Sunday 19 October 2008

A biblical theology of Christian Assembly

1. Australian Church of England Diocese of Sydney Synod 2008

As Anglican media has reported the 48th Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia Diocese of Sydney met this past week. The first three days had many highlights including a wonderful Presidential address by Archbishop Peter Jensen (you can view it here and read a report on it here) that he framed with testimonial words to the work of former Rector of St Barnabas Church Broadway R.B.S. Hammond ("The Need of the Word was on his heart") and James 1:22 (KJV) "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only". There were also excellent sessions each day on the Diocese's strategy for evangelism, Connect 09. On Wednesday (Day 3) one of the most interesting sessions was the presentation of the Sydney Diocese Doctrine Commission report on "A Theology of Christian Assembly" (see Anglican Media report here). I want to focus on this item in this post.

2. A theology of Christian Assembly

Dr John Woodhouse (Principal of Moore Theological College) and Dr Mark Thompson (Academic Dean of Moore College) presented the report of the Doctrine Commission. Its purpose was to examine a Biblical theology of Christian Assembly using the Bible to re-establish a coherent understanding of large gatherings typically called 'church' or 'worship' to answer three questions:
  • Why Christians meet together?
  • When we meet, what is our gathering for and what good comes from it?
  • On the basis of why we meet and what it is for, what ought we do when we meet?
Dr Woodhouse made it clear that the paper is not meant to be comprehensive and to answer all questions about worshiping together as a church. As the Anglican Media report indicates there was healthy tension in the room as the paper was debated and a level of disagreement that was managed by all in a godly way. Some were concerned that the report failed to give due consideration to the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, others were concerned at the deliberate use of the word 'assembly' rather than 'church' or 'worship', and a few felt that the ideas gained from the experience of "missional church plants around the Diocese" should be considered. There was also a strong push to 'receive' the report rather than 'welcome' the report. As Phillip Jensen (Dean of the Cathedral) pointed out, simply "receiving" it was a 'good' way to make sure that the church doesn't act on it; simply noting that it's there and perhaps ignoring it. He urged Synod to 'welcome' it and act on it, for there is a great need in Anglican churches to rethink biblically why we meet together as we do. Some also questioned the lack of emphasis given to some things which they felt should be acknowledged more fully (e.g. the Sacraments).

As a participant at Synod I was struck by the fact that many seemed to miss the point of the Commission's report. It is not an attempt to attack more traditional styles of meeting together (church worship as they would stress), but rather to challenge all Anglicans to consider why they do the things they do when meeting together. In fact, the Chair of the Commission expressed the view that his greatest concern was with churches where there was greater informality. The report is not an attack on traditional Anglican Prayer Book services.

3. Key points in the report

The gathering of people together is not unique to Christianity, it is universal and stems from our created nature as relational beings in the image of God. To understand why Christians should assemble together we need to understand how they fit into God's "history-wide plan of God" and examine the biblical theology of worship as revealed by the whole of Scripture. In short:

a) What is the Christian assembly?
  • Christ's assembly is built as people from all nations are gathered into it by the Word and the Spirit.
  • Christ's assembly is heavenly, and will be revealed in the age to come, the new creation (Col 3:1-4; Rev 21:1-4; Rom 8:33-39; Rev 7:13-17).
  • Christ's assembly is seen now in the assemblies of Christians (Eph 2; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Eph 3:6; Phil 2:1-2).
  • Christian assemblies are markedly different from Old Testament assemblies because of the fulfilment of God's promise in Christ (John 2:19-22; Heb 7:11) and can take place anywhere and don't require a priest and any ritual, only Christ (John 4:21-24; Heb 8:1-6; 9:11-14; 10:19-23).
  • Christian assemblies are not perfect representations of the heavenly and ultimate assembly. As such we should expect unbelievers to be present (1 Cor 14:23).
  • The Christian assembly is unique among human gatherings and is essentially those who have been called together by the gospel and who share in the Holy Spirit and who fellowship together. This has a vertical dimension (Godward) and a horizontal dimension (one another).
b) What are the purposes for meeting together?
  • The very fact of our gathering testifies to the gracious purposes of God; and "the manifold wisdom of God" is made known to "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph 3:10) through the assembly of those who have access to the Father in Christ (Eph 3:12).
  • We meet for fellowship with one another and with God. While we know that Scriptures teach that we are always in fellowship or sharing with each other and God through the Spirit (Eph 2;18), the New Testament also speaks of a particular sharing or fellowship together in Christ in the assembly here on earth (John 17:20-23; 1 John 1:2-3).
  • For building toward maturity in Christ - The Christian assembly of people must be moving forward and be in the process of being built (edified). This involves numerical growth and growing in maturity and depth of faith in Christ (Eph 4:16; Col 2:19; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Peter 2:5). The growth of the assembly involves the growth of individuals as well as their mutual relationships; we are "built to be edified" (Col 2:6-7).
  • The Christian assembly while giving testimony to God and welcoming non-believers, in the New Testament, is characteristically the fruit of evangelism, not its agent. The gospel is proclaimed everywhere, not just in the assembly (1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Col 4:2-4; 1 Peter 3:15). Proclaiming the gospel for the purpose of the conversion of others is not the primary purpose of Christian assembly, rather it will further the gospel work by building outward-looking mission-minded Christians who will whatever they can to win other to Christ and will take the gospel to the world (1 Thess 1:8).

c) What should assembled Christians do?

A key starting point for answering this question is that the Christian assembly should realise that "the most important aspect of the meeting is what God does rather than what we do"; God is not a passive observer of our assemblies, Jesus promised to be present with us when two or three are gathered in his name (Matt 18:20). Neither is he silent, his voice is heard as the words of Scripture are read (1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Cor 13:3). What we do together should flow directly from God's purposes for the gathering. Such gatherings should do many things:

First, they should be a testimony to Christ. The assembly is a testimony to the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10), which is especially displayed as followers of Christ love one another with Christ-like sacrificial love (John 13:34; Eph 4:1-3; 5:1-20). Such love is born of the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Gal 5:22) and is the proof that we know God, have been given new birth and are obedient to the truth (1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 1:22). This is also achieved through the Sacraments; for example, the sharing of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20) is a testimony to fellowship in Christ (1 Cor 11:26).

Second, we meet for fellowship. As Christians meet together much of what we do will be a sharing together in the fundamental Christian response to God in Christ. For example, we will:
  • share in confession (Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 John 4:2)
  • pray for each other (James 5;15; Acts 4:23-31), for the progress of the gospel (2 Thess 3:1) and for all people (1 Tim 2;1) in the light of the coming kingdom (Matt 6:9-13).
  • respond in praise and thanksgiving (Eph 1:3-14; 5:19-20; 1 Cor 14:16; Phil 3:1; 4:10) and in practical ways, for example sharing news with one another, commissioning and sending members out for the gospel (Acts 4:23ff; 14:27ff; 21:17ff; Acts 13:3; 15:4; 18:27-28; 20:1-3; 17ff; 21:5-6).
  • demonstrate generosity of all kinds individually and collectively (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:9), including supporting those who bring the word of God to us (1 Cor 9:1-12; 1 Tim 5:17-8).
Third, we meet to be build maturity in Christ. The assembly is called into being through the word of God, and the same word dwells in and builds the assembly (Acts 20:32; Eph 4:15-16; Col 3:16). Hence, if the assembly is to grow and be built up, hearing the word of God is central. The early Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42), to the "public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim 4:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27). As we meet together we also speak the word of God to one another (1 Thes 4:18; Heb 3:13), and we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15-16). Paul also commends the fellowship in Eph 5:19 to sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (speaking God's words melodically). All these things are for building the church (1 Cor 14:26). Assembled Christians " the assembly by prayerfully proclaiming God's word, and by encouraging and exhorting one another to respond to the word in repentance and faith, to persevere in the hope to which we are called, to love and serve one another, and grow in godliness as we wait for the coming Day of the Lord" (Heb 3:13).

The Commission report ends by affirming that there will be diversity in the way we assemble together, and that the purpose and theology of the Book of Common Prayer should be retained. In spite of diversity, the Commission calls on every Christian assembly to be ordered around hearing Christ's word and responding to it in faith, obedience and loving fellowship with God and each other. Every assembly it urges should include the speaking and hearing of the word of God, and a shared response to it of prayer and thanksgiving. The assembly should be shaped by "theologically-driven care and thought" and should not be designed to interest, entertain, attract or intrigue non-Christians. This is not their purpose. The purpose is to be intelligible for Christians attending and authentic to the realities of human life in this sufferieng world. If it does this it will be the kind of assembly that welcomes outsiders, and is intelligible and edifying for all.

Previous posts on the purpose of the Christian assembly

I have written previously about the purpose of worship in the Christian assembly here and here.

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