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House Churches

 

Here are some reasons to reconsider house churches. 

 

living-roomI was part of a house church in a city in Arizona. For over three years I helped out, which looking back, wasn’t much. We had Sunday services, a prayer meeting during the week, reached out to neighbors and Marines at the base nearby, and discussed all things theology and church.

We also ate a lot of meals together! The core group was a handful of families, several of whom had moved to start the church. My wife and I moved 3,000 miles while she was pregnant with our first child, and I’m embarrassed to admit I had no job prospects in the area. We were totally on board, both feet in!

pot-luckOver twenty years later the church still meets, something almost unheard of in the house church movement. After a few years of meeting in homes it moved into a funeral home and now meets, just a few folks, at a Howard Johnson banquet room. But they retain their home church ethos by preferring anonymity. In spite of their longevity, you won’t find a web site or much of anything else letting other folks know about them.

That is, after all, part of the house church mystique. Most are a repudiation of the crass and shameless self-promotion of all too many institutional churches. For people burned-out on institutional hypocrisy, church at someone’s home, or even a HoJo’s, is really attractive.

Another part of the attractiveness is the sense of freedom in the house church movement. They aren’t about fitting into a pre-existing program but about relationships. Because they are intentionally casual they feel natural and attract folks looking to escape from the shallow Sunday-hype of entertainment Churchianity for some real and relational Christianity.

water-handsBut, they are hard to sustain. House churches lose by what makes them attractive: almost everybody who easily joins a house church also easily leaves soon after. As one house church expert said, “most house churches survive from 6 months to two years.” Like traffic round-a-bouts, every entrance is also an exit.

Anyone who has been around them a while can tell you – they are highly fluid. The fact is, joining and leaving a house church is deemed to carry no real consequence, spiritually speaking or otherwise.

Like most house churches, the people in my old Arizona church are always happy to receive Christians into their small circle from the neighboring churches. But they are careful not to advertise the fact. Due to their view of what a church is supposed to be, they maintain a safe emotional distance (and distrust) from the over 130 institutional churches in that city.

However, the distrust goes beyond other organized, institutional, churches. They seldom, if ever, fellowship with the other house churches in the region, either.

Which brings up the interesting question, ‘how many house churches are there in this Arizona city?’ No one knows due to the reticence of house churches to reveal themselves, but based on the available research there should be about 470 house churches in this city alone.[1]At one time the research firm under George Barna estimated 33% of the US population was involved in a house church (even as he is). But in 2009 his revised research estimated 10% of the US population is in house churches, throwing suspicion on both estimates. Other research, suggesting an average of 20 people per house church, is used to calculate the figure used here. House church advocates will likely recognize that both numbers, 10% of all people, and 20 persons per house church, are likely high. Even if my old group desired to meet a different house church it would take over eight years of Sundays to meet each one. So can you blame them for being insular, even if a more accurate number is closer to 50 house churches in that region than 470?

Due to these factors I have always had an affinity for house churches and a sympathy with the people in them. I learned many important lessons that help me today as an elder in advising and counseling people. At the same time, I’ve had to unlearn some things as well.

It is that sympathy, and some very clear Scriptures, that impel me to write this article calling all who are in house churches to unify with the local body of Christ where each lives. I do this believing that even though most in the house church movement are sincere, they are seriously misled in a few areas I’ll detail below.

pioneersI also write this because house church advocates are not entirely responsible for their actions given the schism culture of Christianity, for they are in many cases doing what seems best to them, and their reading of Scripture, in a Christianity that honors those who strike out on their own. The majority of house church leaders come out of churches that are highly disobedient to Christ. True, some house church leaders are just irascible and disobedient, like those Paul describes in Titus 1:11. But those who sincerely love the Lord Jesus Christ, and are looking for spiritual integrity, typically come out of churches that abandoned critical elements of obedience to Christ and may be little more than clubs of religious entertainment, or self-promotion. The only problem is that being disobedient never corrects the problem of the original disobedience. It might even make things worse.

 

The Original (and Biblical!) House Church

corinthBut before we start looking at some of the reasons why the house church movement is flawed, let’s take a look at a house church that was obedient. Surprisingly, that church was Corinth.

The New Testament tells us that the entire Corinthian Church was meeting in the house of Gaius eight years after Paul started it. Greeting the church in Rome from his winter stay in Corinth, Paul wrote,

“Gaius, host to me and to the
whole church, greets you”
(Rom. 16:23).

That phrase, the whole church, is really something special. A few months earlier they had been ready to splinter into separate house churches. Remember this:

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you.”
(1 Cor. 1:10)

But no longer! The whole church met as one body in Gaius’ house. Paul’s ministry had rescued them from something he despised – schism. See, they were going in the direction of disobedience, but had come back together in the obedience of unity.

There is also something else wonderful here. When Paul wrote the letter to the church in Corinth, it was one church comprised of all the saved in the city:

“to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those
who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
(1 Cor. 1:2)

That’s the way Paul liked it – no other churches in Corinth with even one member of Christ’s body in it. He wanted the body of Christ in Corinth un-schismed, that is, every Christian in one church. And the one church in Corinth was a house church.

Now, roman-houseGaius must have had a large house for the whole church to meet there, but such houses weren’t rare. Later in the letter Paul mentions the whole church together in worship in one place (1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV) and “coming together as a church… in one place” (1 Cor. 11:18-20, NKJV).[2]The New King James version retains the words “at one place.” Those words are in all the original Greek manuscripts, thus reminding the original Corinthian readers that they were all to meet together as one church in one place, not in separated groups. Therefore, the original (and biblical) house church is one in which all the saints in a given region meet together for the worship of Jesus Christ.

 

Did Corinth Have
Multiple House Churches?

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Ted, you are so wrong. What about the house churches in Corinth? They prove there were multiple house churches in one city.” OK. You aren’t alone. A much more august group than us believed in multiple house churches within a single city:

“The Westminster Divines noted the house that existed along with city churches in the New Testament and argued from this evidence for a presbyterian system of government. The city church corresponded otthe presbytery, and the house church to the local congregation.”[3]Edmund Clooney, The Biblical Theology of the Church, p. 23, in “The Church in the Bible and the World,” ed. DA Carson

You see? If you believe the New Testament taught multiple churches in a city – then you are in some good company.

But if Paul was cool with house churches in the same city, as so many allege, then why did he command the one church in Corinth, “that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:2, 1:10)?[4]If you are answering to yourself that the one church of Corinth of 1:2 was the presbytery, they weren’t. The one church of Corinth that gathered in one place for Sunday worship (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV) was the whole body of Christ in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:27) People who used to worship Christ together but go off and worship Him apart from each other is division of the sharpest kind. Do the math. One one hand, you have a few “house church” texts, none of which were written to teach separate churches in a city, but were greetings to house fellowships as I show below, and on the other hand are multiple direct commands from Jesus Christ and his apostles written to genuine believers in the New Testament to remain together in one church unity, or else they sin and fall under judgment.

So I hope you’ll reason with me a bit here, because I want to try to convince you that those house groups were not distinct churches, but were rather house fellowships of the one church in the city.

It’s time to go deeper. Let me explain three reasons why it is a mistake to believe there were separate house churches in Corinth:

  1. First, the phrase “the church in the house,” which is found in four New Testament texts, is a misunderstanding of the original Greek text in all four cases;
  2. Second, the letters to Corinth give witness to but one church in the city (1 Cor. 1:2, 11:18, 2 Cor. 1:2);
  3. And third, the letter of 1 Corinthians was written to thwart and oppose the formation of multiple churches in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-13, 3:3-17, 10:16-17, 11:18-34, 14:23).

Let’s start with the first point.

 

1. The “House Churches”
were Home Fellowship Groups

reason

 

One common text is 1 Cor. 16:19:

“Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord,
with the church that is in their house.”

This is one of the four ‘house church’ texts that appear to imply “a church in a house;” the other three are Rom. 16:5, Col. 4:15, and Phm. 1:2. These four texts are often understood as separate house churches by those who advocate house churches, and are said to be distinct from other house churches in the same city.

But the phrase, “in their house” is simply an incorrect translation from the Greek. Let me give you a literal, albeit awkward, translation of 1 Cor. 16:19 from the original Greek: “Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the (distributed) part of the church at their house.” Pretty awkward.

This is due to the Greek preposition kata (κατὰ)  in 1 Cor. 16:19 (and used in all four “church-in-a-house” texts). English doesn’t handle the preposition kata well, so every once in a while we translate it “in” for the reading pleasure of the English reader.

But kata never, ever means “in.” “In” is a locative preposition; it locates something in a particular place. But kata is never locative. It comes from the Greek word for “down.”[5]The Koiné word for “down” is κάτω (cf. Mat. 4:6).  See A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 606.

What then does kata mean? Well, several things depending on certain Koiné features. For here, it’s important to know that quite often it has a verbal force of “distribution” (over 100 times in the New Testament). For example, when Jesus feeds the multitude, He has the disciples “distribute” the large crowd of people down into fifties and hundreds in Mark 6:40. The word for ‘distribute’ in the Greek is kata. Similarly Jesus teaches us to pray “Give us each (kata) day our daily bread” in Luke 11:3, that is, “give us a distribution of bread every day.” Kata often refers to a whole divided into parts.

rain-showersPerhaps analogies will help. Think of a single rain storm falling down from the sky, and it being distributed from place to place. Or a mother setting down plates of food for her family, and thus distributing the single meal for that night. Think of distributing the police officers from a single police force across a city, or distributing tax refunds to all who earned them from one government bank account.

OK, armed with that, how can we understand ‘the church ‘in’ Prisca and Aquila’s house? Well, we don’t have a preposition in English that functions distributively so we have to supply several words to get at the meaning. We could translate 1 Cor. 16:19 this way: “the “the part of the church at Aquila and Prisca’s house,” like I said above.

Unfortunately, English translations have led English readers to conclude there were separate house churches in the same NT cities, and from there they have extrapolated that separate churches in the same locale is God’s will. But actually, the Greek has a very simple and straightforward way of expressing the phrase, “in the house,” and does so many times in the NT. It’s en tei oikia (ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ). This “in the house” phrase occurs all over the NT and in every instance, it clearly and unambiguously means, “in the house” (Matt 5:15; 8:6; 9:10; 13:57; Mark 2:15; 6:4; 9:33; 14:3; Luke 5:29; 7:37; 17:31; John 8:35; 11:31; 14:2; and Acts 16:32).

So, if the four ‘house church’ texts literally meant “the church in the house,” the writers of the New Testament simply would have used the ‘in the church phrase and removed any ambiguity.

There is further evidence, and it has to do with ‘kata’ and ‘house.’ In Acts 2:46 you’ll see the phrase, “breaking bread from house to house.” The one action of breaking bread was performed ‘house to house.’ But the word ‘house’ is only used once in the Koiné, so how come it gets translated ‘house to house?’ Because the preposition (κατὰ) comes before the word ‘house’ and so ‘house’ must be translated distributively: ‘house to house.’

So too in Acts 5:42 and Acts 20:20 the apostles “continued teaching from (κατὰ) house to house.” That is, the single activity of teaching was done house to house. In Acts 8:3 Paul went house to house, persecuting the Christians of the one church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1).

In fact, every other time kata is used with the word “house” in the New Testament other than the our ‘house church’ texts, it always has the meaning of “distribution,” and is never translated “in.” Why not be consistent with the house church texts as well?

Therefore, I propose that the kata in the “house church” texts should not be understood as an entire church meeting in that house, but a meeting of some from the church in a house, akin to home fellowship groups that meet during the week for fellowship.[6]For further exegetical details on the distributive use of κατὰ and “house churches,” see Button and Van Rensburg, The House Churches in Corinth. (slow download)

 

2. and 3. Paul Despised the Idea
of Multiple Churches in Corinth

violationI’ll group together here the second and third errors of the house church movement I mentioned above since they are connected: the letters to Corinth give witness to but one church in the city, and the letter of 1 Corinthians was written to thwart and oppose the practice of multiple churches in Corinth. But first, a quick anecdote.

sin-of-divisionI was recently with a group of Eastern European pastors in Greece teaching them Philippians from the Greek New Testament, and asked them, “how long does it take for schism to happen.” These men, from seven different countries, all said the same thing: “five to eight years.” Sad, right?

Well, in the year 55 AD the church of Corinth was ready to schism, five years after its founding. If the Corinthian Christians had their way there was going to be a “Paul church,” a “Cephas church,” an “Apollos church” and a “Christ church” (1 Cor. 1:12). And make no mistake. Each would have called itself a “Christian Church,” and each would have had Christians in it.

deicideEach group seemed more than willing to cut up Jesus Christ into pieces in order to have their own church. But Paul was severely critical: ”has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). In theological terms the act is deicide: a killing of Christ all over again. It’s why in in Paul’s first letter of correction to the Corinthians, schisming into separate churches is the number one problem to be corrected.

Why is that? Not, as we might assume, because it separates those who belong together, though that is bad enough. The real reason is that the disunity of multiple churches in the same locale says Christ is schismed from the Father (cf. John 17:21, 23; Eph. 4:3-6). Schism is the sin of Christians doing what the crucifixion did not – cutting Him up into pieces (cf. John 19:36). John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the ancient church, explained Paul’s meaning in 1 Cor. 1:13 this way: “You have cut in pieces Christ and distributed His body!”

divisionSchism, the practice of dividing the local body of Christ into two or more churches, is our unbelieving verdict that His crucifixion death was not worth our efforts at loving each other in the same church. Under apostolic blessing, the one church of Corinth included every single Christian in Corinth. Sure, like today, some Christians met during the week in house groups. But they met altogether on Sunday for worship (1 Cor. 11:18, 1 Cor. 11:20 NKJV, 1 Cor. 14:23, 1 Cor. 1:2, 1 Cor. 16:2). Partaking of the Lord’s Table was not an activity of the house fellowships but an activity of the whole body of Christ in Corinth (1 Cor. 10:16-17, 12:27).

By the way, there were a lot house groups in Corinth:

  1. Household of Stephanas, 1 Cor. 1:16, 16:15;
  2. Crispus and his household, Acts 18:8, 1 Cor. 1:14;
  3. Titius Justus (perhaps)? Acts 18:7 (maybe hosted the whole church for a while);
  4. Five other house groups from 1 Cor. 1:12?: “Chloe’s people,” “of Paul,” “of Apollos,” “of Cephas,” “of Christ”;
  5. Gaius’ house, in which the “whole church” met on Sunday, 1 Cor. 14:23, Rom. 16:23.

all-togetherDo you honestly believe all these house groups had all the problems Paul wrote as being in the whole church? Did all these groups have a man sleeping with his father’s wife (chapter 5), or members in lawsuits (chapter 6)? Of course not.

When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, every believer and every house group in Corinth still came together as a single church every Sunday. Not one was left out, unknown, or allowed to form another church. For Paul, they were all but one church that met on the first day of every week: “when you come together as a church I hear…” (1 Cor. 11:18, cf.16:1-2). Paul knew without a doubt that every person who was “sanctified in Christ Jesus” in Corinth met together in one single church and was one body (1 Cor. 1:2, 12:27). In 1 Cor. 14:23 he describes the “whole church assembling.”[7]Contra house church advocates Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 154, and Vincent Branick, The House Churches in the Writings of Paul, 24.

 

“Church” and “Churches”

Advocates of the house church movement often point to other cities in the New Testament and claim they too, like Corinth, had multiple churches.[8]See here and here and here. So also Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 22. Another home church advocate writes that the Christians in Jerusalem met in home churches since Acts 2:46 “is the only reference to Christians meeting in the temple after Pentecost.” but he neglects Acts 5:42 and possibly Acts 21:26-29 singular-pluralBut in doing so they ignore perhaps the most simple principle of interpretation, that a singular noun is different than a plural noun. In other words, a ‘church’ is not the same as ‘churches.’ When the NT writers referred to one church, they wrote ‘church.’ When they referred to more than one church, they wrote ‘churches.’

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) is an extremely important word in the NT. It is used precisely and exactingly by its writers. After all, Jesus Christ died for the church (Eph. 5:25) . He is not ambiguous about it, nor were those He inspired to write the NT for us.

When He inspired the word ‘church’ to be written in the singular He meant it to be singular, that is, only one local church. How do we know this? Because the writers of the NT wrote the plural form ‘churches’ 35 times in the NT, fully one-third of the word ecclesia’s occurrences and twice as often as ecclesia is used in the NT to refer to the universal church.[9]Some dismiss this obvious principle of communication. One advocate writes, “I think the answer to that may well lie in the simple fact that in New Testament times believers thought rather differently than we do today and didn’t as strongly distinguish in their minds the difference between individual and multiple churches in any one geographical area.” Even if that were true, which is highly unlikely, the writers of Scripture do not succumb to such a casual lack of precision (cf. Gal. 3:16) Two other times they refer to multiple churches by writing, “every church,” which likewise identifies multiple churches.

 

Jerusalem

j-churchBy this measure we know Jerusalem had only one church because there are no texts that refer to multiple churches in it.

All references to the church in Jerusalem are singular (Acts 5:11, 8:1, 8:3, 11:22, 15:4, 22).[10]The church of Acts 9:31 is the persecuted Jerusalem church of Acts 8:1-3 now distributed (κατὰ) among the regions of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and experiencing the peace of ended persecution. Yes, there are references to meetings in Jerusalem houses, but houses are houses. The Jerusalem Christians all met together in the temple (Acts 2:46, 5:12, 5:42, possibly Acts 21:26-28).

Look at how Luke makes this distinction between one church that met in smaller groups in houses in Acts 8:3:

“But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”

There was only one church of all the Christians in Jerusalem, and Saul tore into it by pillaging its house fellowships, not its meetings in the temple (cf. Acts 5:42). Creating disturbances in the temple had both religious and political ramifications. It may also have cut into the High Priest’s profitable temple business (John 2:14-16, cf. Acts 9:1).

 

Ephesus

500000At the end of the apostolic age Jesus spoke to seven churches and referred to each of them with the same greeting: “to the in-Ephesus church…” “to the in-Smyrna church…” “to the in-Pergamum church…” etc., (literal translations from Rev. 2-3). The size of the city did not determine for Jesus how many churches He wanted in it. Each contained but one. Indeed, Ephesus, one of the largest cities of the 1st C with an estimated population of 500,000, had only one church, while other small cities like Smyrna and Philadelphia also had but one church.

on-cityFor argument sake, if multiple churches existed in Ephesus at the end of the 1st C, then Jesus’ message to the in-Ephesus church was in error. Since every one of the seven churches in Rev. 2-3 are a single lampstand (Rev. 1:20), and the church in Ephesus is a single lampstand (Rev. 2:5), how then could the alleged multiple churches in Ephesus lose a single lampstand for the error of but one of it’s churches? Those who claim the Ephesian church was comprised of multiple house churches neglect two things. Jesus wrote individual letters to individual churches in Rev. 2-3, and they fail to track the lampstands.[11]See here and here

In Acts 20 Paul speaks to the elders of the single church of Ephesus and tells them that while they are all shepherds of one flock and one church (Acts 20:17, 28), yet he asks them to remember how he spoke to them in their many house gatherings (Acts 20:20). If each house gathering were a church Luke should have written the “the elders of the churches” in Acts 20:17.

 

Rome

Even Rome had but one church and some of its members met for house fellowship in Prisca and Aquila’s home (Rom 16:3-5). There were other Christians who met together weekly in Rome’s one church, many of whom were greeted by Paul, and some by their house fellowships (Rom. 16:6-15).

holy-kissYet in Rom 16:16 every single Christian in Rome was commanded by an apostle of Jesus Christ to, “greet one another with a holy kiss.” If they gathered in separate churches his apostolic command simply could not have been obeyed, thus making them all disobedient to Christ.[12]Each would have been required by command of Christ to visit each church in Rome, likely missing those from other churches who themselves were out visiting the other churches in their own attempt to obey Rom. 16:16. Thus Sunday would become the only day to visit other churches instead of the day you are meant to gather with your fellow-Christians in your own church. If Rome had 52 churches, one would have to visit one church a week to obey Paul’s Rom. 16:16 command while simultaneously disobeying Paul’s “one-another” commands in Rom. 12. Paul finishes the verse by differentiating the church of unified believers in Rome from multiple churches in other locales, “All the churches of Christ greet you.”

As well, if they met in separate churches they couldn’t have obeyed Rom. 16:17-18 where Paul warns them to keep a collective “look-out” for those starting a schism. If there were multiple churches in Rome, who could judge if a person was being schismatic, or simply obeying the Lord by starting a house church?

 

The One Church in the City Had All the Christians in that City

Furthermore, every letter written to a group of believers in a single locale (i.e., Colossae) was always written to all the believers living in that city. For example, the letter to the Colossians is written to the “in-Colossae saints” who are its single church (literal translation of Col. 1:2, cf. Col. 4:16). Antioch’s believers are all one church under one set of leaders (Acts 13:1). Every Christian living in Philippi was part of its one church (Phil. 1:1, 4:15). It’s the pattern seen everywhere in the NT and never contradicted by a letter to multiple churches in a single locale. Conversely, when a letter was written to multiple churches the author was clear about two things: he was writing to multiple churches and they weren’t in the same locale (Gal. 1:2, cf. Acts 14:21-23; James 1:1, 5:14; 1 Peter 1:1, 5:1-5).

It all adds up to one conclusion: starting house churches, in places where the body of Christ already exists, is contrary to the apostle’s doctrine and practice and sinfully adds schism to schism. It’s wrong and it hurts every Christian in the locale since it hinders them from fulfilling the very duties they have and which build them in the most holy faith. First and foremost of these duties is the duty of unity and love:

being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit
in the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit (Eph. 4:3-4)

And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (Col. 3:14-15)

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35)

Love is patient, love is kind, and it does not seek its own (1 Cor. 13:4-5)

be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love,
just as Christ also loved you (Eph. 5:1-2)

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia (1 Thess. 4:9-10)

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint (1 Peter 4:8-9)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me (John 17:21-23)

the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:16)

To start churches instead of associating with the local body of Christ already existing in a locale is so wrong that it can’t help but produce profound sadness for those who are truly regenerate in the home church movement. Separating from the body of Christ has deep psychological and spiritual repercussions as the precious joy of Christian fellowship with all whom Christ has called to Himself in the region where one lives is disobeyed. Home churches rarely last more than a year or two because they only temporarily experience what Paul described as koinonia in Philippians (Phil. 1:5, 7).

When koinonia in the body of Christ is intentionally disregarded the consequences are both spiritual weakness and doctrinal confusion, as we see next.

 

What Are the Experts on
House Churches Teaching?

A plethora of books and articles have come out on house churches. Some are written by men of the highest integrity and deep thought. Others perhaps a little less so. But since this article is encouraging house church members to merge their home fellowships into other churches it is necessary to first interact and refute some of their key teachings that provide the house church movement with their theological and relational passion.

 

The 3 Meanings View

One house church expert teaches the NT has 3 meanings for church:

“The three main uses of ‘church’ in the New Testament are in
reference to believers gathering in someone’s home,
the citywide or regional church,
and the universal church.”[13]Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 18, 40.

In context, the author is claiming that a ‘home church’ is a subset of something he calls a ‘citywide church.’ He lists nine verses to support this this distinction, four of which are the ‘house church’ verses explained above. Quite strangely, the other five verses don’t even mention ‘church,’ and thus no responsible doctrine of the church can be formed from them. Sadly, this is how weak the biblical case for home churches is.[14]They are Acts 2:26 (s/b Acts 2:46?); Acts 5:42; 12:12; 16:14–15; 20:20. Zdero’s “3 meanings” statement is plagiarized (complete with faulty versification) by Ken Davis, An Evaluation of the House Church Model for North American Church Planting Part 1, in the Journal of Ministry and Theology, Fall 2006, page 19. He makes no reference to Zdero’s work, but admitted to me in personal conversation he did take it from Zdero’s book. He further claims ‘church’ “is never used in reference to… a religious ceremony. This would have been incomprehensible to the early Jesus movement.” Yet, 1 Cor. 11:18, 14:4-5, 12, 19, 23, 28, 35 use ‘church’ as equivalent for the weekly worship service, which is, a religious ceremony.

A further problem with the “3 Churches View” is the author’s claim regarding house churches in 1st C Jerusalem. Based on his understanding of house sizes in Jerusalem and personal experience in doing house churches, he recommends only 6 to 12 people in a house church.[15]Zdero, Global House Church Movement, 94 Based on his calculations, if the city-wide church of Jerusalem had only 10,000 persons there would have been 800 to 1,600 churches in that city. Since he claims each church in Jerusalem was led by a small team of elders, there would have been 1,600 elders, minimum. Therefore, his claim requires that almost 1 out of every 5 Christians (including women and children) in the church of Jerusalem was an elder.

In reality, there was but one church in Jerusalem that had many house fellowships (see Acts 8:1, 3). If multiple churches got together in the temple, that gathering ought to have been called churches (plural) since Luke made sure to write ‘churches’ every time he referred to multiple churches (Acts 15:41, 16:5). But Luke always described only one church in the city (Acts 5:11, 8:1, 3). It met in one place collectively, and in homes distributively (Acts 2:46, 5:42), .

The NT bears witness to only two ecclesiastical meanings uses ‘church.’ Jesus Christ teaches the local church (Mat. 18:17), and the universal church (Mat. 16:18), comprised of all Christians who will ever be saved from the wrath to come. The apostles never deviate from this.

 

The Fellowship Meal View

Is the purpose of coming together as a church to have a fellowship meal? One house church expert writes the following,

“1 Cor. 11:33, “When you come together to eat, wait for each other. “ As shown before, the reason they came together was to “eat.” Lest it appear to be making a mountain out of a mole hill, it must be realized that no other reason is ever given in the Scriptures as to the purpose of a regular, weekly church meeting [but to eat]… It is the Christian equivalent of the neighborhood bar.”[16]Steve Atkerson, ekklesia, 30

But the author misunderstands the Scriptural reason for why the Corinthians got together. It wasn’t to eat, but to have a worship service. The eating mentioned in 1 Cor. 11:33 comes after Paul writes of worship in 1 Cor. 11:2-32. At first Paul says,

“I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you,” (1 Cor. 11:2)

but soon reveals his displeasure with their praying and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:4-5). These two words show that the traditions Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 11:2 involved collective Christian worship. Therefore, what began as praise in 1 Cor. 11:2 is turned into stinging rebuke:

But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it” (1 Cor. 11:17-18).

Paul  goes to the greatest problem: their desire to schism and divide the body of Christ in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11-13, 3:1-14). He now explains that their divisions (“I am of Paul, I am of Apollos,” 1 Cor. 1:12) are made visible by how they “despise the church of God” in shaming “those who have nothing.” Some Christians weren’t waiting for other Christians before they ate their after-worship koinonia meal.

communionSo, the church that showed up that morning was finished with a time of worship, but, the whole body wasn’t together yet! Some were still coming, perhaps because they couldn’t get Sunday off. Therefore, all who attended worship ought to have waited before celebrating the Lord’s Supper for the reasons Paul expressed in 1 Cor. 11:29, properly judging the body of Christ in Corinth. The sin of not waiting (1 Cor. 11:33) to remember the Lord’s Supper together shows these folks believed it was OK for them to eat their own Lord’s Supper, and their meal, prior to the Lord’s Supper event for the whole body of Christ in Corinth. It was not.

More to the point, Paul’s words in this passage show a sharp distinction between the church supper and the Lord’s supper. He calls their meal “one’s own meal” (τὸ ἴδιον δεῖπνον, 1 Cor. 11:21) as opposed to “the Lord’s Supper” (κυριακὸν δεῖπνον, 1 Cor. 11:20). House church advocates often dismiss this distinction by making the Lord’s Supper a part of the church supper, but Paul’s words will not allow that.

When he writes,

“for in your eating each one takes his own supper first” (1 Cor. 11:21)

he speaks of the eating of a private meal “first,” that is, prior to the Lord’s Supper celebration, a part of the church’s worship. In doing so, he completes the differentiation between the regular meal and the Lord’s Supper. Hence his rebuke:

Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you. (1 Cor. 11:22)

For Paul the church is an institution whose purpose on earth is worship. Eating together is an event that comes after worship, but is not essential to the worshiping mission of the church. However, the Lord’s Supper is an essential part of worship – it is commanded by Christ Himself. But the common meal is not, and it would have been better for the Corinthians not to have celebrated the Lord’s Supper at all than to celebrate it sinfully.

Now 1 Cor. 11:33 can be understood in its context. When Paul admonishes them, “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” he is referring to that portion of worship called the Lord’s Supper. For if eating a church meal together were the purpose of coming together and the purpose of church, why would Paul instruct them to eat at home before getting together as a church (1 Cor. 11:34, 21)?

 

Anti-Institutionalism

religionIt is not Christ-like to be opposed to the institutional reality of the local church. He designed the local church to be organized under elders, to have deacons, and to meet weekly for it’s institutional purpose of worship (Phil. 1:1, 4:15, 1 Cor. 11:18). This is not a truth many devoted home church advocates wish to hear,[17]As an example of this mistaken mindset, one highly regarded book on churches of several decades ago claimed Paul “did not attempt to institute a protective organization” when he was speaking to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20. However, the author ignores that the elders of the church of Ephesus themselves were indeed the very organizing principle of the institutional church of Ephesus who were to protect the flock from wolves (Acts 20:28-31, cf. Phil. 1:1), Jim Peterson, Church without Walls, 95. For a typical expression this online see here and here. but need to.

One home church leader wrote,

The church is an institution that Satan has set up
to prevent Christians from doing the work of the Lord.”[18]This is now a dead link. It was from Frank Viola’s web site, www.simplechurch.com/profiles/blogs/frustrated

Another wrote a book called, The Way Church Was Meant to Be that prominently expresses this anti-institutional sentiment.[19]Terry Stanley, The Way Church Was Meant to Be One of its first chapters is titled, Why Going to Church is not Biblical. The idea is that the church is not a place you go to, but is meant to be a network of relationships you simply enjoy. Organization stifles life, but relationships create it.

Even though that statement makes sense to some Christians, it only makes sense on the most shallow of levels. We all mistakenly tend to refer to the building as the church when in fact the church is the people. And truly, that sort of thinking, if carried out without correction creates massive problems. But our fault in thinking wrongly about the church doesn’t grant us the right to substitute one error with another.

When Paul writes “when you come together as a church” in 1 Cor. 11:18 he assumes what some home church advocates deny – that in fact going to church is biblical. When the Corinthian Christians woke up on Sunday morning in their own homes they weren’t the church. They had to “come together” before they became the church in Corinth, and the only way they could do that was by doing what this author says is unbiblical, by going to church.

Going to church is gathering with Christians for the purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ and may be done obediently or disobediently. Obedience to Christ will feature a worship service that is an institutional event in which music, prayer, and teaching by qualified elders is involved (Eph. 5:18-21, Titus 1:9).

humbleBeing anti-institutional is largely an American phenomenon and is a learned response from our fallen American culture. God Himself instituted a rich institutional form of worship in Israel, which although it was perverted over time, was holy in its original design (cf. Mat. 23:2-3). If any ancient Israelites felt the way about temple worship some modern Christians feel about the institutional church defined in Scripture they would have been recognized as apostates.

Each male Israelite over twenty years of age was commanded to go to national, institutional worship at least three times a year (Exo. 23:14-17). As you well know, that was repeated by our Lord who honored every Scriptural form of institutional worship prescribed in the OT.

And when He, the Son of God prophesied the church in Mat. 18:17 He prophesied of an institutional organization with an institutional function – that of removing an offender from it. Once removed, the individual removed out of the church could continue normal human relationships with the individuals in the church (1 Cor. 5:13), but he could not be a part of the institution, the church. Therefore the church is more than a set of relationships. It is more than an organism. It is also an institution.

Thus by original design of Jesus Christ, churches must be treated as more than a set of relationships, but as an institution. It is a truth that many home churchers deny, not due to a study of the New Testament but due to having imbibed the worldly American distrust of institutions.[20]See for some quick examples here, here, here, and here.

Ironically, many home church advocates claim they are escaping the world by leaving the organized (and therefore worldly) church. In reality, they are following a pattern of worldly disobedience since no one in the NT left those churches, organized as they were under elders, except to schism (Rom. 16:18-19), discipline (1 Cor. 5:13), or apostatize (1 John 2:19).

targetThis institutional sense of the word “church” is seen in each of Jesus’ seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. In those letters Jesus calls on the church to repent while yet some of it’s members have no need of repentance (i.e., Rev. 2:22, 3:4). Each letter offers some praise (except Laodicea) or rebuke to the entirety of the church as an institution obligated to obey the Lord. Therefore the church is greater than just its people, and Jesus addresses it as such.

The early church in Jerusalem worshiped under the auspices of the institutional temple, and Paul raised money from Gentile Christians to honor and care for them. Had any Gentile accused them of being carnal because they worshiped in the very institutional temple he would have received an ear full of justified rebuke from Paul (cf. Acts 21:26).

 

Error: Schism as Righteousness

city-blockThe last matter I wish to expose as problematic in the home church movement is its inability to recognize their sin, and aggravating the matter by labeling it righteousness. The sin is schism, the dividing up of the body of Christ in any given locale into smaller and smaller sub-groups. Promoting it is a grave and serious sin since it goes against so much teaching in the Bible, and cuts up Christ (1 Cor. 1:13).

The home church movement implicitly believes that the more home churches there are, the better off God’s purposes in the world are. One advocate writes,

“Our house church network has adopted a slogan, Every Church, Start a Church, Every Year… Ultimately the vision would be to implement a saturation strategy by establishing a house church on every city block or in a given geographic zone across a city”[21]Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 105, 113.

Another writes that when a home church’s seating capacity is reached it could,

“Divide the church somewhat evenly, splitting strengths and weaknesses as evenly as possibly, as folks are led by the Spirit (and not coerced)” [22]Steve Atkerson, ekklesia, 198

Another writer mandates leaving the institutional church to create, of all things, unity,

“The easiest way is to leave the traditional churches, forsake the names, and meet in simpler ways. If you stay with your religious affiliation and name, you are practicing division according to 1 Cor. Chapter 1” [23]Stanley, The Way Church Was Meant to Be, 149

Sadly these quotes reflect the foolish spirit of the age of schism. Hopefully most readers will recognize that dividing Christians in any form does not make unity, nor does staying with a church make for division.

Neither is it God’s will to have a church in every city block. Consider the following. In Acts 18:10 Jesus tells Paul in a vision that He has many people in Corinth. As a result Paul plants the one and only church in the city and condemns the Corinthian Christians for wanting to create even one more in 1 Cor. 1:10-13. If you want to reach the many people in where you live in a way that honors Jesus Christ, and His body of believers there, merge into one obedient church.

Sadly, the counsel of these home church leaders makes acts of division to be loyalty to God when in fact it is just the opposite.

 

Conclusion:
What Should Home Churches Do?

Given what I’ve written above, I exhort house churches, en masse and as groups of Christians, to find a church nearby that is more faithful to Scripture than they are. It simply doesn’t matter if the church you join meets in a house or a sky-scraping cathedral. Churches can meet in any building, not merely a house.[24]While the NT specifies houses, it only does so by example, but never by precept, i.e., “meet only in houses.” For more information read Precept and Example. To claim NT churches must meet in houses to be authentic is legalism.

body-of-christYour main goal ought to be making a visible and repentant move toward the unity of the body of Christ where you live. In this regard you ought to look for a church that teaches the freeness of salvation in Christ, that salvation is entirely by the grace of God and not of any work of man. Furthermore you should look for a church that is under the full governance of elders who are appointed strictly by the qualifications of 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, and not by popular vote.[25]For more information please read The Titus Mandate

What will you find in such a church? The local body of Christ, God’s greatest gift here on earth, and of which you are an important part.

References   [ + ]

1. At one time the research firm under George Barna estimated 33% of the US population was involved in a house church (even as he is). But in 2009 his revised research estimated 10% of the US population is in house churches, throwing suspicion on both estimates. Other research, suggesting an average of 20 people per house church, is used to calculate the figure used here. House church advocates will likely recognize that both numbers, 10% of all people, and 20 persons per house church, are likely high.
2. The New King James version retains the words “at one place.” Those words are in all the original Greek manuscripts, thus reminding the original Corinthian readers that they were all to meet together as one church in one place, not in separated groups.
3. Edmund Clooney, The Biblical Theology of the Church, p. 23, in “The Church in the Bible and the World,” ed. DA Carson
4. If you are answering to yourself that the one church of Corinth of 1:2 was the presbytery, they weren’t. The one church of Corinth that gathered in one place for Sunday worship (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV) was the whole body of Christ in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:27)
5. The Koiné word for “down” is κάτω (cf. Mat. 4:6).  See A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 606.
6. For further exegetical details on the distributive use of κατὰ and “house churches,” see Button and Van Rensburg, The House Churches in Corinth. (slow download)
7. Contra house church advocates Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 154, and Vincent Branick, The House Churches in the Writings of Paul, 24.
8. See here and here and here. So also Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 22. Another home church advocate writes that the Christians in Jerusalem met in home churches since Acts 2:46 “is the only reference to Christians meeting in the temple after Pentecost.” but he neglects Acts 5:42 and possibly Acts 21:26-29
9. Some dismiss this obvious principle of communication. One advocate writes, “I think the answer to that may well lie in the simple fact that in New Testament times believers thought rather differently than we do today and didn’t as strongly distinguish in their minds the difference between individual and multiple churches in any one geographical area.” Even if that were true, which is highly unlikely, the writers of Scripture do not succumb to such a casual lack of precision (cf. Gal. 3:16)
10. The church of Acts 9:31 is the persecuted Jerusalem church of Acts 8:1-3 now distributed (κατὰ) among the regions of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and experiencing the peace of ended persecution.
11. See here and here
12. Each would have been required by command of Christ to visit each church in Rome, likely missing those from other churches who themselves were out visiting the other churches in their own attempt to obey Rom. 16:16. Thus Sunday would become the only day to visit other churches instead of the day you are meant to gather with your fellow-Christians in your own church. If Rome had 52 churches, one would have to visit one church a week to obey Paul’s Rom. 16:16 command while simultaneously disobeying Paul’s “one-another” commands in Rom. 12.
13. Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 18, 40.
14. They are Acts 2:26 (s/b Acts 2:46?); Acts 5:42; 12:12; 16:14–15; 20:20. Zdero’s “3 meanings” statement is plagiarized (complete with faulty versification) by Ken Davis, An Evaluation of the House Church Model for North American Church Planting Part 1, in the Journal of Ministry and Theology, Fall 2006, page 19. He makes no reference to Zdero’s work, but admitted to me in personal conversation he did take it from Zdero’s book. He further claims ‘church’ “is never used in reference to… a religious ceremony. This would have been incomprehensible to the early Jesus movement.” Yet, 1 Cor. 11:18, 14:4-5, 12, 19, 23, 28, 35 use ‘church’ as equivalent for the weekly worship service, which is, a religious ceremony.
15. Zdero, Global House Church Movement, 94
16. Steve Atkerson, ekklesia, 30
17. As an example of this mistaken mindset, one highly regarded book on churches of several decades ago claimed Paul “did not attempt to institute a protective organization” when he was speaking to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20. However, the author ignores that the elders of the church of Ephesus themselves were indeed the very organizing principle of the institutional church of Ephesus who were to protect the flock from wolves (Acts 20:28-31, cf. Phil. 1:1), Jim Peterson, Church without Walls, 95. For a typical expression this online see here and here.
18. This is now a dead link. It was from Frank Viola’s web site, www.simplechurch.com/profiles/blogs/frustrated
19. Terry Stanley, The Way Church Was Meant to Be
20. See for some quick examples here, here, here, and here.
21. Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, 105, 113.
22. Steve Atkerson, ekklesia, 198
23. Stanley, The Way Church Was Meant to Be, 149
24. While the NT specifies houses, it only does so by example, but never by precept, i.e., “meet only in houses.” For more information read Precept and Example. To claim NT churches must meet in houses to be authentic is legalism.
25. For more information please read The Titus Mandate

7 Comments

  1. 1
    Jesse Foster says:

    I agree with almost all of the above. Quick question:

    If various “churches’ are meeting around a city, and come together to consolidate, is that making the church more “unified” or is it just consolidating the schisms together? Are a collection of schisms consolidated any less of a schism?

    1. 1.1
      Jesse Foster says:

      And also, how would you define sect as compared to “schism” ?

      Best, J

      1. 1.1.1
        Ted says:

        Jesse, (1.1)

        There is no definition for a Christian sect in Scripture, which is not the case for “schism.” Schism is a biblical term used to delineate a doctrine of schism in 1 Cor. 1:10ff, 1 Cor. 11:19ff (where it is contrasted to heresy), and 1 Cor. 12:25 (in the context of 1 Cor. 12:12-27).

        Scripture is black and white – there were no sects recognized by the apostles. They built on one foundation. Christ does not judge churches as “true” and “false,” but obedient or disobedient.

    2. 1.2
      Ted says:

      Hi Jesse, (1.0)

      You wrote,

      If various “churches’ are meeting around a city, and come together to consolidate, is that making the church more “unified” or is it just consolidating the schisms together?

      Great Question.
      It certainly does make the resulting church more unified if the reason for consolidation is obedient submission to the precept and example of Scripture. Perhaps the way to “see’ that result is to momentarily replace the word “church” with “body.” (In the NT there isn’t any difference between the local body of Christ and the local church – they are the same entity, i.e., 1 Cor. 1:2, 10:16-17, 12:27).

      The local body is more and more unified as churches forsake their rebellious autonomy, independence, and sectarian prejudice. That produces a swelling interest in unity among believers as it better exposes the sin of schism. Schism is a metaphor that better correlates to a “body” than a “church.” Ignoring for the moment it’s obedience/disobedience, a church is merely an assembly of people who gather together for the worship of Jesus Christ. When it schisms there are then two assemblies (i.e., two churches) – good or bad.

      That can’t be said of a body – when a body is schismed, it is killed (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

      You wrote,

      Are a collection of schisms consolidated any less of a schism?

      Indeed they are, for by the obedience of faith they are taking responsibility for the sin of schisming Christ’s local body, and repenting of it. In the words of Eph. 4:16, the body is more and more “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies” and “causing the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Those Christians are powerfully calling all other genuine Christians where they live, i.e., those who obey Christ’s command to “love one another,” to love each other by unifying under the authority of Scripture alone.

  2. 2

    So would I be correct in inferring from this article that whether or not you start a church or consolidate a church would be at least partially based on how the government formed a city?

    For example, if I wanted to start a new church in my city, I should not, but I could theoretically start one across the city line to the next city if there is no church in that city?

    Secondly, if I live in a city with one church and the city next door to my city has one church (following the model) and the government dissolved that other city and it was added within our city limits, should we immediately consolidate the two churches which are now in the same city?

    I guess I’m trying to figure out from your post how some of what you wrote plays out. When do you decide that it would be good to have two churches in a city? I mean, literally, what if the people no longer fit in a building safely?

    I appreciated much of the article, but some implications are leaving me with questions. Maybe I am taking things in the wrong direction. I appreciate your help.

    1. 2.1
      Ted says:

      Hi Michael,

      You wrote,

      So would I be correct in inferring from this article that whether or not you start a church or consolidate a church would be at least partially based on how the government formed a city? etc., etc.

      The short answer is no, and for the longer answer – read this. The proper geography is measured by locale, not city.

      In the ancient world cities and towns weren’t divided by city planners like they are today, with strict demarcation lines. In that article you’ll come across the following quote from Justin Martyr in Rome around 160 AD:

      “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.” (Justin Martyr, Apology, 1:67).

      You’ll notice the commitment to meet in one group, and the extended region from which all the Roman Christians traversed to gather on Sunday.

      Michael, the bigger issue is understanding the doctrines of schism and unity from the New Testament so we can worship our Lord with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, where we live. I hope you’ll spend some time reading other articles here.

  3. 3
    Jerry Dodson says:

    excellent article! i shared it on facebook and twitter.

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