Ecclesiasticism is a dedication to (and some would say excessive obsession with) church forms and practices. In popular terms, ecclesiasticism would characterize someone who really cares about the details of church practice or who has strong opinions about the way church is “done.”
At one time, most churches had prescribed forms in the liturgy and other traditions. In more recent years, a great deal of freedom and variety has arisen, with some churches touting the fact that they have no forms or traditions at all. However, even these churches and leaders in these churches have things that they care about and things they think should and should not be done in church.
Everyone involved in a church is involved with ecclesiasticism on some level. When people look for a church to attend or join, they will no doubt look for something that meets their needs and makes them feel comfortable enough to join in. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the needs they are seeking to meet and what environment they feel comfortable in. If the primary need is community and connection with other people and opportunities to serve humanity, then a great many churches (not to mention secular organizations and clubs) may be able to provide that—but this is not the primary purpose of church, according to the Bible.
So, what is the primary purpose of church? What does the Bible tell us about the purpose of church and the way church is supposed to be done?
Within evangelicalism in the last fifty years, there has developed an emphasis on the “seeker service.” In this model of ministry, the primary purpose of the church service is to provide a place for spiritual “seekers” to feel at home. They are greeted by friendly people. They are not subjected to liturgy and terminology that would be strange to them or that would make them feel uncomfortable. The music is popular and sometimes even secular. The whole service is designed to meet felt needs of unbelieving seekers for the purpose of getting them to take a closer look at Christianity. For these churches, the purpose of the church service is evangelism, and the audience is the seeker.
Other churches emphasize that the church service is for believers, and the primary purpose is to worship God (which an unbeliever cannot do) and to learn from God’s Word. Unbelievers are welcome, but they may not feel very comfortable, and that is OK. They are spectators, not true participants. The audience is God, and the believers participate by worshiping. (Listening to the Word of God proclaimed is part of worship.) Evangelism takes place outside the church as Christians are trained and motivated to take the gospel to friends and neighbors.
In the matter of ecclesiasticism, it seems the most important question to decide is “who is the intended audience?” The answer to this question will determine what is done and how it is done. If the seeker is the audience, then a lot will be done to keep his attention, and “entertainment value” will be high on the list. If God is the audience and those in attendance are motivated to be there because they love God, then entertainment will be significantly less important.
The Bible should inform our ecclesiasticism. In the New Testament, there is no example of a church service for seekers. Certainly, Christians like Paul did speak in open-air forums and appeal to unbelievers, but once a church was established, the emphasis seems to be on believers, with the recognition that sometimes unbelievers may be in attendance (1 Corinthians 14:25).
Early Christians were “devoted” to the following activities, according to Acts 2:42–47:
Each of these activities could happen outside the “four walls” of the church, but they also happened as the church met together. The church service should contain or promote these essential elements.
Colossians 3:16 adds another element that most churches include: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (cf. Ephesians 5:19). Here, God is worshiped (thanked) in song, yet the message of the songs is also directed at other believers. The context does not specify a church service, but the “one another” aspect means that this is not simply a private matter. Today, most church services include singing. The intent of the music is to worship God and to edify believers. While the style of music may vary from location to location along with the type of instruments used (or none at all), it would be very strange for a church service not to include music and singing.
The Lord’s Supper is another part of church life. Jesus commissioned it at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26–30), and Paul gives instructions regarding it in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. We are not told how often a church should observe this ordinance. Some churches do it every week, while others do it once per month. Some do it quarterly or even yearly (as the Passover on which it is based was a yearly observance). In any case, communion should be an important part of the church’s gathering.
Baptism is another important church ordinance. There is no evidence that it was associated with a church service in the New Testament, but churches should be baptizing believers either in the service or in a public place.
Scripture speaks of two church offices: elder (overseer, pastor) and deacon. The job of the elder is to exercise spiritual oversight and to teach (1 Timothy 5:17), and elders must be spiritually qualified (1 Timothy 3:1–8; Titus 1:5–9). The deacons are to help meet the physical needs of the congregation so that the elders are free to do their jobs, but being a deacon is still a spiritual ministry with spiritual qualifications (Acts 6:1–4; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). Elders are always spoken of in the plural, and there is no example in the New Testament of a single pastor who controls everything; neither is there an example of a congregation that overrules the elders. Although the specifics of church governance vary, it would seem that, at a minimum, there should be a clearly defined group of spiritual leaders who guide and teach the church and another group of spiritually qualified leaders who minister to the physical needs of the church. Leaders who are not biblically qualified or who are controlling and domineering are a clear indication that something has gone wrong, as is a congregation who will not submit to qualified leaders.
The New Testament never dictates which day the church must meet. Sunday is called the Lord’s Day because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1), and it was the habit of the early church to meet on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:32). For many years, most churches in the U.S. had a morning and evening service on Sunday, but now many churches only have morning services. Sunday School is also a common activity that supports the teaching ministry of the church, as do Bible studies and small groups throughout the week. Whatever day it is, Christians are forbidden to forsake meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).
The Bible does not tell us what kind of building a church should be housed in. The early church met in the temple (Acts 2:46) and in houses (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15). If a church gets very large, a single house could not contain all the members. Archeological evidence suggests that, early on, churches began to meet in designated buildings. Today, church buildings facilitate a lot of the ministries of the church and can be used for outreach as well. Some are ornate with stained glass windows, and some are plain-looking warehouse conversions. Some churches simply rent an auditorium or a storefront or even another church. Some church buildings are multi-use with the main sanctuary doubling as a school cafeteria during the week or a Christian school gym doubling as a sanctuary on Sunday. There is no prescribed pattern, and different settings will attract different types of people. As long as the building facilitates the activities of the church and is a wise use of resources, churches are free to choose what works best in their context.
Churches should practice church discipline. This means they should hold their members accountable to live in a way that pleases the Lord. This is described in Matthew 18:15–17. Essentially, a person who refuses to repent after several confrontations is to be named publicly and as a last resort excommunicated. A church that refuses to address sin in its congregation is not acting biblically.
While more could be said, there are certain things that must be part of a church: Bible teaching, fellowship, prayer, baptism, the Lord’s supper, worship, meeting needs, evangelism, accountability, and discipline. Every element included in the morning service should be for the purpose of encouraging believers to worship God and training them to live lives of obedience. A church should have biblically qualified leaders who are neither dictators nor held hostage to the whims of the congregation. Church funds and buildings should be used wisely, under the direction of the elders. Within these broad parameters, there is a great deal of freedom and flexibility. Ecclesiasticism should never get in the way of the gospel. When an individual or church begins to emphasize one point above all others or gives the indication that they are the only church that has the correct “mix” of elements, something is amiss.