New Testament Apostolic Tradition… Today?

Suppose a newly planted, first century church in Alexandria, Egypt wrote a letter to the apostles over in Jerusalem. Imagine that this church is made up of Jewish believers who heard the gospel on a visit to Jerusalem, and then went back home to Alexandria. Now that they were back home, they didn’t quite know what do to next. So, in this letter to the apostles was a series of questions about church life:

“Dear Apostles . . .

Why is it that we meet together as God’s people?

What should we do in our meetings?

How often should we meet? Every Sabbath?

Does it matter where we meet?

Should we build a temple like in Jerusalem? Or at least a synagogue building?

What type of church government should we have?

What should we look for in church leaders?

Do we even need leaders?

What is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper?

How often should we eat it? Annually, like Passover?

How should we eat the Lord’s Supper (what form should it take)?”

How do you suppose the apostles, the Twelve, would have answered their letter? Would they have written that each church was free to do what ever it wanted to do? That each church should just pray and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading? That each congregation should be unique and different, free from outside influence? That the church should be like a chameleon, changing depending on its cultual backdrop?Or, might the apostles have answered with very specific instructions? With a particular way of doing things? With a definite agenda? With unmistakable guidelines?

A problem, faced by believers over the past 2,000 years, concerns exactly what should be done with apostolic patterns for church practice. Should we follow these NT patterns? Is the practice of the early church merely optional or is it imperative for us? Are the traditions of the apostles interesting history or should they constitute some kind of normative church practice?

Our problem is compounded because the NT has almost nothing to say by way of direct command concerning church matters. Currently, it is popular to dismiss NT patterns as optional. Fee and Stuart, two Bible professors in Massachusetts, in How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, state: “Our assumption, along with many others, is that unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way” (p. 97, first edition). No one, for instance, would advocate following Jephthah’s example in Jdg 11:29ff. The question for us is whether or not Scripture “explicitly tells us” that we “must” copy the patterns for church described in the NT.

Suppose we “bought into” the notion that NT patterns are not to be normative. Into what might this lead us?

1. First, we could construct a massive, opulent cathedral and post on its walls our motto, “Nothing But Positive Command Shall Bind Us” (that should really pack the pews!).

2. We could meet on Tuesdays rather than on Sunday, the Lord’s Day (this way we will have less competition from the mainline churches; we will be the un-church).

3. Next, we will meet monthly, rather than weekly (this will be more to the liking of the modern generation, which dislikes commitment).

4. We might also opt to have no leaders at all (no pastors, no elders, no deacons) since no where in Scripture are we directly commanded to have any. This will be popular in America, the land of rugged individualism.

5. We could have absolutely no form of church government whatsoever; ours will be rule by anarchy (every man can just do what is right in his own eyes in fulfillment of Jdg 21:25). No particular form of government is commanded.

6. The Lord’s Supper can be celebrated every ten years or so (we wouldn’t want it to become too common and lose its significance).

7. Since the NT does not specifically prohibit it, we can swell our membership ranks by baptizing infants or the deceased (1Co 15:29).

8. Finally, new believers could be organized into loose confederations of Bible studies, not official churches (the NT never states we must form churches).

Obviously, this hypothetical “church” would be quite absurd. Yet, technically it would violate no positive command of Scripture. What would be missing is at least a partial adherence to NT patterns for church practice. Most churches do follow some of the patterns of the NT, but not all. The question is, why not? That which is argued for in this study is a little consistency. We propose that the apostles had a definite, very particular way they organized churches, and that they intended for all churches to follow these same apostolic patterns, even today.

Holding to Apostolic Tradition is Logical
1 Co 4:14-17 reveals that Paul planned to send Timothy to Corinth. He wanted Timothy to remind the Corinthians of Paul’s way of life so that they could imitate Paul. Thus he wrote, “I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”

Notice the uniformity of practice that is implied in 1Co 4:17b. Paul’s way of life in Christ was consistent with (“agrees with”) what Paul taught “everywhere in every church”. There was integrity. It is an engineering axiom that form follows function. Paul’s way of life (form) was in agreement with what he taught (function) everywhere in every church. There was a uniformity of practice that grew out of Paul’s teachings. His belief determined his behavior. His doctrine determined his duty. Similarly, the apostles’ beliefs about the function of the church would naturally have affected the way they organized churches (the form of the church). Thus, holding to apostolic tradition is logical.

If anyone understood the purpose of the church, the apostles did. They were hand picked and hand trained by Jesus over a three year period. Then, our Lord spent forty days with them after His resurrection. Finally, He sent the Holy Spirit to uniquely teach them things Jesus never did (Jn 14-16). Thus, whatever Jesus taught His apostles about the church was reflected in the way they set up and organized churches.

In Tit 1:5 Paul wrote to Titus, “the reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished . . . ” It is evident from Tit 1:5 that the apostles did indeed have a definite way they wanted things done. It was not left up to each individual church to find its own way of doing things. There was obviously some kind of order, pattern, or tradition, that was followed in organizing the churches. Thus, In 1Co 11:34, Paul wrote, “the rest I will set in order when I come” (KJV).

The first Southern Baptist theologian who ever really wrote anything was J. L. Dagg. A founding member of First Baptist Church of Atlanta and professor of theology at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, Dagg wrote in 1858 that the apostles “have taught us by example how to organize and govern churches. We have no right to reject their instruction and captiously insist that nothing but positive command shall bind us. 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” (Manual of Church Order, p. 84-86).

Holding to Apostolic Tradition is Praiseworthy
In 1Co 10:31-11:1 Paul urged the Corinthians to “follow” his example: “So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

The immediate context concerned seeking the good of others, pleasing others, so as to be used by God in bringing them to salvation. The word “follow” (1Co 11:1) is from mimatai, basis for our word “mimic.” This command for them to mimic Paul about not being a stumbling block evidently brought to mind a new situation the Corinthians were experiencing, one in which they did a good job of mimicking him: head coverings. Thus he began in 11:2 with, “I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (NASV).

The regular Greek word for “teaching” is didaskalia (basis for “didactic”), but that is not the word used here. Instead, paradosis (“tradition”) is used. Thus, the NASV has “traditions” here rather than “teachings” (NIV). A tradition is “that which is handed down” (information, custom), according to BAGD, p. 615. Webster says it is an inherited pattern of thought or action. A street definition would be, “things people do on a regular basis.” This same Greek word (in verb from) is used in 1Co 11:23 (“passed on”) in regard to the Lord’s Supper. The point of a tradition is that it is something that is passed on, from generation to generation.

Next, consider the word, “everything” (1Co 11:2). The word “everything” means “all that exists” or at least “all that pertains to the subject” (Webster). When Paul wrote “everything” (1Co 11:2), what did he have in mind? How might “everything” apply to church order? Use of the word “everything” suggests that Paul’s intended application is larger than just the exhortation found in 1Co 10:31-11:1 (evangelism). He is now about to move on to that new topic: head coverings.

What do the words “just as” (11:2) indicate about the degree of their compliance with Paul’s “traditions”? They adhered to every iota; it was sort of a photocopy effect! Paul praised them for holding to his traditions “just as” (kathos) he passed them on to them. The apostles evidently designed for the churches to mimic the traditions (inherited patterns) they established. The particular issue dealt with in 1Co 11 is the issue of head coverings.

An interesting paradox can be observed about tradition. The same word (paradosis) used by Paul in 1Co 11:2 was also used by Jesus in Mt 15:1-3. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Amazingly, whereas Jesus blasted the tradition of the Pharisees, Paul blessed the Corinthians for following the tradition of an apostle. Jewish tradition broke the command of God. Apostolic tradition is consistent with the commands of Jesus. Holding to the tradition of the apostles is thus praise worthy, as seen in Paul’s praise for the Corinthians.

Holding to Apostolic Tradition is to be Universal
It is interesting to note how Paul quieted those inclined to be contentious about Christian order. To do so, he made an appeal to the universal practice of all the other churches: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God” (1Co 11:16).

This statement was supposed to impress the contentious people, to carry weight, to settle the argument. Obviously prior emphasis had been given to certain practices that were done the same way everywhere, and that were supposed to be done the same way everywhere. Thus, 1Co 11:16 further indicates a uniformity of “practice” in NT churches.

It is beyond the scope of this study to deal with the particulars of head coverings. The point is that Paul expected all churches to be doing the same thing. Just to realize that one was “different” was argument enough to silence opposition.

In 1Co 14:33b-34, something else was said to be true in “all” congregations (plural):”As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.”Regardless of the correct application of this verse, notice how Paul again appeals to a universal pattern in all the churches as a basis for conformity. Thus, 1Co 14:33b-34 indicates a uniformity of practice in NT churches.

Next, notice how Paul chided the Corinthians in 1Co 14:36, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” The obvious answer to both questions is “no.” Paul’s chide in 1Co 14:36 further indicates a uniformity of practice among NT churches. The chide came for doing something different from what all the other churches were doing. Evidently all the churches were expected to follow the same patterns in their church meetings. Holding to apostolic tradition is to be universal.

Jim Elliot, missionary martyr, wrote, “The pivot point hangs on whether or not God has revealed a universal pattern for the church in the New Testament. If He has not, then anything will do so long as it works. But I am convinced that nothing so dear to the heart of Christ as His Bride should be left without explicit instructions as to her corporate conduct. I am further convinced that the 20th century has in no way simulated this pattern in its method of ‘churching’ a community . . . it is incumbent upon me, if God has a pattern for the church, to find and establish that pattern, at all costs” (Shadow of The Almighty: Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot).

Holding to Apostolic Tradition brings God’s Peaceful Presence
The main point of Php 4:4-7 is that we are to rejoice in the Lord, to have God’s peace, regardless of circumstances: “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

“Good bye” is a shortened form of “God Be With You.” In the next paragraph of his letter (Php 4:8-9), the church at Philippi is given the secret for how to have the God of Peace be with them. By extension, this can be true for our churches as well: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Php 4:8 is a popular memory verse, for obvious reasons. Yet the more 4:8 is emphasized, the more 4:9 seems neglected. In 4:9, the Philippians were instructed to put into practice “whatever” they

learned, received, heard from Paul, or saw in Paul. Would this “whatever” not also include the way we see in the NT that Paul organized churches? To neglect apostolic tradition is to bypass God’s blessing!

Watchman Nee, in The Church And The Work: Rethinking The Work, wrote, “Acts is the ‘genesis’ of the church’s history, and the Church in the time of Paul is the ‘genesis’ of the Spirit’s work . . . we must return to ‘the beginning.’ Only what God has set forth as our example in the beginning is the eternal Will of God. It is the Divine standard and our pattern for all time . . . God has revealed His Will, not only by giving orders, but by having certain things done in His church, so that in the ages to come others might simply look at the pattern and know His will” (p. 8-9).

Holding to Apostolic Tradition is Commanded
In 2Th 2:15, the Thessalonian church was instructed to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” “Traditions” is from the same word, paradosis, used back in 1Co 11:2. The Thessalonians were specifically commanded to follow, to hold to, the traditions of the apostles, whether received by mouth or by letter (whether oral or written). The apostles are not here to tell us in person, by word of “mouth”, what to do. However, we do have their “written” directions. The overall context of 2Th 2 refers to a correct understanding of end-time events. But would it not also apply to church order?

Many believers feel that while apostolic tradition is interesting, following it is never commanded. But what does 2Th 2:15 indicate about this issue? Is adherence to the traditions commanded or suggested? Significantly, it is clearly commanded. We are to follow the apostles, not just in their teaching and theology, but also their practice.

A similar attitude is expressed in 2Th 3:6-7a, “keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the traditions you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example.” The specific context here refers to gainful work versus being idle and lazy, yet the underlying principle holds true also. The apostles generally wanted the churches to follow, to hold to, their traditions.

Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and of the first Baptist church in the Americas (1600s), is another example of a Christian who believed that churches should strive for as near approximate as possible to NT forms and ordinances (Liberty of Conscience, p. 106). This belief led Williams to resign the professional pastorate to found Rhode Island on the NT pattern of a separation between church and state.

What can we conclude about God’s interest in our own churches adhering to NT patterns for church practice? It seems evident that whatever was normative church practice for all the churches in the NT should be normative practice for churches today. I believe that It was precisely these patterns of church practice that gave the NT church the dynamic that today’s church has been missing for so long!

If the Bible directly commands something, then we obviously ought to follow that command. Significantly, the Bible commands adherence to the traditions of the apostles. If, however, the Bible is silent about something (i.e., there is neither command nor pattern to follow), then we have the freedom to do whatever suits us (following the wisdom of the Holy Spirit). The real question thus is not, “Do we have to do things the way they were done in the NT?” The question is: “Why would we want to do things any other way?!”

The Roman world is gone forever. There is a big difference between holding to apostolic tradition versus mindlessly copying everything seen in the NT (wearing sandals, writing on parchment, studying by oil lamps, wearing togas, etc.). The key is to focus in on NT church practice. Of course we must also beware of making patterns out of things that are not patterns in the NT. For instance, the Christian “communism” of Acts 6 was a one time event for a single church. It is an option for any believers of any age, but it is neither a command nor a NT pattern. The same could be said of Paul’s vow in Acts not to cut his hair.

What are some apostolic traditions that should still be binding on the church today?

1. The Lord’s Supper eaten as a full meal.

2. The Lord’s Supper partaken of weekly.

3. The Lord’s Supper eaten as the main reason for meeting each week.

4. Interactive, participatory, open church meetings.

5. Mutual edification, encouragement and fellowship as the goals of church meetings.

6. Church government by consensus (elder-led more so than elder-ruled churches).

7. Locally trained leaders.

8. Church eldership that is plural, non-hierarchial, homegrown, servant leadership.

9. House churches (smaller congregations).

10. Meeting regularly on the Lord’s Day (Sunday).

11. The baptism of believers only.

12. The separation of church and state.

13. A regenerate church body.

14. Children present in the church meeting .

15. A community based church (daily fellowship) .

16. Church reproduction & equipping through the ministry of itinerant church workers (apostles, evangelists).

What we argue for here is a little consistency. Most churches already follow some of these patterns, but not all. The question is, why not? This consistency is especially important since the apostles expected for all churches to follow their traditions “just as” they were handed down. Of course, Jesus must be the center of a church or none of this will work anyway. It would blow apart! As He said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Are there ever acceptable exceptions to following NT patterns? London church elder Beresford Job comments, “We must make sure that we don’t let biblically permitted deviations from the norm, because of extenuating circumstances, actually become the norm. Let me illustrate this from baptism. Biblical baptism, like apostolic tradition for the way a church functions, is a command from the Lord. And although it’s actual mode isn’t anywhere commanded we know from the way the early church did it (apostolic tradition again) that it was to be done upon conversion, with no time lapse, and in water. (The immersion bit I take for granted as that’s what the actual word baptism means as a transliteration from the Greek baptizo.) Now we would be justly concerned at the notion that we are free to make changes to this whether concerning who is to actually be baptized, it’s mode, or indeed it’s timing; and we are painfully aware it has been massacred in each of these ways by believers for far too long. So our position would be that, in order for it to be based on the teaching of the Word of God, a person should be baptized upon profession of faith in Jesus, as soon as possible, and by full immersion in water. But let us now address the scenario whereby a bedridden quadriplegic comes to the Lord. Baptism, as biblically commanded and exampled in the New Testament for us, is clearly out of the question in such an instance, yet it is quite clear too that to come up with another more appropriate mode of baptism for such a one would not only be okay, it would be positively incumbent upon us. And in such a circumstance one could technically be out of step with the teaching of scripture, yet be fully submitted to it’s intention and spirit. But here is the point: none of what I have just said could possibly apply to the conversion of an able bodied person – the normal mode would have to be employed in order for things to be as the Lord wants. And neither could anyone argue for the baptism of someone who hadn’t responded to Jesus by faith, because that would attack the very nature of baptism, even though it’s external mode was still in accordance with the scripture.”

Church renewal advocate Darryl Erkel has pointed out the “danger of making distinctive NT patterns a form of legalism wherein we begin to look down or distance ourselves from our fellow brothers because they don’t quite do it the way that we think it should be done. We should always be careful to not give the impression to others that their church is false or that God can’t use their church because they’re not following Apostolic patterns as closely as we are. That is nothing but sheer pride! On the other hand, we ought to look for opportunities to respectfully and tactfully demonstrate that there is a better way — one which is more conducive to the spiritual growth of God’s people — for the function of the New Testament church is best carried out by the New Testament form of the church!”

Remember the earlier quote by Professors Fee and Stuart that what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way? In the second edition of their book, they changed their statement somewhat. It now reads, “unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way — unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way” (p. 106, second edition). We have attempted to demonstrate that the apostles did indeed design for churches to follow the patterns they laid down for church order.


1. God directs by pattern (tradition) as well as by precept (teaching).

2. The patterns in the NT are to be binding on the church in all ages and places.

3. Apostolic tradition is equal in authority to apostolic teaching.

4. The bare essentials (the irreducible minimum) of a NT church are: a commitment to apostolic tradition, celebration of the Lord’s Supper weekly as a full meal, interactive church meetings, church government by consensus (elder led, not elder ruled), and home-based, home-sized churches.

5. Without Christ at the center of things, the patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell. We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine. Both have their place. Either one without the other is problematic.

6. Following NT patterns does not mean blindly attempting to recreated Roman culture (like wearing togas, writing on parchment, lighting by oil lamps, etc.). The issue here is church practice. There should be obvious reasons behind the practices being followed.

7. Following NT patterns does not mean every church will be exactly alike (cookie cutter). Certainly there will be similarity in the basics (see summary # 4 above), but there is also freedom within the boundaries of the form.

8. Biblical house churches are not nearly so program and building oriented as many modern churches are. Because of this, some have mistakenly concluded that we are against organization. Faithfulness to our Lord and His Word necessarily results in a biblical house church that follows God’s complete pattern for His church. We are not to be institutional, but we are to be organized. Following the traditions laid down by the apostles means that house churches are to have definite leaders, regular and orderly meetings, active church discipline, and weekly Lord’s Supper meals.

Many churches today are firmly entrenched in traditions developed after the close of the apostolic era (often traditions date only from the nineteenth century). Although sympathetic with apostolic tradition, the preference is usually given to more recently developed traditions. In such cases, are we not guilty of nullifying the inspired tradition of the apostles for the sake of our own tradition (Mt 15)? Jude 3 states that the faith was “once for all entrusted to the saints.” What authorization have we to tamper with it?