Before Moses, people worshipped God at stone altars. The first example of this given in scripture is in Gen 8:20, when the ark settled onto dry ground and Noah came out, built an altar and sacrificed some animals on it. An altar was basically a bunch of rocks piled up to create a platform upon which to conduct a sacrifice. They could be built “ad hoc” and are often associated with spontaneous worship following an encounter with God. Altars were not a particularly “Jewish” thing. After all, all races came from Noah, and so the use of altars was quite common in Middle-Eastern cultures prior to the establishment of Israel as a nation.
In about 1500 B.C., God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, gave them a land and an identity as a people. As a part of this unique identity, he gave them detailed instructions on how to interact with Him. Moses was given extremely detailed instructions on building the tabernacle (also known as the “Tent of Meeting”) and worshipping within it (Exodus 23-40). These instructions came from God and were to be followed to the letter. They included exactly how to construct the Tabernacle and from what materials, what kind of fixtures and utensils to fashion, the uniforms to be worn by the priests, how to conduct the sacrifices, etc. All was done exactly according to the specifications that God had given. The presence and glory of God was a regular occurrence in the Tabernacle.
In about 953 B.C., David’s son Solomon built a temple for God. Solomon was the third Israelite king (after Saul and David). In 1 Sam 8:5 we see how the Israelites wanted a human king to rule over them so that they could be “like all the nations” around them. God’s reluctant answer to this demand was Saul. David expanded upon Saul’s kingdom and likewise, Solomon expanded upon David’s. In the culture of that time, however, a king wasn’t really considered legitimate unless he had a palace. Likewise a nation’s god wasn’t considered “legit” unless he had a temple.
(The concept of temples goes back to the ancient Sumerians, one of the oldest known civilizations. Going back to Noah (and perhaps earlier), altars had been built on mountaintops or “high places” because a mountain was considered to be the place where earth touched heaven. Over time, ziggurats were built, which were essentially man-made mountains. These became more sophisticated and evolved into temples. It's interesting to note how many ancient cultures, all over the earth, built similar-style structures; from the ziggurats of the Sumerians to the pyramids of the Egyptians to the very ziggurat-like temples of the Mayans. All of these seem to speak of a common historical source, perhaps relating back to the flood. Temples were generally built on "high places". A Middle-Eastern temple then, was actually an architectural representation of a mountain – the place where heaven and earth met, and thus, the place where man and god met.)
For Solomon and the Israelites, having a temple and a palace was a matter of national pride and kingly legitimacy. The Israelites didn’t have experience with building temples, so they contracted the job out to the Phoenicians (via Hiram, king of Tyre - see 1 Kings 5-9, 1 Chron. 14). The Phoenicians are an ancient people who lived in what is now Lebanon and Northern Israel. They had built many temples to their gods and had developed a particular architectural form. The Phoenicians designed and built Solomon’s temple in this same form. Israel now had a temple, like the other nations.
In 2 Chron. 5 we read how the Ark was brought into the completed temple, accompanied by tremendous worship and how the glory of the Lord filled the temple, so much so that the priests couldn’t continue performing their services. Solomon’s temple was destroyed about 400 years later (587 B.C.) when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried the Israelites off into exile.
The rebuilding of the temple began about 70 years later (516 B.C.) by the remnant that returned from Babylonian exile, led by Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (see Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai). Because of the relative poverty of the returning exiles, compared to the long-gone splendor of Solomon’s day, the 2nd temple was much less grand. Also the Ark of the Covenant was now gone (to this day, no one knows what became of it, except maybe Indiana Jones). It’s interesting that we don’t read of God’s glory visiting the 2nd temple. Many scholars (N.T. Wright, for example) posit that even after the second temple, in fact even up to and beyond the time of Jesus, the Jews saw themselves as still in exile from God because His glory and presence had not returned to the temple.
King Herod the Great began renovating the temple in about 20 B.C. This work was still going on during the time of Jesus’ incarnation. The work was completed in about 65 A.D. In 70 A.D. the temple, and all of Jerusalem, was completely destroyed by Roman armies.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, when the temple still stood, he told a woman in Samaria that “…a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).
There’s an interesting trend that appears as one looks over the historical progression from altar to tabernacle to Solomon’s temple to 2nd temple to Jesus. As we see more use of man’s patterns, we see fewer accounts of God’s power and presence. The move towards man’s patterns, to being “like all the nations”, coincides with a move away from covenant relationship with God. Ultimately, Jesus came to fulfill the Old Covenant and establish a New Covenant. We are now to worship God in spirit and in truth. The old forms and patterns passed away. The forms and patterns that we use to worship now are secondary to the heart behind our worship. We must always be careful, however, that the forms or patterns we take on aren’t an attempt to create another temple system. God’s presence no longer resides in a box.
God’s presence now resides in his church. His ekklesia: The gathering of “called out ones”. He has made us to be His Royal Priesthood, the household of God, the living temple of stones being fitted together (by the way, being fitted together means being hammered, chiseled and shaped. It means having edges knocked off. Did you know that difficult people or circumstances are a gift from God to help shape us? As Graham Cooke says, “Tension does not mean something is wrong, it means something is happening!” Also, look at Rev. 21:15-21. This is a symbolic description of the church. The twelve stones listed in verses 19 & 20 are all quarried from the earth and in their “raw” state are nearly worthless. They only become valuable after being cut and polished so that they reflect light. The pearl gates, by the way, are representative of Jesus. A pearl is produced through suffering and it is only through Christ’s suffering that we can enter into fellowship with God.).
So we, the church – the ekklesia - are the priesthood, the living temple, the household of God, the body of Christ.
Why did Jesus build an ekklesia (church)? To be the dwelling place of God. To glorify Him. To worship Him. To reflect Jesus, as He reflected the Father. To express Jesus wherever we go.
How do we do this? By participating in the Kingdom of God (His rule and reign). By giving to those in need. By being servants and servant-leaders (seeking to be the servant of all, not the ruler of all). By worshipping with our whole lives. By being accountable to one-another and in submission to one-another. By encouraging one another. By laying down our rights. By being relational-evangelists – sharing the Good News with those we come into contact with. By walking in integrity. By being compassionate and merciful. By being inter-dependent upon one-another. By the functioning of each one’s spiritual gifts, for the building up of us all. By being woven together into a community. By loving one another in both word and action. The list could go on, but notice how it’s all relational? These are the things we value. They come from what Jesus has revealed about who the Father is. They are reinforced by early church writings and practices (such as those of Paul).
These values are the wine that we bring forth.
What’s the wineskin that holds this wine? What are the visions and actions that proceed out from our values? We need to ask honest questions about how well the things that we do reflect the things that we value. The way we do things is just methods and tools and props and containers. What’s important about the way we do things is whether or not it accurately represents what we value. Does the wineskin hold the wine? By honestly asking, “Why do we do things this way?” we are seeking to keep the wineskin supple and flexible.
Remember God’s elaborate and detailed instructions for Tabernacle worship in Exodus 23-40? Well here are His instructions for Ekklesia worship:
Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
1 Cor. 12:7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
1 Cor. 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”
Col. 3:16-17: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Notice that we are not given specific guidelines on how to conduct our meetings or be the church. What we are given are values. The values I see in these passages include those I listed earlier and they all emphasize relationship and mutuality and "one-anothering". There is no set method for "doing church". This means that there is no singular “right” way to meet as church. There are, however, plenty of “wrong” ways. Anything that violates or betrays God’s values is wrong, even though some good may come from it.
I’m pleased that nearly every Friday night ekklesia meeting we’ve had has been different. I’m hoping that as time goes on, our meetings will become less and less predictable, but are always consistent with our values and with those scriptures given above.
The heart of the matter, and the fundamental question then is, are we doing things that are consistent or inconsistent with our values? Since we claim to subscribe to the same values as the first believers, might it be helpful to see how they applied them in practice? Is it possible to find out, to any degree, how the early church functioned in light of these values? Might some of those practices still apply today? Could such an exploratory endeavor be helpful? Should we be open to reevaluating our current practices, traditions and presuppositions in light of this?
I’d like to speak very personally for a moment on a few specific examples of this:
First off, I am not a Pastor. I “pastor” (or “shepherd”), but that is not an office or title – it is a function. The only individual referred to by the title of Shepherd (Pastor) in the New Testament is Jesus (OK, not including the literal shepherds in the nativity story). Throughout the New Testament scriptures, “shepherd” is a function. It’s what someone does, not who they are (except for Jesus, the Great Shepherd). It’s something that is done by certain elder, mature believers. The early churches were led (not ruled, but led) by multiple elders, some of whom functioned in pastoring and teaching. In our ekklesia, I’m an elder and sometimes I have a gift of pastoring and teaching. Many of the adults who meet in our Friday night ekklesia are, in my estimation, elders too. I do not out-rank them. “Rank” is a worldly concept, not a Kingdom truth (see Matt. 20:20-28). Everyone who meets in our Friday night ekklesia has gifts. I want to learn what their gifts are and be blessed by their functioning in them. Only then can we all come to maturity together. I’m not anyone's “spiritual authority” – Jesus is. You don’t need any other “authority” in your life but Him. You are not to be in submission to me – we are to be in submission to one another. We are to be accountable to one another. We all have a part to play and we all have gifts from God to enable us to function. This is for the good of the Body:
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Rom 12:3-8
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” 1 Cor. 12:4-13
On another personal note, it’s been said that I’m against buildings. That’s not necessarily true. Like anything else, I think what we have to ask is to what degree a building (and the associated overhead) supports our values. We certainly don’t need a building to be the church. The question then is whether or not having a building moves us forward in our core values (such as relational intimacy and giving to the needy) or holds us back from our core values. If one of our core values is caring for those in need (and it should be), how would we then justify spending a disproportionate amount of money on a building. Would the building serve us, or would we serve it?
How about sermons? We’ve come to accept that the monolog-style sermon is the centerpiece of a church service. But sermons as we know them have only been around since the Reformation of the 1600’s. Prior to that, the Eucharistic Mass was the centerpiece of a church service (with little or no biblical teaching) for over a thousand years. In the earliest centuries it seems that the Christian teaching style was more informal and interactive. It appears that Jesus and the Apostles engaged in more of a dialog-oriented style of teaching. The Gospels are full of exchanges (dialogs) between Jesus and other people (from Pharisees to tax-gatherers to prostitutes). Likewise with Paul. It seems that the closest thing to a one-way, monolog style of communication in the early church was “preaching”. Preaching, however, was evangelistic in nature. Preaching was the proclamation of the Gospel to unbelievers. Teaching was an interactive dialog amongst believers. Since the concept of “sermons”, as we practice them, is foreign to the New Testament, perhaps we should reevaluate their usefulness. Perhaps we’ve taken a tool designed for evangelism (preaching) and tried to use it for instruction. Perhaps that’s why sermons don’t seem to accomplish a whole lot. Still we doggedly preach on. In the secular education world, it’s becoming more and more of an accepted and quantified fact that interactive, dialog-style, participatory teaching methods are much more effective than monolog-style lectures. So, if teaching and discipling are things that we value (and we’d better in light of Matthew 28:18-20), we should examine why we do it the way we do and how fruitful it is.
Buildings and salaries and sermons and worship teams and chairs and programs and sound systems and all that stuff are peripheral. They’re just tools. The priority that we give them, however, does say something about what our values are. How we approach these things can radically affect the degree to which our values come across and are lived out. The real issue here is about giving our presuppositions and baggage and agendas to God and then asking Him to show us how to be most effective in our job of being His church. All the traditions and methods and trappings and props that we’ve added on should be extremely expendable and open for review in light of being who we’re called to be as a people. That’s how we keep the wineskin flexible. Likewise, how we do things, how we lead, how we follow, how we make decisions, how we interact with one another; all of these things should be consistent with our values (which we hold because we understand them to be God’s values). If these things don’t embody what we value, then we need to have the courage and humility to ask why.
I'd like to finish with a quote from John Stott (Founder and Honorary President of the London Institute for Christianity and author of over 40 books, including Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ, and The Contemporary Christian):
"The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh Biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform."