Chapter 10: The Local Church and its Conduct
by Thomas H. Matthews, Brazil
It seems appropriate to commence a chapter on behaviour in the assembly with a reference to the first such assembly in Acts chapter 2. By doing so readers will be immediately faced with a feature all too little in evidence in modern times, but evidently considered basic in the balmy days of the Acts of the Apostles. That feature is the fear of God and the control that it exercised on each member.
Scarcely had the basic practices of the first assembly in Jerusalem been stated until we read "and fear came upon every soul" v.43. There follows in vv.44-47 a more detailed list of their activities. It seems to be the decided intention of the Spirit of God to give prominence to that godly fear which was so evident. The English Standard Version renders it: "and awe came upon every soul." One searches in vain for any exhortations at this juncture that these new believers should now move carefully in the fear of God as they met together. No exhortation was necessary. This holy fear was the spontaneous reaction to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Those now indwelt by Him had no inclination to act in any other way.
Even in New Testament times it would seem that there was a drift from these high standards of reverence, but God’s standard for those who belong to His assembly has never changed. The writer recalls the late Mr. Thomas McKelvey of Northern Ireland (1896-1983) recounting the first occasion on which he partook of the emblems at the Lord’s Supper. He spoke of taking the cup with a trembling hand. That he did not move far from such a God fearing attitude during his long life was evident to those who had the opportunity to hear him partake in thanksgiving at the Breaking of Bread. He would speak of "the reverential fear of God rising within our bosoms." The presence of God amongst His people in an assembly calls for this holy fear, and the maintenance of it by all preserves the atmosphere on that high level which becomes such a company.
A solemn occasion arose in the early days of that first assembly when Ananias and Sapphira agreed to attempt to deceive the apostles into thinking that the amount handed in for the sale of their property was the full amount received for it, Acts chapter 5. What they failed to understand was that they were not only, and not chiefly, dealing with the apostles, but with the Holy Spirit. Their deceitfulness was thus seen to be sinful in the extreme. The death of both led to an intensification of the fear already referred to and the observant reader will note that it is now described as "great fear" vv.5,11. No lightness could exist in that assembly. It was good to be there for God was there, but each and all must have learned to tread carefully lest they grieve the Spirit of God.
The Spirit still dwells in the assembly of His people, 1 Cor.3.16, constituting it a solemn responsibility to pertain thereto. With what weight to the soul come the words: "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." The late Mr. William Trew of Cardiff (1902-1971) once approached an elderly brother of renowned godliness concerning a serious problem that he was facing with certain brethren. The old gentleman suggested several possible courses. To each suggestion, Mr. Trew replied that he had attempted that, but without success. On hearing this, the experienced veteran with great impact said: "In that case they have the Holy Spirit to deal with!" How solemn it is to belong to a Scriptural assembly!
Behaviour in the Corinthian assembly was at grievous variance with the mind of God for His people. Without doubt the early reference to the Divine calling "unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord" 1 Cor.1.9, was intended to promote unity. Where there is true acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ unity will not be easily compromised. Where there is true enjoyment of "the fellowship of His Son", all who share in it will have a close affinity with one another. The carnal choice of servants as party leaders in Corinth was far from being evidence of the enjoyment of this sublime fellowship, 1.12. Such activity brought about a spirit of rivalry and probably bitterness in the assembly.
The solemn import of chapter 5 and its bearing on the behaviour of all in assembly fellowship is something which none can ignore. When instruction is given in v.8, to "keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" the reference is to the Old Testament "Feast of Unleavened Bread" Lev.23.6. This feast followed immediately on "The Passover" and is suggestive of that change which redemption brings. Malice and wickedness are now to be considered things of the past and sincerity and truth are to mark the character of the believer from salvation’s day until the end of his course down here. The deep solemnity of all this is seen in the last part of the chapter where certain malicious and wicked sins call for exclusion from the assembly. All who have been present when such judgment is carried out know these to be amongst the most distressing moments in assembly life.
In chapter 6, it is seen that brethren had no scruples about taking their brethren to law. Surely they must have felt rebuked by the apostle’s words in v.6, "brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers." Once again it is evident that many there were not in the enjoyment of "the fellowship of His Son". This is also evident in their indifference to the conscience of the weak brother in chapter 8. He seemed to be despised as not worth worrying about, neither him nor his scruples, but God’s Word says that he is one "for whom Christ died" v.11. These words are further strengthened by the charge, "but when ye sin so against the brethren and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ" v.12. Paul is set to bring them to the high level of v.13 "Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."
Serious disunity manifested itself in yet another form and this, at the Breaking of Bread. How degrading! That holy gathering had been desecrated and treated as though it were a common meal, with the aggravation that some were hungry through lack and others were drunken through excess. Surely as the reading took place of how that the supper had been instituted "on the same night in which He was betrayed" 11.23, a wave of humiliation and shame must have come over the entire company. Their behaviour was totally at variance with the atmosphere and solemnity becoming the remembrance of the Lord’s death.
- "When I survey the wondrous cross
- On which the Prince of Glory died,
- My richest gain I count but loss,
- And pour contempt on all my pride."
- (Isaac Watts)
1 Corinthians chapter 13, the great chapter on love, had a very real application to local conditions in Corinth. Mr. William Rodgers is worth quoting here: chapter 13 "not only supplies the lubricating oil to the machinery of chapter 12, ere it comes into action in chapter 14, but also furnishes the true antidote to all the evils wherewith the church of Corinth was ravaged … The phrase "love envieth not",13.4, stands over against the jealousy of 12.15,16 and "love vaunteth not itself", over against the pride of 12.21. In like manner we may add that the love which "is not puffed up" would have left no room for the party spirit of 1.12 etc. The love that "rejoiceth not in iniquity" would have prevented the complacent tolerance of the evil thing in chapter 5. The love that "suffereth long and is kind" would have hindered the lawsuits with their brethren of chapter 6. The love that "seeketh not her own" would never trample on the consciences of fellow-believers as in chapter 8; and the love which "doth not behave itself unseemly" would have put a bar on both the forwardness of certain women and the drunkenness of chapter 11."1
1 William Rodgers "Bible Notes and Expositions" 1976: Privately Published.
An overview of chapters 11-14 brings many important matters to light with regard to the conduct God expects of His people as they meet in public. The early part of chapter 11 presents the obligation on Christian women to use the head covering which is the badge of subjection, and also to wear their hair long, aware that as such it is in full accord with the symbolism of the additional covering. The passage shows that God’s intention is that the distinction between the sexes should be evident in the appearance of both and that God-fearing women will subscribe to this in their manner of dress both in meetings and in every day life as a whole.
Reference has already been made to the latter part of chapter 11 when dealing with the grievous disunity that marred the Corinthian assembly. The use of the title "Lord" with reference to the Lord Jesus in this section underlines His authority. To respect His Lordship when met together to remember Him will surely cause each one to move and act with great care.
In chapter 12 the apostle uses the human body as an object lesson of the functioning of the various members of an assembly. The supreme lesson is one of unity, which as already seen, applied in a special way to the Corinthian assembly. Inasmuch as the body is not one member but many, there must be co-operation, v.14. To complain of not having a position for which one is not fitted is unbecoming. That is what Paul is teaching when he pictures the foot as unable to say: "Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body" v.15. Just as there would be a superabundance of sight, but nothing else "if the whole body were an eye" v.17, so it is wrong for one person to take over all the functions of an assembly. Those whose function or gift gives them less prominence must not be considered of little importance: "the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee" v.21. The lofty ideal is "that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another" v.25.
The prominence of the thought of "edification" in chapter 14 sets the standard for assembly meetings. God’s intention is that the members may learn and be edified each time they come together. That would come about principally, but by no means exclusively, through the use of the gift of prophecy. It is evident that in the present day the opening up of the Scriptures corresponds to the early gift of prophecy.
All of this spiritual edification should come in an atmosphere of mutual consideration and peace vv.20-33. Confusion or moments of embarrassment ought not to occur. The writer recalls the feeling of revulsion with which he witnessed a brother hastily withdrawing from the "Breaking of Bread" to attend a call on his mobile phone. Such happenings must be scrupulously avoided.
The chapter just now under consideration offers much instruction and help in the matter of taking public part in the assembly. "Let all things be done unto edifying" v.26, indicates the motive behind all public participation. "Let all things be done decently and in order" v.40, reminds one of the Old Testament Tabernacle, with its orderly ministry and careful transport. The casual or careless approach to spiritual things can only be grieving to the Lord and detrimental to the maintenance of a heavenly atmosphere in the assembly. Practical and plain ministry is often necessary, but if it is given in an unspiritual way with a determination to humiliate someone, it is not likely to accomplish much, if indeed anything, for God’s glory or the believers’ blessing. The "all things" of v.26 extends to the announcing of hymns and leading in prayer. The Lord doubtless leads and there is a close connection between true spirituality and His direction. Common sense will also be consistent with the Lord’s leading. A brother will make sure that the tune of a hymn is known before requesting it to be sung. Many believers have duties that must be attended to after the Breaking of Bread. If it is almost the usual time for finishing, it is unsuitable to announce a long hymn, which only creates tension for those with a time schedule. The same may be said for a lengthy prayer on such occasions. Conciseness in public prayer is not a sign of lack of spirituality, just as a lengthy prayer is not a guarantee of personal godliness. The latter may indicate lack of consideration.
Although the women are to keep silence in the churches v.34, it is evident that they will be there and that with a desire to learn (see Newberry margin v.35). Any Christian woman who thinks that the deeper study of the Word of God is only for men, will surely deny herself much spiritual nourishment, and that in turn must diminish her spiritual input both in the home and in her contact with other believers generally.
The saints in the assembly at Philippi present a contrast to those at Corinth. There is an evident difference in their prayer life. Prayer is only mentioned in a general way in 1 Corinthians with reference to husband and wife, 7.5. Only in the second epistle, 1.11, does Paul ask for prayer. What a difference in Philippians! They added joy to Paul in his times of prayer for them, Phil.1.4 and were a cause for thanksgiving. The rich development of their love inspired the apostle to pray for its increase "more and more" v.9. It was evidently an easy thing to instruct them to be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let their requests be made known unto God, 4.6. To instruct those who are careless about prayer in the terms of this verse is to become aware that you are touching a hollow part of that person’s life. It was not like that with the Philippian believers.
The prayer exercise of the assembly at Philippi has a very practical application to all who belong to a Scriptural assembly. It is amazing how often brethren seem reluctant to pray when in the prayer meeting. There are so many on-going burdens and problems, not least those of unsaved children, that such reluctance seems unjustifiable. Brethren ought to come to the meeting with a burden and in prayer relief may be found for that burden. All may thus leave the meeting with the conviction that God has heard the cries of His people.
As to fellowship in the Gospel, another contrast comes to light between the Philippians and the Corinthians. Paul, who refrained from accepting practical fellowship from the Corinthian assembly, 1 Cor 9.12, was greatly cheered to receive it from Philippi, Phil.4.10. He enjoyed not only their practical fellowship, but also their self-denying help in other ways as he laboured in the gospel, 1.5. Yet even in Philippi the foreseeing shepherd and apostle seems to have been aware of the possibility of some form of disunity. So they are "to stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel" 1.27. They are to be "likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" 2.2. The tender pleadings together with the presentation of the Lord Jesus as the great Example, 2.5-11, was probably sufficient to draw the believers back from the divisive tendency.
Reflecting on the high practical standards attained in the Philippian assembly, it is important to remember that no assembly, not even one that has reached such heights, is exempt from the attack of the enemy and the insidious introduction of those elements that divide and disturb. As a young man, the writer was present when two leading brethren engaged in an interesting conversation. Reference was made to a certain assembly that the speaker maintained was "one of the best" in the whole area. The other, a truly godly man, replied, "If that be so they would need to take care, for the Devil will want to attack them."
The love, so sadly absent in the Corinthian assembly, but evident amongst the Philippians, is also seen in the church of the Thessalonians where it was the incentive to diligent labour, 1 Thess.1.3. It was united with a growing faith and a steadfast hope for the future in the coming of the Lord. Their love manifested itself not only in labour for the Lord, but in a mutual interest in the well being of one another and the apostle is careful to promote this still further, "Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do" 1 Thess. 5.11. Such was the progress in love amongst the brethren that the apostle declared in 4.9 that it was the result of a Divine work in their souls, "… ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another." It is evident that in Scripture the Divine work and the human exercise function in combination and so the apostle exhorts "that ye increase more and more" v.10.
The references to "faith" in 1 Thessalonians, especially in chapter 3 seem to present faith as the very soul of Christian experience. The apostle sought to comfort them concerning their faith, 3.2, in view of persecution. He sent to know their faith, v.5, fearing lest they succumb to the Enemy. Good news from Timothy on the subject encouraged him so that he was comforted by their faith, v.7 and awaited the opportunity to perfect that which was lacking in their faith, v.10.
Faith is indeed the kernel of Christian living. Its strength is determined by the influence which those things believed have on the heart and life. It grows as the conviction concerning unseen realities grows and thus becomes the predominant factor in life.
The two epistles to the Thessalonians indicate something of the extent to which the hope of the Lord’s coming was an ever-bright hope to those persecuted believers. Reference is made to their "patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" 1.3. The waiting for "His Son from heaven" v.10, was evidently an immediate result of their conversion. Thus the well known trio of love, faith and hope come together as an example to all believers.
In common with the Philippians, the Thessalonians were ever ready to spread the Gospel to those around and even to those at a distance, 1Thess 1.8. This surely is an indispensable part of the local church and its conduct.
Summing up the various aspects of Christian conduct as seen in the epistles to the Philippians and the Thessalonians it may be said that where conditions are right there will be an atmosphere of love. Faith will be developed. The hope of the Lord’s return will be ever present. Prayer will be constant and gospel activity will be a priority. All will be carried on in a harmonious spirit.
No treatise on Christian behaviour in an assembly can be considered complete without some comment on those verses which lead to the great statement of 1 Tim.3.15, "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
The early verses of chapter 2 make clear that godliness and gravity (Newberry margin) ought to be characteristic of God’s people in general. Further to this it is expected that those who pray publicly in the assembly will be clean in life, temperate, self controlled and convinced of the effectiveness of prayer, v.8. In vv.9-15 attention is drawn away from what one hears to what one sees in the house of God.
Before entering into a little detail in this section that deals with the dress and deportment of women in the assembly, it may be of profit to compare the passage with some verses found in Isa.3.12-24. To what does God point in order to reveal the decadent state of Judah? Two areas call for attention: the first is the Leaders vv.12-15 and the second is the Women of the Nation vv.16-23, with special emphasis on the vanity of their character as seen in their tinkling ornaments, chains, bracelets, earrings, rings, nose jewels, changeable suits of apparel etc. So in 1 Timothy, attention is drawn to the women and their deportment and dress, to be followed by the qualifications for overseers and deacons. Perhaps we can safely affirm that as of old, so today, the deportment and dress of the women and the character of the leaders, together present a fairly accurate picture of the true state of an assembly.
The modest dress of the Christian woman in 1 Tim.2.9-10, is not a mere uniform to identify a particular brand of people. The crux of the matter is found in the statement, "… which becometh women professing godliness" 2.10. While the word translated "godliness" is a little different from that used elsewhere in the epistle, its meaning is similar. It is that reverence for God that shrinks from all that grieves Him. This simple definition may bring to readers’ minds certain Christian women of outstanding character. In 1 Timothy chapter 2 it is what God expects to be normal for all Christian women. Such godliness conditions the thinking of the woman and governs her decisions when choosing adornment.
Some may not perceive the significance of dress and its importance in Bible times. The ephod of the high priest’s garments, being of gold, blue, purple, scarlet and fined twined linen with cunning work, Ex. 28.6, marked his close connection with the Sanctuary of God’s presence. The sackcloth clothing of the two witnesses in Rev.11.3 identified them as men with a solemn message of judgment. The rapid donning of his fisher’s coat in Jn.21.7 showed Peter to be a man who would not dare to meet the Lord without being adequately dressed. No one needed to tell him what to do, it was instinctive.
A similar instinct, strengthened by the indwelling Spirit, causes the godly woman to gladly acquiesce with the instructions of God’s Word. She will be well dressed, but modestly so. The purity of her character will ensure the adequate covering of her person. Neither the use of gold nor its imitation, nor pearls, nor clothing that draws attention by its "way out" style or evident excessive cost, will be of interest to her. She turns from such vanity in her sincere desire to make her life useful in the constant practice of good works.
Several passages give instruction as to the woman’s apparel, but it is remarkable that there seems to be an absence of corresponding passages to deal with men’s apparel. Without attempting to explain this, is it not self-evident that the profession of godliness on the part of the men will also manifest itself in their dress? It cannot be for a moment countenanced that ostentation is prohibited for women, but permitted in men.
A question may be asked as to how men ought to dress for the meetings. General principles leave little doubt in this matter. Just as Peter, already referred to, felt that he could not approach the Lord as he was dressed for the fishing expedition, Jn.21.7, so men who have grasped the sublime nature of an assembly will make a distinction between what may be acceptable in terms of dress in the general run of life, and how they ought to present themselves in the gatherings of the saints. The writer has spent most of his life in a third world country. He has known quite a number of poor men who, after being saved came into assembly fellowship. Without exception and almost without any orientation, these have made a practice of dressing for meetings in the best clothes that they possessed.
Every thinking person is impressed by the high qualifications required in those who would lead God’s people. There need be no surprise "… seeing it is a living God’s assembly" (translation by Wm.Kelly). The high standard required in those who lead is not only because of the sacred nature of their duties, but also that by their example they may show to all how they ought to live as members of the assembly. It is evident that some of the qualifications for overseers have a special bearing on their work. The open home, the ability to teach, the required maturity are all necessary for efficient leadership. Other moral qualifications in the list ought to be found in all the members, but must be found in the elder. Similarly the deacons must hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. This requisite probably has in view that at least some of them will be teaching it. But the high moral character required will, in those men, serve as an example to all of that holiness which becomes God’s house.
In the goodness of God, the gospel has often penetrated people whose cultural background made them anything but good citizens. Such seems to have been the case in Crete for it was a Cretian who said, "The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies", 1.12. No doubt such a background would bring problems in the after life of those saved, but the epistle written to Titus shows no trace whatever of any lowering of God’s standard for His house to accommodate their weak culture. Possibly recent converts would be slower to grasp God’s standard and to rise to its height. Many problems would arise, but the Word of God admits of no diminishing of what becomes those who bear the honoured name. Thus the aged men are to be sober and sound in faith. The aged women are to be in behaviour as becometh holiness using their godly influence to teach the younger women to be sober, discreet, chaste, keepers at home etc. The young men are to be sober-minded and the servants to be obedient, 2.1-10. How can such a high standard of behaviour be produced in the lives of those who were "sometimes foolish, disobedient …?" 3.3. The answer is that through the "washing of regeneration" God has effected a spiritual cleansing that brings sinners into a new state. By "the renewing of the Holy Spirit" all things have become new and seeing the Holy Spirit has been shed on us abundantly, there is on-going strength to live as becomes the "heirs according to the hope of eternal life" 3.7.
Psalm 89.6-7 presents a fitting conclusion to the subject of behaviour in God’s house, "For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him." The language of the A.V., to which so many are accustomed, makes the application of v.7 to an assembly very apt. The weight of the verse as thus applied, has been felt by all who have learned to tread carefully in assembly life. Nothing is ever lost by close attention to the text in reading God’s Word. When this is done with these verses, it may well be that the English Standard Version brings the reader nearer to the exact meaning. It reads, "For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones and awesome above all who are around Him?" The "council of the holy ones" seems then to refer to the council of sinless heavenly beings. If this is so, how much more ought He to be feared amongst sinners saved by grace? If He is indeed "awesome above all who are around Him", then the privilege of gathering in His house must be seen as the highest honour, the most solemn responsibility and the greatest incentive to holiness of life.