House Church Ecclesiology

Maintaining passionate conviction without causing division.
(published in 2008)
When wrestling through the process of clarifying a vision for a house church some agreement regarding the reasons for being house churches becomes important. Many house churches recognize the value of reproducing disciples, leaders, and churches as a major aspect of their church's vision. Additionally, supporting missions through financial and relational means is also a common aspect of vision. However, there are varying levels of agreement when it comes to the reasons for house church structure. Is the house church model fundamental to our vision and calling, or is it a pragmatic tool, most appropriate for, but not essential to, our calling and vision?

The goal of this paper is to provide a context for discussing this aspect of our vision. We need to work through questions like:
•    Are we house churches because they are a part of God's specific vision for us?
•    Are we house churches because it is a useful model with regard to our specific ministry?
•    Are we house churches because we believe this is what the Bible teaches and we are trying to be faithful to our understanding of Scripture?
•    Are we free to abandon the house church model if it fails to be an effective means of meeting our current goals and objectives?


This topic is not an easy one to discuss. It can become the center of controversy. Within house churches there can be struggles, disappointments, mistakes, and frustrations. Over time many house churches become more and less enamored with the house church model. Nevertheless this issue is one of the most foundational matters for house churches to understand. Much of what we do (and don't do) is based on, and influenced by, our choice to be house churches. The answer to "Why are we house churches?" will provide the foundation for many other decisions we must make with regard to the future of a house church. Leaders we set the stage for the body. If leaders are not of one mind, they cannot expect others to pursue a vision with all their hearts. Leaders first, need to agree with each other. Whether this means they all become firmly persuaded and end up holding the same views, or if that they practice genuine submission to one another in areas where they do not fully agree, there needs to be one voice.
Unity despite controversy
How can we be passionate in our convictions, without causing division or unnecessary offense when we express them? Does controversy automatically cause division? Can Christians who have significantly different views on matters that are important to them still maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace? (Eph. 4:3) I think we must. Otherwise, we must either avoid all possible controversies or if we in fact face one, we must more or less ignore it. It would be nice if the only controversies we faced were with the world. We know that we are not of the world and that our views and the world's views come into stark contrast on almost every level. But in reality controversy is not limited to kingdoms in conflict. There are many controversies within the kingdom of God itself. For every major biblical doctrine there are divergent views that, at some level, cause controversy. While many of these controversies are reserved for theologians, there are some that come down to practical issues with which we must contend.
For example, struggles over the role of women in leadership, specifically with regard to leading worship can be heated, and in our experience has caused confusion and conflict with the body. No matter which side of the issue we came down on, we would face conflict with one group or another. In this controversy we must wrestle with Scripture, and also with the more subtle factors of inter-church relationships. We are guided on one side by biblical mandate and on the other by biblical principles of maintaining unity and not causing others to stumble. Controversies are never easy.
The doctrine of election has been a controversial topic causing great tension within the universal church. In this controversy the claims made by adherents of both sides are made on biblical grounds. Each party looks to their own view as being right and biblical, and the other as being wrong. We could avoid this controversy by not developing a strong point of view and remaining ambivalent, or by having a view but never expressing it very loudly so as not to upset anyone who might hold the other view.
How strong is our unity when we hold different convictions but never talk about them in order to avoid controversy? Are there any issues that we feel strongly about that we suppress out of a motivation keeping peace? Are there important matters that impact how we think, live, and serve God? Do we have a vision that we are passionate about? How do we express our passion and conviction without disturbing some who might not share it? Aren't we, as leaders, called to teach, exhort, urge, and proclaim all that we know of God and have come to know of his calling for us? I have added an addendum at the end of this paper that provides some thoughts on how we can hold controversial views while maintaining unity and humility.
Current views of why we meet as house churches
1. The house church is the best model for our purposes of reproduction and for maximizing the involvement of each member (among other purposes).
2. The house church is the only relevant model for missionaries to closed countries; our commitment to this purpose motivates us to meet as house churches.
3. The house church is God's unique calling for us, but not necessarily his design for churches in general.
4. We are convinced from scripture that the church was intended to meet in homes and be organized within cities.
1. The house church is the best model for our purposes of reproduction and for maximizing the involvement of each member. The first two views of why we meet as house churches fall under the umbrella of the pragmatic view. In this view we meet as house churches because it seems to fit our foundational vision for church reproduction. We see the benefits of the model in that it encourages the entire body to be involved in ministry, and that it is especially effective at raising up leaders from within. While we see the house church model in the scriptures, we feel this gives us biblical permission to pursue this model, but we stop short of seeing the presence of house churches in the scripture as a requirement to be house churches.
This view is certainly "politically correct" in that it does not require us to be house churches, it allows us the freedom to be house churches if we so choose and if it fits our overall purposes and values. This is a good view with respect to our relationships with non-house churches. If we don't view our being a house church as biblically mandated, but rather a choice based on values, then there is no tension between house churches and non-house churches. We choose it for subjective reasons, not objective ones. We are free to choose, reject, adapt, or modify the structure as we see fit and as our purposes dictate.
2. The house church is the only relevant model for missionaries to closed countries; our commitment to this purpose motivates us to meet as house churches. There is no doubt that the house church model is especially relevant for missions to closed countries where evangelism and church planting is illegal. Certainly a church planter in such a country is not going to plant a large traditional church. The house churches model is perhaps the only viable structure they can use. While we might choose house churches for other reasons, they choose it because it is the only model that makes sense. Our own commitment to the house church model is weighed heavily by our partnership with missionaries in these countries and our desire to provide a relevant training ground for them. While this view provides a deeper rationale for our choice to be house churches, it still falls within the pragmatic view since its rational is still based on our particular purpose in supporting missions rather than on biblical grounds.
3. The house church is God's unique calling for us, but not necessarily his design for churches in general. This stance does not fall within the pragmatic views because we recognize that this is the Lord's specific vision and purpose for us, and therefore we are obligated, as His servants, to follow it. It doesn't really matter whether we find it to be effective or not. It is God's calling and therefore it must be followed. God has called missionaries to places where they have not seen fruit for years, or even generations. When God calls us to a purpose, the lack of outward fruit does not minimize God's purposes and we need to be obedient and embrace God's sovereignty over his people for his purposes, which he does not always explain to us. In this view, we aren't house churches because it is necessarily the best model, but because God has called us to it for his own reasons.
In this view we need to seek God for ongoing direction for our strategy and structure. Just as he has called us to this model, we need to look to him for direction on how to be the kind of house churches he intends for us to be, and to do the kinds of house church things he intends for us to do. This view does not necessarily see the house church as biblically mandated, but because God has called us to be house churches we have noticed certain passages of scripture, that give us some insight on how to be house churches. This view is also more politically correct because it lessens the tension between house churches and non-house churches. Each church is responsible to discern their calling, including the structure they are to follow, from the Lord. For us it is to be house churches. For others it is according to other church models and structures. There is no implied criticism of other churches in this view. Our reason for being a house church is specific to us, and has no bearing on God's specific calling for others.
4. We are convinced from scripture that the church was intended to meet in homes and be organized within cities. This is a highly charged view of why we meet as house churches. It carries with it an implied criticism of other churches that do not follow the house church model. It looks to scripture as the basis for the model and thereby raises the bar of rational from pragmatic and individual, to being biblically mandated. This view has not been our stated view and has the potential of being a stumbling stone in our relationships with non-house churches. To avoid the potential conflict inherent in this view it must be accompanied by humility and careful explanation.
Why I hold the fourth view
I hold the fourth view, "that we are house churches because this is what scripture teaches us to be." And yes, this means I believe that it is wrong to disregard these teachings and meet in other ways. However, by saying it is wrong, I do not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that it is sinful, unacceptable to God, ineffective, or outside of God's blessing. I do think that when churches do not at least include well-structured small groups (cell churches or the like) that their church experience is deficient and lacks attributes God intended the church to have for very important reasons. In as much as we fail to follow patterns God gives us in the New Testament, we lose out on provisions he has made for our blessing.
For example, as house churches we value the participatory nature of our church meetings. Insights, revelations, knowledge, and questions of the entire body can be shared and discussed. The Bible teaches us that God has given gifts to each member, and that these gifts are for the common good of the body. In I Corinthians 14 Paul states that "when we come together" (i.e. meet as a church), many should have opportunity to share their respective insights and gifts. This practice seems to be a requirement as far as Paul is concerned. I believe that when churches decide to meet in large numbers to listen to one gifted teacher share his gift, without providing any opportunity for others to share a word of instruction or revelation, that meeting fails to be what God intends for us in "meeting together as a church."
Again to qualify the point I'm making, there is nothing at all wrong with meeting in a large group to listen to a gifted teacher. I am constantly blessed and instructed by listening to John Piper's preaching available from the services held at Bethlehem Baptist Church. However, I would consider these kinds of meetings akin to when Paul taught in the "upper room" at Troas (Acts 20:7-12) to instruct the whole church. This was a special meeting that was set aside for hearing Paul teach. However, I do not think Paul intended for the church to permanently meet in that format. According to I Corinthians 14 the normal meeting of the church should be participatory, it would be an exception to devote the meeting to hear one person. I believe that it is incorrect to place the primary emphasis of a church's regular meeting on a large group service devoted to one teacher. When this happens I believe the church loses blessing available only if the insights and gifts of other believers are shared in the church meeting. So then, meeting in a large group where only one person teaches is not, in and of itself, wrong, but I do believe, substituting such a meeting for the regular participatory meeting is wrong, and the church loses out when we do this.
Substituting a large group meeting for what should normally be expressed in a small group (according to Biblical pattern) can adversely affect the church. Examples include the nature and purpose of the Lord's Table (as a meal), the intimacy of the church (awareness, openness, and accountability within the body), the proper practice of church discipline, the ability to raise-up of leaders from within, and the opportunity for all gifts to be utilized. My understanding of I Cor. 14 tells me that however we meet, we must encourage and provide opportunity for the whole body to share their gifts. This to me means that the meeting must be small enough for this to happen.
Toward a House Church Theology
My position, that the Bible requires us to be house churches, was initially informed by the book "Toward a House Church Theology," by Steve Atkerson and Eric Svendsen. They dispute the common ecclesiological views within theology that maintain biblical patterns observed in scripture are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, the common view is that the patterns of scripture are descriptive. It holds that when we see that the church met in homes, or that Paul told them to wait for each other before partaking in the Lord's Table, that these instances simply record what happened, and are not meant to be authoritative or prescriptive to our practices today. In contrast, Toward a House Church Theology takes the position that New Testament patterns are prescriptive, and that God intends for us to follow and hold to biblical patterns in our practice.
There are two main points that they made that I found compelling. One is that if you make New Testament patterns descriptive, and therefore non-authoritative, we lose any basis for ecclesiology as a whole. This is because there are very few "positive commands" to us with regard to church practice. Almost all of our theology of church is based upon descriptive passages rather than positive commands. Ecclesiological issues are issues that deal with things like how often we meet, when we meet, what we do when we meet, who may meet, how often we partake of the Lord's Table, who may partake, who the leaders are, that we should even have leaders. They have as their basis New Testament patterns rather than New Testament commands. If we make New Testament patterns optional and descriptive, rather than binding, we are left to pick and choose which patterns we want to hold and which ones we would rather ignore. Is this acceptable? It is if New Testament patterns are descriptive. It is not if they are meant to be prescriptive.
For example, Paul told Titus to appoint elders in Crete. He told Timothy what elders should be like. He lays down ground rules for how elders should function. But he never actually states in positive command form that all churches must have elders. Again, we believe strongly in plurality of elders. Yet our biblical basis for this view is inferred, not mandated. We see that in the New Testament, churches had multiple elders. However, it never actually commands us to "Have more than one elder." If we look closely, there are very few clearly mandated biblical commands that govern church structure and practice.
An even more compelling argument for New Testament patterns being prescriptive rather than descriptive is Paul's use of the word "traditions." In the NIV most of the instances where Paul uses this word has been translated "teachings" but in fact the actual word is traditions (paradosis). II Thessalonians 2:15, is a perfect example of such an instance. In this passage Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to hold to his traditions whether by word of mouth, or letter. In I Corinthians 11:2 Paul praises the Corinthians for holding to his traditions just as he passed them on to them. Later in the passage he rebukes them for altering the directives he passed on to them for how they participated in the Lord's Table. That they had altered these directions in their practice was condemned.
It seems that Paul not only imprinted the churches he planted with doctrine, but also with a model or example of practice to follow. Paul refers to himself, how he lived, and what he did as a model for churches to follow. Paul praised the church in Thessalonica for imitating the churches in Judea (I Thes. 2:14). The Thessalonians were so faithful in upholding this model that they themselves became a model to other churches (I Thes. 1:7). To the church in Philippi Paul exhorts them to put into practice everything they have learned, received, heard, or seen in him. In other words, if Paul set up the church to meet and operate in a certain way, the churches should not feel they had any right to modify this practice. Instead they strived to uphold the patterns they received, and they were commended for success and rebuked for failure.
What is a New Testament pattern?
Of course even if everyone agreed with this premise we would still have plenty of controversy. What is a New Testament pattern? Certainly there are aspects of things recorded in scripture that are merely descriptive. In Acts Paul circumcises Timothy and later he shaves his own head due to a vow he had taken, I'm not sure that there is anything mandated to us in these descriptions. However, plurality of elders seems to be a consistent pattern with corresponding purposes of oversight, mutual accountability, teaching and protection of the flock. How do we determine biblical patterns from biblical descriptions? Is a pattern simply something that is described more than once, or are there other factors that make certain New Testament practices binding on us? There are plenty of potential controversies to be had in the effort of coming to mutual agreement on these things.
What to do?
I feel that it is the responsibility of leaders to engage in these controversial issues if the goal is to come to mutually agreeable conclusions so that they can act upon them and stand behind them. Additionally, if our reason for being house churches is because of scriptural pattern (rather than because we are uniquely called to be house churches), then it is not our vision to be house churches. We are simply churches, as we see churches described in the New Testament. The issue of being house churches becomes somewhat irrelevant to our vision since we're really just trying to be churches as best we can, as we see scripture defining us. Our vision then, needs to focus on our particular mission, not our particular structure. Our structure is simply what we are according to what God has said. Our vision does not necessarily need to address what our structure is, but rather what God wants us to do. We should then pursue our vision with all the strength God provides "so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Pet. 4:11).


What principles can keep us passionate about our convictions, but humble in our relationships?

There are some critical values we must have in any biblical convictions we hold, whether related to being house churches or other controversial subjects (such as election, women in leadership, homosexuality, etc.).

Humility. When we hold a controversial view it needs to be accompanied by great humility. Humility however is not the opposite of confidence. II Cor. 3:4-6, and 10:12-18 show how confidence can run comfortably alongside humility. We can be bold in our convictions and confident of our views as long as we do not exert ourselves beyond the sphere wherein God has called us to serve. Paul deals differently with controversy when addressing churches that fell within his sphere (with gentleness mixed with great boldness - II Cor. 13:2), versus how he addresses controversy in those churches outside his sphere of influence (with greater restraint - Rom. 14). I believe we ought to lead with boldness, confidence, and vigor in the church God has called us to oversee, while maintaining attitudes of humility and being examples of humility toward other churches.

Fighting the enemy, not our allies. So much material written about house churches seems to be criticism directed at non-house churches just as much as to help house churches. While in Atlanta, at a house church conference, much of the dialogue centered around converting traditional churches to house churches rather than on converting the unsaved to the kingdom of God. The structure of a church is ultimately just a wineskin. While I feel the form of the wineskin is important (otherwise we might spill out precious wine), it is not the substance itself. A perfect wineskin without wine in it is just as useless as a broken skin that cannot hold wine. Engaging in debate on subjects we hold strong convictions about can be perfectly healthy and useful; it can also be critical and destructive if we lose focus on the substance of what we are about.

Be faithful to the revelation and insight God has given to us from his word (regarding house church), and cherish the insights he gives to others (regarding other matters). It is possible that God has given us revelation into matters of church structure and organization that he hasn't given to others. If so, we should rejoice in it, but also be completely humble realizing that everything we have comes from God (I Cor. 4:7). If he graciously blesses us in one way, we can be certain that he blesses others by giving them insight into other matters. We need to be faithful to the insights God gives us, and value even more the insights he gives to others (Phil 2:3).

Avoid generalities and abstractions. Controversies can easily lead to contentions. One of the ways this can happen is when we allow ourselves to generalize and abstract issues rather than dealing with things we actually grasp. Psalm 131:1 says, "My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me." When we establish a view or perspective on a matter, we need to keep that insight focused on that matter, not generalize and apply it to other matters that we do not have insight into. For example, we might hold a view that leaders should be raised up from within and be self-supporting. We can make a strong biblical argument toward this view. While it may be true, if we generalize the principle too much or abstract it so it becomes a hard and fast rule, we could develop a distain toward paid pastors. We need to focus on and practice that which we do understand, and not become critical of others who might see things differently (Phil 3:15-16).
Seek peace and genuine love with brothers who might passionately disagree.While we might be passionate in our views, there will always be brothers who, just as passionately, disagree. Yes, we can "agree to disagree." But this "agreement" usually has an unspoken additional agreement, "… and go our separate ways." This is not the kind of agreement that maintains unity through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-3). When we disagree with a brother we should still be able to stay in close fellowship and intimate relationship. We should look for opportunities to express this, especially when there is disagreement.