A simple explanation of an assembly may be taken from the meaning of its Greek word “ekklesia” which is a conjunction of two root words, 1)ek =out of, and 2)kaleo = to call.
Hence, we have a company of called-out people. This word is not unique to the Christian era; it was more regularly used of a gathering of Greek citizens, called from their homes by the proclamation of a herald. They came together to consider or deliberate some matter of common interest. However, the Holy Spirit has lifted the word from secular usage, and placed it in the spiritual realm, where it describes a company of the Lords people. They have been called out of the world by the gospel announcement and have been gathered together for their common interest testimony to their beloved Lord Jesus Christ.
What are the characteristics of such an assembly?
When Moses was describing the manna in Exodus 16, because it had no equal, he could only tell what it was like—coriander seed and honey. To explain the assembly, the N.T. writers use metaphors to tell what it is like. Let us consider these, as they are essential to our understanding, and very distinct from applications. Doctrine can be based on metaphors, but not on applications.
The first metaphor is husbandry (1 Cor 3:9), tilled field, or garden, first planted when souls are saved in a locality through evangelistic work. Then the converts, as plants, are nourished with spiritual teaching in order that they might grow. The formation of an assembly should always show evidence of this divine order; it is not a case of a few believers simply moving into a locality and starting a new assembly. In addition, husbandry conveys a place of labor where no member need be idle. But, service for God is done in fellowship with the assembly with a view to its growth and fruitfulness.
The second metaphor is a building (1 Cor 3:9 – Gods building). The blueprint is Divine in character and particulars. Sinners getting salvation when the gospel is preached, is the laying of the foundation. Scriptural teaching is building upon that foundation, as the believers are gathered, taught, and confirmed in the truths of the Word of God. The foundation is Christ; but He is also the substance of the superstructure. The whole should testify of Him. It is important that each assemblys practice follows the N.T. pattern.
Then, the assembly is the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). The word here for temple is not the one to describe the outer structures of beauty and intricate design. It is the word used for the inner sanctuary, the holiest of all. That was the home of the ark with its mercy seat, where God met with Moses and communed with him. The assembly is a place where God dwells among His people, where He makes His presence known in their gatherings, where He communes through His Word. They in turn need to exercise reverence, respect, and dignity in keeping with His presence. Sin or defilement can never be tolerated in Gods temple.
In 1 Cor 5:7 the assembly is stated to be an unleavened loafof bread. This strange metaphor takes us back to Israels Passover commemoration. Following the feast, there was a seven day period during which no leaven was to be found in their houses. Leaven was a corrupting ingredient, and reminded them of Egypt. So in the assembly, anything that would introduce fleshly defilement or worldly influence is to be judged and removed.
Body (1 Cor 12:27), in the context, describes function, co-ordination, and unity of purpose, where each member, by its activity in the body, contributes to the health and well-being of the whole. Each member of the assembly is likened to a body part enabling the assembly to function. God gives each a role to fulfill and this is one reason it is important to be at all the gatherings of the assembly. If one absents himself willingly, it is like when an arm is immobilized in a sling – the other arm must compensate and be overburdened, while the inactive arm atrophies.
Turning to 2 Cor 11:1-3, we read the metaphor of a chaste virgin (“as” is italicized). Paul likens the assembly to a young maiden engaged to be married. Her loyalty and affection are centered only on her husband-to-be. Such is the assemblys devotion to the Lord Jesus. Faithful to Him in the midst of an unfaithful world, it is to be preserved from acceptance of any teacher or teaching that would draw Gods people from allegiance to Christ alone. Satan did this in Eden, and has had centuries of experience. He sends wolves in sheeps clothing. These are would-be teachers who come in with seeming promise, but by taking advantage of the freedom of the assembly to espouse their personal views either publicly or privately, attract a following. Before long, a weak assembly is corrupted from simple devotion to the Lord and fellowship is hindered.
House of God (1 Tim 3:15), directs our thinking to administration and authority in the assembly. Notice, the article is absent, indicating character is in view, not the designation of any one assembly as the house of God, which is how Christendom erroneously views its buildings. The term refers to a company of people living under one roof, whether family or servants. The reader can find other references to this term in both O.T. and N.T. It is evident that in every household, there is submission to authority. The man/husband/father has responsibility to guide and govern his household in an orderly dignified way, and members are to submit to his headship. Behavior in that home is in response to the principles he applies. The assembly is where Gods Word is the sole authority. It is neither a democracy (everybody rules) nor an autocracy (one man rules), but rather a theocracy (God rules). Overseers who guide the assembly derive their authority from the Word of God only, and believers submit as unto the Lord. Therefore, in a society that is undisciplined and casual, there is decorum and dress that is becoming to believers as they gather to the Name of the Lord Jesus.
We move to Peters first letter, and note a metaphor, priesthood, both holy and royal. Because of the references to gift (4:10-11), and elders (5:2), it is evident that Peter has the assembly in view. They may have been away from their homeland, but they were in assembly fellowship. In Israels worship, the priests did not function as individuals, but as a select order, acting together in their intermediary character. They had to be at the tabernacle to function. And while our individual spiritual approach to God is priestly in character, it is only in the assembly gatherings that N.T. priesthood is seen operating as intended. The assembly is a place where worship and praise is to be offered to God, and according to 1 Tim 2:1-7, where intercessory prayers on behalf of the world are offered. The Breaking of Bread on the first day of the week is the richest opportunity to offer to God our sacrifices of praise, although every gathering should be marked by worship. The prayer meeting especially is the time of intercession.
Again, there is a metaphor in 1 Pet 5:2. We find that Peter likens the assembly to a flock. The emphasis is not the weakness and waywardness of sheep, but the value of the assembly to God, and, therefore, the special object of His care and protection. He has fitted men as under-shepherds to feed and succor these lambs which are His, guarding them from harm. They accomplish this by preparing appropriate food from the Word to meet the varied needs so they might grow. But feeding is linked to leading, that is, living the example so the sheep can follow. One day, the Chief Shepherd will appear, to whom both sheep and shepherd will give account.
For our last metaphor, we consult Johns vision on Patmos. In Revelation 2 and 3, the 7 assemblies in Asia are termed golden lampstands. The precious metal suggests their value, valuable to Christ who holds them in His right hand. As lampstands, they are lightbearers in the cities of their location. But we notice that Christ is in the midst of these seven – they surround Him. Thus, their light shines upon Him; they illuminate Him. The purpose of the light of the assemblys testimony is to display Christ in a dark world. The source of energy for the light, the oil, is not seen. It comes from within. Bringing these features together, we learn that the assembly is of great value in Gods estimation; it has been placed by God in its location, and, by the Spirits power, is designed to bear witness to the glorious Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a great blessing to be saved from hell. But it is a greater blessing to be saved to be part of Gods assembly where, in fellowship with His people, I may enjoy His presence. And we glorify Christ by our worship and witness until He takes us home.