Part A | Part B | Part C | Part D
THE CHURCH IN OPERATION
Most churches in the "free" world today are what we call "institutional" churches. They express their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through the use of buildings, organizations, programs, activities, etc., and depend heavily upon them for their continued existence. In a "free" society such expressions of faith are possible and useful. However, such institutional expressions are not permitted in many restrictive societies. Brother Andrew, the man widely known as "Gods Smuggler," says that he has only met two types of church leaders--those who say, "It can never happen here," and those who say, " We thought it could never happen here." In other words, none of us who now live in the "free" world has the right to expect that our church may depend solely on institutional expressions of its faith indefinitely. If these institutional expressions of faith were denied to us, or if public identification with the Gospel of Christ became very difficult, how would you and your fellowship continue to operate?
We can learn from the experiences of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been forced to learn how to operate as a part of the body of Christ in restricted or repressive societies in the last century. In China for example, there were only about our million professing evangelical Christians at the time of the Communist take over in the early 1950s. Consider the following scenario since that time: Christian leaders were harassed, then treated with violence and jailed. Many Christians were killed. The institutional church was officially closed for over ten years, and true believers suffered for over forty years from hostile government pressure. But in spite of all this, a vital Christian testimony still exists in that country! In fact, the church is many time larger now that it was in 1950, probably exceeding 75 million by now! Obviously, the church in China throughout the decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s, could not depend on any institutional expression of their faith. They had to discover new ways to worship and maintain their walk with the Lord. How did they do this?
Evidently, there were a few Christians in China in the early 1950s that understood the true nature of the church, as we discussed it in Lesson I. They quickly abandoned the old institutional expressions and began to operate differently. Although the new patterns of expression they used had to be very discreet, they were effective. There were others who struggled to maintain their public forms of worship long as possible, and they suffered greatly for it. Many were imprisoned and some were killed. God highly honors their gallant stand and they can be sure, as Paul testified (Phil. 1:12), that their sufferings served to advance the Gospel. But the government finally eliminated all public expression of faith. Many Christians around the world were deeply shaken by this turn of events and did not know what to do. They wondered if God had abandoned China! Gradually, however, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, faithful believers found. valid ways to express their faith quietly, but dynamically, on a person to person basis!
We have used China as one example. Many others are available in the long troubled history of the church. The church has always functioned in its most basic form in times of persecution. Let us consider in the next part how the early church, in spite intense persecution, fulfilled the four basic functions of the church; evangelism, teaching, fellowship and worship.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. What are the most common "expressions of faith" found among churches in your home area?
2. Did Communism actually destroy the church in China, as they claimed, or simply change it?
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The early church provides an excellent study for our purposes because when the church began, public expression was permitted by the authorities. Peter preached to thousands on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) and in the temple area following the healing of the lame beggar (Acts 3:1-26). But then the believers were ordered to stop telling of Jesus. When they did not obey ( Acts 4:1-31), the persecution began. The ministry gradually shifted from public places to private homes (Acts 5:42), while many believers fled from Jerusalem. As the believers were scattered, they carried the Gospel with them (Acts 8:4). Note that these were ordinary lay Christians, not the apostles (Acts 8:1). They became missionaries, witnessing on a person-to-person basis without dependence on the institutional church. Peter was then led to speak to Cornelius, his relatives and friends in Cornelius home (Acts 10). About this time, Paul was converted, and after a period of isolation, and began his ministry of declaring Jesus to the gentiles. He preached first in the synagogues, but when his message was rejected there, he began teaching wherever anyone would listen. In Corinth, he went to a private home (Acts 18:1-7). In Ephesus, he rented a hall (Acts 19:1-10). In Philippi, he taught on a river bank (Acts 16:12-13). The early Christians gave their witness of the saving power of Jesus whenever and wherever possible! It is interesting to notice that copies of the Scriptures were very scarce, and yet the early church depended heavily upon the Word of God, apparently quoting from memory. Christians under pressure today must follow the same evangelistic pattern, with all believers involved in presenting Christ as any opportunity is found, depending only on the Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit.
In addition to the evangelistic presentations about salvation in Jesus Christ, the early church was involved in teaching [discipling] new believers. We do not know where they met to hold their training sessions, but they were no longer welcome in the synagogues, so it may have been in private home. The account preserved for us in the book of Acts shows that after the initial presentation of Christ, an effort was made to follow up with a teaching ministry. Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the Jerusalem church for that purpose (Acts 11:25-26). Paul made a return trip to the cities he had successfully evangelized to strengthen and encourage the converts (Acts 14:21-23), and later he stopped again on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:6-8). It is evident from comments in the epistles that Paul, John, Peter and James were also doing a great deal of person-to-person teaching. Many times this kind of personal discipleship is the most valuable thing believers can do. It is certainly the most important to a church in a hostile environment. This kind of personal teaching can be done at odd places at odd times without the restrictions on length of time that often hinder group meetings. The time and place of discipleship teaching is unimportant. It doesn't matter if the "class" is small, perhaps made up of only one student. What is important is that the teaching be based on the Word of God and that the purpose is to encourage and strengthen brothers and sisters in Christ in their Christian walk.
The fellowship function of the early church is more difficult to identify than its evangelism and teaching functions, because fellowship is basically a heart attitude. The institutional church may have "fellowship meetings" in the weekly schedule, but whether or not real fellowship takes place depends on the heart attitude of the Christians. In the early church, the fellowship was closely intertwined with gathering together for a "fellowship meal" during which the "breaking of bread" for the Lords Supper was an important part. The fellowship meal offered an opportunity to those who had been blessed with material goods to share their abundance with others. This sharing is an essential part of the love and concern that make up true fellowship (Acts 2:41-42, 44-47; 4:34-35). This fellowship was threatened in the Jerusalem church when there were some complaints over the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-4). The problem was quickly taken care of and remains in Scripture to show us that this church cared for those in its body that were in need. On several occasions, churches outside of Jerusalem sent financial assistance to the poor of the Jerusalem church. This is evidence of a bond of fellowship between them although they had never met each other. The apostle John was able to appeal to this fellowship and care for other Christians as the basis for the support of traveling evangelists (III John 1-8). The modern practice of churches in one country paying the expenses for missionaries to go to another country follows this example.
We can learn a negative lesson from the church at Corinth. They were in sharp contrast to the sweet fellowship that was found in Jerusalem. In Corinth, even though they met together, they had no fellowship because they were divided. Their "love feasts [fellowship meals] became times of strife instead of fellowship (I Cor. 1:10-15; 3:1-9; 11:17-30). While the Jerusalem church had been able to settle their problems in love, the Corinthians were even taking their fellow believers before the pagan law courts (I Cor. 6:1-8). They had difficulty completing a project they had started to gather funds for a gift for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem (II Cor. 8:6, 10-11; 9:15). This isn't too surprising. When they had no fellowship and concern among themselves, it is highly unlikely that they would have it for strangers in Jerusalem (I John 4:20). Pauls letters to Corinth dealt at length with these problems.
The bond of fellowship among the New Testament Christians was based on a spirit of oneness, love and concern. Their relationship did not depend on meetings, organizations, programs and activities. They helped one another, bore one anothers burdens, and prayed for one another. This kind of fellowship thrived in spite of everything the Roman government could do. The more aggressive the opposition, the more true fellowship means to those in the body of Christ.
This brings us to the last of the four basic functions of the church; worship. Worship is basically recognizing and accepting God's glory, holiness and worth. An act of worship is an expression of this recognition. The New Testament writers seemed to assume that all men knew how to worship. They give us few examples of how the early Christians worshipped. Participation in the Lord's Supper appears to have been their highest expression of worship. As they prayerfully remembered Jesus and His sacrificial death upon the cross for their sins, they were worshipping. The Jerusalem church was too large to hold a communion service together, so they worshipped in various homes (Acts 2:41-47). The fellowship in Troas, however, was able to gather in an upper room on the first day of the week for the "breaking of bread" (Acts 20:6-8). The church at Corinth gathered occasionally, in spite of being quite large, and observed the Lords Supper together. In fact, their abuse of this practice was the thing that led to Pauls guidelines for such observances found in I Cor. 11:17-30. There are Scriptural references to other times of worship, such as Peters prayer (Acts 4:23-28), and Paul and Silas experience in prison (Acts 16:23-25). We assume that worship was as frequent and spontaneous to the early church as it was to Moses or David in the Old Testament. But it was a simple expression of adoration and praise. There was no requirement of time, location, form, or even specific leaders. Worship in the early church was simply an outpouring of thanksgiving from a heart that rejoiced in the Lord, in complete disregard of circumstances. This type of worship cannot be stopped by anyone. A group of Christians in hostile surroundings can worship in this simple way without being limited to a certain building, a special time, or a prescribed program.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
l. When and where should evangelism be done?
2. Have you thought of "Christian fellowship" in the way it is presented in this lesson? Have you experienced this kind of fellowship? When and where?
3. What "methods" or ways of worshipping have been used by those attending this lesson? Consider each. Can you think of three examples from the Bible?
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As we are considering some of the common outward expressions of our faith in Christ, we should include weddings, funerals and baptisms. Some oppressive governments have continued to permit religious weddings and funerals after all other types religious expressions have been banned. Some strong Christians in the Soviet Union, for example, used those occasions for a public witness, long after such open witnessing was forbidden anywhere else. The authorities find funerals especially difficult to control. In the most anti-Christian societies a secret Christians radiance at the time of the death of a loved one can have a deep impact that may later draw an observer to Christ.
Baptism is a church ordinance that is important to church life. It symbolizes the identification of the new believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and in many cultures is the recognized evidence that a person has become a Christian. Through baptism a believer is testifying of his own death to the old life and his resurrection to live a new life. Baptismal services have been an expression of worship for the church throughout its history, both for the one being baptized and for believers observing the ordinance. The early Christians baptized new believers whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. It was often done publicly, as in the case of John and Jesus in the Jordan River, but it was also done when two men were alone in the wilderness (Acts 8:36-39). Note that baptisms were not just performed by church leaders, but also by lay Christians (John 4:2, 3; Acts 8:36-39; I Cor. 1:11-17).
There may be some justification in a free society for institutional church leaders to limit the ordinance of baptism to a service performed by someone authorized by the church, but it was not so in the persecuted church of New Testament times, and cannot be so among Christians in societies that persecute the church today. It is often necessary to plan and execute a baptismal service in extreme secrecy. Yet, testimonies of Christians who have participated in such secret services tell of great spiritual blessing. In Nepal, where a new convert who was baptized faced a seven year term in prison, more than ten young converts were baptized at a meeting with a known government agent in attendance! He thought the group was going swimming, so he enjoyed a snack that had been especially prepared for him in the cook tent! Anyone who would be that bold about being baptized can be expected to be an obedient witness for Christ in spite of government opposition.
In our studies of the four functions of the church [evangelism, teaching, fellowship and worship], as they were practiced in the New Testament church, you have probably noticed that these functions were frequently carried out in private homes. But the early church was not limited just to homes. They also used the Temple, synagogues, lecture halls, open forums, river banks, ships and other places. However, it is encouraging to realize that all the functions can be performed in a small house. In many restricted countries, this is the only available place. The New Testament specifically refers to five "house churches," and there were probably many more (Rom. 16:3-5, 23; I Cor.16:19, Col. 4:15; Philemon 1:2).
Actually a house church has many advantages. There is no expenditure for an additional building, it encourages friendliness, its physical features do not attract unwanted attention from authorities, and the meeting can easily be moved from one house to another. Of course, the big problem is limited space, but this simply forces the church to meet in small groups, which means closer friendship. If a particular group becomes too large to meet in a home, it divides into two churches and the growth continues. An apparent disadvantage of house churches is the lack of fellowship between them. In a highly restrictive society, however, this also can be an advantage because if the existence of one church becomes known to the authorities, the members cannot expose others. In some restricted societies, the house churches are able to occasionally enjoy larger group meetings. In China, for example, several house churches agreed to picnic in a particular part of a public park at the same time on a certain holiday. No attempt was made to have open fellowship, but all the Christians were encouraged to see many other secret believers all together. In societies that are less restrictive than China, the house churches can sometimes hold joint meetings to increase fellowship between believers of different groups.
There is an interesting comparison between house churches and the way the Communists organized themselves in a country they were trying to take over. Their basic unit was the cell. The cell consisted of about three people. Each cell functioned under a cell leader. There might be many cells in one area, but they did not know each other. The cell leader knew only his immediate superior, the nest leader. The nest was usually made up of about twelve cells, all functioning independently of each other and known only to the nest leader. The members of one cell might be encouraged by the activities of another cell as that information was shared with them by the nest leader, but they did not know the people involved. Of course, if circumstances demanded it, the nest leader could mobilize all the cells together. House churches could benefit from a similar type of loose organization.
Looking again to the experience of the early church, we see that following the first few days of public ministry, persecution began. When the authorities ordered the apostles to stop preaching, Peter and John returned to their own "company." By this time, the Jerusalem church was too large to gather in one place, so the "company" of Peter and John met to pray about the threats of the authorities (Acts 4:21-23). At this time, the leaders were still known to all and generally accessible. After the death of Stephen, the church became more careful, as can be seen from the fact that Paul could not reach the church leaders in Jerusalem until Barnabas accompanied him (Acts 9:26-28). In spite of their precautions, however, James was arrested and killed. Then Peter was seized and sentenced to die, too. The church prayed earnestly for Peters release, but they did not all meet in one place. When he was miraculously released by an angel, Peter went to the home of John Mark where he knew a prayer meeting would be in progress. Notice that the group was meeting in a locked home when Peter arrived. They were very cautious about opening the gate when he knocked. He was very careful too, and went to another place after informing them of his release (Acts 12). It seems evident that it is not cowardly or evidence of weak faith to be cautious. Later when Paul and Barnabas met with the Jerusalem church, there were elders present as well as apostles (Acts 15:4, 22; 21:17-l9). Perhaps these were the men that were the leaders of the many house churches that were scattered throughout Jerusalem. This could be a good pattern for a church that finds itself under a repressive government. They can maintain a "public witness" through those leaders that are already known to the government, while quietly encouraging small house churches scattered throughout the area, where the four functions of the church are effectively working. In this way, the public witness is merely the "tip of the iceberg" so to speak.
Suggested Discussion questions:
l. Even avowed atheists often soften at a wedding or funeral. Has you seen this happen? When?
2. What can a group do if they become too large to meet in a home?
3. Would there be any advantages to house churches in your home area at this time?
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Special mention should be made of one of the enemys favorite ways of dealing with a dynamic Christian witness--isolation. Satan will try to cut a believer off from contact with those that he can influence, and from those who can nurture his faith. Many believers have found this tactic very hard to fight. Sometimes Satan begins by bringing governmental pressure against the public meeting, then key members of the fellowship are killed or moved to other areas. Meanwhile, the propaganda machine is working. Weak believers are caused to wonder where their friends have gone. Why have the missionaries all left? Didn't they care enough to stay? No one mentions that the government has forced the missionary exodus and consciously dispersed Christians. If the believer, because of fear, cuts himself off from all contact with other Christians, Satan will have won. A Christian cannot survive victoriously for long if he choses to spiritually cut himself off from fellowship, and teaching.
If physical isolation is forced on a believer, he must turn to a deeper spiritual fellowship with Christ. This must be coupled with an increased alertness to look for other Christians. Often a simple word, the humming of a few bars of a hymn, or the almost casual making of a Christian symbol, can be used to make contact with another secret believer. In China, the believers take the Scriptures literally and watch for special acts of love to get hints as to who is a believer (Jn. 13:25). Usually a believer will be able to have Christian fellowship at least with his own family. This may be his only encouragement, but he should constantly be on the lookout for other possibilities. It may sometimes be necessary for a believer to lead someone else to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to end his isolation! We have seen this happen many times when believers were committed to maintain a dynamic relationship with their Lord.
A group of Christians that are determined to have the four functions of the church in operation in their midst is almost impossible to stop. Consider the following examples:
1. In the Soviet Union, a group of Christians took advantage of the funeral of the small daughter of one of the members to present a public evangelistic witness. On the way to the cemetery they stopped every few hundred meters to sing triumphant songs of praise and the father of the dead child gave a ringing testimony of salvation in Christ. Many listeners were deeply touched.
2. In a prison in Czechoslovakia a pastor quietly discipled a young believer as they were forced to do hard labor together. After his release, the young Christian became a dynamic witness for Christ.
3. In a tribal area of northeast India, the poor Christians of one tribe made a great sacrifices and took great risks to aid and encourage the new believers in another tribe after their leader, his wife and ten-year old daughter were killed for their witness.
4. In China, a small group of believers gathered weekly in the back room of a small store to worship together. Since they could easily be overheard by anyone who entered the store, they engaged in what they called, "silent singing." Someone would whisper the name of the song they would like to sing, and they would silently move their lips as they simply thought of the words and music.
These Christians are surviving victoriously because they have learned to adjust to these most difficult circumstances. Your survival in a world that never welcomes the message of Christ can also be victorious if you learn to break out of the traditional patterns of thinking and are willing to be flexible under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Do not let yourself be bound by the institutional traditions. Our God is able to meet your needs and bless in many ways. Begin now to look for new and more simple ways to express your faith. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. What does Satan hope to gain by having Christians sent away to other areas? Can this tactic react against him? How?
2. Have you made any "adjustments" in typical institutional church practice to meet your local situation.? Share them with the group.
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