There are two questions that are central to creating, understanding, or evaluating any design. The first is, "Who is it for?", the second, "What purpose does it serve?". If we fail to ask, and correctly answer, these questions, our understanding of the design we are considering will remain deeply deficient.
This is as true in spiritual things as in secular, and it is certainly the case when we consider the local assembly. Unless we grasp the truth of who and what the assembly is for, we risk succumbing to serious, and sadly common, misunderstandings about the nature of the church of God.
It is worth remembering that the assembly does have a design, and that that design is laid down in Scripture. God has not left His people in any doubt as to where and how they should gather. We do not need to rely on the opinions of men or the expectations of society. Assembly practice is not the product of gradual development, an accretion of customs drawn from different cultures and times. Rather, God's Word provides the pattern, the design, for the collective testimony of His people. Paul emphasised this as he wrote to the believers in Corinth: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 3.10-11). The metaphor of building indicates not just activity but accuracy. The plans have been drawn, the foundation laid, and we must, therefore, take heed as we build. And though we often consider the teaching of this passage as to what we build, notice that the apostle speaks of how we build, for unless we follow the blueprints, our contribution will be of little value.
The local assembly, then, is not – and should not be – a haphazard accident. It must be the implementation of divine design, an entity that accords with the pattern of Scripture. And this being so, we can – and should – ask, "Who is the assembly for?". For some the answer is, "For the world". They emphasise the responsibility of believers to preach the gospel, and encourage churches to be "seeker-friendly", to be relevant to contemporary society, and to eliminate anything that might be off-putting to the unsaved, even if this means ignoring the Word of God. The covered heads and silence of the sisters, the dignity and decorum of worship, the unadorned simplicity of Scriptural preaching are, all too often, deemed unattractive, and so must be jettisoned lest our outreach be compromised. There is, of course, no doubt that we have a clear responsibility to preach the gospel. We should welcome unbelievers to our gatherings, and they should be impressed with the evidence of divine presence amongst us (1 Cor 14.23-25). We must "shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life" (Phil 2.15-16). But we cannot disregard the teaching of Scripture just to be relevant to the world, for the assembly is not for society.
Others will answer the question by asserting that the assembly is for the believers who gather there. It is "our assembly", even "my assembly", and its priority must be the convenience and comfort of those who gather. It must not make unreasonable demands on our time, our resources, or our minds. It must be a cosy place where we are stimulated and entertained, where no great demands are made upon us. Again, there is no doubt that the assembly should be a place where the saints are at home, where we are fed, and where our spiritual wellbeing is increased. But we cannot make our comfort the guiding principle of our gatherings for the assembly is not primarily for the saints.
For whom, then, is the assembly designed? 1 Timothy 3.15 gives us the answer – it is "the house of God, which is the church of the living God". The assembly is God's – it belongs to Him, and is for Him. Paul emphasised the same fact to the Corinthian believers: "ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building (1 Cor 3.9). And, in his charge to the Ephesian elders he emphasised not just God's ownership of the assembly in Ephesus, but the price of that ownership: "feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20.28).
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this truth. If the assembly is for God, what matters is not whether our practice is attractive to the world or appealing to the saints, but whether it is acceptable to Him. If the assembly is for God, my service there must not simply be sufficient to impress my brethren or please the overseers, but suitable to be offered as worship to Him. And if the assembly is God's and is for God, it deserves every ounce of commitment, of ability, of effort that I can muster.
The context of 1 Timothy 3.15 demonstrates this importance. The careful directions for church order given in this chapter – and in the epistle as a whole – matter, because the assembly is God's. It is His house, a term that speaks of His ownership, but also of His authority. I have no right to redecorate my neighbour's house, or to rearrange his furniture. How then could I ever think I had the right to alter the arrangements that the living God has made for His house? They matter too because of the vitally important purpose that the assembly has. The "house of God, which is the church of the living God" is, Paul tells us, "the pillar and ground ("bulwark", NET) of the truth". The assembly has a two-fold function in relation to truth. It preserves it and protects it; displays it and defends it; holds it forth, and holds it fast. And while "the truth" includes all that God has revealed, Paul goes on to outline some of the most profound elements of the truth that the assembly maintains: "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory". The assembly has the responsibility to preach the gospel, to teach the essentials of Christian conduct, and the principles of assembly gathering. But its responsibility goes far beyond this. The truth of who Christ is, and of what He has done have been entrusted to us to be preserved and communicated.
In his first epistle to Timothy Paul tells us how the assembly functions as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (3.15), and in his second epistle, "the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2.2). Truth is passed from generation to generation, entrusted to "faithful men" "among many witnesses", accredited as the authentic truth of God, precious and powerful in every age.
And it is in the assembly that this is to happen. In the first chapter of the second epistle the family is the place of teaching, where Timothy received his grounding in the Scriptures from a faithful grandmother and mother. The value of that instruction was incalculable, and many of us have cause to thank God for godly mothers and grandmothers who grounded us in the Word of God. Besides the family, the only sphere that Paul envisages for the transmission of truth is the assembly. No human institution or expedient, no subsection of or a supplement to the assembly can be described as "the pillar and ground of the truth". That function is uniquely reserved for the local assembly, where all the truth of God's Word can be publicly and accountably communicated to all of God's people by spiritually gifted brethren who are "apt to teach" (1 Tim 3.2; 2 Tim 2.24).
The assembly's purpose is a lofty one. To be the repository of divine truth is both a unique privilege and a heavy responsibility. And this purpose will not be achieved automatically. Exercise and effort will be required on the part of those who have the responsibility of oversight and those who have been gifted to teach. Our ministry will need to grow in depth and breadth, for all the "counsel of God' (Acts 20.27) must be communicated. This exercise will result, and this effort seem light, if we are gripped by the conviction that our primary responsibility as an assembly of the Lord's people is to do His will and proclaim His Word. A clear understanding of the purpose of the assembly should cause us to examine our approach, to re-evaluate our activity, to ensure that our solemn duty is discharged. May we, collectively, as well as individually, be ever, only, all for Him.
To be continued.