Obeying the injunction to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together”, as the body of Christ, we form into groups for convenient worship and establish ecclesias. Our ecclesia becomes our spiritual home. Within the ecclesial family we have a haven from the world, a place of solace, and of mutual support. We have wisely instituted formal structures of worship, witness and spiritual growth. This series will expand on some of those bulwark meetings and structures that have become a common and valued part of ecclesial life, forming a framework of routine for brethren and sisters. These include the ecclesia itself, the Memorial meeting, the Sunday school, Public Witness and the Bible class. As we read, let us reflect on the on-going worth of these important functions.

It is well worth noting, right from the outset, that the ecclesia is a Divinely ordained institution, so that while it is good to hear brethren and sisters speak fondly of “our ecclesia”, the wonderful reality is that each ecclesia, and taken together, all ecclesias, constitute what Paul often referred to as “the ecclesia of God”. How important to always have this in mind in all our dealings with each other, and in our dealings between ecclesias too. We might speak with less haste, and with more respect and love for each other if we remembered that this was God’s place, and the ecclesia, His family. It is, too, common and surely sound practice among us, to remember and draw encouragement from Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Do we truly believe this and act accordingly? For as much as the ecclesia is “the ecclesia of God” we ought to remember, too, that Christ presents himself to us in the Apocalypse as the one “in the midst” of the ecclesias. Paul wrote to the Romans that “the ecclesias of Christ salute you” (Rom 16:16). So we are the called out ones of Christ who has oversight of the ecclesias. What an honoured position then we have as individual members of an ecclesia. Our calling, says Paul, is “high” (Phil 3:14), it is “holy” (2 Tim 1:9); we are “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1) and we need to act accordingly every day.

The community of the saints

The ecclesia is the Divinely ordained community of the saints. It is there for collective worship and for mutual support. It provides an arena for spiritual growth, both individually and collectively. It is appropriately described as a lampstand, the place where the light of the gospel should shine to declare that the ecclesia is a place of witness, a place where we as a body let our light shine before men.

We have much Scriptural teaching to show us the value of our community association. Solomon declared: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up” (Eccl 4:9–10). Right at the beginning, God observed: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” And in a brief few verses in Genesis 2 we are led from “the man… alone” to “the man and his wife”, and so the first family was formed, with the woman in that relationship becoming the Scriptural analogy for the ecclesia as the bride (Eph 5:22–32; 2 Cor 11:2–3).

How blessed we are that in the ecclesial family we are not alone. When we fall we have another to help us up. When God through Nathan the prophet told David of that coming son who would “build an house for his name”, David understood exactly what was implied and, overwhelmed with joy at this revelation of a Divine family unfolding through the ages, cried out “O Lord God… thou hast spoken also of thy servant’s house [family] for a great while to come” (2 Sam 7:19). That “great while to come” still rolls on, and here at the end as we await “the days of the Son of man”, we all, in our ecclesias, part of that Divine house, are the beneficiaries of those blessings promised long ago, barely tasted by us as yet, and with a glorious outworking still before us.

Our ecclesial structure

The Apostle Paul spoke of the ecclesia as “the household of God… built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:19–20). There is an inherent formal structure implied. Scripture sometimes uses the analogy of the body with Christ as the head. Here Paul uses the analogy of a building, a temple, with Christ the chief cornerstone in the very foundations of the ecclesial structure. He draws on the terminology of Isaiah 28:16: “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.” Moreover the prophet tells us that the stones making up that structure must be aligned with that precious cornerstone based on Godly standards: “Judgment also will I lay to the line [horizontal alignment] and righteousness to the plummet [vertical alignment]” Thus the ecclesial structure we build will only be true, and its walls four-square, when we are in line with Christ on principles of judgment and righteousness. Here is a challenge, not only for ecclesial leaders but for all the members of the ecclesia.

We do not have the first century arrangements of living apostles and Spirit gifted elders, so our current ecclesial structures are designed to replicate the first century ecclesias so far as is possible in the absence of those elements. Brother Robert Roberts, more than any other, was influential in the early days of the Christadelphian body in setting the broad guidelines for ecclesial structure, functioning and inter-ecclesial associations. His work, The Ecclesial Guide, has provided sound advice in these areas for over one hundred years and is still referred to frequently by ecclesias worldwide as providing sound wisdom and guidance that has stood the test of time.

The apostle Paul advised: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). From the earliest times, a formal structure for worship and association has been central to God’s appointments. Divine instructions applied in Eden. A structure of acceptable worship applied in the times of Cain and Abel. Yahweh acknowledged that Abraham “kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (Gen 26:5). So we follow sound and long-standing Scriptural precedent in having a formal structure for ecclesial association, for our meetings and other arrangements.

Yet our formalities are few and our general arrangements surprisingly flexible. We have all the brethren and sisters of each autonomous ecclesia as the ultimate authority for formulating ecclesial arrangements in our quarterly or half-yearly business meetings. Generally the whole ecclesia is responsible for appointing serving brethren as Arranging brethren, Exhorting, Lecturing and Presiding brethren by means of a ballot of all members. We rightly take no part in political elections, yet it is true to say that the inclusion of sisters with equal weight in all voting in such matters as we have mentioned, predated such arrangements in the political sphere around the world by many years.

Serving brethren

Here is a designation we ought never to set aside. We take our cue in calling all office-holders in our ecclesias “serving brethren” from our Lord Jesus Christ. When some bickered over their desired position as leaders among the disciples, Jesus sternly put things right: “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you” (Mark 10:42). Brethren are not appointed “to rule” or to “exercise authority” but rather, as Jesus went on to say, to “be your minister… servant of all” (Mark 10:43–45). Addressing the elders of his day, the apostle Peter instructed them to “feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2–3).

We are all aware, and are at least yearly reminded by our recording brother, to consider the Scriptural attributes set down for serving brethren as outlined by the apostle Paul in the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. Brethren must be of Godly disposition and with a reputation for integrity and holiness of life. They must have experience. They should demonstrate from their family circumstances their ability to lead and guide. When societies set about to elect political leaders and captains of industry, these are not the qualifications sought. Aggression, ambition and ruthlessness are more commonly looked for in such positions. We are reminded of God’s Word through Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9). When reflecting on faithful ecclesial leaders, the apostle exhorts, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17). Do we show our gratitude for faithful servants of the ecclesia who may have borne the heat and burden of the day for many years? It is not the character of our times to show and give such respect, but rather to despise tradition and order. If we be Christ’s we will have nothing to do with such a spirit, but will seek to help and show our regard for those who are labouring in God’s work.

Our ecclesial family

The ecclesia can and should provide wonderful benefits. It teaches us that we have a larger family, for some their only real family. In its environs we have with our brethren and sisters a refreshing haven, a place of solace and renewal amongst the storms of life in a dying world. We learn mutual submission. We learn the need to walk circumspectly together, marching in rank to the Kingdom ahead. Our ecclesias have provided many of us with dear friends for life, cherished relationships that span decades of time, and which will open out into eternity at our Lord’s return. These extended “families” have given us under the Divine blessing, a sense of place and of value and worth in service to others. The examples of others have stirred us to try to do better: the older brother who always seems to know of little jobs that need doing and just gets them done; the younger sisters who visit the elderly with love and kindliness; the faithful couples who year after year prepare the emblems for our memorial meetings; the brethren and sisters who have made the Sunday School their place of service over many years.

In the ecclesia, many separate families become one family. Those who have no brothers or sisters now have many. Some with no children find themselves ‘uncles’ or ‘aunts’ to many boys and girls, and sadness can turn to joy in this way. The ecclesia marks the milestones of life. As the larger family we joy with our young parents as they are blessed with the birth of a child. The whole ecclesia rejoices at baptisms for our children and for our new found brethren and sisters who have come in from without. Weddings in the Lord become a special time of happiness in an ecclesia, and advancing years are warmed by the company and love of the ecclesial family. Even that bitter enemy, death itself, is made more bearable for those who have lost a loved one in the sympathy, the tears and the embrace of brothers and sisters.

Though brethren and sisters in Christ, our ecclesias are imperfect, because we are imperfect. We engage in bickering and murmuring, though we know we should not. Friends fall out. Sins great and small bring sorrow and difficulties in their train. Some lose their faith and go their way. We understand only too well the heartfelt cry of our dear brother Paul, “but I am carnal, sold under sin!”

Despite the difficulties, we will not lose heart. We will never let our words or actions cause disquiet in our ecclesia. We will be faithful workers in our ecclesias. We will encourage our brethren and sisters and look for opportunities of service. We will be there.

“Grant, Lord, Thy blessing on this place,

And may this lightstand be,

A place that glorifies Thy Name

And ever pleases thee”

Hymn 427