hearts devoted to Christ. Thus, the pattern Christ has established best enables the assembly to faithfully respond to the will and guidance of the living Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is so much in the religious world that desires to usurp Christ from His rightful place. Sadly, this is no more than man’s attempt to put gaudy tinsel upon fine gold. A voice from the past offers a warning to the church of today concerning this timeless pattern. C. H. Mackintosh writes, “We are too prone to regard the Word of God as insufficient for the most minute details connected with His worship and service. This is a great mistake—a mistake which has proved the fruitful source of evils and errors in the professing church. The Word of God is amply sufficient for everything as regards the order and rule of the assembly. And, further, be it remembered, that the divine glory cannot connect itself with aught that is not according to the divine pattern.” (3). Consequently those who would follow this truth will find that they must also bear scorn and reproach for their obedience. However, biblical orthodoxy will lead to spiritual blessing and reverent worship. A proper understanding of Christ’s desire His redeemed people will result in obedience to His word and the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and gathering Center of the assembly.
(1). Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon, (NY, NY: Viking Books, 1993), p.320
(2). G.H.Lang, The Churches of God, (London: C. J. Thynne & Jarvis, 1934), p.9
(3). C. H. Mackintosh, Notes on Exodus, (NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1972), p.271