There is a fad these days amongst Evangelicals when it comes to considering the structure and system of the Church. Only two generations ago the Church was the focal point of the community where events were held and people attended with or without faith. During the in-between generation, we fell prey to the entertainment delusion of our society and became event-oriented and age segregated. In response to the problems this mindset has caused, many are embracing the “Simple Church” model and it is a regular conversation and point of pride to say,
“I want to be [or am] in a New Testament Church”.
Many people do not know what that means, but at it’s core, the sentiment is belief that those first few centuries after Jesus returned to Heaven and the disciples planted churches all across the known world, those churches did it right. Some people reject a church building and numbers over thirty because stripping the worship service of structure and formality makes it more community based and organic. Where in the Bible does it say, after all, that we have to have one song, a greeting, shaking of hands, three more songs, a prayer, a sermon, an invitation and an offering? All in a big building that took most of our offerings for many many years, when we could have been feeding the poor, clothing the naked and housing the homeless?
This type of introspection is good. We should consider the routines that we establish. We should examine what ministries and building funds absorb the Lord’s money. We should step back and make sure that we, as a church, are being good stewards of our time, energy and talents. But does that mean that the book of Acts should be our model for how we “do” church?
Lest we be deceived, let us consider some of the characters of the early churches that were planted within one generation of Jesus’ ascension:
– Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5.1-11): The first group of believers that gathered with the disciples were selling their property, their houses and their belongings to make all of their wealth and possessions mutual. No one had lack, and no one had excess. Barnabas, one of the first missionaries, sold a field and gave all of the proceeds to the Church. A husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, wanted to receive the praise that Barnabas had received and sold a field as well. They, however, only gave some of the revenue from the sale, and then lied when they gave it saying that the amount was in full. The Holy Spirit struck them both dead on the spot.
– (Acts 6.1-7): That same group, as they were gathering, were distributing their goods and food to everyone, but they were prejudiced. The Hellenistic Jews (Jews who lived in Jerusalem, but spoke Greek) were a minority and for whatever reason, those who were passing out and serving the food overlooked the Hellenistic widows. Here we have a group of Christians, united in a body and different only because of language, and those who spoke Aramaic would not give food to those who spoke Hebrew.
– Simon the Magician (Acts 8.13-24): When the Gospel was taken to the Samaritans, it was accompanied by signs and wonders, and it attracted a certain man named Simon. Simon worked as a magician and was very famous but when Phillip came to town, Simon was drawn by the signs and teachings and was baptized into the Church. He then tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit because he wanted fame and power, not because he believed in God. They chastised him.
– John Mark (Acts 12.12, 13.13, 15.38): Peter was imprisoned at the time that James was murdered by Herod, and when Herod set his mind to kill Peter, an angel freed Peter from prison. Peter fled to a house and the son of the owner was named John Mark. Barnabas and Saul (Paul) took their first missionary journey to Cyrpus and took him, but then he quit and went home. He abandoned the efforts. Barnabas wanted to forgive him, but Paul did not, and the disagreement was so great that the two split ways and Barnabas took John Mark.
– Seven Sons of Sceva and believers in Ephesus (Acts 19): Paul had planted a church in Ephesus, and there were seven brothers who were exorcists by trade, who attempted to speak in the name of Jesus. During one encounter with a demon, a single demoniac beat them all up and stripped them all of their clothes. The fled “naked and wounded” (Acts 19.16). Those believers who were in the church and saw this finally brought out their magic books and burned them. They were practicing magic secretly (Acts 19.18-19).
The list goes on and on. The Early Church, and every church since the resurrection of Jesus has had problems. Why? Because it is made up of sinful people. Consider what Jesus said:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
– Matt 13.47-50
The Spirit was moving and gathering believers in massive quantities in those days. The same happens throughout history, in revivals, awakenings and Church planting movements. The same is happening today. But when the net of the Spirit draws in all the fish from the sea, there will be good fish and there will be bad fish.
Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also…‘Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
– Matt 13.24-26, 30
Not only will there be bad fish inadvertently caught, it is the scheme of the devil to plant tares within the wheat to destroy the harvest. And Jesus said, in order to spare the roots of the wheat, the tares will be left to grow until harvest. To uproot the tares would destroy the wheat. And Jesus planted and nurtures the wheat, so He will wait until it is time to cut it all down to destroy the tares.
There are tares in every local Church. There are bad fish in every local church. Having a New Testament model does not free the Church from prejudice, pride, lying, seeking of power, using money to gain that power, false witness, magic and cowardice. These things will plague the Church until Jesus comes and reaps the harvest.
Let us beware of the temptation to think that the New Testament Church was perfect. Let us beware of throwing out the baby of healthy structure with the bathwater of frivolous traditions. Let us examine our hearts and every activity which we preform in the name of Jesus Christ, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our worship and service of Him and in our methodologies as a Church.