Healthy Assembly Life

by Jon Zens


Believers who begin to practice ekklesia outside of traditional churches usually face a number of obstacles. Obviously, everyone brings their past church baggage with them to some degree. Folks can often see the problems with how most churches try to do things, but they are not always sure how to avoid such pitfalls in the fresh setting of home gatherings. In this chapter I would like to set forth some basic, fundamental perspectives that past experience tells me will go a long way toward helping the saints to get started on the right foot. First, we will look at the foundation we must work from, then we will examine some very practical issues about getting along with one another and working out problems together.


What Do We Build On?


 Given the propensity of human traditions to multiply and block the truth, it is important for believers to be sure that their practice of church is built on the correct foundation. A search of the New Testament reveals that there is only one foundation for the ekklesia and that is Jesus Christ Himself — His unique person, His redemptive work, and His authoritative words (1Co 3:11 ; 15:3-4; Mt 7:28 -29; 17:5). In terms of what Jesus taught it is clear to see what He viewed as central for the New Covenant community. On the eve of His death, after He had washed the disciples’ feet, He announced without ambiguity, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another” (Jn 13:34 -35). Every outworking of church life must flow out of a one-another love that imitates what the Lord did for us on the cross (Jn 15:12 -13).


Where Did Our Exodus Occur?


I t is vital to see the precise parallel at this point between the Old and New Covenants. Both covenants were based upon the Lord’s action in history to separate to Himself a people. Israel was separated to God by the Exodus out of Egypt ; the ekklesia was separated to God by the Exodus accomplished by Christ in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31 ). The moral demand on Israel was first prefaced by mention of God’s mighty arm: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery” (Ex 20:2). The moral demand upon the New Covenant people is rooted in Christ’s work on Golgotha , “as I have loved you.” The pattern is clear — the redemptive event (the indicative) is the basis for the required life-style (the imperatives) of the covenant peoples. That is to say, the event that saves us also commands us how to live. Douglas Webster said that, “Understanding the nature of Christ coincides with living out the ethics of Jesus . . . . The Christian ethic is exclusively dependent upon Christian redemption . . . . Jesus’ cross is planted squarely at the center of the believer’s existence, providing both the means of salvation and the challenge of a new life-style” (A Passion for Christ: An Evangelical Christology, Zondervan, 1987, pp. 52, 149, 153).


If you look at books on Christian Ethics you will discover that most of them end up being expositions of the Ten Commandments, as if ethical fullness can only be found in Exodus 20. In such volumes the “new commandment” and its implications are almost never given any attention. To cite a glaring example, in Patrick Fairbairn’s massive The Revelation of Law in Scripture, he devotes a great deal of space to the Ten Commandments, but says almost nothing about the “new command” in John 13. In the history of theology more attention has fallen on the Old Covenant ethics based on the Egyptian Exodus than on the New Covenant ethics flowing out of the Exodus Christ carried out in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). Perhaps this accounts for why church has traditionally, in certain key areas, been shaped more by Old Covenant images than New Covenant revelation.


In light of John 13 it is imperative that we build upon the foundation articulated by Christ. The New Covenant was sealed and inaugurated by the shedding of His blood. On the eve of His death as the spotless lamb of God, He announced that a new commandment was inseparably connected to His New Exodus. A question that must be answered is, “What makes this commandment new?” The command to love was ancient and revealed many times in the Old Testament. What makes it new is uncovered in the Lord’s words, “as I have loved you.” A new redemptive event brings with it a singular command to love one another, out of which flows all the many other imperatives embedded in the New Covenant — “if you love me, keep my commandments.”


The specific focus of the new commandment is one another. This shows that Christian ethics primarily relates to body ethics. At the core of the New Testament is a concern for the Ekklesia to live out the implications of the new man, which Christ created on the cross, making peace in a priesthood where there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female. As Paul Lehmann observes, “Christian ethics is koinonia ethics,” and the ekklesia is a context where maturity, and not mere morality, is spawned (Ethics in A Christian Context, Harper, 1963, pp. 47, 54). Our ecclesiology, therefore, must be rooted in the New Covenant which has been put into effect as binding, and our relations as brothers and sisters must be bathed in the new commandment to love one another as He loved us at Calvary .


 "Accept One Another / Admonish One Another"


 After being a Christian for fifteen years, around 1980 I began to struggle with a problem that occurs with tragic frequency in Bible-believing circles. I saw church split after church split. I saw brethren biting and devouring one another. I thought in my heart, “How can the New Testament, which puts so much emphasis on love and unity, become the source for so much division and strife?” Somewhere in the midst of my personal turmoil, the Lord brought me to the two-fold perspective of Paul in Romans 15. It does not, of course, bring an immediate resolution to every possible scenario we will face. However, I strongly believe that to the degree that we can practice this two-fold dimension of assembly life, we will go a long way toward avoiding the ugliness that, unfortunately, has come to mark much that bears the name Christian.


In the context Paul has dealt with the sticky reality that the early church had to face early on – Jews and Gentiles were brought together as a new man, and they were meeting together in the same homes. Paul, of course, did not opt for the easy thing to do, namely, have Jewish believers meet in one place, and the Gentile believers meet somewhere else. The only consistent outworking of the Gospel was for the two radically different ethnic groups to meet together because Jesus on the cross brought the two together, thereby making peace (Ep 2:12-18). This was a volatile situation, and Paul faces it head-on in Romans 14-15.


So after dealing with how Jewish and Gentile saints should show love to one another in areas like foods, drinks and days, Paul comes to the conclusion of the matter in Romans 15:7 – “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Then in verse 14 we discover the flip side of this exhortation to accept each other – “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” In these two verses a tension is revealed that we must all wrestle with: how can we pursue truth together without destroying our fellowship, and how can we pursue fellowship together without avoiding Christ’s truth?


Churches tend to illustrate the pendulum swing – they either pursue truth in an atmosphere without love and caring (which results in witch-hunts), or they emphasize acceptance and love with little interest in Christ’s revealed will (which results in gushy sentimentality). Why do we sever what God has joined together? Why can’t we cultivate and encourage an atmosphere of acceptance in which we will learn to speak the truth to one another in love? Our tendency is to reject other Christians who disagree with our understanding of Scripture in what we regard as crucial issues. Or, there is the tendency to so underscore acceptance that there is no concern for revealed truth. To fully accept one another in the bonds of the Gospel and to instruct one another in an atmosphere of acceptance is a tension we must face and work out.


Growth, according to Paul, can occur only when we speak the truth to one another in love (Ep 4:15 ; Jn 17:17 ). Elliot Johnson rightly observes, “In a sense, Evangelicals have lived with an interpretational truce. While we agree on doctrinal ‘essentials’ we have also agreed to not talk very seriously about issues of disagreement. Yet Paul charted God’s strategy for Christian growth [in Ep 4:12 -13]. In order to reach unity we need some way to talk about our different interpretations and to evaluate these differences” (“Author’s Intention & Biblical Interpretation,” Position Paper given in Chicago at the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1982, pp. 1-2).


The problem in most configurations of believers is that the very rationale for the group’s existence rules out the possibility of certain truths being discussed. The truth is already defined in terms of some predetermined boundaries. I suggest that this kind of behavior is childish and makes a mockery of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. When we face new issues from the Word are we willing to work together, study together, pray together and even fast together in order to seek the Lord’s mind and come to greater agreement? Most of us are ready to separate from other brethren at the drop of a hat. But it takes a commitment to the truth and to the brothers and sisters to be willing to work matters out.


Seeking Truth Together in Fellowship


I n 1981 a brother sent me some material from Vernard Eller’s 1964 doctoral thesis. It was like dew from heaven. It put into words what I had begun to see emerge from Romans 15:7 and 14. It provided a singularly important grid that will help any group get started in the right direction. When groups fall apart I believe the root causes can be traced back to a failure to practice the vital perspectives Eller has isolated. What follows are some of his key thoughts that echo the two-fold vantage point of Romans 15:


•Previous Commitment to Follow Scripture — Such an assembly must come to the Scriptures having previously made the commitment to obey and follow as literally and completely as possible whatever leading may be discovered therein.


•Centrality of Love — Such an assembly, above all, must preserve the love for one another, without which any religious insight, no matter how correct it may be technically, loses its truth.


•Instruct in An Atmosphere of Love — Such an assembly will respect and maintain brotherhood with all sincere seekers of truth (Ro 15:7), though at the same time, they will see it as their Christian duty to point out what they feel to be the errors in the other’s thinking (Ro 15:14).


•Seeking Truth Without Fracturing Fellowship — A dialectic is in operation here: The preservation of fellowship is of supreme value; however, uniformity, or unanimity, in the truth is also of high value. The pressure toward unanimity dare not be allowed to destroy fellowship, but neither dare the joys of fellowship be allowed to stifle the search for the point of concord that marks the truth . . . . If this dialectical balance be patiently maintained, the Spirit can and will eventually bring about unanimity – while in the process enhancing rather than destroying fellowship.


•Humility and Openness Necessary — Much more important than having the truth is being in a position to receive the truth; thus, the life of the church always must be open-ended toward God. (Searching Together, Spring, 1983, pp. 13-14).


If every assembly would walk in the power of the Spirit according to the ways described above, we would see a lot less rancor and a lot more unity in love and truth. The problem is, of course, that it is people like you and me who make up the parts of each ekklesia. We are all very capable of putting ourselves and our agendas ahead of others. This reality underscores the importance of each part of the body being committed to loving one another fervently. When physical families have problems they don’t run away from each other. Hopefully, there is a commitment present that will stick it out during the process of resolving issues. How much more in the spiritual body of Christ should we be willing to persevere with one another in anticipation of the Lord by His Spirit enhancing our fellowship as we speak the truth in love?


"Agree with One Another" (1Co 1:10)


N o human family can function indefinitely without having to face a conflict or problem. Likewise, in Christ’s family there will be problems that must be resolved. Indeed, much of what was written in the New Testament had to do with correcting errors of teaching and practice among the saints. What guidelines does the New Testament give for working through the bumpy times that any congregation will inevitably face? 1 Corinthians 1:10 reveals some critical apostolic teaching in this regard.


First, it can be noted that Paul directs his exhortation to the brethren. These were believers in a city who maintained an ongoing relationship with one another in the bonds of Christ. They were committed to one another because of their common interest in the Gospel. It is this deep mutual fellowship (koinonia) in Christ that provides the backdrop for Paul’s approach to them with correction. Larry Crabb notes a vital perspective that emerges from this consideration, “Change takes place when truth is presented in relationship. Perhaps a relationship of deep regard and empathetic concern is the context for change, creating an atmosphere in which the truth of God can be heard nondefensively and thus penetrate more deeply . . . . to be healthy, a church must present truth in the context of encouraging relationships” (Encouragement: The Key to Caring, Zondervan, 1984, pp. 84, 91).


This insight reflects what we saw in Romans 15:7. A loving, caring, accepting atmosphere must be the context for speaking the truth to each other in love (Ro 15:14 ). What reason would we have to think that Gospel truth will take deep root in a setting which reflected instead the modified line from the old song, “Where seldom is heard, an encouraging word”?


Next, Paul confronts the Corinthians with a very serious problem. Paul had a number of issues with them, but this is the one at the top of his list. They were clustering around gifted personalities, and by such schism were ruining the image of an undivided Christ. “Each one of you is saying, ‘I’m of Paul; and I’m of Apollos; and I’m of Peter; and I’m of Christ.’” This sinful division was already occurring and had driven the saints apart from one another.


To solve this problem Paul appeals to them to agree about the wickedness of this situation. If they agreed then the divisions could no longer exist. The participle katartismenoi used in verse 10 is significant. It is from the same verb used in Ephesians 4:12 , translated there as equip or prepare” It is the verb used when the disciples were “mending” their nets (Mt 4:21 ; Mk 1:19 ). We could loosely translate the verb, “mending with a view toward rendering something as functional again.” This idea also emerges again in Galatians 6:1, “restore such a one . . . .”


As used in the context of 1 Corinthians 1:10 , we can see an important implication of being “perfectly united in mind and thought.” While we are not given any of the details as to how they worked this out, at a minimum we can say that the Corinthians had to work through this matter until the breach was mended and they finally agreed. A process which results in unity is in view . They were already split apart, so in order for the torn garment to be repaired they had to: (1) take the apostolic instruction; (2) come back together; (3) face and discuss the word of the Lord together; (4) repent of their sins; and (5) be restored again to their original oneness.


The utterly amazing fact is that, even with all their problems, Paul assumes that the assembly has the spiritual resources to overcome their waywardness. Many posit that the problem-solving abilities Paul presupposes will only work among mature churches. But this is a bogus suggestion. Corinth was in many ways a very immature assembly, but Paul still expects them, for example, to deal with immorality in their midst (1Co 5) and to resolve their disputes internally without going to unbelieving courts (1Co 6).


The apostles taught that within the New Covenant community all were anointed by the Holy Spirit who enabled them to test and discern what the will of God might be (1Jn 2:20 , 27; 4:1; 1Th 5:21 ). The ekklesia, therefore, is first of all a discerning community, able to bind and loose, and thus is also a decision-making community. The very word chosen to earmark the New Covenant people of God, ekklesia, is taken from the secular political realm, not from a religious context. Ekklesia referred to a group of people with common interests getting together to accomplish certain business. It would be very similar to the town meetings that took place in developing America in the 1800s. John H. Yoder observes that, “The word ekklesia itself . . . does not refer to a specifically religious meeting, nor to a particular organization: it rather means the assembly, the gathering of a people into a meeting for deliberation or for a public pronouncement . . . . The church is where, because there Jesus is confessed as Christ, people are empowered to speak to one another in God’s name . . . . It is only in the local face-to-face meeting, with brothers and sisters, who know one another well, that this process can take place of which Jesus says that what has been decided stands decided in heaven” (“Binding & Loosing,” Concern #14, Feb. 1967, pp. 2ff.; cf. TDNT, IV, p.336).


As you reflect on the New Testament epistles, it is quite striking that church leaders are not addressed separately, as if some special decision-making authority resided in them Instead, Paul directs his writings to the entire assembly. For example, he does not rebuke the elders at Corinth for failing to deal with the immoral person or for not resolving the disputes among the brethren. He puts the nexus of responsibility on the whole congregation to carry out Christ’s revealed will.


Paul’s approach flies in the face of the traditional decision-making method, which views “the pastor,” or a body of leaders, as the source of decisions. Abraham Kuyper, for instance, removed the right to judge from the congregation and asserted that “the administrative authority over the church rests not with the members, but properly with the presbyters” (“Pamphlet on The Reformation of the Church,” The Standard Bearer, Oct. 1979, p. 14). Jay Adams avers that “take it to the church” means “take it to the elders,” who then forgive or excommunicate (Ready to Forgive, Pres. & Reformed, pp. 3-4). Such an interpretation is arbitrary, informed more by presuppositions than by the text itself. Elders will certainly be a part of the discerning process in the body, but the New Testament will not sustain the notion that elders are the process itself. The truth is, there is very little focus on elders in the New Testament, compared to the at least fifty-eight “one-another” imperatives found therein.


Both times Jesus uses ekklesia to identify His New Covenant people, He attaches binding and loosing to its function (Mt 16:19; 18:18). This clearly indicates that we need to significantly broaden our ideas of what is entailed in doing “church.” Traditionally, doing church means going to a building, sitting in a pew, singing some songs, putting some money in a plate, hearing a sermon, shaking the pastor’s hand, and heading home to get your roast out of the oven. Most fundamentally, however, ekklesia means doing the whole gamut of kingdom activities with other committed believers in a local congregation. We are not used to thinking of resolving disputes within the body as church, but the essence of practicing ekklesia involves problem-solving and decision-making in an atmosphere of loving acceptance where Christ’s truth can be spoken in love.


It behooves us, therefore, to realize that it is expected of assemblies to agree with one another and to be perfectly united in mind and thought. This does not mean that we must have unanimity regarding every doctrinal nuance, but it does mean that we must be ready to work things out with our brethren as required in light of apostolic teaching. Paul was not surprised when congregations had problems, but he was upset when they failed to work through their problems together as a body. Here is a question each of us needs to face: when the inevitable day comes in my assembly that a problem surfaces, am I going to run and hide from it, or am I going to stand with the body and do my part to be part of its resolution? Real ekklesia requires hard work and commitment, but we must never forget that Jesus’ presence by the Spirit, persistent prayer, preferring others ahead of ourselves, and fervent love are where the battles are won.


"Honor One Another Above Yourselves" (Ro 12:10)


One of the most staggering goals of Christ’s work is set forth is 2 Corinthians 5:15 , “those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and was raised again.” One of the unending lessons of discipleship is to take up our cross daily and follow Christ, to consciously by the Spirit’s power stop living for ourselves and serve Him. In terms of our life in the body of Christ, one of the key ways we demonstrate a selfless life is to put others’ needs ahead of our own.


Think about it. If each believer was preferring others ahead of oneself, everybody’s needs would be met. We would all be looking out for each other. No one would be forgotten. It sounds so simple, but we all know that body life does not work out that smoothly because each of us struggles with putting ourselves ahead of others.


In terms of our life together as believers, and in light of our responsibility to work things out in the body, one of the central ways we manifest non-self-centered living is by listening to the concerns and burdens of others. James 1:19 says, “let everyone be quick to hear, and slow to speak and slow to anger.”


Some commentators see in James’ remark a corrective to what was transpiring in early Christian gatherings. Curtis Vaughn and Earl Kelly note, “There may be an illusion [in James 1:19 ] to the free and unstructured worship of the early Christian assemblies” (James: A Study Guide, Zondervan, 1960, p. 35). Further, “It is possible that contentious Christian babes were taking advantage of the informal style of worship in the early Christian church to produce wrangling” (James: A Primer for Christian Living, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974, p. 69).


The point is that in our dealings with one another each of us must first of all “be quick to hear.” Obviously, in any configuration of brethren there will be those will want to talk a lot, those who are very reticent, and others in-between. Those who have the gift of gab should take to heart James’ admonition, “be slow to speak.” They should prefer others ahead of themselves, and be sure that they do not stifle the input of others, either by dominating the discussion, or by coming across in such a dogmatic tone that no one feels up to contributing their thoughts. The verbally timid should be encouraged to share their insights by the rest of the group, realizing that each one of us has the potential of adding edifying content to the meeting (1Co 14:26). As William Barclay observes about the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14, “The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and obligation of contributing something to it . . . . Obviously this had its dangers for it is clear that in Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices” (The Letters to the Corinthians, Westminster Press, pp. 149-150).


In light of the exhortation for each of us to be “quick to hear,” what are some vital attitudes that we must cultivate in our body relationships?


1. We must be open to learn from brethren in various traditions. We all tend to stick to some party-line and turn our heads away from information outside of our comfort zone. A.N. Groves wrote in 1833 concerning his relationship with J.N. Darby, “I do not think we ought to propose to be modeled unlike every sect, but simply to be like Christ; let us neither seek nor fear a name. I wish rather to have from every sect what every sect may have from Christ” (Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement, pp. 114-115).


Are we willing to “listen” to multiple sources and discern from them what might help us discover the mind of Christ? Are we really open to be challenged by others to search the Scriptures and see what is indeed so? Thomas Dubay notes in this regard: “Since no one of us mortals, affected as we are with original sin, is perfectly pure in his desire for truth, no one of us is exempt from some degree of close-mindedness. It is only our God who is truth than can cure our reluctance to embrace all of his truth, however he speaks it” (“Communication in Community,” Searching Together, Winter, 1985, p. 11).


2. “We need to be humble,” says Dubay, “small in our own estimation. Finding the solution to a mathematical problem is possible without humility, but finding God’s will is impossible without this virtue. James 4:6 tells us that God resists the proud but gives grace (and light) to the humble” (“Communication,” p. 11). Whenever a group of believers bathed in humility gather together, great things can be expected; but, as James 3:16 notes, where there is “envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” The truly humble put others ahead of themselves. They pay attention to what they hear from others.


3. We must always have a “willingness to be changed by what is going to be said (without, of course, sacrificing genuine principles). One listens wholly only if he is willing to modify his present position if the evidence warrants it. People who are set in their thoughts and determined not to change their behavior do not listen to contrary evidences (Dubay, p. 11). If we confess that we do not know anything as we ought, then we will be open to new light from our brethren. We must listen to possible new evidence that has escaped our attention. As Eller noted, the church must always be open-ended toward God’s truth in Christ.


4. We must “grow in awareness that the person speaking is important, even precious, “God’s beloved” (Ro 1:7). We pay attention to important people. To the proud person others are not important and so he is not inclined to take them seriously. Even more, we value the opinions of those we love. If I do not really care what my brother thinks, I had better doubt that I love my brother” (Dubay, p. 11). I have seen so many cases in assemblies where those who articulate things with razor-sharp logic bulldoze over the little person, and pooh-pooh any concerns they have. You may think that a question or concern coming from another is immature, or ill-timed, or very low on your list of priorities, but if you really love that person you must give your ears and heart to that fellow-believer who is precious to Christ. We must highly esteem the input of every part of the body, or we run the risk of missing the voice of Jesus in our midst. In Christ’s body we are instructed to heap more honor on those parts that seem to be weaker and less honorable (1Co 12:22 -24).


A huge chunk of not living for ourselves, but for Christ, is displayed in how we defer to one another in the body of Christ. Without apology I say that to the degree a committed body of believers by God’s grace follows the perspectives set forth in this article, they will fare well and be able to tackle the inevitable bumps that come in the course of assembly life. If these perspectives are forgotten, neglected, or rejected, then a body will more than likely self-destruct. Functioning together in the ekklesia is like holding a bird in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you will kill it. If you hold it too loosely it will fly away. If believers are fueled by the love Christ had for them on the cross – “as I have loved you” – then they can successfully keep the bird alive by loving one another fervently.


After considering what has been said about body life, you may be thinking: “There is just one thing wrong with the biblical view of the church which we have been sketching: it does not seem to exist. The definition is fine, but the phenomenon it describes is missing” (John H. Yoder, "A Light to All Nations," Concern #9, March, 1961, p. 17).


The fact that we are so far from where we should be is a valid cause for concern. But the truth that these attitudes and perspectives are the obvious will of Christ by the Spirit must give us great confidence that they can become realities in our assemblies.


"Lord Jesus, please enable us to give ourselves to the life of love you have revealed in your Word."