Church History and Church Discipline in the OT and NT

In order to understand the assembly of followers of our Sovereign Creator, we need to look at the OT, NT and other historic documents to understand the full picture.

Flocking and Assembling

There is a saying, "Birds of a feather flock together." Flocking together for humans can be called an assembly, a church, a congregation, a fellowship, a synagogue, etc. God built into each of us a need to meet with people. The basic unit has always been the family, but communities form that combine families of people from different affinity groups based on culture, language, profession, hobbies, etc.

In order to understand the assembly of followers of our Sovereign Creator, we need to look at the OT, NT and other historic documents to understand the full picture. Keep in mind that the NT is merely a continuation of the OT. Christianity is merely a sect of Judiasm. Jesus reformed the nation of Israel by explaining the OT Scripture perfectly, thus restoring the original intent of the OT Scriptures (aka "Law".) When the Temple veil was torn after Jesus Christ died, this was only fulfilment of the sacrificial and ecclesiastical law of Moses. He consummated the moral law (Mt. 5:17,18, Rom. 10:4). He didn't abolish or end the OT Scriptures.

Church and Church Discipline in the Old Testament

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were in fellowship with God but they sinned. God handled the church discipline. After that, the righteous and the wicked chose their own paths. By the time of Noah, he and his family were the church - the ecclesia, the called out ones - people who were called out from the pagan world.

Then, there was Abram, Sarai and Lot. God called them out of Ur and Haran to go to Canaan to start a new group or clan, a new set of tribes and eventually a new nation that would be separate from the rest of the world. God's purpose was to have people whom He could bless and call His people - people who would praise Him and bless others and draw others to Himself. In the OT, it was primarily a closed society in which people like Rahab and Ruth were drawn into the assembly. There was very little outward evangelism, except in cases like Jonah going to Ninevah. The Spirit of God dwelled primarily in the Tabernacle and on certain godly men like Samuel, David and the prophets. If people wanted to meet God, they generally had to go to Shiloh or Jerusalem. The Tabernacle was a portal for the Spirit of God to come from the invisible heavenly realm into our 3D world. Sometimes this was seen with God's shikinah glory - like in the desert and when Solomon dedicated the temple.

But note several things at this point:

  1. Church services (formal assembly) were only required three times per year on the three high sabbaths (Dt. 16:16), and only men were required to attend. Informal assembly may or may not have occurred on normal Sabbaths. There was no mandate to do so.
  1. The Mosaic law and closed society provided protection from evil influences. This is in contrast to God's people after Pentecost, since the indwelling Holy Spirt provides corresponding protection (in addition to assembly). In other words, the focus prior to Pentecost was primarily inward, but after Pentecost it became primarily outward. At least it should be something that mature followers of Jesus Christ should do, e.g., "He who does not gather with me scatters" (Mt. 12:30).
  1. Church discipline in the OT was very severe, often meaning a death penalty by stoning.
  1. Church discipline in the OT only seemed to happen at the beginning - like when Moses and Joshua were still around and during special times of national reform, like under some good kings and Nehemiah and Ezra.
  1. Church discipline in Israel and Judah usually didn't happen. Things usually got so bad that the reformers (prophets) could only warn of impending doom. Nothing new under the sun, right?
  1. Within Israel, there were times when men of God didn't attending formal church services. For example, during the time when Saul was trying to kill David, David probably didn't attend church in the place of the Tabernacle. In Psalm 26:4,5, he said, "I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers [pretenders, hypocrites]. I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked." Thus, David was part of a reform movement, and that movement required a period of no church attendance - an asymetric warfare methodology. Also, during Jonah's missionary journey, he may also have missed one of the three annual church services. Thus, people involved in mission work (whether it be in a local setting or in a foreign land) are exempted from attending formal church services. The expectation is that they will start something new. Ideally, this is done with the prayer support of an obedient assembly, but history shows that that is not always the case. God sometimes puts men like Jonah or Hudson Taylor in a position in which they have to go without an assembly's support. However, God usually provides individuals who support such work.
  1. During the Babylonian captivity, without the possibity of having church services three times per year at Jerusalem at the Tabernacle, godly men formed Jewish churches (aka synagogues), which began to meet every Sabbath. This tradition among Jews has continued until today. But it's only a tradition. It is never mandated in Scripture.

Church and Church Discipline in the New Testament

Now, let's move on to the NT church. What happened on Pentecost was like what happened on Mt. Sinai. It was a supernatural outpouring of God's favor upon His people. At Mt. Sinai, He gave the Mosaic Law. At Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit actually came to indwell humans, making them the new temples of God - portals through which the Spirit of God could come from the heavenly realm or parallel universe into our 3D world. Followers of Jesus Christ are thus mobile temples. Herod's temple was destroyed in 70AD.

Although the natural tendency of humans is to enjoy fellowship, God caused persecution in Acts 8 so as to propel people outwards to begin the mission work with the indwelling Holy Spirit. This was the first instance of breaking up the "Holy Huddle" mentality of the OT saints. NT saints are to be mobile and outward-focused. If this can be under authority or mentorship, that's terrific, but history shows that such an ideal situation is not always possible. Our generation's insulation from persecution, war, famine, etc. has led to a distorted view of ecclesiology. The 20th Century corporate world has also added various elements that purely cultural and not Scriptural.

The first century Christians were happy to be alive and find like-minded people wherever they went. Originally, this meant going to Jewish churches, since that's where the action was in terms of connecting with God. However, their message of Jesus being the Messiah and His consummation of the Scripture teaching was not always warmly welcomed, so the existing people in Jewish churches sometimes rejected the new revelation, thus causing division. Since the followers of Jesus were often in a minority, they had no other choice but to start their own churches and move their meetings to homes or other places that were convenient. Today, in China and other countries house churches are still very commonplace.

The Lord Jesus and the apostles gave a lot of freedom in terms of how to run a local church, and the primary focus was on obeying the Old Testament Scriptures as taught by Jesus Christ. This meant dealing with matters of the heart and seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. In a sense, they were reformers of the universal Jewish church. Jesus focused mainly in the Jews in Israel, but the apostles spread out to reform Jewish churches. This typically meant going into Jewish churches and presenting Jesus teaching, finding a minority of people who believed and then getting kicked out and starting a competing church. In these competing churches, the elders were usually Jews, since they had a head start in obeying the Scriptures. However, eventually the majority of members were non-Jews (aka Gentiles).

Predominantly Gentile churches posed a new problem: what parts of the Mosaic Law were obligatory and what parts were merely encourage but not obligatory? A conference in Jerusalem described in Acts 15 settled this matter. Basically, the requirements were very similar to those for Gentiles to enter the Court of the Gentiles in Jerusalem - abstaining from sexual immorality, food sacrificed to idols, from blood and the meat of strangled animals. Circumcision and three annual visits to Jerusalem on the high Sabbaths were not required. Nevertheless, there were always new practical issues to deal with, so Holy Spirit inspired Paul to lay down some minimal requirements for church services, e.g., 1 Cor. 11-14 an 1 Tim. 3 and 5.

However, by the end of the first century, a number of problems had popped up as stated in Revelation 2 and 3. In the Laodicean church, Jesus was no longer inside the church but was outside hoping to be invited in.

Church and Church Discipline in Church History

Sadly, things went from bad to worse. There was persecution without and heresies within, like gnosticism, which is even apparent in the first letter of John. The reaction of the church leaders in various cities was thus to strengthen centralized authority and the organization of churches. In other words, a fluid group of like-minded people who gathered together for mutual encouragement and training eventually morphed into the Roman Church, which claimed totaly authority over all Christians.

The process included the creation of a clergy-laity case system, which put the average believer out of business in terms of his or her ministry in the Gospel. Irenaeus wrote around 200 AD, "We do put to confusion all those who ... assemble in unauthorized meetings..." In other words, a home Bible study was considered sinful unless it received some form of authorization. As a result, the prophet became a priest of the establishment, gifts of the Holy Spirit became offices and the boundaries of service were limited to a fixed geographic area. The Holy Spirit was put in a box.

Next, in the third century AD, Cyprian wrote The Unity of the Church and developed the idea of unbroken apostolic succession beginning with Peter. Cyprian wrote, "You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother." And he was not talking about the universal, timeless church of the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. He was talking about the Church of Rome. This allowed the institution to challenge anyone outside the institutional authority. Note that having instititutions is not forbidden in the Bible, but the larger they get, the more they naturally want more power and control. It's human nature. This means less leading by the Holy Spirit.

The situation got even worse when the Roman Church merged with the Roman Empire under Constantine. By the time of Augustine around 400 AD, he advocated state coersion to make people line up with Church teachings. This included the use of torture to enforce church discipline! It's no wonder that for nearly 1000 years nobody wanted to start a new church. Even the godly reformers didn't claim to do that. They just aimed to reform the existing Roman Church.

Since the Reformation, great strides have been made to restore the original idea of Jesus and Paul in terms of what churches should be like. Modern missions and the parachurch movement have been important in this. Nowadays, with social media and videoconferencing, followers of Jesus Christ can basically be members of several churches at one time. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has raised the question, what is church? Perhaps Jesus Christ defined it best:

"Where two or three gather in My Name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:20)

Church can now take place in several countries simultaneously. Holy Spirit is not bound by geographic location. After all, true followers of Jesus Christ are simultaneously walking around earth in physical bodies but their spirits are "seated with Christ Jesus in the Heavenly places - far above all pricipality and power." (Ephesians 2:6, 1:20,21)

Therefore, although traditional norms for church services and church discipline are certainly valid in many places, God is not bound by tradition. Every true follower of Jesus Christ is a priest who can represent God to individuals and represent individuals before God. Although teamwork is preferrable, rewards in eternity are individual, so individual ministry should be important to every follower of Jesus Christ. Church discipline also usually starts with individuals and may end at that point if a second witness cannot be found or if the person in sin is not willing to meet.