Church Gatherings - Part 2 - Teaching and being taught
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
The last instruction given by the Lord Jesus to His own before His ascension established an order which is both spiritual and logical. ‘Go’, He said, and ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’. We considered the primacy of gospel witness and outreach in a previous article, together with the vital step of obedience in baptism enjoined upon all believers. For further progression in the Christian pathway teaching is essential. We are often reminded that in early days those saved and baptized ‘continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’, Acts 2. 42 and, as a result, the work flourished.
Throughout the years of Christian witness there have always been those who taught the truth of God’s word, at times in peril of their lives; but a faithful God has preserved the testimony, and will continue to do so. In Acts chapter 11, we learn that when the gospel was preached and a company of believers was formed at Antioch, the preachers understood that there was a need for teachers. Barnabus was sent, but his ministry, though helpful and necessary, came short of the teaching needed for the believers to grow. When, later, Paul arrived we read ‘that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people’, v. 26, a good precedent for a church gathering to teach the scriptures.
In more recent times, and certainly within the memory of believers today, particularly in Western society, we have been singularly blessed with opportunities to hear the word of God taught, whether in and for the benefit of local companies of believers or by invitation within travelling distance to other assemblies. There are ministry meetings, conferences, Bible readings, weekends, residential weeks, Bible workshops and more, some designed for younger believers, but all with a view that the word of God might be taught.
We need to bear in mind, however, that for the believer to receive blessing from the teaching, a number of important things are needed. First, the active involvement of the Spirit of God is essential in both the teacher and the taught. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth . . . he will shew you things to come . . . he shall take of mine, and shew it unto you’, John 16. 13-15; we cannot expect ungodly men to understand or comment intelligently on the scriptures, ‘the things of the Spirit of God . . . are spiritually discerned’, 1 Cor. 2. 14.
Also indispensable for teaching is the word of God. It may seem facile to say this, but opinions, traditions and habitual practice cannot take the place of the scriptures. In many places, and in many minds today, the scriptures have been relegated to a convenient assortment of ethics, of obscure history and favourite verses for occasional use. The word of God, however, should be our constant guide, our handbook for life, the monitor of our behaviour and a joy to our souls. To quote JACK HAY, ‘Everything God wants us to know is in this book’!
Another crucial element required is a teacher! In Ephesians chapter 4 verse 11, the ascended Lord endowed the church with those who would lead, guide, shepherd and instruct as required until the close of this church age. Examples are seen in New Testament times, Philip was an evangelist, Barnabus an exhorter, Peter fulfilled the role of a shepherd, John’s writings are instructive and devotional but Paul was without doubt a teacher. Taking the great doctrines of faith, he explained them, analyzed them and applied them in a practical way. We have been well blessed over the years with those who are gifted and enabled to do this for the benefit of believers and we thank God for them. Also, for those who encourage, comfort and challenge the saints, providing a balanced ministry so that all may receive food convenient from the word of God.
Sadly, today, many companies are small; age and infirmity have taken their toll so that travelling to other meetings is difficult. Those brethren left often do not feel competent to teach the scriptures and, despite their best efforts, restricted by circumstances, no one from the locality attends the gospel meeting. We do not limit the ability of our God, but is there a way whereby these saints could once more enjoy the full value of church gatherings rather than wait until the doors have to be closed?
Another vital factor in the teaching of the word of God is a desire on the part of the saints to be taught! That may sound strange to some, but it is a reality which needs to be addressed. It is very evident that ignorance of the scriptures is endemic in our society. Children are brought up knowing nothing of the Bible, being taught neither at home nor at school. Christian morality is opposed as out-dated; religion of every persuasion is presented as divisive and suspect. Surrounded by this maelstrom of unbelief and immorality, believers are called to ‘walk worthy’ of their calling, at school, college, university, the workplace and in the neighbourhood. The apostle Peter encouraged his readers to ‘be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ’, 1 Pet. 3. 15-16; the secret of being able to do this, says Peter, is to ‘set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts’, v. 15 NIV. Having a knowledge and understanding of the scriptures is an integral part of truly knowing Him as Lord.
One problem is that many believers, including those associated with New Testament assemblies, are not reading the scriptures for themselves! As far as it is possible, the Bible should be daily, or, at least, regular, essential reading for every believer, preferably in an orderly and systematic manner, 1 Tim. 4. 13. An understanding of the basic outline and structure of each book, and of the whole Bible should be a minimum ambition for achievement. This will provide a foundation on which to build when hearing the word of God taught. When a teacher is competing with a lack of basic knowledge in his audience, he can only feed them on ‘milk’, necessary for ‘babes in Christ’, but inadequate for continuing development, 1 Cor. 3. 1-2.
It is not too difficult to gauge the level of desire for the teaching of the word of God by taking note of those who make every effort to be where scripture is taught, and, conversely, those who habitually absent themselves and make little or no attempt to attend such gatherings. Elders can encourage, exhort, offer help and seek to accommodate the needs of such. But, in the final analysis, there has to be within the individual believer that spark of desire to learn and know more; otherwise, sadly, there is often little that can be achieved. Deviation from the principles and practices taught in scripture usually originate from one of two sources; either from a refusal to accept the teaching, or because the teaching has never been given or heard in the first place. This latter reason applies to many believers at present in denominations.
Many assemblies substitute or alternate ministry or teaching meetings with Bible readings. This arrangement gives all the brethren opportunity to comment or ask questions on a particular subject or passage of scripture under consideration. While there is no clear precedent in the Acts or indicated in the epistles for this type of church gathering, there is no doubt that if able and gifted teachers are present to address the questions and provide definitive answers, or explain the meaning of the verses, these occasions can prove profitable. It has been suggested that, in reality, the sisters are maybe the best judges of the spiritual benefit of these occasions!
With a wonderful heritage of excellent Bible teaching passed on by gifted and godly men, we are the beneficiaries of doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. Some would claim that the pressures of twenty-first century life, work, family etc. militate against the opportunity for serious study time. When, however, we in the UK consider the manual toil of our forefathers, often with large families, little money and no modern conveniences, truly we have no cause for complaint, and no valid excuses for not seeking out the places locally where the scriptures are taught.
There are helps to the study and understanding of scripture in the form of books and internet sites, but one of the greatest blessings we enjoy as believers is to gather with other saints to hear constructive, consecutive teaching from the word of God, to apply it to our hearts, and seek to live out and practise those things which are taught. This will result in glory being brought to the name of the Lord Jesus.