The word translated “church” in the Bible is the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “called out” and commonly translated assembly. In the Christian sense it refers to those called out of darkness into His marvelous light having become the people of God (1 Peter 2:9-10). The church never once in Scripture refers to the place or building the people gathered, but rather to the actual gathered people. The church can refer to the local assembly of saints, the city assembly, the regional assembly, the universal assembly, or in plural, the multiple local assemblies. Regardless, it always refers to people.
In fact, the only examples of local assemblies in Scripture refer to groups of saints who met in the private homes of believers (see Colossians 4:15, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and Philemon 2). There were no special buildings constructed for the purpose of religious gatherings in early Christianity. That tradition began hundreds of years later. But more importantly than where they met, was what they did when they gathered.
The primary purpose for their gathering was to partake in communion (see 1 Corinthians 11:20, 33 and Acts 20:7). Communion is sometimes referred to as “breaking of bread,” the “Lord’s Supper” and the “love feast” in the New Testament and as the Eucharist (meaning thanksgiving) by the Ante-Nicene church. The word translated communion in the Bible is also often translated fellowship.
The earliest church viewed partaking in communion as a sacrament. The Roman Catholic church maintained the centrality of the practice while transforming it into the rite of the Mass. Protestants largely dismissed the significance of the sacrament of communion and made the sermon the primary purpose of the gathering. Later, the Pentecostals recognized worship as the main reason for assembling. Though hearing the Word of God and worship are very important elements of the assembly of the saints, they were never meant to supersede the Lord’s Supper’s centrality.
In addition to considering where they met, and what their primary reason for gathering was, was how they conducted their meetings. They did not have a prescribed order of worship with a predetermined “preacher” leading from front and center. The early church instead permitted God Himself to lead the fellowship through gifts imparted to the saints by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 14:26). The gathering was not designed to hear the skillful oratory of talented men, but rather to hear the timely edification, exhortation and consolation of God. In this environment, saints were permitted to participate in the exercising of their spiritual gifts. There was no clergy-laity distinction. No one was relegated a spectator. Everyone was available to be used by God.
In such an environment discipleship is encouraged. No staring at the back of everyone’s head while holding down the pews. Rather, a welcoming and engaging environment where relationships can be forged, and needs can be met, and God is not silenced.
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