The New Testament Approach to Church
Consider the Example of Jesus’s Followers in the Bible
The commands in the Old Testament about the tabernacle/temple, priesthood, and tithe are clear. The New Testament, however, lacks specific instructions for us to follow. But this doesn’t mean we should adhere to the Old Testament model as a default. Instead we look at the practices of the early church to guide us in our interactions with God, to worship, serve, and tell the world about Jesus. We need to be a New Testament church.
Let’s start with Stephen. In his lengthy message before the Sanhedrin, he reminds those gathered that God does not live in the temple, in a house built by people (Acts 7:48-50). But Stephen isn’t spouting a new idea. He quotes Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1-2). This verse finds support from other Old Testament passages (1 Kings 8:27 and 2 Chronicles 2:6).
Even in the Old Testament God is already countering his people’s idea that he lives in the temple, and that they must go there to engage with him. Remember that God didn’t issue his commands about the temple, priests, and tithes until after the people refused to let him speak to them directly and insisted that Moses stand in for them (Exodus 19:6). Could it be that God gave his people the temple, priests, and tithes as a concession to their desire to keep him at a distance?
What does this mean for us? What should change? Let’s look at the New Testament narrative to gather insight in how to adapt God’s Old Testament model of temple, priests, and tithes into a New Testament approach to church.The New Testament church meets in homes. Click To Tweet
They Meet in Homes
The first place Jesus’s followers meet after he returns to heaven is in the upper room, a part of someone’s home (Acts 1:13). They also spend time at the temple (Acts 2:46, Acts 3:1, and Acts 5:20) and visit synagogues on the Sabbath (Acts 9:20, Acts 13:14, and Acts 14:1)—until they’re no longer welcome (Acts 18:7). They also meet in public spaces (Acts 16:13 and Acts 19:9).
Mostly they meet in people’s homes (Acts 2:46, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, and Philemon 1:2). But this isn’t a once-a-week occurrence. They meet daily to eat together (Acts 6:1) and encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13).
The early church continues in their practice of meeting in people’s homes for about three centuries. At this time, Constantine legalizes Christianity and begins building churches. This starts a shift from gathering in people’s homes—as the early church practiced—back to going to dedicated worship spaces—as the Old Testament did.
The book of Hebrews confirms this transition. It states that the Old Testament tabernacle is an earthly, manmade sanctuary and part of the first covenant—the Old testament way (Hebrews 9:1-2). Whereas Jesus, as our high priest, gives us a more perfect tabernacle, one not manmade (Hebrews 9:11).The New Testament church serves a priests. Click To Tweet
They Serve as Priests
We’ve already covered that as Jesus’s followers we are his holy and royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). John also confirms that Jesus made us to be his priests (Revelation 1:6, Revelation 5:10, and Revelation 20:6).
In Hebrews we read that just as the priesthood changed—through Jesus—the law must change as well (Hebrews 7:12). In one grand stroke, God’s law of the Old Testament becomes Jesus’s love in the New Testament. (Not only does the priesthood change in this transition, but so do the accompanying practices of temple and tithe.)
The book of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is our high priest (Hebrews 3:1). This makes him the ultimate priest, with us looking to him as an example of how to be priests serving under him.
As followers of Jesus we are his priests, a holy priesthood, a nation of priests. Are we doing this? No. Instead we hire clergy to work as our modern-day priests, serving as our intermediary between God and us. We’re not functioning as we should as God’s priests. We delegate this holy responsibility to a select few who have put in their time at seminary and received their ordination papers.
Yet God expects us to obey his call to serve as his holy nation of priests. What are we waiting for? What must we do? There are three elements to address in serving our Lord as priests: minister to those in his church, tell others about him, and worship him.
1. Minister to Those in the Church: God intends all those in his family to serve as priests. We’re all priests. This means there are none in our group who aren’t. Within our church—where everyone is a priest—there’s no longer a role to represent God to his people. As priests we can all approach him directly, without the need for an intermediary.
Within the church body, as priests we minister to each other. As Jesus’s priests we need to love one another and treat each other as the New Testament tells us to.
2. Tell Others about Jesus: In the Old Testament, the priests have an inward focus on God’s chosen people. They do little to reach out to those outside their group.
This is one of the things Jesus changes when he fulfills the Old Testament. No longer are we to have an inward focus as his followers, as his priests. Instead he wants us to look outward.
The resurrected Jesus makes this clear before he returns to heaven. He tells his disciples to go throughout the world and make disciples. This includes baptizing them and teaching them about him (Matthew 28:19-20).
Paul—who God sends to tell the Gentiles about Jesus—acknowledges this is his priestly duty (Romans 15:15-16). As Jesus’s priest, Paul tells the Gentiles—that is, non-Jews, which means the rest of the world—the good news of salvation. This is so they can be made right with God.
Peter also touches on this in his writing about us being Jesus’s priests. He says we are to declare our adoration of Jesus to others. Implicitly this is to address those living in darkness so we can bring them into his light (1 Peter 2:9).
Jesus instructs us to tell others about him. Paul and Peter say that we do so as his priests.
3. Worship Him: Much of what God establishes in the Old Testament about the tabernacle/temple, priest, and tithes relate to worshiping him. Does this Old Testament worship have a place in the New Testament church?
But whereas worship was the goal in the Old Testament, it might more so be the means to reach the goal in the New Testament. It is as Jesus’s church worships him and fasts that the Holy Spirit tells them what to do (Acts 13:2). Note that they are doing two things when God speaks to them. It isn’t just worship. They also fast. Don’t lose sight of this.
Let’s consider some other mentions of worship in the New Testament.
We’ll start with Jesus and his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. She asks about the appropriate place to worship God. Jesus dismisses the discussion about location and says that his followers will worship Father God in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:20-24). This means we can worship God anywhere and don’t need to go to a dedicated space. What matters is our attitude toward worship, to do so honestly under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Just as Peter talks about us offering spiritual sacrifices as our worship (1 Peter 2:5), Paul uses the phrase living sacrifice. It’s holy and pleasing to our Lord, serving as honest and right worship (Romans 12:1).
Paul also testifies that as a part of his faith journey he continues to worship God (Acts 24:11 and 14). Furthermore, in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul goes into much detail about having orderly worship (1 Corinthians 14).
The author of Hebrews talks about us being thankful for the eternal salvation we received as worshiping God in reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28-29).
And remember that John’s Revelation overflows with worship. This suggests that not only is worshiping God a New Testament act, but it will also be an end times and everlasting practice (Revelation 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 9:20, 11:16, 14:7, 15:4, 19:4, 19:10, and 22:8-9).
Yes, we will continue to worship God. But it should look much different than the Old Testament way.The New Testament church helps their own who are in need. Click To Tweet
They Give Generously
Not only do Jesus’s followers meet in homes and minister to one another, they also have a fresh perspective on giving. Instead of tithing, which isn’t a New Testament command, they practice generosity.
The New Testament doesn’t mention Jesus’s followers taking collections to support the church infrastructure. Instead they receive offerings to help other disciples in need (Acts 24:17, Romans 15:26, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, and 2 Corinthians 8). Notice that the focus of their generosity is to those within the church.
The only time the New Testament mentions a weekly collection (1 Corinthians 16:2) is simply to set aside money to help the struggling believers in Jerusalem, not to support a minister.
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul confirms the importance of helping the poor. In this case, however, he seems to be talking about all who are poor, both those within the church and those outside (Galatians 2:10).
Jesus talks a lot about money and generosity. He says that there will always be poor people among us (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8), but this isn’t a reason to not help them. On several occasions Jesus tells people to give money to the poor. He says this to the rich man seeking eternal life (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22), the Pharisees (Luke 11:41), and his disciples, which we can rightly apply to ourselves as his present-day disciples (Luke 12:33).
There is evidence in the New Testament that the church provides financial support to missionary efforts, though Paul holds up himself as an example of paying for his own expenses as the ideal. This happens even though he feels he has a right to receive financial support as God’s messenger (1 Corinthians 9:4-18). Regardless, this financial support is for those who travel to tell the good news of Jesus to those who don’t know him, not for local ministers at various city churches.
The New Testament churches practice of generosity is to help the poor and support missionary efforts, not to pay the salaries of local ministers or build and maintain church buildings.
A New Testament Church
This is the New Testament model for church, Jesus’s church. We have much to do.
[Read more about this in Peter’s upcoming book, Jesus’s Broken Church.]
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.