The gospel of the New Testament is much more than the message of salvation for sinners and the forgiveness of their sins. It is a body of truth or teaching which embraces all the great doctrines of the person of Christ, the pathway of the Christian faith, the pattern for believers gathering together unto the Name of our Lord Jesus, and the program which unfolds the purposes of God. Paul writes of this in the pastoral epistles as “the deposit,” which is to be “kept” or guarded; it is to be committed to subsequent generations in its purity, simplicity, and entirety. It is called “healthful” doctrine, as it promotes healthy assemblies and healthy Christians. It provides a blueprint for assembly practices and for godly living. It allows for cultural application of divine principles in the lives of believers wherever found. However, it must not be segregated into essential and non-essential elements. Paul told the Corinthians that the truth he received from the Lord and gave to them was not debatable. It is for all assemblies, in all locations, for all times. The first assembly, Jerusalem, was a fellowship based upon the apostles’ doctrine, the content of which was completed by the end of that era.
It has been said each assembly is autonomous, meaning it is free to practice and preach what it feels is the truth. Unfortunately, this might include what is not part of the apostolic teaching, while omitting what is. This may result in either legalism or liberalism.
Autonomy is not a Biblical term. It may be valid to describe the absence of a central governing body for assemblies, or the truth that overseers are accountable to God for only the believers of their own assembly, and responsible to practice NT truths as is possible in their own locality, i.e., North America vs. Bangladesh. It cannot mean assemblies are free to interpret and apply the pattern given to the Christian church regardless of what other assemblies around them may do. Names of the building they meet in, times of the gatherings, even aids to singing, may vary and are the responsibility of each assembly, but these are not the defining features of an assembly.
However, assemblies are seen in the NT as being interdependent. That is, they care for and support one another, supplying one another’s needs in times of distress and famines, etc. Even more importantly, assemblies help spiritually. Such is seen in Barnabas being sent from Jerusalem to Antioch, then later taking Paul there; in Apollos being commended to Corinth; or in the Thessalonian church patterning itself from the Judean assemblies. There are great advantages to an assembly getting, or giving, helpful teaching to another assembly. Most significant is the meeting of Paul with the Jerusalem elders to deal with the seeming contradiction between the messages preached to the Gentiles and those received by the Jewish believers. The elders in this case were not stubborn, but compliant with what was evidently the work of God. These are a few of the illustrations of interdependency of assemblies of the early Christian era working in fellowship with the others. There was no circle of exclusive fellowship. There is no evidence of an assembly, or a believer, “flying solo,” unless separated physically by land or sea, and certainly not in 2018, when means of communication are so sophisticated.
It is unspiritual for an assembly (or for a believer) to take the position that responsibility is to God alone, with no need to consider surrounding believers or assemblies. This is autonomy gone wrong, and this spirit is behind many of the divisions among the Lord’s people through the years, where the gracious application of interdependency might have saved the day.
In light of the foregoing, there are some truths that are non-negotiable. That is, if these are not held or practiced, then such a group cannot be a NT assembly. Such truths are: the “breaking of bread” on the first day of every week; the harmonious leadership by elders (plural) raised up by God; the recognition of the headship of the Lord displayed by the head covering of the sisters at assembly gatherings; the exercise of all the gifts under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit; the liberty to teach all the counsel of God, and the recognition of a within and a without of the assembly. What is meant by this last point is there are professed believers who, through unholy living, or, through holding erroneous teaching, cannot be in fellowship in an assembly until corrected or restored to the Lord.
Reception is always to the assembly, and not to the breaking of bread, be it Paul at Jerusalem, Apollos at Corinth, or Phoebe at Rome as examples. The breaking of bread is one of the functions/privileges of an assembly. It is restricted to, and reflects the unity of, that assembly, while proclaiming the Lord’s death. Unknown persons require a letter of commendation/introduction of some kind enabling the assembly they are visiting to confidently embrace them and share the great blessing of the Lord’s Supper. The “clear conscience” of the participant to break bread with the assembly is insufficient. The person must be “known” in the basic sense so that an “open table” has no biblical principle or precedent. This is the divine pattern the Lord has given for His honor and for the preservation of assembly testimony. We are to hold this truth, but to hold it in the spirit of Christian love and kindness, so as not to chase believers away. Non-assembly saints may become exercised to move from observer status at the Lord’s Supper to permanent membership in the assembly.
Rather than listing all the Scripture passages to confirm my remarks, I would suggest that the reader take a Strong’s Concordance and look at the word “church(es),” and this will be the key to the most significant points.
I am sorry to have to include these final remarks but, hopefully they are preventive. Some believers are leaving their assembly to join professing churches because of the speaking gift of the leader, the music, the programs for their children, membership of celebrities, profession of preaching all the Word of God, etc. Compare with the pattern and you will find, in spite of the emotional wave one receives, it is departure from God and His Word. It displaces Christ from His rightful place, hindering, not enhancing, spiritual growth. We are conscious of our weaknesses and failures and recognize these are last days, but may God enrich our assembly life for His glory until our Lord Jesus Christ returns.