This article is one of several connected chapters in The Tony Payne Collection, and was first published in Briefing #367.
Some years ago, an elderly relative visited our church. She was a churchgoer herself—of a rather traditional kind. Afterwards, I asked her whether she had enjoyed church that morning—at which point, she looked straight at me and said with characteristic bluntness, “This is not a real church”.
Perhaps it was the lack of a prayer book service, the fact that we didn’t celebrate Holy Communion on that particular morning, the absence of organ music, or the general want of a quiet, ‘churchy’ atmosphere about the place. Not wishing to upset or offend my relative any further (and all the comments that sprang to mind at the time would certainly have done so), I didn’t pursue the subject. But it did give me pause afterwards. In one sense, it was quite true: many of the elements that a previous generation would have closely associated with ‘real church’ had been stripped away or changed beyond recognition in our congregational gatherings. Had we stripped away too much? Or, to think about it the other way, how much can you strip away and still have a real church? If we were to apply Ockham’s Razor to church, what would be left standing?
Let’s try this thought experiment: can we assume that the churches of the New Testament were real Christian churches, lacking nothing essential? If so, what could we ‘lop off’ our current practice of church life and still have a genuine Christian assembly (or ‘church’)?
Let’s mention the obvious ones first: no special religious buildings, no denominations, no territorial bishops, overseers or presbyteries responsible for a group of congregations, no committees, no constitutions, no weekly bulletin sheet, no announcements and no hymnbooks. So far, so easy. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily wrong or bad; they are just clearly not of the essence of what the church really is or what it needs to function well, since the New Testament had a perfectly complete experience of church without (as far as we know) any of them. And thus it would be very possible today to have a full and complete experience of Christian church, in which nothing is lacking, without any of these things.
Let’s press a little further. What else is absent in the New Testament church that we might start to regard as a little more essential? We don’t find evidence of set prayers and orders of liturgy, for a start. There is also no evidence of the word or concept of ‘worship’ being applied to what New Testament Christians did in their gatherings. It is shocking, I know, but there are no worship services in the New Testament. In fact, there weren’t any ‘churches’ either—by which I mean that there wasn’t a special religious or Christian word used to describe Christian gatherings. They were not a new species of religious thing called a ‘church’; they were just ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but Christian ones.
We also find no example or imperative for Sunday being the ‘right’ day on which we should meet, or any other day, for that matter. We know they met regularly, but in what configuration and frequency we aren’t sure. In fact, we struggle to find any distinction between a regular large gathering of the congregation (what we would call the Sunday Service) and any smaller gatherings that may or may not have taken place (what we would call ‘home Bible study groups’). We find no formal system of church membership, nor any set procedure or system for the structuring of leadership and governance within the congregation. (Certainly, New Testament Christians belonged to or were ‘members of’ particular congregations, and these congregations were led and governed; I am simply saying that we know next to nothing about the structures, procedures and practices of membership and leadership. So a particular model of membership or leadership—whether it be the Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist models—is not of the essence of church.)
Let me make sure I am not misunderstood: I am not for a minute suggesting that we attempt to recreate a complete, working model of a New Testament church—as if we have to meet in houses because they did, or that we can’t use microphones or drum kits because they didn’t, or that it’s impossible to have formal systems of government and membership simply because we don’t know exactly how they organized these things. This is not an exercise in primitivism; it’s a thought experiment. How much could we whittle back and still have a completely normal, properly functioning New Testament church? Or, putting it the other way, how many extra-biblical details, structures and practices have established themselves in our minds as being of the essence of ‘church’?
Well, here’s what Ockham’s Razor has reduced us to: we could have a group of Christian people (of any size), with a qualified elder or overseer (or more than one, appointed or elected, we care not how), meeting in the name and presence of Christ in any location, at any time of day, on any day of the week, with any frequency (so long as it was regular and often), at which time they spoke and heard God’s word together (through Bible reading, preaching/teaching, prophetic encouragement, etc.), and responded in prayer and thanksgiving, with the result that God is glorified in Christ and the people edified.
You might want to describe this ‘cut down’ New Testament church a little differently, or add extra things. But here’s the point: what things do you currently regard as of the absolute essence of church—things without which you could not imagine church being ‘real church’—things that, in fact, are accidental, traditional or cultural details that could be otherwise? And could any of these things be changed if the times, seasons, purposes and circumstances of your fellowship suggested that they should be?