Before looking, in this chapter, at the local assembly’s role as a vehicle for the dissemination and defence of Bible doctrine, a particular aspect of ‘proclaiming divine truth’ must be mentioned.
In the weekly Lord’s Supper, sometimes called “the breaking of bread” (Acts 20:7), the local assembly is given a unique privilege and responsibility. As believers corporately eat the bread and drink the cup they “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor 11:26, NKJV). This is designed to be the act of an established gathered local assembly, not of individuals in their homes or hospital beds. What a high and holy privilege is here afforded to local assemblies – to proclaim, announce and make known the truth, reality and purpose of the death of Christ “until He comes”!
Bearing this very specific proclamation of divine truth in mind, we now come to the more general purpose of the assembly in relation to the truth of God as a whole.
The relationship between “God and truth” seems obvious to most Christians. God is the source of truth, all truth is God’s truth, and without God there can be no truth. The concept of “the Bible and truth” is also widely appreciated. God, who is truth, has revealed Himself in His inspired, inerrant word – “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). However, the essential connection between “the local assembly and truth”, which will be the focus of this article, is not so well recognised.
The Pauline metaphor explained
The Bible’s plainest statement on this vital subject appears in 1 Tim 3:15, where the assembly is called the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). But what exactly does this mean?
A ‘pillar’ usually holds up some kind of structure. However, from ancient times, pillars have also served as objects to which public announcements can be affixed for all to see and read. This latter usage works well in this verse and helpfully distinguishes between the ‘pillar’ and the ‘ground’. A ‘ground’ is a ‘stay’ or a ‘base’, upon which something can safely stand or lean. So, putting these two words ‘pillar’ and ‘ground’ together, a seventh purpose for the local assembly is revealed: it exists to proclaim (pillar) and preserve (ground) divine truth.
What is included under this word ‘truth’? Jim Allen states, “The expression ‘the truth’ [in 1 Tim 3:15]…is not to be limited to any one aspect of truth. It is that which, revealed in Christ who is the truth, is maintained in a witness to Him. All aspects of absolute truth will thus be maintained as to His person and work (evangelically), as to His purpose and witness in this age (ecclesiastically), and to His promised return and kingdom (eschatologically)”.1 In other words, the local assembly is tasked with maintaining and bearing testimony to all of God’s truth.
One looks in vain to the institutions of society – the government, academia, the judiciary and the press – to defend the truth of God. Even Christendom, despite its historic creeds, its grand synods and its theological seminaries, finds itself thoroughly permeated with every form of error and compromise. What then is God’s vehicle, in the present dispensation, for the proclamation, preservation and transmission of His truth? The local assembly. No other entity has been designated ‘pillar and ground of the truth’. Think of it: in a world of confusion, error and darkness, each local assembly, gathered to the Lord’s name, is designed to be a divinely planted beacon and bastion of truth.
The historical record examined
The record of the New Testament gives evidence that the early Christians clearly understood and treasured this collective responsibility towards truth. On the day when local assembly testimony began we read this: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine [that is the truth we have been thinking about] and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41-42, KJV).
The structure of these two verses revolves around 4 actions and 4 items, the order of which is deliberate
and significant in each case.
The 4 actions establish a basic ‘event order’ that is to be repeated every time someone responds to the gospel. First, a person receives the message. Second, they are baptised. Third, they are added to an assembly. And fourth, they ‘continue steadfastly‘.
The next verse outlines the 4 items in which they continued steadfastly, each of which is preceded by a definite article:
1. ‘The’ apostles’ doctrine
2. ‘The’ fellowship
3. ‘The’ breaking of bread
4. ‘The’ prayers
Take careful notice of the first item. What does it mean to “continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine”? ‘The apostles’ doctrine’, when Acts 2:42 was written, consisted of the verbal teaching being given by the 12 apostles. For us today, now that the Bible is complete, the apostles’ doctrine is that full body of teaching, that sacred deposit of divine truth, called in Scripture “the faith…once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v3, NKJV).
Each brother and sister in the first local assembly (in Acts 2) persevered diligently in and adhered closely to Bible doctrine. That’s what ‘continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’ means. Of course, that presupposes they were taught the truth, and grasped the truth, and cherished the truth. But just imagine, for a moment, such an assembly of ‘committed and continuing’ truth-lovers in first century Jerusalem. What was their character? They were “pillar and ground of the truth”! Is that how people perceive the assembly of which you form a part? Are you known as truth-lovers, truth-promoters and truth-defenders?
The practical ramifications explored
It is not easy for an assembly to maintain its character as “pillar and ground of the truth”. It will involve elders and other gifted brethren in constant Bible exposition and exhortation as they fulfil the task outlined in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word…reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine”. The local assembly should be a ‘teaching centre’ for the whole counsel of God, full of ‘well-taught’ believers who know what it is to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). An assembly starved of good teaching is unlikely to prosper. Paul was concerned that when the church came together everyone should ‘learn’, and all things should be “done to edification [building up]” (1 Cor 14:26). When young people go home from your local Bible Class or mid-week teaching meeting, are they saying to themselves, “I really learnt something today and felt the challenge of it”? They should be.
The four items in Acts 2:42 come in two pairs. The NKJV makes this clear: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [1st pair], in the breaking of bread and in prayers [2nd pair]”.
The way the Bible pairs doctrine and fellowship together here is hugely significant. It indicates that the apostles’ doctrine actually formed and informed the fellowship they enjoyed. The ‘fellowship’ in verse 42 is not the sharing of goods mentioned in v44-46. Here the fellowship (Gk. koinonos) is their association and partnership in spiritual things – the oneness of spirit they enjoyed in assembly testimony.2
Many today tell us that “doctrine divides”, and they recommend that all professing Christians set aside their doctrinal differences and ‘unite in love’. But that is not what the Bible teaches. In Acts 2:42, fellowship was not a ‘means to an end’. Fellowship was not something they agreed to have: it was something they had because they agreed; and their theological unity enabled them to have meaningful practical unity. And so it is today. It is only as you have oneness in truth that you can work together to declare and defend that truth!
So in actual fact, doctrine unites! It unites believers who share a love of the truth, and desire to continue steadfastly in it. Any attempt at ‘fellowship’ that compromises Bible doctrine on the person of Christ, salvation by faith alone, baptism by immersion, headship and the Lord’s return, i.e. “the apostles’ doctrine”, is not Biblical fellowship.
If an assembly is to be the pillar and ground of the truth, it not only needs a healthy diet of year-round Bible teaching, but it also needs to maintain separation from error and false teachers (Rev 2:12-2). Paul likens false teaching to ‘leaven’ [yeast] and warns that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Gal 5:9). So assemblies need to be careful about who they receive into fellowship, and who they allow to teach. Remember, fellowship with a man is fellowship with his doctrine, and those who hold beliefs contrary to sound doctrine should be avoided (Rom 16:17).
How is this doctrinal fellowship expressed? That brings us to the second pair of items – “the breaking of bread” and “the prayers”. These expressions refer to the Lord’s Supper and the prayer meeting respectively. Our “continuing steadfastly” is therefore a two-pronged undertaking. It involves both what we believe, and what we practise – and these two should never be separated. So, for example, all those who participate in the activities of the breaking of bread and the assembly prayer meeting should wholeheartedly believe and hold to the apostles’ doctrine.
One final point: truth should not only be declared and defended – it should be passed on to the next generation. Says the apostle Paul: “…the things that thou hast heard of me…the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1-2). May it be so, that after we are gone, the pillar will still be standing, the base unmoved!
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. J. Allen, What the Bible Teaches, 1 Timothy (Kilmarnock, John Ritchie Ltd. 1983), p. 227
2. It would be strange for Luke to introduce the idea of the distribution of financial fellowship in between “the apostles’ doctrine” and “the breaking of bread and the prayers”.