The Basis of New Testament Local Church Ministry (Post 2)

[This post is part two in a series exploring a New Testament view of ministry, with an eye to how and where men and women relate to various contexts. If you haven’t already, read the first post HERE]

If you walk into a building set up for the church to gather in, it will probably follow a general pattern. There are rows of pews or chairs all facing in the same direction. The focal point of these seats, where the vast majority of those gathered will sit, is a place where one person or a small group of people will stand or sit. This area will often feature some furniture – perhaps a table (with no chairs around it) and often a pulpit or podium or at least a music stand.

One question we might ask is, who gets to stand in that spot toward which all eyes in the room are directed? Can just any Christian stand in that important spot? Can a woman stand in and speak from that place? What does it mean to stand there and speak?

The problem is that, as far as we can tell, gatherings of Jesus followers in the time that the New Testament was written didn’t meet in buildings set apart for special ‘church’ use. They met in homes and thus in smaller size groups than we are probably used to. There was likely no special furniture (can you imagine a big pulpit in your living room?) and no need for a raised platform because the gatherings were small enough that everyone could see one another.

Regardless of exactly what the rooms where like and how many people there were, the New Testament gives us a good indication on how these meetings went.

The few descriptions and instructions for these gatherings found in the New Testament Letters don’t give any indication of anyone being in a special location or position relative to others. Let’s take a quick look at a couple:

“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” 1 Corinthians 14:26

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16

Where is the person ‘up front’ in either of these instances? Who is responsible for ‘the pulpit’ in Corinth or Colossae?

It seems that these questions would be nonsensical to a member of the first century church. The strong indication that is that their gatherings were fully and equally participatory and Holy Spirit led.

One text that we will return to for more reflection in a future post is Titus 1.

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5

One question we might consider is, how did the churches function without established leaders to oversee it? The answer now presents itself: the leadership of the one or few are not the foundation of what congregations of Jesus’ people did when gathered. As we will later see and this text clearly indicates, there is a purpose for elders or overseers, but they are not the ‘main thing’ for New Testament ministry.

Okay then, what is the ‘main thing’ for first century gatherings of disciples?

The collective of those people, men and women, who have responded to the gospel in allegiance to King Jesus and empowered equally and fully by God the Holy Spirit with various gifts to build up the body.

Significantly, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out in a fresh way, Peter understood that it was a fulfillment of the words spoken through the Prophet Joel in the Old Testament:

“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
” Acts 2:17-18

Notice the repetition here in this God inspired word (through both the prophet Joel and Peter) of the specific inclusion of both men and women / sons and daughters in this text. And what will they – men and women both – do? Prophesy. We could do a whole post exploring what the meaning of prophesy might have been, but it has to be some form of divinely inspired speech given to be audibly shared with others. God will inspire both men and women equally to speak words given by him.

Peter will go on in that same Pentecost speech to proclaim a gospel word:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:36-39

The gift of the Holy Spirit is deeply significant in several ways. One of them is that we are all gifted to serve one another. There are several places in the New Testament that list gifts. Here are two short yet significant passages:

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8

“To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:8-10

It should be pointed out here that there is no indication whatsoever in any of these scriptures that spiritual gifts are given along gender lines. This fits perfectly with the pattern that we have seen at both Pentecost in in the local settings in Corinth and Colossae.

As we wrap up this post, I would submit for your consideration the following that we have seen from Scripture.

  • Regular New Testament gatherings were fully participatory with each member being able and even expected to use their gifts to bless, encourage and challenge the whole group with no central pulpit or platform indicated. There was no one person consistently ‘up front’ as far as we can see.
  • The Holy Spirit is poured out on all (both men and women specifically mentioned) who respond in faith to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, the crucified and risen King to whom we give our total allegiance.
  • Both men and women will be given and share divinely inspired words (prophecy)
  • Spiritual gifts are given to all believers with no indication that there is any difference according to gender.

As we conclude this post (I know, you have questions about other scriptures we haven’t covered yet. Don’t worry, we will get to them), what are you thinking? What ideas or passages that I’ve shared might you be reflecting on in new ways? Have you tended (as many of us do) to read the New Testament with our current expressions of church in mind rather than exploring what first century church life was like?

[Side note: As we work through these scriptures, I am not suggesting that we need to do everything exactly the way that they did it in the first century. But we perhaps or even probably should ask ourselves questions like, what would be the best way to set up our spaces and gatherings to foster the Spirit driven ministry of the New Testament churches?]

Author: Dan Masshardt

Husband, Father, Pastor...

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