Below are observations from the Scriptures about the way the fellowship of believers was set up in the beginning. Clearly, the believers of the first century had options and examples about how to set up their fellowships, but they were led to do it a certain way. That certain way had a very important purpose: to maximize the Creator's glory through the believer's relationship with Him.
Much of what the 1st, 2nd and 3rd century believers did was changed by the Roman government in the centuries to follow. The Romans took over Christianity under Theodosius (who followed Constantine) February 27, 380 AD. The Romans had a very different plan than what was established in the beginning. We should wish to be influenced by Christ, not by ancient Roman elites. We must look at the Bible to find out what the believers were told to do before Theodosius.
I have heard group leaders over and over again say how they are "different" than other groups, but it is uncommon that they are different in more than a few issues. This is just the way we humans think. A little different is a lot different in your own eyes. Changing traditions that have gone on for hundreds of years requires that a person be open minded, and it is not as easy as it looks! If every example we have seen has been influenced by "religion," how hard is it to figure out what we would need to change? It is very difficult to shake our own experience and think without bias, but it is worth the effort.
I made the list below of 1st century practices with few references to Bible verses on purpose. The reader is left to recollect the message of the New Testament in order to confirm or refute the points made here. The idea is to create an experience of self-discovery by open-mindedly considering the whole New Testament for guidance.
The group of believers was never both a building and a group of people. It was only a group of people, a group that was referred to as a temple that was built for the presence of God. This fulfilled God's promise to David, that his descendant would build a temple. In the proclamation of that promise, both God and, ironically, David decried that idea that God should live in a building.
Since the building was already built of people, it would have been contradictory (and counterproductive) to create a "house of the Lord," "temple" or "church building." Why encourage them to build something out of bricks and sticks when the building was already done out of something far more dynamic - people? Therefore, they didn't do it, but instead found something that was available.
They chose something cheap (free), in part, to save resources for their impoverished brothers and sisters in another part of the world (Jerusalem in this case) and for spreading the good news. They were not so much frugal as they were focused. God's resources were used for His purposes. Consider what could be done if fellowships had, at their disposal, the millions of dollars that are spent on buildings and salaries at the typical local "church."
Some in the house church movement argue that the house is the only place ordained by God for a meeting. Though I think that a house is a great place to meet and will very often be the most workable solution, I disagree with this sentiment that is the only place to meet. Non-home meeting places are mentioned in the Bible, and no direct command to use only homes can be found.
Consider this. There were thousands and thousands of believers in some of these Mediterranean cities. These cities were very congested. Are we to believe that they were neatly organized into groups of 12? I imagine all the believers within easy walking distance to be attending a group if the power of God was showing up. The idea that there were often several hundred people in a group makes a lot more sense to me. God draws a crowd. I recollect pictures from China where 50 or more people were meeting in one small apartment. I imagine this was more the case in the 1st century. Further, large families (#19) would make it nearly impossible to keep the meetings small.
Let me give 3 benefits of larger groups. (The list of benefits of small groups have been well documented by others.)
1. It is easier to find good leaders. There are several books that espouse rapid assent of leaders in order to accommodate dividing cell groups strategy, but it does not seem to match up with the Bible to me. We should not underestimate the time that it takes for a person to mature. A leader should be above reproach, able to teach and able to evaluate whatever is said in the meeting. If groups are allowed to grow bigger, they have more time to develop worthy leaders.
2. The more people there are to who hear for the Lord, the more likely that the group will hear Him. If people are individually anointed, then the more people you have, the more anointing you have.
3. Big groups can be more welcoming. If the group finds being small important, then it may appear closed to outsiders.
Some argue that the key to being like the 1st century worshippers involves worshiping in small groups in a person's home. We have so much more to discover about the 1st century meetings, it would be a shame to stop at just these two.
Understanding the 1st century meetings is like putting a puzzle together. We need all of the pieces, and they need to go together the right way. Skipping some pieces would be disappointing in my view. Don’t get hung up on meeting in houses and having small groups. Consider the whole puzzle.
They learned to walk in the Spirit in the meeting. They learned how to walk in the Spirit in the rest of life. This implies experience-based training.
Their pagan worship included encounters with evil spirits. When evil spirits were allowed to control people's bodies, they predicted the future, threw people into fires and broke chains. Further, the believers knew that there were demons, and that they needed to be cast out. Few in the western world have ventured down this road.
The western world has largely lost the notion that experiencing the Maker is an experience with a spirit. If we understood that, then we would not have invented the multiple choice spiritual gifts test! (Today, "spiritual gifts" are just talents that you practice in a religious context.) They would have sought to experience regularly the presence of God's Spirit.
The Christ following life is primarily a matter of experiencing His Spirit. The principles and instructions of the Bible are set up to enable this experience, but the Bible is not the experience in itself. Biblical-knowledge-based training, which is the norm in the western world, lacks the effectiveness and power drawn from training that provides experience.
The western world's mindset generally deems insignificant the unseen world. We fail to experience God as Spirit, which strictly limits our ability to follow Him. First century believers had many of their own road blocks to experiencing God fully, but for most, this was not one of them.
A rock concert is made up of the "headliner" and the "warm up band." In the modern meeting it seems that the "pastor" is the headliner and the rest of the meeting is just warm up. The only cure is to un-program and to encourage an open meeting (#3). This 1st century style meeting was focused on hearing from God (prophecy, in its various forms). And the only superstar was Jesus.
With #5 and #6 in place, the leaders' time was consumed with something other than studying the Bible and practicing for the purpose of delivering a spectacular message. Messages had benefit, but they were far less complicated.
I do not believe that there is a direct prohibition against names, but would suggest that giving a group a name derives from the same mindset as giving it a building. It starts with the attitude, “When other believers see our name (or our building), they will want to join us.” And why would a group want other Christians to join them? Often it is so that they can meet a budget that covers salaries and a building (sustainability and through that, personal affirmation).
The Romans (and modern "church") set the fellowship of believers up to be run like in the time of the Kings of Judah and Israel. They wanted a single human leader. Whereas the 1st century believers set it up to be run by God lead by revelation, like the time of the Judges. In the Old Testament, God worked through both, though he clearly preferred not to have a king. "It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king."
Today, people seem to confuse the influence of a leader like Paul to assume that the local fellowship was also to have a "point man." Further, the Romans perpetuated the idea of a "point man," or Priest, over the centuries. A different model was established in the 1st century that appeared to be so important for the believers' growth and spiritual maturity. That is, the group was to be lead and taught by a set of men who could be like fathers to the Christ followers.
Much credit goes to the Roman Catholic leadership for the uncommon words that believers use today. For a long time, the leaders insisted that the Bible not be translated into the local language of the people. Therefore, people learned just a few words of the language that the Romans would accept. As time went on, foreign words became common enough to have religious meaning in the language native to the believers across Europe and we still use derivatives of these transliterated words today.
Realize that when the words below were quoted by Jesus or his followers in the 1st century, they did not primarily have a religious meaning, but a common, everyday meaning.
Baptism is merely a transliteration of the Greek baptismo. Instead of using the word baptism today, we might use the English sink, immerse, bury ("sinking in the Holy Spirit"), words that are appropriate translations of baptismo.
Church is transliterated from Greek, kyriakon, which is not in the Bible. Kyriakon means "Lord's house," referring to a building. The word commonly translated "church" in the Bible is ekklesia, which means a group, mob, meeting, or assembly and was not specific to religious meetings. Ekklesia has nothing to do with a building or house. It had only to do with people, so today it would be better to use the term "gathering," "fellowship," "meeting" or "worship."
Instead of saying deacon, which is transliterated from Greek diakoneō, it would be better to represent the idea presented in the Bible as a "leader."
Gospel is transliterated from the Greek euaggelion. An English equivalent would be "good news," or perhaps "great deal."
Pastor is the singular nominative form of pāscō in the Latin. Pastor is a Latin word. It means to shepherd or maintain. It's use is not necessary or beneficial today.
There are many other words that are used in religion, but are not common to every day language. All should be reconsidered: preach, sermon, sacrament, sanctuary. Common language can be effectively substituted for each of these terms, and we would be blessed if we were to make the effort to do so.
“They gave all they were able and even beyond their ability.” If we were told by leaders how others suffer, we would do something, with joy. Unfortunately, the plight of others globally seems far from leaders hearts' and, therefore, far from followers' hearts. Salaries and building budgets get in the way of groups helping poor believers around the world today. We have forgotten: some gather much and some gathered little, but each had an omer.
Consider the time, effort and expense that that goes into these holidays. Do they provide clarity or cause confusion? Do they lead us to fulfill God's desires or distract us from the task?
These 25 practices effectively made following Christ simple, experiential and practical. "Simple" was on purpose. A follower experienced the power and love of God in the meeting. He learned by experience to walk in the Spirit in the meeting. Outside of the meeting, having learned to walk in the Spirit, he affected others by that same Spirit. If they became interested, he took them to someone's home or some other non-religious place to experience God. The cycle moved on. They did not have to hire seminary trained "pastors," set up legal entities, acquire property or build buildings to multiply. "Simple" had few barriers to growth and it contained, by the Holy Spirit, the power to grow.
We must be careful to follow God's best pattern, so that we facilitate His goals to avoid the structure of religion. We should do all we can when we are together to foster a true relationship with our Master and King in which he leads. We do not anticipate perfection. The time of the Judges was not pretty, but it was a whole lot better than the time of the Kings.
"tribe" invites both ambiguity and a distinction for us, as the use of tribe springs from the plural (a tribe among other tribes). Where tribe appears in the New Testament writings, referring among 12 tribes of Israel. A general use of the word "tribe" would beg the question: Which tribe (of the 12)? Since such matters remain of conscience, from love in consideration for one another we do not persist to nominate the word "tribe".
Paul was a shepherd, not an elder. It's doubtful he lived long enough as to be regarded among the older ones. Romans 16 records his service as inclusive of the work of a shepherd/pastor without actually labeling him as such. The truth about Paul also comes in deeds. Recall that "pastor" and "overseer" and "bishop" are not titles and not offices (with apology to some English Bible translators inserting words of this sort into the text).
BIG DIFFERENCE FROM THE IC: Our relationship in Christ is the sole requisite for all these things to function. For the true believer in Christ, pastor/shepherd & overseer/bishop & deacon functions are not "personal relationship" dependent, though relationships are aided with them.
Your identification of tribes with factionalism has not been proven by you and is not contained in the Text. Paul was well aware of tribes – and not just the Hebrew tribes – but does not even mention them when the topic of partisanship is addressed. If there were some unrecorded condemnation of tribes, John must not have gotten the memo:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
In the missionary environment in which Paul worked, it certainly may have the case that there were no other mature believers on hand – but he still wasn’t an elder.
Nate: I think you’re focusing too much on the circumstances in Jerusalem. You need something general enough to apply to any assembly. Assistant? Facilitator? Helper?
Avoid narrow definitions. Every assembly is different.
Claude, a brother
I don't remember any kids referring to older sibs as elders or even elder brothers when I was growing up. Why not use big brothers or even older brothers instead? You could use big brothers in v.1 of I Peter 5 and then use the corresponding little brothers in v. 5.
Claude, a brother
I was just reading a little more about this yesterday. The writer suggested "old man" was a better literal translation. I need to do a whole New Covenant search to understand more fully, though. Thanks for the suggestions.