A Plea to Return to New Testament Principles
Romanticism, characterized by its emphasis on the glorification of the past, was at its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, its influence was at work in the ecclesiastical world of that day and can be seen in the lives and influence of two contemporaries bearing similar names. These were John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).
In the Church of England, John Henry Newman, an influential leader of the Oxford Movement, eventually left that church to embrace Roman Catholicism with its long, unbroken tradition, stretching back to the early centuries of the church. For this, he was ultimately made a cardinal. At the same time, John Nelson Darby left the established church in Ireland around 1831 in favor of a return to New Testament church principles. That both men must have known each other is quite likely given the fact that Newman’s younger brother, Francis, boarded for fifteen months in the same house with Darby and was greatly influenced by the latter.1
It would appear to this author that Darby’s call for a return to New Testament church principles urgently needs to be sounded once again in our own day. Indeed, it would seem that “we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (Heb. 2:1). That there is already a drifting away is undeniable. Over thirty years ago, James Stahr, then editor of Letters of Interest, drew our attention to this fact in the following editorial remark:
“Assemblies will survive alright, numerically at least. It remains to be seen whether they will survive as a distinct movement of the Spirit of God, or as gradually merging into a context of independent and community churches. Certainly, they will not go back to the isolation of former days. But whether the people of the assemblies will want to assert their distinctives as being a valuable contribution and challenge to evangelicals as a whole or whether they will prefer to forget or hide their distinctives as something divisive and embarrassing, remains to be seen.”2
What exactly are those principles or distinctives of which we are speaking and how many are there? While all may not agree on the number, let me suggest four which have generally characterized the assemblies. I call them the four-wheel drive of a New Testament church. Before enumerating them, however, it should be underscored that their practice does not make any group of believers better or more spiritual than some other group that may follow a different pattern. What we do we must do out of conviction (Rom. 14:5). We, like they, are answerable to the Lord of the church and we do well to recall the words of Christ to Peter in John 21:22, “What is that to you? You follow Me.”
The Priority of the Lord’s Supper
Celebrated weekly in remembrance and worship of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, it expresses the oneness of the body of Christ. In apostolic times it was the practice to meet on the first day of the week to “break bread” (Acts 20:7) in remembrance of our Lord (Luke 22:19), the one loaf best symbolizing the unity in one body (1 Cor. 10:17). All who have received Christ as Savior and are living in conformity with God’s Word have their place at this meeting. The instructions found in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 14:26-35 apply to this worship service.
The Plurality of Elders
Elders are men of equal standing, given by the Holy Spirit to oversee and care for the spiritual needs of the local assembly. The New Testament teaches clearly that a mature and adult local church is directed by a plurality of elders, whom the Bible also calls “bishops” (“overseers”) or leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17), who are collectively responsible for the pastoral work (the teaching and the direction of the flock—Acts 20:17, 28). Deacons and deaconesses take care of necessary tasks, such as that of treasurer, building maintenance, etc. The qualifications of an elder are set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus1:5-9 and those of a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:3.
The Priesthood of all Believers
No distinction is made between a so-called clergy and laity, so that all may serve God with the spiritual gifts given them by the Holy Spirit. All believers are priests to God (1 Pet. 2:9) and as members of the Body of Christ have a function in the body (1 Cor. 12). The life of the local church should allow the orderly manifestation of all the gifts that the Lord has given the church for its building up (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Cor. 14:40). Therefore, all brethren “in fellowship,” (i.e., in good standing), have the right to participate in an audible fashion according to the leading of the Spirit of God. The sisters, in silence (1 Cor. 14:34,35), wearing a head covering (1 Cor. 11:2-16), offer their unique form of homage and worship by veiling their personal glory in the presence of almighty God.
The Principle of Autonomy and Interdependence of the Local Assembly
Each local church answers alone to Christ our Head while seeking fellowship with all true saints. Every local assembly is autonomous in matters having to do with their internal operation. An overview of the New Testament reveals that while we find many passages that refer to the interdependence of local churches (Acts 11:27-30; Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Cor. 8:1-5; 13:12; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:22; Col. 4:9, 15-16; 1 Thess. 1.7-10; Heb. 13:24; 1 Pet. 5:13)—even if these passages do not make explicit mention of it—there is not very much said about the autonomy of the local church. In fact, whatever degree of autonomy we might assume to be normal on the local church level, we must deduce from what is not said, such as the absence of any reference to an ecclesiastical hierarchy, rather than from what is said in the New Testament. As is the case with many other issues in the Christian life and in the life of the church, there is a balance to be maintained. Autonomy and interdependence must complement each other.
The call to return to first things, whether by example or precept, is scattered throughout the pages of God’s Word from Genesis (e.g. 13:3) to Revelation (e.g. 2:5). God has not ceased to call His people to return. May we heed that call today, saying with the psalmist “With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments” (Psa. 119:10).
1 Richard E. Strout, Ebb and Flow: A History of Christian Brethren Churches in French Canada 1926-2010 (Gospel Folio Press, 2016), p.18
2 James Stahr, Letters of Interest, January 1985, p.7