My wife and I recently moved to a part of Florida colloquially named the Forgotten Coast. Most of the southeastern coastline is either fully-developed or uninhabitable. But not so along this beautiful stretch of the Panhandle. Somehow a few miles slipped under the radar. Unbeknownst to many of us, like the Forgotten Coast, there are local churches that look very different from the rest of the developed spheres of contemporary Christianity. I want to share my unique experience in one of these local churches. I hope the Lord will use my story to help facilitate other local churches in the future, perhaps even in the area where we now live.
While I was an enemy of God, Christ reconciled me at the age of 31. Having almost no church-experience meant denominationalism was foreign to me. My first assembly as a new believer was a Lutheran church where my wife had earlier dragged me in on Easter. Lutheranism initially meant very little when compared to mere, minimal Christianity. But over time, I realized theology and ecclesiology do matter. Our interpretation of Scripture and the way we gather together is relevant. With spiritual growth came a desire to know more about why and how we meet.
We felt led by the Lord about ten years ago to leave the Lutheran church and start a home-assembly modeled after the first-century saints in the book of Acts. This change had little to do with where we were and more to do with where we believed the Lord wanted us to go. It was a sacrifice to leave our brothers and sisters, many of whom were friends. The transition we saw coming was unsettling. I thought we were unprepared and needed guidance. But we knew the Lord would direct us through the process, so we leaped in faith.
The leap wasn’t big at first. As an elder in the Lutheran church, I felt this new way of meeting required a bridge to a larger church institution. Even though Christ would lead us (as the head), we would also have what I believed at the time was necessary oversight. Though I had buy-in from leadership initially, the unification never materialized. I won’t rehash what happened, but only say, engineered-unity rarely works. It didn’t work in this case. But our home-church experience pushed forward without a formal connection to a larger institution.
Michele and I met with a few families in our home for the first three years. It was exciting and new. Some aspects of our experience confirmed we were on the right path. We were building each other up. We focused on the Lord and desired to go wherever He would lead us. Our meetings looked like the church in Acts 2:42-47, where we remembered the Lord’s table, shared time, meals, and troubles. It was indeed a new thing, but it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. First, there were not enough men. Also, my daughters didn’t have any peers their age. I wasn’t sure at the time things would work out.
It was right before we almost gave up that things changed. We were prepared to throw in the towel and rejoin our friends at the Lutheran church. But through a miraculous series of events, we were connected to another group in town doing something similar. The miracle leading up to our unification is a story for another time. The result was what we had hoped for. After meeting with these other believers for a short period, we knew this was where the Lord had called us. The next seven years taught us much about the Church and what it means to be gathered together in His name. What follows is a model for the church significantly based on that experience.
Before diving in, I want to be clear that this model is in no way a repudiation of other contemporary patterns. It is disheartening to read other home-church proponents attempt to discredit what is sometimes called the institutional church. That is not the point of this writing, nor do I agree with that method. The saints gather throughout the world in all sorts of ways where I am confident the Lord is working powerfully — building up his Church. This model is not the end-all, be-all. We are still learning and growing. I hope the next season in our lives will see the saints flourish even more as we gather together in His name. That’s the primary motivation here.
A foundational principle that is sometimes missing in modern Christianity is the full recognition that divine revelation is fourfold. God has blessed the believer with four sources of revelation:
- The Scriptures
- The Holy Spirit’s interaction with our spirit
- The expression of Christ in the saints, primarily when we gather together in His name
- General (or natural) revelation as described in Romans 1
All four sources of revelation are precious gifts to the saints for building us up. Taken together, they provide a system of checks-and-balances to help understand spiritual matters in general and the Lord’s desire for the Church in particular. As believers, we sometimes emphasize one or more of the above sources over the others. We tend to prefer that which accords with our unique giftings and natural talents. We may also gravitate to one of these sources if others are less developed in us. So deemphasis and overemphasis are expected. But why might this be a problem?
As a pastor once put it: “A church that focuses only on the Word will dry up. A church that focuses only on the Spirit will blow up. But a church with a healthy balance of both will grow up.” This sermon quip touches on the fact that an improper balance results in an unhealthy assembly. All four sources of revelation are essential. There is only one God and only one Truth. We ought to expect the four to have a consonant relationship. It is our misunderstanding that leads to conflict between them.
A concern might be raised by those who hold such a high view of Scripture that any source of belief contrary to one’s current interpretation of the text must give way. However, the fourfold sources of revelation are from God, and He cannot err. If the Holy Spirit tells you one thing and your interpretation of Scripture tells you another, then you are missing something. Either you are not hearing from the Lord, or your understanding of Scripture is incorrect, or both. We don’t want to ignore what the Lord says by merely defaulting to some preexisting interpretation when conflicts arise.
A humble servant of the Lord is willing to set aside a dogmatic posture based on their preferred source until the Lord brings unity among the other sources. If the expression of Christ among the saints tells me something different than what I thought I understood from Scripture, then I ought to pause and wait on the Lord to bring further revelation to the matter. If I believe the Lord has spoken to me, and it directly contradicts Scripture, I must recognize the possibility my hearing is off. But none of these realizations are likely to happen without humility.
But surely Scripture is the most informative source of revelation while the other three are vaguer and prone to distortion. Indeed, that is often true. The written gospel of Jesus is far more comprehensive than any insight I might get on the subject in prayer. But when it comes to how we assemble as believers, that has not been my experience. When the saints over the centuries cannot agree on ecclesiastical matters because of different scriptural interpretations, how do we work out the differences? The answer is to seek the Lord through all of the sources which inform and instruct us:
- How is Christ expressed by the saints?
- What does the Holy Spirit say in prayerful consideration?
- What do the Scriptures say?
- Is there something God has shown us in natural law?
Flawed with imperfect access to these sources of revelation, we will encounter conflicts of understanding. But being intellectually unsettled ought not to lead to sacrificing one source for another. It is better to remain humble and press forward in faith until we reach a unity of understanding between the sources. This unity may, of course, never happen on some issues this side of life. But that does not give us an excuse to be neglectful. We must continue to seek the Lord’s direction through all of the sources to develop a sound understanding of our faith and the Church. The assembly that recognizes the fourfold aspect of revelation is more likely to prosper. I have done my best to consider these sources in the development of this model.
The Principle of Headship
Colossians 1:18 says: “And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Fundamentally, Christ is the head of the Church, and we should not attempt to usurp His authority. We are to recognize Christ as the center of all things. Our intentions and efforts as individuals and as a corporate body gathered in His name ought to reflect this. This principle is a definite, indisputable, and universal precept displayed throughout the New Testament. I will not defend it further here as it is so well substantiated. It is taken to be a core principle for this model.
So how does the church maintain this principle of headship when gathered in His name? The simple answer is to avoid anything that draws attention away from the Lord. We should not dominate the meeting by giving our input (not the Lord’s) on every matter. The same goes for offering opinions and unspiritual comments. There are, of course, many other ways in which we might draw attention away from Jesus. I look at a few of them later in the model. But the main point, for now, is to recognize where the focus belongs — not on ourselves, but the Lord.
Proper focus is diminished by every thought, word, and action, which creates division among the saints. Walking by the Spirit, and unity among the saints go hand in hand. Where there are sin and disunity, there is a clouded reality of the headship of Christ. He has not lost his rightful position, but it is harder for the saints to recognize that position. When we walk by the Spirit and maintain a unified fellowship, we see Jesus more clearly. This spiritual economy is universal and immutable.
The Principle of Unity
Obedience to the above takes us to another essential element described by Paul in Ephesians 4:1-3, 13. Here he writes: “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace … until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.” What emerges when these two sections are combined may be summarized as follows: We eagerly make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit until we attain a unification of the faith. So even if the Saints are not in full agreement on a position or practice, this principle insists we continue unified fellowship, guided by the Spirit in peace.
We are not required to have unity with everyone. There are times when this principle does not apply. In 2 John 1:7-10, we see that we shouldn’t even let into our homes those teaching a different Jesus. We assemble as Christians. If being Christian can mean anything we want, then being one means very little. We cannot gather in the name of Jesus apart from holding firm to a core set of nonnegotiable tenets. But any view outside that core set of tenets falls under the principle of unity. It may surprise some, but this core set is relatively brief — something like what C. S. Lewis would refer to as mere Christianity.
This principle also applies to practices within the assembly. Some raise hands; some wear a head covering; some break bread and drink from the cup. You will not find the same activities in every meeting of believers. I will cover this in more detail, but under the principle of unity, practices generally should not divide us. There are some practices this model recommends, but whether or not every saint abides by them is not grounds for breaking fellowship. There are conflicts among practices that lead to real issues around unity. But we ought to strive to get past them with the Lord’s help. We should take to heart the well-known saying: In the essentials unity; in the nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.
The Principle of Correction
In the same vein as unity is the matter of correction. There is only one Truth, one Logos. The Lord’s view on every subject is the correct view. But the saints do not agree on many things. If my brother has a contrary view to mine, then one of us, or both of us, must be in error. The man who is not abiding in Christ will be tempted to bring others over to his way of thinking. I’ve witnessed this at some point in every church assembly I’ve participated in. I have also violated this principle more than once, as it is a particularly powerful temptation for those who tend to be in leadership positions.
The principle of correction simply stated is this: Unless commanded by the Lord, it is not my responsibility to correct my brother’s view. If the Lord decides my brother’s belief needs correction, He will do it. Perhaps the Lord will use me, but more likely, He will not. Oswald Chambers rightly said: “My goal is not to make someone a convert of my opinion, but to make them a convert of Christ Jesus.” Though Chambers is speaking of converting outsiders, it is my experience that the Lord rarely desires to mobilize one saint to bring over another to their view. It is more often our will, apart from the Lord, rises in an offense and leads to a desire to fix others. As James writes in 4:1: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you?”
The teachers who read this will likely take issue. Will not my less mature brother grow in the Lord through the correction from the older? Ought we not stand up against false-teaching in the assembly? The answer is yes! — as the Lord commands. If some strange teaching, contrary to what is essential, enters the meeting, the Lord is faithful to stir up a mature saint. But no general command in Scripture says I have to convert my brother to my opinion. It is the Lord’s business to turn my brother’s view. That being said, we are often free to share, expound, teach, and write. This principle is not a denial of teaching, but a denial of self. It is a proper orientation of the heart that is in view.
There are maturing and sanctifying effects resulting from our obedience. When we encounter a brother with a contrary view on some matter of faith, this can be troubling. We might become concerned about being wrong. We might get frustrated that our brother doesn’t see things the same way. We might fear such error could harm the Lord’s work in the Church. But by obeying the principle of correction, it humbles us regarding our potential error; it helps us to be more charitable towards a brother or sister; it removes fear as we trust the Lord to resolve differences as He determines. Adhering to this principle is crucial to maintaining unity.
Principle of Servanthood
Philippians 2:3 summarizes the principle of servanthood: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The ideal model of servanthood is Jesus himself, and we are to be like him as servants in the assembly. Serving others from a worldly perspective is challenging and fleeting. It is only by abiding in Christ and walking by the Spirit that we can be like Him. On our own, we turn inward. A self-seeking heart doesn’t see any need in others. But a Christ-centered heart will serve abundantly. Where you find Christ, you will find good servants.
A typical test we face when gathered together reveals our position on servanthood. Something was amiss in the meeting. There was a lack of spiritual-fervor among the saints. We were not built-up. How do we respond? If our first thought is to look outward and critique others, then we are on the wrong track regarding this principle. Our first thought ought to be: Lord, please enable me to build up your church. Please help me to be an encouragement to my brothers and sisters. I have in no way mastered this attitude, but I know it is what the Lord desires for us.
The Lord taught me a vital lesson in servanthood. Early in my walk, I was serving in multiple teaching roles. I was doing Bible studies and teaching apologetics with kids, young adults, and the men’s group. It fit my natural talents well, and I enjoyed it. Some of the serving opportunities I felt were “of the Lord,” and others not. It seemed hit and miss at the time. It wasn’t until God redirected me into the kitchen to cook that I realized serving the saints is not always going to align with my natural talents. It was through menial effort I saw others built up, and my faith strengthened. The Lord may very well use us in areas where we naturally excel and enjoy ourselves. But such placement is not a requirement for being a good and faithful servant.
Principle of Contribution
In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul urges us to be prepared to contribute: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” Every brother and sister has a responsibility to the other saints. Our week ought to show consistent time with the Lord in preparation for when we gather. The mid-week prayer time can stoke the coals of each believer for a greater combined-fervor on Sunday. If we are too busy to abide in Christ, our contribution will be lacking. Of course, none of this matters if we do not meet. We have to commit to gathering together as the writer in Hebrew 10:25 directs. Even if the Lord has given us something to build others up with, the gift will be unhelpful if we do not show up.
The principle of contribution directs the saints towards a flat nonhierarchical assembly. Christ is the head; everyone else participates as the body. It is true, mature believers arise and shepherd others as the Lord directs. But the organizational structure of the church should be level in general. The mindset of “we are here for others to edify us” ought to be secondary to “we are here to edify others.” The meeting organized in a circle reinforces the idea of mutual contribution and servanthood. Recognizing this responsibility can be a bit unsettling at first. But I believe it is what the Lord intended for His church.
Thankfully we need not be anxious about contribution. That’s because it is not our giving, but the Lord’s gift through us that matters. We need only be obedient and follow the Good Shepherd throughout the week. The end of Matthew 11 summarizes how we have no grounds for worry regarding our service to Him: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.“
Summary of the Principles
These five principles are essential to a properly functioning assembly. You may notice how each is dependent upon the others. Keeping the Lord at the center depends on the unity of the saints. This unity relies on each member of the assembly walking in step with the Holy Spirit and being a humble servant, not quick to judge and correct, but one who is ready in and out of season to contribute and serve. I have personally witnessed these principles in action as the Lord operates through the members. These principles not only work but in my experience, are critical to a vibrant local church.
Moving into more concrete aspects of this model takes us to the role of leaders. Because the subject of leadership is involved, a full treatment is beyond the scope of this writing. In most churches, you have a paid pastor, one who is contractually obligated to shepherd the flock in ways other believers are not. I’m not going to argue against the modern pastorship in this writing. Instead, I want to focus on what has worked for us.
In ten years, we have not implemented any official leadership roles in the assembly. The Lord is consistently faithful to raise up leaders as He deems necessary. Leadership in our home-assembly is a fluid Spirit-driven resource. It’s not a one-person operation. When some hear that we have no official pastor in the meeting, they are concerned: “What, no pastor! Who then leads your group?” Well, the Lord does! It really is that simple if the five principles above are in effect. The Good Shepherd guides the saints by using mature believers in the assembly to assist in His efforts. Prepared, humble followers of Jesus, unified by the Spirit, build each other up as they serve one another. Growth happens without the need for official leadership roles.
To be clear. The lack of official leadership roles doesn’t mean there are no elders. Indeed, there were elders in the early church. But an elder is primarily a spiritually-mature servant that the Lord enables at the appropriate time to guide and build up the church. Leadership initiative is not taken but received from the Lord, often by the assembled-saints. A good elder is primarily a good servant. She discerns the needs of the others. He refrains from acting authoritatively for the sake of another. An elder is concerned about the headship of Christ and the unity of the saints far more than herself.
You may notice above I refer to both men and women as elders. The notion of women elders will immediately cause concern for some. Surely only men can be elders given the long tradition in the church where only they served in this capacity. But our experience is this is an unnecessary organizational constraint. Again, what is an elder? Elders are spiritually-mature saints that the Lord directs to guide and build up the church. The Lord routinely uses men and women in this capacity. Who the Lord raises at any given time will depend upon the situation.
There are three arguments for why some hold that only men are to be elders: First, there is a connection in Scripture between the role of elder and teacher — and some believe women should not teach. I will address this separately below. Second, there are no women elders unambiguously referenced in Scripture (though perhaps Priscilla was one.) This concern, I think, can be rejected as an argument from silence. Third, are the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 for overseers and deacons (which are akin to the role we are discussing here) that clearly show Paul is talking about a man. Some extrapolate this third argument into a universal restriction for all similar-roles, times, places, and contexts. This extrapolation is, I think, untenable, and our experience in the assembly has borne this out.
The four sources of revelation routinely reflect why the Lord chooses a particular servant in any given situation. If a man brings a serious false-teaching to a meeting, the Lord will probably enable a mature brother to help. How disheartening would it be for spiritual men to remain silent while the women were forced to address the issue in this context? Likewise, a young single woman will respond better to the gentle correction of a mature sister rather than the criticism of an old married brother. When it comes to encouragement and growth, both men and women empowered by the Spirit lead and strengthen the saints. There is a caveat around marriage I will touch on shortly, but apart from that, who the Lord uses in any given situation will vary greatly. This approach only works if the five principles are in practice.
Now, there would be no need to enumerate the criteria of overseers in 1 Timothy 3 if a servant’s character didn’t matter. So character certainly does matter. However, it is best to let the Lord decide who to call in any given situation. It is a challenge to refrain from being a fruit-inspector or character-judge and still apply good-character criteria from Scripture to discern what the Lord desires. It has been our experience that agreement among the saints is the best way to connect a servant with a need — not internalizing our subjective character judgments.
One obstacle to this organic form of leadership, where the Lord directs, arises from those steeped in a tradition where official roles are deemed necessary. Such individuals might convey the need for official elders to protect the flock from wolves, for example. I can imagine there are scenarios where the Lord might raise bold-defenders in advance of imminent external danger. But I have not witnessed this once in ten years. Even though my experience is anecdotal, I do not believe it has to be unique. The Good Shepherd will reliably protect His flock with unofficial mature servants if we trust Him. Fear is not of the Lord and not something we want to inform our view on leadership.
This subject is not unlike that of leadership. The modern church designates who will teach. Not so in our experience. Spiritual-learning is an organic activity where the Lord uses multiple means. A brother with a good command of Scripture is encouraged by the other saints to facilitate regular teaching on a topic. A sister brings a word or a Scripture to the meeting and expounds. Another saint shares what the Lord revealed in the past week. These are all forms of teaching. They are also examples of activities in an extraordinary process that is very different from conventional wisdom.
Primarily, learning comes from submitting to the Lord during regular study times and meetings. Study times look more like a workshop than a monologue. Brothers and sisters share as the Lord leads. During the Sunday meeting, it often involves a matter being brought into focus as we seek the Lord in prayer and worship. The saints contribute as the Lord directs them. When a theme materializes, we rally around Jesus to listen intently to what He has to say. I picture it as a collective Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. The subject may be encouragement, exhortation, or rebuke. When we have heard from the Lord in this way, it is always compelling and fitting. It is also often unpredictable.
It is, of course, essential we agree on the core tenets of the faith — on the same Jesus. Eschatology, our view of hell, election, the age of the earth, views on tithing, and a myriad of other controversial issues are relevant as well. But how relevant? Perhaps this day in the assembly, the Lord wants to address our lack of thankfulness. Grieved by our current state, the Lord desires this issue to be at the forefront. It may be in His divine economy, teaching on a thankful heart is infinitely more important than any of the abovementioned topics. But how can we hear from the Lord on this most relevant matter, if one designated leader has already decided the lesson for the week and what subject takes priority?
If what we are to teach is indeterminate, then what room is there for preparation? The contributions in 1 Corinthians 14:26 include a word or lesson. It may be the Lord has been leading someone all week to prepare an in-depth study. But all of our efforts are to rest at the foot of the Cross. Teachers are to be ready to sacrifice what they have prepared if the Lord wants to deliver something entirely different. If, on the other hand, we think we have an official calling to present our week’s effort, then we may fall into the error of acting alone, apart from the Lord’s will. The assembly might hear your well-intentioned preparations from earlier in the week, but not the present Lord.
An error on the other side is complacency. We may be tempted to ignore all preparation for teaching as we wait on the Lord to speak. But this error in my experience is the lesser. Our culture is one of action where the creation of liturgy and study guides is the tenor. Patiently waiting in silence for the Lord during the meeting is foreign to most of us. Our flesh wants to fill in the spaces. It was tough for my wife and me to get used to the idea that when we meet in His name, it’s okay for there to be periods of silent inactivity. The gaps provide an opportunity for the Lord to move. It helps us to let go of a rigid structure we control and instead allow for a dynamic gathering where Jesus commands. The most sanctifying learning comes in this way.
Husbands and Wives
All of the sources of revelation indicate marriage as more than just a social construct. We have the imagery of man and woman completing one another in Genesis (and reiterated by Jesus) and the divine-order presented by Paul in Ephesians 5. We also have the expression of Christ in married couples, the Spirit of God testifying with our spirit when we properly adhere to the pattern of marriage, and the natural law revealing what works and what doesn’t. Husbands have a responsibility to lead their families in the way of the Lord. They are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church — a picture of maximal sacrifice. Wives are to honor and support their husbands in this divine responsibility. The reality of marriage is inescapable, and our understanding of it is essential to a properly functioning assembly, contemporary cultural views notwithstanding.
What this means for the Church is evident at a conceptual level: The Lord will enable spiritually-mature servants to lead, serve, and teach such that it accords with the reality of marriage. The day-to-day details are too complicated to put down in writing here, but in ten years of experience, I have consistently seen the Lord enable the saints for service in ways that harmonize with this reality. Does this mean only men can lead and teach? Of course not. But it does mean leadership and teaching, as the Lord leads, will accord with the spiritual reality of husbands and wives in the assembly.
I experienced a precious example of discernment on this matter at a recent conference. One of the sisters shared about how she had freedom in the assembly to share and expound on spiritual things. At some point, her husband began to see more clearly how the Lord was moving him to lead. As the husband obeyed the Lord, his wife refrained more often as she delighted in seeing him fulfill this responsibility. Her freedom didn’t change, but her discernment of the growth in her husband altered her expression. Did she have future opportunities to share and expound? Of course, the sharing of this story at the conference is an example.
A brother asked me if the spiritual reality of marriage ought to show a maturing assembly evolve towards the men speaking and teaching and the women in silence. I do not believe so. First, as I have experienced the expression of Christ in the sisters, where they share and expound on Scripture and spiritual matters, it consistently supports their freedom in Christ. Second, men do not always commit to walking with the Lord every week, and accordingly, their contribution will sometimes be lacking. It might be different for their wives that week. Third, as someone who runs a business, leadership often does not look like someone who always has to dominate the meeting. Likewise, having the role of spiritual leader in marriage does not mean you cannot delight in seeing the Lord work through your spouse in areas where you have responsibility.
Women in the Church
Given the reality of marriage as a foundation, we are ready to tackle the most controversial issue in my ten years of experience. The varying views on women in the local church is a significant source of division across assemblies similar to the pattern described herein. Part of this is due to the disparity of perspective between the relatively large numbers (in home-churches) influenced by specific historical low-church movements as contrasted with more modern church views. It is entirely plausible someone finding this model mostly agreeable will also be at odds with the position I am about to outline on women in the church. I think it best to spend some time putting to words this position in detail so that there is no misunderstanding.
What is the view of women speaking and teaching as well as the requirement of a head-covering? In home-assemblies, you will find everything from those who believe all women must be veiled and silent to those who agree with the freedom expressed in this model. Some land in the middle where women are free to pray, share, and expound but must wear a covering while doing so. I respect the saints who have delved deep into this matter with a desire to adhere to the Scriptures. Through even with sincere diligence, disagreement remains, and it is the kind that creates a good deal of division.
What does Scripture say about the head-covering? First, let me outline what is generally accepted. The verses in 1 Cor 11 address the issue of women dishonoring their husbands. It speaks of the proper order of authority of man over woman, which is being watched by the angels. It is right for wives to honor their husbands. Paul is writing on a matter of universal significance, at least insofar as the spiritual reality of marriage is concerned. On this, I believe there is widespread agreement. But views diverge greatly from here.
It was customary for women in the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman world to cover their hair outside of the home. Greek women covered their heads (see himation) in the first century, though the practice was not consistent. Roman women also covered their heads, though not under compulsion: it was “more usual for women to go forth in public with their heads covered.” (Plutarch.) There is ample evidence Jewish women also covered their heads in public and especially during prayer. Jews used to esteem it as an immodest thing to see a woman’s hair. Some rabbis compared uncovered and unbound hair to exposed private parts. If a married Jewish woman revealed her head in public, it was grounds for divorce (Meir.) So various regions had differing degrees of conviction regarding women wearing a head-covering. Still, the prevailing cultural view was that not wearing one was immodest, and for married Jewish women, it dishonored their husbands.
We ought to be immediately suspicious of any practice (or lack thereof) in violation of the principle of headship. Paul’s directive for married women to wear a head-covering was right in the historical context of the early churches. To not wear one in that context would have been an indecent act that dishonored their husbands, drawing attention to themselves and away from Christ. It was, therefore, rightly required by Paul to all of the churches. However, not wearing a head-covering in today’s culture does not dishonor husbands and does not draw attention to themselves. It is no longer considered immodest. In fact, in many cases in the west, wearing a head-covering will have the opposite effect. It draws attention to the wearer and potentially violates the principle of headship.
There is also an issue of extrapolation. Paul’s directives to all of the churches of his day are not necessarily universals applying to all times, places, and cultures. Such an inference would require additional support. But what evidence is sufficient to override the principle of headship? There is Paul’s writing regarding “the angels.” Angels do cross both culture and time. But I don’t see any issue with the idea of angels, as guardians of the created order, observing a right and proper order in the assembly. This order is what we are discussing. In the first century, I would expect the angels to be pleased with married women wearing head-coverings. Proper church order is universal, but cultural practices are often not.
I recognize others will take an opposing position here, even after considering the arguments I have presented. In fairness to their view, 1 Cor 11:2-16 does read as a sort of metaphysical explanation for why married women ought to follow the ordinance (though this does not address unmarried women.) There is mention of a symbol of authority in verse 10. However, the “symbol of” is supplied. The Greek merely says, “authority.” There are multiple interpretations and commentaries on what Paul might mean here. But keep in mind that in Jewish culture at the time, the head-covering was a sign of authority in marriage. It was considered grounds for divorce for a married woman to go out in public uncovered — a problem most-certainly in Corinth at the time.
In summary, it is our view the head-covering is unnecessary in today’s culture. But I do not think the ordinance (or the lack thereof) is grounds for breaking fellowship. Given the level of uncertainty on this matter, the principle of unity ought to take precedence. The actual working out of this issue is not impossible by any stretch. My wife and I have been able to work through this in our assembly, which has a mixed view. Maintaining fellowship is far more important than getting this practice right. However, the head-covering is often part and parcel to more significant restrictions on women.
In a similar vein to following cultural norms around head-coverings, Paul connected the reality of first-century women with other church practices. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, as well as the Talmud, are clear that a women’s views lacked credibility. It makes sense Paul would prohibit women from having an authoritative teaching role (1 Tim 2:12) given their testimony was so undervalued by the culture. To allow them to have such authority would have been controversial and a violation of the principle of headship.
Though a restriction on teaching hardly matters if in 1 Cor 14:34-35, Paul doesn’t even permit women to speak, let alone, teach. Women prophesied (Acts 21:9) in the early church, so it’s tough to see how that squares with complete silence. Contextual silence is not a clear interpretation. It is not at all apparent in 1 Cor 14 Paul is restricting silence to teaching time. It reads much more like: Women must remain silent at all times, and if they have a question, ask their husband at home. I have found arguments to unify all of this in a halfway-house view (where they can speak, and not teach authoritatively) dubious and unnecessary.
Again, similar to the “sign of authority” in 1 Cor 11, Paul connects the deception of Eve with the prohibition of teaching. But extrapolating Eve’s failure to a universal is no more reasonable than saying men should never lead in the church due to Adam’s failure to protect Eve, or teach because a woman deceived him. After all, the Serpent was far more crafty than the woman. So again, we see Paul conjoining truths from different categories to support his case for a pedagogical best-practice in the early church. Unity was rightly Paul’s primary concern in the first century.
Ultimately, the restriction on women speaking and teaching falls under the same scope as the head-covering. Paul was instituting practices to serve the early church best. A bunch of women running around disrespecting their husbands by uncovering their heads, talking, and having teaching authority over men would have been profoundly countercultural and potentially destructive to the nascent church. In was rightly restricted by Paul in the first century. However, we no longer live in that cultural context.
Ask yourself this: What is teaching? Teaching is an activity where we help others to understand. When the Lord uses a brother or sister to help others gain understanding, that qualifies. We ought to be suspect of contrived constraints where women speak and expound, but then go silent when crossing an ambiguous threshold of “teaching authority.” Our view is no restriction on teaching remains apart from that which the Lord manifests within the spiritual dynamics of married couples. The buck stops with husbands when it comes to how their wives grow in their knowledge of the Lord. Within marriage, we find the extent of the concept of teaching authority. But, the Lord is free to choose the means and the servants by which teaching in the assembly occurs.
It is a matter of fact vibrant home-assemblies today will show the woman participating at higher capacities than in the first century. If any doubt remains on where to land on these issues, ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you been built up by the expression of Christ in sisters who serve?
- Do the sisters have much greater freedom today than what was available to them in the first century, as described by Paul?
- Has the Holy Spirit confirmed in your spirit an “Amen!” when sisters expound on spiritual matters and pray out loud – with or without a covering?
For us, it is an overwhelming yes! When all four of the sources of revelation are brought to bear on this topic, it clears up. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
What stops Christ-loving believers from all walks of life getting together under one assembly? I’m not talking about what mainline denominations refer to as syncretism or even denominationalism itself. I’m referring to those who adhere to something like the pattern described herein. Why will we meet with some believers and not others? Several criteria have been suggested to me on separate occasions as to what constitutes sufficient grounds for division. None of them appear valid to me other than one. Other than the church being built on a “different Jesus,” as Paul says, nothing comes close to trumping the principle of unity. Yet we still meet in different locations.
The truth is, logistics and other practical matters affect how we meet. If we were to make the principle of unity definitive, there would be one large local church in each city. But even then, where would we all fit? Having to break into smaller units opens the door to personal preference. But what about when you are small enough to join with others? If we are honest, we will confess that logistics, benefits, costs, views, and practice-preferences influence us towards meeting one way versus another, even one home versus another. It ought to be solely the Lord’s direction. But sometimes that’s difficult to discern over these other influences.
When it has been the Lord’s direction in our lives, I’ve witnessed a dwindling assembly of roughly two families turn around overnight into a vibrant, growing meeting with great enthusiasm and spiritual growth. It was nothing we engineered, and nothing short of a miracle. There was no attempt to force something into reality. We waited faithfully on the Lord, and He built up His Church. Visitors that the two families didn’t even know showed up. The Lord made the connections. Our experience has taught us an important truth: Where He is working, is where the focus of the saints ought to rest.
One way to mitigate division is by establishing a minimal set of restrictions, policies, and practices: The assembly ought to be unincorporated. Do not have a statement of faith requiring consent by signature. Allow for the most freedom of expression for both men and women. Let individuals and families agree with the Lord on how to give their time, talent, and treasure. Do not establish official roles. Most importantly, let the saints, under the direction of the Lord, make the major day-to-day decisions. A bare-minimum of engineering is needed when the Lord is allowed to lead the saints using the five principles.
Template for a week
So how might a typical week look? Not that I can offer the perfect schedule, but there are several activities we have found beneficial to a vibrant assembly:
- There ought to be a prayer meeting, and a Lord’s-table meeting each week.
- Time ought to be allocated for fellowship and serving the saints.
- We must commit to daily personal time with the Lord in prayer and study.
These activities describe our general pattern but are by no means exhaustive. For example, outreach, community service, missionary work are areas not touched on here.
The midweek prayer meeting prepares the way for Sunday’s culmination. Prayer seems to be the most significant antecedent to every work of the Lord through the saints. Both individual and corporate prayer is essential. The Lord’s-table meeting on Sunday is a time where the principle of headship is expressed to the fullest each week. The saints gather around the table to follow the ordinance from the Lord. We break the bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of Him. We focus on Christ, on His death at the cross and on His resurrection and return where He will drink anew in His kingdom. We remember where our righteousness comes from. It is not a time to go off on tangents or discuss esoteric topics unless the Good Shepherd leads the saints into a particular theme.
We also have a study after our time around the Lord’s table. Consistently for us, a particular brother facilitates the meeting as we delve into Scripture — generally one book at a time, verse by verse. Facilitation is more like shepherding than monologuing. All of the brothers and sisters contribute to the teaching time, sharing and expounding as the Lord leads. After the study, there is a meal and time of fellowship. This wraps up a typical week.
We have been on an exciting journey with the Lord and with the saints in a vibrant local church. He has shown us a sanctifying way to meet in His name that follows the first-century pattern for the Church. This pattern provides freedom for both brothers and sisters to grow spiritually in the Lord as we mutually serve one another and take our direction from the Good Shepherd. We have seen how walking by faith, without fear, allows Jesus full sway over his flock. It is by no means the only pattern for the Church where Christ is at work. But it has been a definite and unique blessing to us. By writing this, we hope to preserve what the Lord has shown us.