Jesus said “no one puts new wine into old wineskins . . . new wine is for fresh wineskins.”[1]Similarly, some church practice wineskins are better than others for the spiritual wine of the New Covenant. Church — the New Testament way — can profoundly empower our walk with God, our lives together as His people and our ability to make disciples. [2] Though today’s church still follows many New Testament practices others, with great potential for blessing, have been neglected: participatory gatherings, the Lord’s Supper celebrated weekly as a fellowship meal, leaders focused on building congregational unity, and relatively small community churches.



Participatory Gatherings

In addition to in-depth teaching by its leaders[3], first century churches gave opportunity for the brothers to contribute to corporate worship and not merely attend services: “When you come together, each onehas a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”[4]Any brother in good standing with the church could minister according to his spiritual gift. He did not have to be a pastor. Those prompted by the Spirit could offer testimony, sing, share a spiritual experience, teach, exhort, lead in prayer, read Scripture publicly, praise, etc. [5] The prime directive was that it had to edify, strengthen, build up or encourage the church.[6] Elders coached the brethren as to what was and was not edifying and made sure everything was done “decently and in order.”[7] Making the descriptive prescriptive, the passage on participatory worship concludes, “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.”[8]

Considering the contrast between early and modern church meetings, Gordon Fee commented, “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no great credit to the historical church that in opting for ‘order’ it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many.”[9] To allow the ministry of the many is more meaningful to the congregation since the brothers can directly impact the gathering. The church is blessed by a variety of spiritual gifts operating in addition to the gift of pastor-teacher. (You can read more about how to have this type of meeting at



The Lord’s Supper — A Holy Meal

New Testament church celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a sacred, covenant feast (the Agapé) — an actual meal — centered around the cup and loaf. Donald Guthrie pointed out how Paul “sets the Lord’s supper in the context of the fellowship meal.”[10]Williston Walker, church historian at Yale, taught that early church meetings “consisted from the Apostles’ time of two kinds: meetings for reading the Scriptures, preaching, song and prayer; and a common evening meal with which the Lord’s Supper was conjoined.”[11]

One benefit this New Testament practice would hold for us is the fellowship each member would experience. What better way to build and strengthen relationships than during a weekly holy feast — a wonderful time of encouragement and edification — community through communion? F.F. Bruce posited that the fellowship of Acts 2:42 happened during the breaking of bread. Furthermore, according to Bruce, the breaking of bread denotes “something more than the ordinary partaking of food together: the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper is no doubt indicated . . . this observance appears to have formed part of an ordinary meal.”[12] They had fellowship with one another as they broke bread together in the Lord’s Supper. Luke further informs us that this eating was done with “glad and sincere hearts.”[13] The early church enjoyed the Lord’s Supper as a time of fellowship and gladness, just like at a wedding banquet. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it?

Another benefit concerns the Second Coming. Whenever we partake of the fruit of the vine, we are to remember that Jesus also said: “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”[14] Ralph Martin of Fuller Seminary pointed out the “eschatological overtones” in the Lord’s Supper “with a forward look to the advent in glory.”[15]When eaten as an actual feast in a joyful wedding atmosphere, the Lord’s Supper typifies the future wedding supper of the Lamb and thus takes on a forward-looking, prophetic aspect.[16] It is like a rehearsal dinner before the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Through the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death “until He comes.”[17] The Greek underlying “until” denotes more than a mere time frame; it signifies a goal or objective.[18] That is, the meal’s function is as a constant prayer to God to bring about Jesus’ return.[19]The bread and wine thus not only symbolize the past sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood, but partaking of them serves as an enacted prayer asking Him to fulfill His promise to return and eat it again with us.[20]Come, Lord Jesus!



The Unity Of The Body

Church unity is very important: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”[21] We are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”[22] Paul urged, “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”[23]Jesus prayed, “May they be brought into complete unity.”[24]

Elders play a key role in building congregational unity. Christ gave pastor-teachers to equip the church “until we all reach unity in the faith.”[25] Even Hebrews 13:17, which encourages believers to “obey” church leaders, is based on being in agreement. “Obey” is frompeitho and fundamentally means persuade or convince.[26] Used here in the middle/passive form, it carries the idea of “let yourselves be persuaded by” your leaders. W.E. Vine commented that with peitho “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.”[27] Mindless obedience is not what is pictured. Unity is built when elders prioritize teaching and persuasion.

This same verse also instructs believers to “submit” to church leaders. The Greek here, hupeiko, does indeed mean submit, but after a struggle. The submission is qualified. It was used outside the Bible of combatants.[28] The nuance of hupeiko is not a structure to which one automatically submits (like submission to civil government). Rather, it is to yield after a process or even contest has occurred. The picture is one of serious discussion and dialog prior to one party giving way. God’s flock must be open to being persuaded (peitho) by its shepherds in the course of on-going discussion and teaching. However, there will be those times when someone, or some few, can’t be persuaded. After much reasoning and prayer, dissenters are called upon to give in to, to yield to (hupeiko), the wisdom of the church’s leaders. Even this submission, however, is to come after dialogue, discussion and appealing. This process builds congregational consensus.

Commenting on the general nature of early church polity, Donald Guthrie observed, “When decisions were made, they were made by the whole company of believers, not simply by the officials . . . It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to suppose because of this that the church was run on democratic lines. The Acts record makes unmistakably clear that the dominating factor was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”[29] (More on the role consensus plays in church government can be found at our web site).

Church members are encouraged as they realize everyone’s input is important. The Spirit is given free rein to guide the church. The leadership’s role in this process includes helping build agreement by teaching what Scripture says on key issues, privately talking with each church member about decisions, appealing to those who differ and — after much persuasion — calling on any dissenting minority to yield to the elders and the rest of the congregation. The mind of Christ is more likely found when leaders guide the whole congregation to participate in making major decisions.



Small Community Churches

The word church in the New Testament never refers to a physical building. Instead, the church is made of “living stones . . . built up as a spiritual house” with Christ as the cornerstone.[30] Whereas the apostles evangelized in such places as the Temple courts, synagogues or the Areopagus, those converted through their witness subsequently gathered as churches in private homes. For instance, Lydia, Nympha, Philemon, Gaius and Aquila and Pricilla all hosted churches.[31] What are we to do with this information? Since the New Testament letters were written to house churches, the instructions contained in them are designed to work in a smaller fellowship. Church is to be about relationships more so than programs. It is to be a family, not a school nor institution and certainly not a business. Gathering in smaller, informal venues facilitates intimacy, fellowship, accountability and one another ministry. The Lord’s Supper celebrated as a meal should have the feel of a family reunion, not dinner at a restaurant. Participatory worship and achieving unity are also much better suited to smaller settings.

Using private homes, when suitable, can still be ideal and is a wise use of resources.[32] We must, however, not think too small. Neither mega churches nor micro churches were the New Testament norm. First century Roman homes were typically designed around a large central room called an atrium. The average atrium of houses measured in Pompeii measured 797 square feet.[33] Archaeologists who excavated the remains of a Roman home known to host a church estimated it would hold 65-70 people.[34] The book of Acts records 120 believers in the upper room. Early house churches were big enough to have a wide diversity of spiritual gifts and a plurality of elders. It is important to design church structures and settings that will benefit the effective functioning of the church: not too big, not too small, and with a definite homey feel. New wine calls for fresh wineskins in both size and setting.




Why church the New Testament way? Perhaps it is the surest way to honor Christ in every area of church life. After all, who knew better than the apostles about church practice? They were personally trained by our Lord Jesus. They knew the best framework to obey Jesus’ teachings and purposely patterned the churches they established in keeping with His teachings. Most significantly, they clearly intended for us to follow their traditions: “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”[35]Would this not include their traditions for church practice?

The church practice traditions of the New Testament may have been part of what gave the early church the dynamic today’s church is sometimes missing. Early Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg concluded that the apostles “have taught us by example how to organize and govern churches . . . Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life . . . respect for the Spirit by which they were led should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.”[36] The question is not,Must we do church the New Testament way? Rather it is, Why would we want to do it any other way?

[1] Mark 2:22, ESV.

[2]Without Christ at the center, these patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell (John 15:5). We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine (Lk 22:16ff); either one without the other is problematic.

[3] Mt 28:20, Acts 2:42, 1Ti 5:17, 2Ti 4:1-4

[4] 1Co 14:26, ESV (italics mine).

[5] 1Co 14:26-40, Heb 10:24-25, Ep 5:19, Col 3:16

[6] 1Co 14:26

[7] 1Co 14:40

[8] 1Co 14:37, ESV.

[9] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 698.

[10] New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 758.

[11] Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd Ed. (New York, NY:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 38.

[12]F. F. Bruce, Acts of The Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981) p. 79.

[13] Acts 2:46

[14] Lk 22:17-18

[15] “The Lord’s Supper,” The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982), p. 709.

[16] Lk 22:16-18, 29-30, Re 19:7-9

[17] 1Co 11:27

[18] achri hou with an aorist subjunctive verb. Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), p. 427.

[19] Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York, NY:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), p. 252-254.

[20] Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1981) p. 244.

[21] 1Co 1:10

[22] Ep 4:3

[23] Php 2:1-2

[24] Jn 17:11, 20-23

[25] Ep 4:11-13

[26] Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 639.

[27] W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, 1952), 124.

[28] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Radips, MI:  Baker Book House, 1981), p. 638.

[29] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 741.

[30] 1Pe 2:5-7

[31] Acts 16:40, 20:20, Ro 16:3-5a, 16:23, 1Co 16:19, Col 4:15, Phm 1-2b, Ja 2:3

[32] I.e., if the home has a large open area and ample parking.

[33] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Saint Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 180.

[34] Graydon Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 70. The atrium’s impluvium had been tiled over and benches were added around the walls.  Further, a wall had been removed between adjoining rooms creating a second large area of 714 square feet.

[35] 2Th 2:15, ESV. We are not convinced New Testament traditions include communalism, pacifism, asceticism, celibacy, dietary restrictions, rigid liturgy or a ruling arch bishop, all of which are developments of later church history.

[36]Manual of Theology: A Treatise on Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), p. 84-86. 



Steve Atkerson

Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia andHouse Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.