Does it really matter if what we do in church matches up with scripture? I remember sitting down with a prominent local church pastor about the fledgling house church network I was part of. He told me he didn’t believe that the bible should inform the way we “do” church. I was a church conference sitting down with a number of different church leaders and denominational folks. One prominent denominational leader told me the exact same thing. He said the bible does not speak to how we do church.
I’ve never really understood this line of thinking. I understand that the New Testament church was established in a radically different time and place than we are now. If we were to copy the New Testament practice for practice we might miss the original intention of the apostolic leaders. There are some practices that just don’t mean the same thing today that they did in biblical times. We know women were instructed to wear a covering on their head. The reason why women were instructed to wear head coverings (1cor 11) is lost on us. I remember having to teach on this chapter of Corinthians and I hoped to find a good explanation for this practice and I couldn’t. We assume the Corinthians knew exactly what Paul was talking about but this practice just doesn’t translate in to our context.
What if we run in to a passage that describes the function, value or nature of the church and it is applicable regardless of the cultural or societal context? Let’s consider one such passage in the next chapter of 1Corinthians.
so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
(1Co 12:25-27 TNIV)
Obviously this applies to us here and now but does it speak to church practice? I believe it does. The first objection I know some would make is that Paul isn’t speaking to the structure of the church just the attitude, ethics and values of the people in the church. I would agree to a point but we must remember that our forms and methods reflect what we value in the church. If the central expression of church requires nothing other than attendance, singing and listening from most people what message does that send? Does that communicate that there is equal concern for everyone in the body? Is it right that we value certain aspects of church ministry so much that we don’t have the time or the resources to ensure that everyone is cared for even a little bit?
Looking at this passage it is easy to gloss over it assuming Paul being unrealistically idealistic. How can everyone in the church be equally cared for? It just isn’t feasible. It isn’t unrealistic when we consider that the church in Corinth met in homes. It is easy to understand how in that setting people could have not just known one another but actually had an active concern for each other. I’ve personally observed the sincere and genuine sadness that people feel when one or more of our church members can’t make it because we tangibly feel the loss of their contribution.
Such passages of scripture seem overly idealistic when looking through the lens of contemporary church practice, but if we view it in the context of their actual church practice they are very realistic. I think we have a generous amount of freedom in living out the values prescribed in scripture. 1Cor 12 could be lived out as a group of house churches networked together or a larger church with a significant investment in small groups. My only concern is that we faithfully live out biblical values and structure our activities so they work with, not against the natural function of the church.