A Quick Look at a Scriptural Assembly
If Lucius should walk into a modern cathedral, would he recognize it as being the same religion he lived as a member of the community at Antioch (Acts 13:1)? Should beloved sister Dorcas visit one of the luxurious religious edifices, would she identify it as the same Christianity she practiced in her home town of Joppa (Acts 9:36)? What would these early saints think about our form of church government? What would they say about the pope, bishop, archbishop, nuns, friars, presidents, synods, resident ministers, and all such?
Would they question our formality in worship? And how about the organ, choir, altar, pulpit, candles, incense, and the like? Would they recognize the modern clergy as the counterpart to such preachers such as Peter and Paul? Would they draw a bold contrast between the modern stereotyped sermon which is delivered from a pretentious pulpit by a hired preacher who sells his wares much like a merchant sells his goods and the simple, unassuming worship of their day where each brother was a minister, not because he was paid to be but because he was saved to be?
I fear the ancient Christian would not recognize us as the true people of God at all. These human names and auxiliary institutions would confuse them. The multiplicity of sects would confound them. The worldly, selfish, profligate lives of professing Christians would distress them. Such distinctions as clergy and laity, rich and poor, black and white, and big church and little church would perplex them.
On the other hand, if some of us moderns could visit such churches as those to which Lucius and Dorcas belonged, we might exclaim: This is indeed a strange religion! We would never recognize it as our church at all. We would feel out of place and would long for the spiritual fleshpots of modern Christianity. And yet that primitive religion might appeal to millions of people today who long for a pure religion. I invite such thirsting souls to john me in a visit to Antioch where well meet brother Lucius and then down to Joppa where well go to church with good old sister Dorcas.
In Antioch we will notice that the saints are called Christians (Acts 11:26) and that there is but one community of Christians and that they all believed alike and worshipped alike. A little different from the average American town in the twenty-first century! We will be impressed by the fact that these saints sent relief to their famine-stricken brothers in Judea, and that such an act of kindness was the will of every believer (Acts 11:29). And they did this without any sort of benevolent society. They did not submit the idea to the relief board of such federation of churches. The gracious act was strictly the work of that congregation in Antioch.
By this time we will be so impressed as to ask our host some questions. A sincere New Yorker says, Mr. Lucius, who is the minister there? Lucius explains that all of them are ministers because all of them are the Lords servants. Yes, I know, replies the New Yorker, I mean who is your hired preacher, the man who is the located priest or pastor? Lucius is a kind and patient man, so he slowly explains to the man from the Bronx that the congregation has no such officer as he has described. None of us is hired as an official clergyman. We have no such system as you have described. The New Yorker, awed by the difference between this humble Syrian community and the church he attends on Riverside Drive, asks, But you do have officers, dont youmen who represent the church before the public? Lucius tells about the work of elders and servants (or deacons) in the community of Jesus, how they care for the spiritual and temporal needs of the congregation. He then explains how he, himself, is a teacher in the body, a work he shares with four other men (Acts 13:1).
Lucius invites us to the assembly with him. We are amazed to see such reverence and such strong ties of brotherly love. A stout Texan blushes when he sees that fasting is a part of their religion (Acts 13:2). Their informality and zeal, their practice of edifying each other, and their fervent prayers stand out in embarrassing conflict to our stilted, preacher-centered religion and ritualism back home.
We are almost ready for a sedative when we learn that they are sending out two preachers to proclaim the message to the pagans without the aid of a missionary society! How do you know these men wont be in need? says a distraught visitor from Nashville, who is even more distraught when he hears Lucius say, Well, dear sir, it may be that they will be in need, but they are men of faith who believe that God will supply every need. The gospel must be preached, you know, and that is why we send them forth. We look to God for help. (Acts 13:2)
The Nashville visitor, who hopes his son will enter the seminary and become a well-paid pastor, is so confused that he doesnt know whether hes in Antioch or Nashville, but from what he remembers about the church back home he has a sneaking suspicion that hes not at church in Nashville. He questions Lucius further: These evangelists, Paul and Barnabas, whom you are sending out, what theological school did they attend? Where is your seminary in this area? Must they go all the way to Jerusalem for their ministerial training? Lucius explains that the believers train their own men, that even Paul on his missions might train other evangelists (Acts 16:3-4), that every faithful preacher is under obligation to train others (2 Timothy 2:2).
We are all amazed that these early Christians did their work only through the local body of believers and that they had no interest at all in the institutions of men.
We have learned so much and seen so many things that we want to correct when we get back home that we have no inclination to tarry with Dorcas for long. The inspiring thing is that we find the same thing at Joppa that we saw in Antioch. All the congregations work the same way! And yet they had no centralized control. Dorcas is busy making clothing for the widows in believing community (Acts 9:36). She talks about Christ and the good things of life as she sews a little garment for a fatherless child. We learn that her work is not done through the Ladies Aid, but simply as an individual Christian.
How refreshing it would be to see real Christianity at work! Too much of mans labor is dedicated to the cause of plants which the heavenly Father has not planted (Matthew 15:13-14). Even the self-righteous Pharisees of Jesus day would travel about on sea and land to gain one proselyte (Matthew 23:15). May God give his workers who will do as much for the simple cause of Christ.
Well, our trip to see Lucius and Dorcas was interesting, wasnt it? Now suppose we go to work and build the kind of congregations they belonged to. The Lord would have it that way. Shall we sing that old song, Have Thine Own Way, Lordand really mean it? BH (Revised)