THE MEETINGPrint This Page.
Before we consider the question of meeting, let us first say a few words concerning the nature of the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church and "we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Rom. 12:5). Apart from Christ, the Church has no head; all believers are only members, and they are "members one of another." Mutuality expresses the nature of the Church, for all the relationships among believers are of one member to another, never of a head to the members. All those who compose a church take their place as members of the Body, not one occupying the position of head. The whole life of the church, and all its activities, must be stamped by this characteristic of mutuality.
But the nature of the work is quite different from that of the church. In the work there are active and passive groups. The apostles are active, and those among whom they labor are passive, whereas in the church all are active. In the work, activity is one-sided; in the church it is all-round.
When we recognize the fundamental difference between the nature of the work and the church, then we shall easily understand the scriptural teaching concerning the meetings which we are about to consider. There are two different kinds of meetings in Scripture—the church meeting and the apostolic meeting. If we are to differentiate clearly between the two, we must first understand the different nature of church and work. Once we see that clearly, a glance at the nature of any meeting will make it obvious to what sphere it belongs; but if we fail to realize the distinction, we shall constantly confuse the church with the work. In the early Church there were meetings which were definitely connected with the churches, and others that were just as definitely connected with the work. In the latter only one man spoke, and all the others constituted his audience. One stood before the others, and by his preaching directed the thoughts and hearts of those who sat quietly listening. This type of meeting can be recognized at once as a meeting connected with the apostolic work, because it bears the character of the work, that is, activity on the one side and passivity on the other. There is no stamp of mutuality about it. In the church meetings, "each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation" (1 Cor. 14:26). Here it is not a case of one leading and all the others following, but of each one contributing his share of spiritual helpfulness. True, only a few of those present take part, but all may; only a few are actual contributors to the meeting, but all are potential contributors. The Scriptures show these two distinct kinds of meetings—apostolic meetings, which are led by one man, and church meetings, in which all the local brethren are free to take part.
The apostolic meetings may be divided into two classes—for believers and for unbelievers. The meeting which was held immediately after the Church came into existence was an apostolic meeting for unbelievers (Acts 2:14). The gatherings in the portico of Solomon (Acts 3:11) and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) were of the same nature, and there are still other records of similar meetings in the book of Acts. They were clearly apostolic meetings, not church meetings, because one man spoke and all the others listened. Paul's preaching at Troas was to the brethren (Acts 20). Whether it was in the church or not, it was still apostolic in nature, for it was one-sided, the apostle alone speaking to the whole assembly, and not the various members taking part for their mutual edification. Paul preached to the brethren at Troas because he was passing through that place, and any apostle passing through a place as he did would be free to respond to an invitation from the brethren to help them spiritually. Then when Paul was in Rome, the believers came to his rented room to hear him witness (Acts 28:23, 30-31). This work again is specifically apostolic in nature, because one man is active, while the others are passive.
The second kind of meeting is mentioned in the first Epistle to the Corinthians:
If therefore the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak in tongues, and some unlearned in tongues or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are insane?....What then, brothers? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two, or at the most three, and in turn, and one should interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church, and speak to himself and to God. And as to prophets, two or three should speak, and the others discern. But if something is revealed to another sitting by, the first should be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints (4:23, 26-33).
This is obviously a church meeting, because it is not one man leading while all the others follow, but each gifted one contributing to the meeting as the Spirit directs. In the apostolic meetings there is a definite distinction between the preacher and his audience, but in this kind of meeting any gifted member of the church may be preacher and any may be audience. Nothing is determined by man, and each takes part as the Spirit leads. It is not an "all-man" ministry, but a Holy Spirit ministry. The prophets and teachers minister the Word as the Lord gives it, while others minister to the assembly in other ways. Not all can prophesy and teach, but all can seek to prophesy and teach (v. 1). An opportunity is given to each member of the church to help others, and an opportunity is given to each one to be helped. One brother may speak at one stage of the gathering and another later on; you may be chosen of the Spirit to help the brethren this time, and I next time. Everything in the meeting is governed throughout by the principle of "two or three" (vv. 27, 29). Even the same two or three prophets are not permanently appointed to minister to the meetings, but at each meeting the Spirit chooses any two or three from among all the prophets present. That such assemblies are assemblies of the church is seen at a glance, because the stamp of mutuality is clearly upon all the proceedings.
There is only one verse in the New Testament which speaks of the importance of Christians meeting together; it is Hebrews 10:25: "Not abandoning our own assembling together, as the custom with some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more as you see the day drawing near." This verse shows that the object of such assembling is to exhort "one another." This is obviously not an apostolic meeting, for it is not a case of one man exhorting the entire assembly, but all the members bearing equal responsibility to exhort one another. A church meeting has the stamp of "one another" upon it.
There are several purposes for which the church meets, as recorded in Scripture. First, for prayer (Acts 2:42; 4:24, 31; 12:5); second, for reading (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27; Acts 2:42; 15:21, 30-31); third, for the breaking of bread—which are not meetings presided over by a single individual who bears all responsibility, since reference is made to "the cup of blessing which we bless...the bread which we break" (1 Cor. 10:16-17; Acts 2:42; 20:7); and fourth, for the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14). The last type of meeting is a church meeting, for the phrase "in the church" is used repeatedly in the passage which describes it (vv. 28, 34-35). Of this meeting it is said that all may prophesy. How different from one man preaching and all the others sitting quietly in the pew listening to his sermon! That meeting has no place among the different gatherings of the church, for its nature makes it evident that it is an apostolic meeting, and being an apostolic meeting, it belongs to the sphere of the work, not of the church. Meetings where activity is one-sided do not come within the scope of the church, for they lack the distinctive feature of all church gatherings; and where any attempt is made to fit them into the church program, much trouble is sure to result.
Today, alas! this style of meeting is the chief feature of the churches. No meeting is attended with such regularity as this one. Who is considered a really good Christian? Is it not one who comes to church fifty-two Sunday mornings in the year to hear the minister preach? But this is passivity, and it heralds death. Even he who has attended "church" fifty-two Sundays in the year has not really been once to a church meeting. He has only gone to a meeting in connection with the work. I do not imply that we should never have this kind of meeting, but the point is that such a meeting is part of the work and is not part of the church. If you have a worker in the locality, then you may have this type of meeting, not otherwise. The local church, as a church, has no such meetings. Where they are found in connection with a church, we must discourage them and help believers to see that church meetings are conducted by the church. If apostolic meetings take the place of church meetings, then the church members become passive and indolent, always expecting to be helped, instead of seeking, in dependence upon the Spirit, to be helpful to the other members. It is contrary to the New Testament principles of mutual help and mutual edification. The reason the churches in China are still so weak, after a hundred years of Christian missions, is that God's servants have introduced into the local churches a type of meeting that really belongs to the work, and the church members have naturally concluded that if they attend such services and just passively receive all that is taught them there, they have performed the chief part of their Christian duty. Individual responsibility has been lost sight of, and passivity has hindered the development of spiritual life throughout the churches.
Further, to maintain the Sunday morning preaching, you must have a good preacher. Therefore, a worker is not only needed to manage church affairs, but also to maintain the meetings for spiritual uplift. It is only natural, if a good address is to be delivered every Sunday, that the churches hope for someone who is better qualified to preach than recently converted local brothers. How could they be expected to produce a good sermon once a week? And who could be expected to preach better than a specially called servant of God? So an apostle settles down to pastor the church, and consequently the churches and the work both lose their distinctive features. The result is serious loss in both directions. On the one hand, the brethren become lazy and selfish because their thought is only centered on themselves and the help they can receive, and on the other hand, unevangelized territories are left without workers because apostles have settled down to be elders. For lack of activity the spiritual growth of the churches is arrested, and for lack of apostles the extension of the work is arrested too.
Since so much havoc has been wrought by introducing a feature of the work into the churches, and thus robbing both of their true nature, we must differentiate clearly between meetings that belong specifically to the work and those that belong specifically to the church. When God blesses our efforts in any place to the salvation of souls, we must see to it that the saved ones understand, from the outset, that the meetings which resulted in their salvation belong to the work and not to the church, and that they are the church and must therefore have their own church meetings. They must meet in their homes or in other places to pray, study the Word, break bread, and exercise their spiritual gifts; and in such meetings their object must be mutual helpfulness and mutual edification. Each individual must bear his share of responsibility and pass on to the others what he himself has received from the Lord. The conduct of the meetings should be the burden of no one individual, but all the members should bear the burden together, and they should seek to help one another depending upon the teaching and leading of the Spirit, and depending upon His empowering too. As soon as believers are saved, they should begin to assemble themselves regularly. Such gatherings of local believers are true church meetings.
Meetings connected with the work are only a temporary institution (unless the object is to maintain a special testimony in a special place). But the assembling of the believers for fellowship and mutual encouragement is something permanent. Even should the believers be very immature, and their meetings seem quite childish, they must learn to content themselves with what help they receive from one another and must not always hope to be able to sit down and listen to a good sermon. They should seek revelation, spiritual gifts, and utterance from God; and if their need casts them upon Him, it will result in the enrichment of the whole church. Meetings of recently saved believers will naturally bear the stamp of immaturity at the beginning, but for the worker to take over the responsibility of such meetings will stunt their growth, not foster it. It is the condition of the church meetings, not of the meetings connected with the work, that indicates the spiritual state of a church in any locality. When an apostle is preaching a grand sermon, and all the believers are nodding assent and adding their frequent and fervent "Amens," how deeply spiritual the congregation seems! But it is when they meet by themselves that their true spiritual state comes to light.
The apostolic meeting is not an intrinsic part of the church life; it is merely a piece of work, and it ceases with the departure of the worker. But the church meetings go on uninterrupted, whether the worker is present or absent. It is because the difference has not been realized between meetings for the church and for the work, that it has ever occurred to the brethren to cease to assemble themselves when the worker goes. One of the fruitful sources of spiritual failure today is that the children of God consider the church to be a part of the work; so when there is a sermon to hear, they constitute a willing audience, but if there is no preacher, the meetings automatically cease, and there is no thought of simply gathering together to help one another.
But how can the local believers be equipped to minister one to the other? In the apostolic days it was taken for granted that the Spirit would come upon all believers as soon as they turned to the Lord, and with the on-coming of the Spirit, spiritual gifts were imparted, through the exercise of which the churches were edified. The usual method which God has ordained for building up the churches is the ordinary church gatherings, not the meetings conducted by the workers. The reason the churches are so weak these days is that workers seek to build them up, through the meetings under their care, instead of leaving it to their own responsibility to edify each other through proper church meetings. Why has it come about that the church meetings of 1 Corinthians 14 are no longer a part of church life? Because so many of God's people lack the experience of the Spirit's on-coming, without which a meeting conducted along the lines of 1 Corinthians 14 is a mere empty form. Unless all those we lead to the Lord have a definite experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, it will be of little use instructing them how to conduct their church meetings, for such meetings will be powerless and ineffective. If the Holy Spirit is upon the believers, as in the days of the early Church, He will give gifts to men, and such men will be able to strengthen the saints and to build up the Body of Christ. We see from Paul's first Corinthian Epistle that God so equipped believers with spiritual gifts that they were able to carry on the work of building up the churches quite independently of the apostles. (This does not imply that they needed no further apostolic help. They decidedly did.) Alas! that nowadays many of God's people set more store by God's servants than by His Holy Spirit! They are content to be ministered to by the gifts of a worker, instead of seeking for themselves the gifts of the Spirit; so true church meetings have given place to meetings under the auspices of the workers.
In 1 Corinthians 14, where a church meeting is in view, apostles have been left out of account altogether! There is no place for them in the meetings of a local church! When the members of a church assemble and the spiritual gifts are in use, prophecy and other gifts are exercised, but there is no mention of apostles for the simple reason that apostles are appointed no place in the meetings of the local church; they are appointed to the work. When the local church meets, it is the gifts that are brought into use; office has no place here, not even that of an apostle. But this does not preclude a visiting apostle from speaking at all in a church meeting. This is illustrated by the fact that Paul took part in the Troas meeting. But the point to be noted is that Paul was only passing through Troas, so his speaking there was merely a temporary arrangement in order that the local saints might benefit by his spiritual gifts and knowledge of the Lord; it was not a permanent institution.
Apostles, as apostles, represent an office in the work, and not any particular gift; therefore, here they are ignored altogether. Not a mention is made of them in this local church gathering. In the organization of the church they have no place at all, because their ministry, as apostles, was not for the churches but for the work. As we have already observed, apostles had no say in the management of the business affairs of any church; but from the fact that no part is allotted them even in the local gatherings for mutual edification, it is clear that God did not even intend that they should bear the responsibility of the spiritual ministry in the churches. God gave gifts to the local brethren so that they could be prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, and, thus equipped, could carry the burden of spiritual ministry in the locality. Apostles do not bear responsibility either for the spiritual or material side of affairs in any church; the elders are responsible for the local management, and the prophets and other ministers for the local ministry.
Then have apostles nothing to do with the local church? Surely! There is still plenty of scope for them to help the churches, but not in the capacity of apostles. On the business side of things they can help indirectly by giving counsel to the elders, who deal directly with the church affairs; and on the spiritual side in the church meetings they can minister with any spiritual gifts they may possess, such as prophecy or teaching. Their apostolic office is of no account in a church meeting for the exercise of spiritual gifts. As apostles they cannot exercise any apostolic gift, but as brothers they can minister to their fellow believers by the use of any gift with which the Spirit may have endowed them.
Not only apostles, but even elders as such, have no part in the meetings. In this chapter (1 Cor. 14), elders have no place at all. They are not even mentioned. We have already pointed out that elders are for office, not for ministry. They are appointed for church government, and not for ministry. Office is for government, and gifts are for ministry. In the meetings which are for ministry, it is those who have been gifted by God that count, not those who hold office; so in the church meetings it is the prophets, teachers, and evangelists who take the lead, not the elders. They are the gifted ones of the church.1
We must differentiate between the work of the elders, and the work of the prophets and teachers. Their work is different, but they are not necessarily different persons. It is quite possible for one person to act in both capacities. The elders are those who hold office in a local church; the prophets and teachers are the gifted ministers in a local church. The elders are for church government at all times; the prophets and teachers are for ministry in church meetings. Whenever there is a church, the Lord not only appoints elders for its government, but also gives gifts to some brothers to constitute them ministers for the meetings. But this does not mean that elders have nothing to do with the meetings. Whenever government in the meetings is necessary, they can exercise authority there. As to ministry, though they cannot minister as elders, yet, if they are also prophets or teachers, they can minister in that capacity. It is almost imperative that elders be prophets and teachers; otherwise, they cannot rule the church effectively.
The point to be remembered is that church meetings are the sphere for the ministry of the Word, not the sphere for the exercise of any office. It is for the exercise of gifts unto edification. Since both apostleship and eldership are offices, one in the work and one in the church, so both of the officers, as such, are altogether out of the meetings. But God will be gracious to His church to give it gifts for its upbuilding. The church meetings are the place for the use of these gifts for mutual help.
All meetings on the "round-table" principle are church meetings, and all meetings on the "pulpit-and-pew" principle are meetings belonging to the work. The latter may be of a passing nature, and not necessarily a permanent institution, whereas the former are a regular feature of church life. A round-table enables you to pass something to me and me to pass something to you. It affords opportunity for an expression of mutuality, that essential feature of all relationships in the church. In the local churches we must discourage all meetings on the "pulpit-and-pew" principle, so that, on the one hand, God's workers shall be free to travel far and wide proclaiming the glad tidings to sinners, and, on the other hand, the new converts shall be cast on the Lord for all needed equipment to serve one another. Thus the churches, having to bear their own responsibility, will develop their own spiritual life and gifts through exercise. It is all right to have an apostolic meeting when a worker visits the locality, but when he goes, meetings of the pulpit-type should be discontinued. Prophets, teachers, and evangelists in the local church may also take such meetings from time to time, but they should be regarded as exceptional, for they foster passivity and do not on the whole make for the spiritual development of the churches.
Let us consult the book of Acts in order to see the example God set for His Church in the beginning. "And they continued steadfastly in the teaching and the fellowship of the apostles, in the breaking of bread and the prayers....And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they partook of their food with exultation and simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:42, 46). Such were conditions in the early days of the Church's history. The apostles did not establish a central meeting place for the believers, but these "continued steadfastly in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in the breaking of bread and the prayers." They moved from house to house having fellowship one with another.
We can now draw our own conclusions from the three points we have considered. (1) Wherever there is a group of believers in any place, a few of the more mature are chosen from their number to care for the others, after which all local responsibility rests upon them. From the very outset it should be made clear to the new converts that it is by divine appointment that the management of the church is entrusted to local elders and not to any worker from another place. (2) There is no official meeting place necessary for the church. The members meet in one or more houses, according as their numbers require, and should it be necessary to meet in several houses, it is well for the whole church to congregate from time to time in one place. For such meetings a special place could be obtained either for the occasion, or permanently, according to existing church conditions. (3) The church meetings are not the responsibility of the workers. Local believers should learn to use the spiritual gifts with which God has entrusted them to minister to their fellow believers. The principle on which all church meetings are conducted is that of the "round-table," not of the "pulpit-and-pew." When any apostle visits a place, he could lead a series of meetings for the local church, but such meetings are exceptional. In the usual church gatherings the brethren should all make their special contributions in the power and under the leading of the Spirit. But to make such meetings of definite value it is essential that the believers receive spiritual gifts, revelation, and utterance; therefore, the workers should make it a matter of real concern that all their converts experience the power of the outpoured Spirit.
If the examples God has shown us in His Word are followed, then no question will ever arise in the churches regarding self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. And the churches in the different localities will consequently be saved much unnecessary expenditure, which will enable them to come freely to the help of the poor believers, as the Corinthians did, or to the help of the workers, as did the Philippians. If the churches follow the lines God Himself has laid down for them, His work will go forward unhindered and His kingdom be extended on earth.