If you were to boil my disagreements with Perry Noble and NewSpring down to a single issue, it would be over the answer to this question.
Here, in order, is how I would answer the question.
- God. As God began to reveal himself to his people, one of his early steps was to create a house for himself. Not only was God to have his own house, but he was very particular about how it was to be built and how people were to act when they visited it. From Deuteronomy 12:4-5:
You shall not act like this toward the LORD your God.
But you shall seek the LORD at the place which the LORD your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.
When I built my house a few years ago, I was keenly interested in adapting the plans and monitoring the workers who were constructing it. Large sections of the Old Testament are devoted to God’s detailed instructions on how the tabernacle and, later, the temple were to be designed and outfitted. God designed his house so that he would enjoy inhabiting it. It had to be just so before he would move in. From Exodus 40:34, after Moses had completed the tabernacle:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
If you visited my home, I would expect you to act in accordance with the customs and rules in my home, and if I visited yours, one of the things I would be trying to do is to figure out your rules. Who sits in what chairs at the dinner table, for example. In an analogous way, God expects visitors to his house to act in accordance with his rules. Deuteronomy 12:8:
You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.
Outsiders and unbelievers especially were not be be a standard for behavior in God’s house. Look at Deuteronomy 12:30-31.
Beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?’
You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods.
God also expects his own people to come near with respect. Leviticus 22:2 (and many others):
Tell Aaron and his sons to be careful with the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they dedicate to Me, so as not to profane My holy name; I am the LORD.
Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 also reminds us that church is not primarily for us, and that that understanding should affect our behavior:
Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.
Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.
- Believers. By his grace, God opened his house to his family to join him and enjoy him. The Psalms often refer to assemblies of believers who gather to worship God. Psalm 149:1:
Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.
It’s interesting to note that the label of Christian was given to describe believers who gathered in church. From Acts 11:25-26:
And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Christians and church are inseparable. Christians were defined in part by their attendance in church.
Church is also necessary for preserving the saints in their faith. Note the progression from preaching to discipleship to church government in this passage from Acts 14:21-23.
After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Paul tells Timothy that proper behavior is expected in church, which is to be so honored because it is essential for understanding truth.
You will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)
The church is given to us as a venue to worship God, and as his venue to teach, bless and discipline us.
- Unbelievers. Although church is not created for unbelievers, it does not exclude them. Paul instructs the church on the proper use of tongues by telling them to consider whether unbelievers will be there. From 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:
So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.
Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
Although this verse is sometimes misused to justify turning churches into virtual pagan temples, note that Paul assumes that unbelievers are not a regular part of church. The repeated use of the word if shows that church is not lacking anything if they are not in attendance, but neither should they be excluded.
Paul also assumes that if an unbeliever is attending church, they are quite likely about to be saved and begin to worship God. These are not seekers Paul is talking about; they are people ready to be turned inside out by God.
The reason they’re in church is probably because God has drawn them there. We know that they’re not there of their own volition to seek God, as Romans 3:11 makes clear.
There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.
The reason this matters is because our understanding of the purpose of church will affect the way we behave in it and how proper our worship is when we’re in it.
(Tomorrow we’ll look at what Perry Noble and his friends believe about this question and how it affects their worship.)