Over the past sixty years, the Protestant church in China has grown exponentially. Most of this increase in numbers has taken place in what are often called “house churches,” which take their name from the practice of meeting in believers’ homes. Even today, when many of these congregations meet in large buildings, they are often called “house churches.” Therefore, there is a debate going on about whether it is better to meet in smaller groups in the homes of believers, or to join together as a large group in a larger venue. In the West, also, a growing house church movement has begun to challenge the traditional church-based model of doing church, and millions are meeting in homes instead. The purpose of this paper is to examine the question of the proper place for Christians to meet together for their main gathering, which is usually on the Lord’s Day. We shall base our study as much as possible on the Bible, though we shall also consider other factors, such as historical developments and current conditions.
Biblical basis for house churches
The word “church” First, we know that the meaning of the word translated “church” (ekklesia in Greek) is “public assembly.” In classical Greek, it was applied to the town meeting of citizens to discuss issues and make decisions. In the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament it was used to denote the gathering of God’s people to hear his word and respond, sometimes in worship. When we turn to the New Testament, the word refers either to that so-called “universal church” – that is, the Body of Christ, composed of all believers, living or departed – or to the local assembly of believers in a particular place, or to all the believers of a city. It does not refer to a building, as “church” can in English, and as it is often used in Chinese. Since the root of ekklesia is composed of the preposition ek, meaning “from,” or “out of,” and “kaleo,” meaning “call,” some people think that the word in the New Testament should be explained as those who are called out of the world to belong to God. Though that is certainly true of all true members of the church, it may not be the proper way to understand this word. We should not make too much of the roots of words in Greek, lest we “over-interpret” what is not meant by the author. At any rate, we do know that ekklesia does refer to all who have put their faith in Christ; have been born again; have received the Holy Spirit; and have been made members of the Body of Christ. It also refers to the assembly of such people in any locality; and it may refer to this group seen as an organization. Background of the idea of “church” For New Testament background of the concept, or even the reality, of “church,” we must look to Jesus’ calling of the original disciples, whom he named apostles. They were all adults, and they were intended to “be with him, and to make him known.” They followed him wherever he went; listened to his teaching; obeyed his commands; participated in his ministry of preaching, healing, and exorcism; and formed a small community in which God’s presence was known. These Twelve were initially selected from a larger group of disciples, who may have numbered in the hundreds, and included faithful women, who followed Jesus and ministered to him. To these people, Jesus gave such teachings as the Sermon on the Mount and much of the rest of the instruction from him that is recorded in the Gospels, as well as some sayings found in Acts. Since that Ascension of Jesus, the preaching and writing of the Apostles, as well as some of their experience during Jesus’ time on earth, have been considered normative for all Christian believers. Their community life, to some extent at least, forms a pattern for the life of the church today. Of course, there are some essential differences. One is the physical presence of Jesus; the other is the great divide created by Pentecost, when the risen Lord poured out his Holy Spirit upon his apostles, about two hundred disciples, and then more than three thousand who believed that day. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit sets believers apart from everyone else; it gives them new birth; makes them “saints” in God’s eyes; guarantees their future inheritance; guides them; creates a new “man,” composed of people of all types of national, cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds; and works in their midst to create a community of love and power that testifies to the risen Lord Jesus as Savior. Thus, though there is some continuity between the “assembly” of Old Testament times, and even more with the little band of disciples who clustered around Jesus during his earthly ministry, there is a great distinction between what went before Pentecost and what came afterwards. This distinction is essential for our understanding of the true nature of “church” today, and has implications for where Christians should meet and what they should do when they are together. Jesus’ teachings about “church” in the Gospels and Acts Without trying to be exhaustive, we may highlight a few actions and attitudes which Jesus said would, or should, characterize his true followers. They include a willingness to leave all and follow him; to forsake the pursuit of wealth and comfort; to be ready for rejection, even persecution; to put their hope in the blessings to come. Some passages imply that true disciples will practice a kind of generosity that will border upon voluntary poverty. Certainly, he called them to a pilgrim lifestyle, rather than a secure abode on earth. Furthermore, he clearly spoke of a relationship with God that was not confined to holy places. Much of his teaching took place outdoors; he told the Samaritan woman that true worshipers would not worship in a building but in Spirit and in truth; at the end of his career, he vividly prophesied the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Earlier, he had compared his own body to the Temple, and his repeated references (in John’s Gospel) to the Father being ‘in” him and he “in” the Father, and – later – both , through the Spirit, “in” the disciples,” and they “in” God – all these point to a sense of “dwelling” that has nothing to do with presence in a building. As for explicit teachings about “ekklesia,” what we have is especially telling. Matthew 18:17 instructs Jesus’ disciples in how to deal with offences between them. What these commands assume is a fellowship small enough in which such a process can take place. That is, they assume that people know each other well enough. Jesus is also here telling people who have relationships close enough to produce conflict how these conflicts can be contained. At the end of each Gospel and at the beginning Acts, Jesus gives his disciples what has been called the Great Commission. When a similar concept is stated five times in the Bible, and in climactic positions, we know that it holds great significance for God. No one with any sensitivity to literary structure or to the words themselves can deny that import of Jesus’ commands and promises that his disciples should go into all the world and preach the Gospel and would be witnesses of him to the uttermost parts of the earth. Clearly, this “last command” must stand near the heart of any definition of the church. At the very least, we must agree with those who speak of the “missionary nature of the church,” and see the imperative of taking the Gospel around the world as central to our being and mission. Furthermore, in two of those passages,8 the verb “go” demonstrates that Jesus intends for his church – all of it – to be a “going” group, a pilgrim people, constantly on the more. Like Israel in the wilderness, we are to follow the pillar of God by day and by night, moving when it moves, more sensitive to the dwelling of God in our midst than to our dwelling in a particular place, either geographical or structural. Do we not have more than a hint here of the problematic nature of “rooting” and “grounding” the church in a physical building? At the very least, do we not have more than a vague hint of the priorities of the church, both in the deployment of personnel and in the disbursements of financial resources? To put it another way, can we find any meaning in a “Commission” in which the absence of any command to erect permanent structures is a glaring “omission”? The church in Acts We know a great deal about the practice of the early church from several famous passages in the Act of the Apostles. Though most interpreters insist that narrative portions of Scripture have no normative value for believers today, that is a very difficult position to maintain, for several reasons. To name just one: In various places, we are specifically commanded to imitate the example of those who have gone before us, including, of course, Jesus, but also Paul, as well as those who set a pattern of living by faith (Hebrews 11, etc.). Furthermore, much of the case for gathering on the first day of the week comes from narrative passages.9 If that is the case, and in the light of the obvious didactic role of many Old Testament narratives, how can we assume that the descriptive passages in Acts have no relevance for us today? In that light, let us consider some key elements of early Christian conduct. We see that the first believers in Jerusalem met often in the Temple. That fact is often taken to be an endorsement for gathering in large church buildings, but is it? Would that sort of reasoning also imply that Christians should take part in animal sacrifice, since that went on daily in the Temple? Or that we should have a caste of priests? Most Christians reject such notions, and rightly so. We should note that the believers went to the Temple to pray and that the apostles preached there to large crowds. Perhaps Luke means for us to copy their example in church buildings today. But perhaps it is not that simple. Why say that? Because, first of all, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we do not see Christians meeting in large buildings, though they must certainly, at least in some places, have possessed the numbers and the financial means to do so. Secondly, their Jerusalem gatherings would have been outside, not in the sanctuary areas, where none but priests were allowed. Specifically, they congregated – if, indeed, that is the right word - in the portico areas. More importantly, however, various narratives in Acts tell us clearly that they gathered in homes, where they ate and prayed together. As we shall see, so do Paul’s epistles, regularly and without exception. Surely, this must mean something. In their homes, they broke bread together, prayed together, met together for teaching. True, Paul lectured for two years in the hall of Tyrannus, and the post-Resurrection disciples met in a large upper room that may have been rented, so we cannot say that believers used only private homes for all purposes. Acts 11:16 could support the use of large church buildings: “So it was that for a whole year they [e.g., Barnabas and Paul] assembled with the church and taught a great many people.” Does the singular use of “church” mean that all the believers in Antioch gathered in one place weekly to hear apostolic instruction? Or does it mean that Paul and Barnabas made the rounds of house churches belonging to the “church” in Antioch, as the original apostles did in Jerusalem, where there is also said to have been only one “church,” even though we know they met in individual homes? Paul’s letters First, and most obvious, in the letters of Paul we find mention of several churches that are meeting in the homes of individual believers. Nowhere does he speak of a church that holds worship or fellowship meetings in a public place, much less a building purchased or erected for that purpose. Equally telling is the absence of any instruction to acquire or use such a property, though he does write a great deal, in some detail, about church organization, what to do when they get together, and how to resolve problems. If the apostle believed that having a building specifically dedicated to church functions was essential or even desirable, would he not have made that plain? When we come to Paul’s instructions about what we might call “church meetings,” one feature must strike us powerfully: they all assume a group small enough for a lot of interaction. The key passage is, of course, 1 Corinthians 12-14, especially 14:26-40, where he describes (or prescribes) a meeting in which a number of people can, at least, teach and “prophesy,” and perhaps also speak with tongues and then interpret the tongues. Apparently, questions could be asked, though not by women, so there must have been freedom for dialogue and interchange. Different people bring a teaching, a prophecy, a song, etc., to share with the others. Someone may speak in tongues, if he knows an interpreter will be there. Question: In a large congregation, say with a hundred people, how do you know whether there is anyone there who can interpret tongues? In a large room, how can the sharing of each (man) be heard? Today you might use a microphone, of course, but clearly, in a time when large gatherings would have been possible, Paul presupposes a small, intimate assembly, where prophecies can be uttered and then evaluated, questions asked and answered, and other dialogue take place. Of course, a “teaching” could occupy a fairly long period of time, rather like our sermon; we know that from Paul’s extended discourse in Troas, for example. That would require someone with the gift of teaching, and much Bible knowledge to ensure that it would be edifying and “orthodox.” Most scholars believe that what we call the Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or the Eucharist) was observed at each gathering of the “church,” and that a fellowship meal (agape feast) was also enjoyed, perhaps before the Lord’s Supper, perhaps afterwards. Paul’s letters often conclude with greetings to and from individual believers. How different from our formal worship services! How unsuited are our church buildings for such a meeting! But how natural would all of this seem in someone’s home!
Organizationally, these churches were led by elders and deacons. In every “city,” there would have been several of them – perhaps what might be called a “presbytery” today. Each house church had more than one elder, for Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in every church.” There is the possibility, however, that each house church was led, at least administratively, by the owner of the house. In passing, we should note that if modern scholarship has demonstrated anything beyond a doubt, it is that “elder” is the equivalent of “pastor” and of “overseer [bishop].” In other words, leadership of the church in every “place” was plural, not singular. The monarchical bishop, who was roughly equivalent to our senior pastor (at least in large congregations) or district superintendent or bishop, was a later development with little or no biblical warrant. Yes, Titus was to appoint elders, but was he a resident “bishop,” or an apostolic legate? And if he was a bishop, did he have authority to rule over the churches in which he had appointed elders? That is not at all clear, and seems not to have been the case. The only single man with authority to dictate to a church seems to have been the Apostle Paul, as he makes clear to the Corinthians. Even then, he does all he can to issue exhortations, not commands. On the congregational level, it would seem that there could have easily been two or three or four elders in each house church, along with a similar number of deacons. At any rate, they are always spoken of in the plural, which means that, whatever their jurisdiction – a single house church, or a group of them in a “place” – they exercised their rule as a group; no one man stood at the top as “head.” Other epistles paint, though with less detail, a similar picture. In short: The only sort of “building” used for church meetings in the New Testament is the home of a believer. 
A Theology for House Churches
With these minimal biblical principles in place, can we construct something like a theology for house churches? To begin with, Christ is the head of the church, as Paul repeatedly emphasizes. Not a pastor, not a bishop, certainly not a pope. We have no biblical warrant for a “senior pastor” who combines teaching and ruling functions in one man. Always, believers are told to look to Christ, not to a man; to seek life from the Lord, not from a pastor or bishop. Second, the New Testament emphasizes what would later be called the “priesthood of all believers.” Christians, as a whole, are a “nation of priests,” who “offer up spiritual sacrifices.” These consist of words (to God and to other believers) and works (of charity towards men). Changing the metaphor, each believer is a member of the Body of Christ, with an essential part to play in the growth of the whole body. In this sense, there are no “clergy” and no “laymen.” Third, the “temple” in which this “priesthood” serves is not a physical building, but the people of God. Fourth, even though there are certainly leaders, some of them gifted teachers, authority and rule are vested in a group, not an individual, as we have seen. For example, the repeated plurals in Hebrews 13:7, 17 urge submission to “those who rule over [lead] you.” This accords both with the truth that Christ is the sole head of the church and with the realization that we are all not only finite, but also fallen, and thus all too prone to err and to mislead others. Can we detect a return to the desire of the Israelites for a king in the common desire for churches to be ruled by a senior pastor? These elders should have authority over only their own house church, not over a whole group or “network” of them, for which there is no evidence in the New Testament. An awareness of the lingering effects of the “old man” and the “flesh” upon Christians, even very mature ones, should make us wary of any system of church government that invests too much power in one man, and it would point towards a polity not only of plural elders but also of independent “churches” that were small – house churches. Because the goal of the church is to lead people into a greater love of God and our neighbor, elders and deacons are to be chosen with spiritual and moral qualities primarily in view. Business success, social prominence, wealth, and academic degrees are irrelevant. Not only for the corporate growth of the church, but for individual spiritual progress, frequent interaction with a few believers is essential. That is why there are so many “one another” passages in the New Testament; they assume that we are close enough to each other to notice mistakes and speak lovingly into each others’ lives. Moreover, does not the regular use of “family” terms, such as “brothers” and “sisters,” point towards a group that is small enough to be considered rather like an extended family? If the church called the “house(hold) of God,” does this not point towards a kind of life that would take place in a real house, a home? Furthermore, these people are on the move. They are a pilgrim nation. This world is not their home. Though they may, and usually do, settle down in one place and meet together, they are ready to be scattered by persecution. As a congregation, they are not tied to a large and expensive structure. Though they are not “of” the world, they are definitely “in” it, as salt and light. Evangelism takes place as non-believers observe their good works, ask questions, and are pointed to the source of the hope that is within them. Some men, gifted as evangelists, speak publicly, either in the “church” meetings or in a public place. “Church” gatherings are meant for the edification of believers, mostly, but others may, and should, be present; as prophecies are uttered, they fall down before the living God, their hearts pierced by his truth. But the purpose of the meeting is not to please them, but to glorify God and to enable the advance of disciples in grace and truth.
Roles of women
Until about one hundred years ago, the universal church held that the New Testament teaches that only men are to serve as elders and deacons or to preach and teach publicly. This traditional view has been vigorously challenged in modern times, but it seems to this writer that the arguments against the traditional view lack sufficient exegetical validity.
Both negatively and positively, the witness of history points towards the house church as the best form of church organization. Negatively, church history is mostly the story of the usurpation of power by leaders of either large congregations or groupings of congregations. The Roman Catholic Church furnishes perhaps the worst example, but Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, not to mention independent Chinese churches, are not without examples. It seems obvious that power, prestige, and access to possessions that go with leadership over a large number of Christians either attracts men (and women) with the wrong motives, or corrupts those who started well but cannot withstand the temptations involved. Furthermore, large congregations are usually notorious for the low level of involvement by most of the people who attend the Sunday meetings, as well as for their lukewarm spiritual condition. Large, expensive, and mostly empty church buildings litter the landscape of Europe, and are beginning to become common in the United States as well. Building projects frequently cause division; often lead to the resignation of the senior pastor; and always absorb vast amounts of money that could be otherwise used. On the other hand, the Wesleyan “classes” and modern movements in China and elsewhere demonstrate the power and dynamism of small groups meeting in homes. The Chinese house churches furnish ample proof that these congregations, if properly led, can both produce disciples of deep maturity and commitment, and evangelistic outreach that is very wide. These are historical realities that should cause us to ask some basic questions.
Organization Plurality of leadership in a house church would help to prevent dominance by one strong personality, and it would also restrict the ambitions of those who might otherwise rule over a large “network” of churches or a large congregation meeting in a big building. The fall of prominent leaders into sin, bringing the entire Christian movement into disrepute, would be greatly minimized if each leader were limited to one house church, the rule of which he had to share with others. House churches would have less money at their disposal, and thus offer fewer temptations to dishonest leaders. There would be less power and prestige, and thus less attraction for men who lust after these things to acquire positions of leadership. Sadly, some good men start out well, but are corrupted by the heady effects of prominence, prestige, and power when they become leaders of large congregations or even denominations. Such eminence often proves too much for otherwise faithful men, and tempts them into grave lapses that would be much less likely to overtake members of a house church leadership team. Relationship to the government In China, the government has resisted and restricted non-registered congregations from meeting in large numbers. It depends on the place of course; some cities like Wenzhou have many unregistered congregations using large buildings. In Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, however, this has been more difficult. On the other hand, if a group does exceed about twenty in number, the police usually let them meet without hindrance. Is this not another reason to gather in homes and in small numbers? In the United States, anti-Christian sentiment is growing, and governments are looking for ways to restrict church activity. It is highly likely that local governments, which do not have enough money, to require large churches to pay taxes on their land. The Federal Government could easily cause Evangelical congregations difficulty by forcing them to hire practicing homosexuals, or penalizing pastors who say that abortion or homosexual activity are sinful. In other words, churches with large buildings may soon face political trouble in this country as well. Edification For Christians to exercise their gifts, both of speaking and of practical service, house churches are almost required. Everyone familiar with the churches we have today knows that most of the work is done by a few people, and every effort to mobilize the entire congregation seems to fail. In a small house church, gifts would be more easily discerned, the need for each person to play a part would be more obvious, opportunities to participate would be more numerous, and lack of involvement would be more embarrassing and hard to explain. We have seen why mutual interaction is central to the New Testament concept of the church as a means of individual and corporate spiritual growth. Regular meetings in a home would facilitate this sort of Christian sharing much more than attendance at, and even membership in, of a congregation numbering more than a twenty or so people. Equipping of leaders/ministers The residential, academic theological seminary was created to prepare men (and, recently, women) to serve in congregations that meet in a building and expect one person to do most of the preaching as well as leading. The concrete, visible nature of the church structure matches the concrete, visible nature of the diploma given to graduates of a seminary. This system has several drawbacks, however. For one, like church buildings, it is very expensive. Then, it focuses so much on academic matters that it cannot adequately train people for actual ministry. At least in the past, young men (and women) with little experience of life were thrust upon congregations composed of people mostly older than themselves, armed with only a limited body of knowledge and an academic degree, but not much actual knowledge of how to do ministry. In a house church, you do not need a man who can deliver elegant and eloquent sermons from a distant pulpit; all you really need is someone who can lead a good Bible study. Of course, more gifted teachers can be trained further in all the “theological” disciplines, and teach in home meetings or perhaps special gatherings for teaching (as Paul did). They can also train the less gifted or less knowledgeable men in the knowledge and skills they need to have in order to lead a house church, showing by their own teaching how it can be done. As all students of pedagogy known, we learn best when we feel the need for some knowledge and when we can put what we have learned to use as soon as possible. “Learning by doing” has proven itself over the millennia, as the apprenticeship method has demonstrated. Modern medical education employs as much of this method as it can to train physicians. Why cannot a group of house churches, loosely organized for larger projects (but with no one man or group “in charge”), support a few men as teachers, and use them to teach other teachers, even as the house church leaders remain in their jobs and exercise ministry in their small congregations? Older women would also be trained, in order to instruct younger women. These teachers, however, would also have to be active in house church ministry, serving on a team of elders in a particular congregation, so that their teaching remains practical and not overly academic. They can be given time to do research and to write, but their “job” would be to serve the churches in which they teach. This system of preparing people for ministry would be less expensive; it would discourage merely “academic” theology, which has been the bane of the church for centuries; it would meet the immediate needs of church leaders, rather than taking three years to graduate a student of questionable ability to serve in an actual church; it would be as expandable as the house church movement itself. A further advantage is that it would prevent young men from being thrust into positions for which they are not ready, just because they happen to have some sort of diploma. There is no need to prevent people from going on for advanced degrees in theology, but they could take a longer time; keep their church ministries; and get a degree from a distance-education institution rather than uprooting their families from ministry for years and years of expensive education at a residential school. The usual objections to this sort of theological education are two: First, it does not guarantee that the students will learn Greek or Hebrew. As a former Greek teacher, I can tell you that the current system doesn’t work, either! We know that 95% of all seminary graduates never use the original languages in their preaching preparation. What a huge waste! On the other hand, many people have learned these languages in other ways, simply because they were motivated. There is nothing to prevent house churches from requiring that their main teachers learn the original languages over a period of time. I know a doctor in Taiwan who became proficient in both Hebrew and Greek while continuing in his medical practice. The other objection is like unto it: There is no guarantee that non-accredited programs will produce graduates with the requisite knowledge. But why not? Our current system has not been a conspicuous success, since the system requires you to cram a lot of information into your brain in order to pass, rather than giving you time to absorb information as you actually use it in ministry. There is nothing to keep house churches from setting standards that they require their leaders to meet, over a period of years. Evangelism Who can doubt that seekers will find a home meeting, with its natural setting and intimate atmosphere, more “friendly” than a building totally separated from their ordinary life, with its formal worship, set vocabulary, and specialist minister? In many places, church growth occurs mostly by the addition of friends and relatives of Christians. As unbelieving relatives observe Christians loving each other and worshiping God in the home, they can get to know them well and see how God changes lives. How much better this is than trying to get people to “come to church,” even for a special service that takes many hours to prepare and may not bear much lasting fruit? “Because they live together with other people within the social order and according to its rules and yet they live differently than the others, they become witnesses – through their words, their life, and their suffering.” Freed from the expenses of large buildings, house churches, or groups of them, can send out evangelists to new places, as well as foreign missionaries. They could also support widows, orphans, and others in the congregation who need assistance, thus providing testimony of their love. This sort of community care impressed the Romans, who said, “See, how these Christians love one another!” Small house churches can also sometimes meet in the homes of seekers, and thus bring the church to the world, rather than requiring the world to come to the church. As Gehring states, “Houses represented the architectural, social, personal, and economic foundations for Paul’s center-oriented, church-establishing mission as well as his supraregional outreach.”
Of course, these ideas are radical, at least to Christians used to building-based congregational life. We can expect opposition, perhaps even a furious response, from all those with a vested interest in the current system. To those who are responding viscerally, perhaps out of fear that they will lose their prestige, power, and position, I would only ask for patience and a willingness to bring all this before God in prayer, while searching the Scriptures to see if these things are true. True servants of God have nothing to lose by doing things according to the Bible, though transitions may be difficult. There are, however, legitimate questions that must be asked and answered. Some of them might be: Q. The advantage of meeting all together is that you only need one trained preacher. How will we supply the teaching needs of multiple meeting places? A. We have already seen how smaller meetings require a different sort of preaching/teaching. There is not much of a need for eloquence. Careful training over a number of years can produce men with the knowledge and skill to present God’s Word carefully. Furthermore, in a family-like setting, the presence of other elders and the opportunity to ask questions reduces the risk of one man leading people astray either through ignorance or inability. As we have also seen, especially gifted teachers can be equipped both to instruct larger groups at various times and also to train others to teach in home meetings. Q. China’s house churches are beset by many doctrinal errors, and numerous heretical cults have grown out of them. How do you prevent such a development? A. First, church meetings should feature the reading of large portions of Scripture, from the Old Testament and the New Testament, as is done in some liturgical churches, but seldom in evangelical independent congregations. Second, to maintain our connection with those who have gone before, the Apostles’ Creed should be regularly, perhaps three times a month, and the Nicene Creed (elucidating the doctrine of the Trinity) once a month. Third, leaders and members should be well trained in a major confession of faith, such as the Heidelberg Confession, Westminster Confession, or Savoy Declaration. The Lausanne Declaration could be studied every couple of years also, at least by the leaders. Fourth, house churches should use a standard hymnal, in order to draw upon the wealth of songs from throughout church history and to learn sound doctrine through poetry. Fifth, house churches should maintain contact with other orthodox Christian groups, through literature, Web sites, leaders’ retreats, and teaching conferences. Sixth, leaders and members should be trained in church history, in order to understand both the successes and the failures of previous generations. Seventh, used with variety and wisdom, liturgical texts from the historical churches can be employed in meetings. We should note that large denominations and large churches in our own time are not noted for holding to the “faith once delivered to the saints.”50 Size is no guarantee of biblical faithfulness. Q. How do you keep house churches from becoming ingrown, isolated, insular, narrow-minded? A. Occasional meetings with other like-minded house churches will bring exposure to other people and points of view. Itinerant teachers and preachers can bring news of happenings elsewhere. A regular, faithful presence in the world, coupled with a concern for the lost, will keep the non-Christian society before the minds of those in a home group. It’s really a matter of teaching and mindset. Q. How do you prevent one strong man from dominating a small house church? A. First, we have already noted that each group must be lead by a plurality of elders and deacons. Second, we should hold to the biblical standards for elders, which include not being self-willed or autocratic. Such men should not be allowed to lead. Finally, we might ask, How well has the church throughout the ages kept strong men from dominating large congregations? Q. Church buildings have long served as a focal point for Christian presence in the world. They announce the presence of believers in the neighborhood, and draw newcomers into the community of faith. What would happen if these were no longer available? A. Church buildings, especially large ones, announce the presence of people with power and the possession of property; they may also proclaim the desire of these people for social prominence, and attract those who might have something to gain from being seen in a beautiful building each week. They also give the impression – which sometimes accords with reality – that the presence of the church is limited to the visible architectural structure. Studies have shown that, with a few exceptions, people come to church because of the invitation of someone they know, not because they see an imposing structure. Home churches, on the other hand, would remind Christians that their presence should be like salt and light, permeating the entire society with the life and love of God in Christ, through the Spirit. As believers’ lives are transformed in small groups, they bear testimony to the love and power of God at home, work, school, and in the community as a whole. This sort of “presence” turned the Roman Empire upside down, and it has had a huge impact on modern China. Furthermore, as we have seen, Christians can meet in larger groups occasionally for teaching in a public place, perhaps a rented school or lecture-hall (like that of Tyrannus). Such a gathering would let the community know that there is a substantial number of believers in their area. Evangelists can preach in public places and guide inquirers to house churches. There is nothing to prevent Christians from writing books, composing songs, and “creating” other forms of public expression that bring the truth and beauty of God into the world. Let’s face it: Jesus declared unequivocally that a city set on a hill cannot be hidden from view. When the Spirit begins to work in house churches, creating a community of truth and love, the whole world will know. Q. Large churches are able to programs and services which small house churches could never afford. These include: sending cross-cultural missionaries and domestic evangelists and church planters; publication; theological training; specialists in music, youth, counseling, and family ministries; material help to the community, and others. How can these be continued if we restrict churches to homes? A. To the extent that these programs and services are valid (and some, such as large youth groups and age-segregated fellowships, have been criticized for a variety of reasons), they can be supported by groups of house churches who cooperate. These groups could have committees, led by a selection of elders and deacons from each church, which oversee the operation and financing of the ministries. Remember that all of these congregations would be freed from the enormous financial burden of building and maintain large structures, so that the funds available would actually be much greater than they are now. Of course, bureaucracy is a huge threat, so there should be a limit on the size of such cooperatives – perhaps the boundaries of a city, as hinted at in the New Testament, except for ad hoc or larger projects that involve churches from a wider area (like Paul’s collection for Jerusalem). Funds like this operate now, some with excellent oversight and significant impact. Since the possibilities for corruption and mismanagement increase with the distance from the local church, however, every effort must be take to keep the administration of cooperative works close to the community of local house churches. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” remains an axiom for Christians too, alas. Q. What should members and leaders of building-based congregations do if they believe that house churches are the only biblical way? A. Begin right now to draw up a plan for re-tooling all ministries, etc., within five years (at most; it could be three) to convert entirely to a house church system. Dissolve all current activities a year from now and build everything around home groups. There’s no need to fire most of the staff; they can serve the house churches on a rotating basis, and train house church leaders. Even the choir director can teach house church members how to sing! The musicians can unplug their equipment and help house churches worship, as well as train others. Help the pastor get rid of his “stained-glass voice” and come down among the people as a real man, willing to answer questions and enter into dialogue with his people. Q. What will we do with all the buildings we have now? A. I am not sure. They are a huge albatross around the neck of Christians. In some countries, such as the USA, they may soon be taxed out of existence, or forced to close their doors rather than submit to laws requiring them to marry practicing homosexuals. Maybe it would be good for them to sell the dinosaurs now, before they are forced to. Perhaps some of the current buildings could be converted into schools or offices or conference centers. If you can’t sell your building, then perhaps you can negotiate with the city to turn it into a shelter for the homeless, or a vocational training center, or a free medical clinic (if your church has physicians, they can serve there). Services provided to the city or county could reasonably require reimbursement, but of course then they would have to submit to some rules that might violate their conscience.
If we take the Bible as our sole authority for faith and practice, we have little reason to doubt that Christians should meet in homes, presided over a plurality of elders and deacons, with each member of the body serving as the Holy Spirit empowers and leads. Occasionally, a number of house church congregations can meet for teaching meetings; there will also, presumably, be public meetings for evangelism. It is true that a number of people have something to lose from following biblical norms: Preachers who love speaking to large crowds of attentive and perhaps adoring listeners each week. Senior pastors, bishops, and others who enjoy exercising authority over large groups of people. Elders who savor the prestige of being honored in a numerous congregation. Deacons and others who like having control over substantial sums of money. Church architects. Organists and choir directors (though there is nothing to prevent groups of house churches from employing a man to train and conduct choirs for special occasions). Makers of vestments, robes, golden crosses, tapestries, and other paraphernalia of formal worship. All those who prefer the distance and shallowness of relationships that large churches allow – nay, impose; hypocrites of all types generally. Not to mention reporters and critics who love to broadcast news of the latest mega-church pastor who has fallen into sin. On the other hand, many will also gain from meeting in homes: Overworked pastors will finally have many with whom to share the burden of work (which, by the way, will be much reduced). Elders and deacons will actually know the people whom they serve, and can care for them much better. Ordinary members will know each other, share with each other, pray for each other, love each other, in ways they never thought possible. Widows, orphans, and all who are needy will benefit from the resources that are freed up by the absence of mortgage and maintenance costs. The lonely will finally find a community. Those from broken homes, or whose family members have all moved away, will be enfolded into a new family. Unbelievers will feel welcomed into a warm and authentic fellowship. Imagine the possibilities. Let your mind dwell on the Scripture and on what it might look like in practice. And ask God to guide. G. Wright Doyle
- A recent Associated Press report claimed that 12 million American Christians now meet in homes rather than in church buildings. “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name,” The [Charlottesville, Virginia] Daily Progress, Saturday, July 24, 2010, page A7.
- Matthew 5:10-12; 6:19-24, 33; 8:19-22; 10:37-39; 13:44; 16:24-27; 19:21-29; Luke 9:23; 12:22-34;14:25-27; 16:19-31.
- Luke 6:20-21, 24-25, 30-31; 12:33.
- John 4:24.
- Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2.
- John 2:19-21; 15:4-7; 17:21, 23.
- Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8.
- Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15.
- Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1; Acts 20:7.
- Acts 2:46; 3:1, 11ff.
- Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20. Acts 8:3 might refer either to Paul’s entering individual homes of believers or breaking up church meetings in homes.
- Acts 20:20.
- Acts 19:9..
- Acts 5:42.
- Acts 8:1, 3; 11:22; 12:1.
- Acts 2:46.
- Romans 16:14; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2.
- Acts 20:7-12.
- E.g., Romans 16:3-16; 1 Corinthians 16:19-21; Colossians 4:7-18.
- E.g., Titus 1:5.
- Acts 14:23.
- Gehring, 226.
- See, for example, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 3:1 compared with 5:17 and Titus 1:5; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 912-914. For a thorough biblical and theological discussion of the church, see also Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology: Three Volumes in One (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 258-284.
- For the possibility that “overseer” is not the same as “elder,” see Gehring, 279-280.
- Grudem, Theology, 928-935.
- On the churches of the Johannine letters, see Gehring, 281-287.
- Gehring, 289.
- Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5: 23; Colossians 18; etc.
- 1 Peter 2:9-10; Hebrews 13:16.
- Romans 12:4-18; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:11-16.
- 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:21.
- Grudem, Theology, 925.
- James 3:1-12.
- Grudem, Theology, 926.
- Romans 7:18.
- 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9.
- For example: Romans 12:5, 10; 14:13, 19; 15:7, 14; 16:16; 1 Corinthians 11:33; Galatians 5:13, 15, 26; Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:18; 5:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Hebrews 10:24; James 5:16; 1 Peter 4:9; 5:5;1 John 1:7
- 1 Timothy 3:15.
- John 17:11, 14; Matthew 5:13-16.
- Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 3:15-16.
- Ephesians 4:11; Acts 8:26-40 (Philip).
- 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.
- 1 Corinthians 14:25; 1 Peter 4:11.
- Grudem, Theology, 937-944. See also Piper, John, and Grudem, Wayne, editors. Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) and James E. Bordwine, The Pauline Doctrine of Male Headship: The Apostle Versus Biblical Feminists (Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1996).
- For a different view see, for example, Gehring, 210-224.
- For example, Brian Moynihan’s The Faith: A History of Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 2002) chronicles the sad story of the persistent, even regular, abuse of power and position that has marred the “church” from the second century until now.
- Titus 2:3-5.
- Goppelt, Apostolische und nachapostolishe Zeit, (Apostolic and Post-Apostolok Times. Translated by R.A. Guelich), 60-61, quoted in Gehring, 228.
- Gehring, 226.
- Jude 3
Gehring, Roger W. House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004. Moynihan, Brian. The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Zdero, Rad. “The Apostolic Strategy of House Churches for Mission Today,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 2011, Vol. 47, NO.3, 346-353. His books include The Global House Church Movement. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2004, and Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2007. http://www.site.house2house.com/about-us/welcome http://housechurch.org/basics/index.html