The Case for House Church
If our theology of church is grounded in the cross, our experience of church is grounded in the love engendered by that cross. The Scriptures nowhere bear this out as explicitly as in John's first epistle:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18, NIV).
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10,11, NIV).
This is also a feature of Paul's ethical exhortations (cf. Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11). It is by participating in Christ's sacrificial death that we become part of God's new creation (cf. Rom. 6:1-14; 2 Cor. 5:14-21). When we give of ourselves - when we share our gifts in service (ministry) to one another - that's when we experience the fullness of life that God intended for us.
A Theological Foundation concluded that the house church best facilitates that mutual ministry. What is it about house church that can unleash the power of Christian fellowship? As indicated in the article What is a House Church?, no one denies that the earliest Christians met in houses. The book of Acts regularly describes Christian assemblies taking place in peoples' homes (Acts 2:42; 5:42; 20:20). Church meetings are recorded in the homes of John's mother (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Aquilla and Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Gaius (Rom. 16:23), Nympha (Col. 4:15), and Philemon (Philem. 2). But why?
Some argue that the basis of house church is apostolic mandate. This is the hermeneutic of the New Testament Restoration Foundation: "In summary, if there is a direct command in the N[ew] T[estament], we must follow it. If there is a definite church pattern, we should follow it."Reference1 What sort of church patterns do they have in mind? Not reading by oil lamps and donning togas, Steve Atkerson explains, but the early Christians' "religious customs, and especially those that went against their culture."Reference2 Eric Svendsen of NTRN writes, "It seems best to say (as we do) that it is the distinctive practices of the early church that are normative for today. This would include those things that have to be seen as church customs and not culturally conditioned practices." Atkerson and Svendsen do not overlook other arguments, such as "the theology behind each practice," but the distinctiveness of early church custom is "the foundation upon which [they] will build [their] hermeneutic." Reference3
However, this approach seems deficient on at least two counts. First, the practice of meeting in homes was not unique to early Christians. Numerous Hellenistic private cults and social associations also met in homes.Reference4 If anything, the Church's evolution from a body of people to a building has its parallel in the Jewish synagogue.Reference5 Initially the word "synagogue" or "gathering" referred to the Jews who met together, then later to the buildings in which they met. The first synagogue buildings were renovated homes which had been dedicated for the purpose. Similarly, the "church" or "called out ones" met originally in the intimate settings of the members' homes. By the third century, houses were being donated as "churches" to accommodate the growing congregations. This can be seen from the excavation of a house-turned-church building at Dura-Europos and in the earliest literary description of a house being consecrated as a "church" (Recognitions, X.71). Considering the not-so-unique character and development of the form of the house church, we would do better to search somewhere besides apostolic precedent.
The second problem with NTRN's approach is that it runs the risk of seeking the form without the substance, of placing the emphasis on the wrong point. A church can meet in the home and not exercise the mutual ministry of the entire body, and a church can meet in a community facility and encourage mutual ministry well. What is it, then, that makes a house church, and why should the house church experience be sought?
The Descriptive Task
If the house church is an expression of a relationship-based Christianity, if it empowers each member to minister, if it reflects the power and the fruit of the Spirit, then perhaps the "house" aspect of house church is more of a descriptor than a definition, more a symptom than a cause. This is another way of saying that "function defines form." House churches meet in homes because that reflects their character as spiritual families.
Of course there is a symbiotic relationship between the form and the function. The one reflects the other. As early Christian congregations grew and monarchial bishops began to emerge, the church began to develop into more of an organization than an organism (the spiritual body of Christ). When it was no longer feasible to fellowship around the dinner table, the eucharist was separated from the Lord's Supper and the latter was discarded. The mass continued but the table-fellowship waned and the church grew more impersonal. The priesthood of all believers fell by the wayside as paid professionals emerged. (See The Rise of the Clergy.) And the institutional form, once established, perpetuated the institution's unhealthy functions. The contemporary form of most institutionalized churches reflects this reality, whereas the contemporary form of most house churches reflects a different one. House churches, comprised as they are of small groups of committed Christians, tend to be more real, more sensitive, better prepared to minister to members' needs and empower the members themselves to ministry.
The house church, we believe, very well facilitates the type of body life described by Paul. This is the basis of our hermeneutic. We believe it is important to come at it from this direction, not only because apostolic direction is lacking in this area, but also because it discourages dogmatism. Some house church proponents are tempted to accuse institutional churches of idolatry because they meet in temples made of stone. Yet God did not shut us out when we were part of the institutional church, did He? Much inspired ministry happens in the institutional church and in every denominational movement. Far be it from us to shut up God in our little ecclesiological box and pontificate about where He may minister and where He may not!
Furthermore, most professional pastors and priests in the churches are really sincere about their ministries. They are good men and women who want to serve the body of Christ. True, some of them are spiritual tyrants; some of them are seeking leadership in the church because they want power. But most are not that way. If anything, our concern should be to demonstrate to those pastors that the house church is a powerful way to unleash the ministry potential of the congregation and relieve the heavy burden of "the clergy." (And we are not just talking about auxiliary "cell groups.") The "burnout" rate of professional clergy is phenomenal in every Christian tradition. And no wonder! When the body is inhibited from exercising its own priesthood - when one person is given the task of leading, preaching, teaching, evangelizing, counseling, and organizing - when one person is expected to do all the ministry in the church - then there is a terrible imbalance of responsibility.
The articles in these open house church pages are designed to address the different facets of this house church experience.
Steve Atkerson, Toward a House Church Theology (Atlanta, Georgia: New Testament Restoration Foundation), 1996, p. 65.