by Peter Ditzel
The Worship Service and the New Testament Assembly, Part 2
The Purpose of the New Testament Assembly
The meetings of the ekklēsia had three central purposes. One was to eat the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted this meal as a means to remember His death because through His death, we have life. Nothing is so basic to Christianity. Eating the Lord’s Supper keeps us in our place. It reminds us that if it were not for what that bread broken for us and the wine in that cup of the New Testament in His blood symbolize, and the price paid for that, we would be without hope. Sharing the bread and the wine also brings to mind that we are all equal brothers and sisters and all members of the Body of Christ. The Table of the Lord is both humbling and comforting and even a time for rejoicing. But it is never called a worship service because Jesus Christ has already been served on the Cross. If you want a service, it is back in the Catholic Church, and it is called the Mass and it is an abomination.
Another purpose of the assembly was to act as a base for the proclamation of the Gospel to the world. As Paul explained, the assemblies were supposed to support his work of spreading the Gospel to the nations.
Commentators often mistake 1 Corinthians 14 as describing a worship service. But the only person Paul specifically mentions as worshipping in it is the unbelieving (apistos) or unlearned (idiōtēs) outsider (verses 23-25). First Corinthians 14 shows the other central purpose of the meetings of the ekklēsia. It concerns doctrine.
In verse 1, Paul says, “Follow after love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Why? In verse 4, he says, “He who speaks in another language edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the assembly.” “Edifies” is the translation of oikodomeō. Oikodomeō literally means “house-build” or “to build a house.” Edify is an excellent translation because it is based on a Latin word that, again, also means “to build a house.” But the plainest translation is simply “builds.” What Paul means is that the speaker in the assembly who prophecies builds up the assembly. And he’s not talking about building up numbers of people, which is what so many today mean by church building. God adds the increase in numbers by adding those whom He is calling. Paul is talking about building up the assembly in revealed doctrine. Back in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul had already written,
For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire. Don’t you know that you are a temple of God, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, which you are.
1 Corinthians 3:9-17
The word “building” in that passage is oikodomē. The word for “builds on” is epoikodomeō. Do you see how this is referring to the same building up we see in 1 Corinthians 14? After 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul explains that someone who speaks in tongues that are not understood by those who hear him may as well be tooting a horn. He’s not building anyone up. “So also you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek that you may abound to the building up of the assembly” (verse 12). He goes on to say that he who speaks in another language should pray that he would interpret it so that it can do some good.
In verse 26, Paul says that, using whatever gift someone has to pass on knowledge, “Let all things be done to build each other up.” In the verses that follow, he gives specific instructions for a meeting of the ekklēsia. I won’t go into all of the details, but notice that if someone speaks in tongues, there must be an interpreter. There can be two or three speakers, but they must speak one-by-one. And when someone has finished speaking, the others in the assembly are to discern or judge. Judge what? This is a key to understanding what is going on. The others are to judge whether what was spoken was really from God. John speaks of this same thing: “Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Remember, this was before the canonization of the New Testament. What was happening is that God was giving His people revelation—doctrine, proper practice, and prophecy—through the members of the assembly. But there were deceiving spirits and false prophets, so the assembly had to deliberate and judge the message by comparing it to revelation it had all ready deemed sound.
This purpose of the ekklēsia is why Jesus called it the ekklēsia in the first place. Ekklēsia doesn’t just mean a group of assembled people. It was a word that came from the Greek administrative structure and referred to those called out of the local community to serve in a legislative assembly. Jesus patterned His ekklēsia after that model, and He did so with good reason. The ekklēsia was to meet, listen to revelation given by speakers, determine what was true from what was false, and then bind the truth just as worldly legislatures bind their legislation. That is, they used the authority that Christ had invested in them. They bound as having authority the truth that, of course, had already been bound in heaven, and they loosed as having no binding force that which was false and which had already been loosed in heaven (see the principle of this in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18).
Leo Tolstoy, writing in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, said, “Nowhere nor in anything, except in the assertion of the Church, can we find that God or Christ founded anything like what churchmen understand by the Church.” He was right. The Bible doesn’t support many of the popular ideas about the purpose of the church, what the meetings are to be like, or even that it should be called “church.” If someone from today who was used to today’s church worship services was transported back in time to a meeting of the ekklēsia in apostolic times, he would not recognize any relationship between the meetings of the ekklēsia and the meetings of today’s church. Why? Because there is none.
Are we not to worship? Of course! The question of worship is similar to the question of the Sabbath day. Under the Old Covenant, God told Israel to observe the seventh day of the week as a day of rest called the Sabbath. We know today that the Sabbath merely pictured the rest that Christians now have in Jesus. Christians have no need to keep a Sabbath day because we rest in Jesus, who is the true Sabbath, every moment of our lives (see “What Is the Christian Sabbath?“). Similarly, God gave Israel all sorts of detailed instructions on how they should conduct their service of worship. But these things were only shadows of Jesus Christ and His ekklēsia. God has not given these instructions for worship services to Christians. We believers in Christ worship with every moment of our lives because we are in Christ, and He is the reality that was only pictured by the Old Testament worship services.
What about Music?
If worship services greatly emphasize music, and if assemblies are not worship services, and worship services are not even in accord with the New Testament, are we to have no music?
The assemblies in apostolic times did have singing (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26), but, like all of the gifts, it was the result of direct revelation for the purpose of edifying. But there are other pertinent Scriptures such as Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and Hebrews 2:12. Certainly, singing has a place in the ekklēsia (whether with instruments or not, each assembly should determine). That music has a place, however, does not mean it should be a focus.
In keeping with the purpose of the ekklēsia, and in accord with the directive in Colossians 3:16, the music must have lyrics—words, and the words must be sound doctrine that teaches and admonishes. A truly good purpose for singing is to put Scripture and true teaching into our heads so that, in times of need, we can recall it. Also, music does not have to be limited to meetings. Paul and Silas sang in prison (Acts 16:25). James said those who are cheerful should sing (James 5:13). He didn’t say where.
What Is the Purpose of the Assembly Today?
If a purpose of the ekklēsia was to determine what was true in the revelatory speaking, and if we now have the canon of Scripture, and if those gifts of direct revelation have ceased, what is the purpose of the ekklēsia today? First, we must not forget that Jesus told us to eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Table as a memorial and proclamation of his death. Eating the Lord’s Supper remains a central purpose of the ekklēsia.
The purpose of spreading the Gospel remains. The assemblies should support those who preach the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, and the people of those assemblies can actually be those people, at least in their local area. We should just understand that the meetings of the ekklēsia are not evangelistic meetings. The confused idea that church “services” are to serve the dual function of edifying the brethren while also evangelizing visiting nonbelievers has always hamstrung the church. The two functions are not compatible. Either the believers will only get milk and not meat, or the nonbelievers will become confused by the deeper teachings and lose interest. Evangelistic meetings should be separate and have one purpose only: to bring the message of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ to the lost.
It’s true that God is no longer giving the ekklēsia new revelation. Therefore, the ekklēsia no longer has the function of determining true direct revelation from the messages of lying spirits. Nevertheless, there are similar functions the ekklēsia can perform to help believers understand God’s Word. Today, we have the Bible but it can sometimes be difficult to know for certain what it is saying. This is because Bible writers wrote many centuries ago, they wrote in a foreign language, and they lived in an unfamiliar culture. Believers in today’s assemblies can work together in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to determine what God is telling us in the Bible. Both the study and teamwork involved and the truth uncovered edifies the body.
Christians continue to face the schemes of lying spirits who are trying to corrupt the truth. The men speaking these lies so effectively spread them using modern media that these warped understandings of the Bible are becoming common even among Christians. Just as in the first century, the ekklēsia must still deliberate what speakers say and expose false teaching. And they can help their brethren globally by also using modern media to bare these doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1) to the light of God’s Word as rightly divided. I don’t mean that the ekklēsia should issue decrees and bulls. Christ’s assembly works these things out at the grass roots level; their conclusions are the consensus of spirit-filled believers edifying the assembly by reading and discussing Scripture and, thus, coming to a better understanding of God’s Word.
True worship under the New Covenant is not an external service performed in a church. It is God’s people working outwardly every moment of their lives what God is working in them. The meetings of the ekklēsia are not worship services. They are gatherings to eat the Lord’s Supper and remember His death, and they are legislative assemblies to evaluate teachings and determine the best understanding of Scripture.
Copyright © 2017 Peter Ditzel