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Why House Church?
In a recent house church article the author discussed with church leaders the migration of people away from traditional churches to meeting in homes. None of those interviewed were involved in house church, but were all looking at the movement from the outside. Who knows more about the justification for moving to house church, those who make the move or the leaders of the churches they leave? This is like getting marital advice from a divorced friend; you are unlikely to hear anything of value.
The article concentrated on intimacy as the primary motivation for leaving the traditional church. There are few opportunities to develop close intimate relationships in an institutional church, but this is only part of the picture. If this were the only reason then strapping a cell ministry onto an existing church would be the quick, simple and painless answer. Instead, people are rejecting everything they ever believed about church. There are many reasons they abandon institutional church in favor of a small meeting in a house. I will try to lay out some of the most common here.
The article in question did go into the issue of authoritarianism but only from the traditional view, pointing out that people forming house churches lacked accountability and oversight. This is a common lament and misunderstanding about church in general and house church in particular. It is often claimed that having a duly ordained pastor keeps a church away from heresy. The pastor is the shepherd called to lead the people into God’s truth and to protect them from theological wolves. This sounds well and good, but is a serious change from God’s plan to prevent heresy.
These same arguments have been used to defend denominationalism, claiming a higher governing authority ensures orthodoxy and, interestingly, protects the church from straying pastors. If the church submits to a higher ordaining body then a heretical abusive pastor can be removed. If an authoritative pastor is the answer why do so many seek protection from that same person?
Traditional church arguments in favor of autonomy are actually hypocritical. While arguing that the Holy Spirit is capable of working in a local body of believers to keep them on the straight path, they violate this reasoning to defend the clergy/laity split. Some carry on as if laying on human hands in an ordination ceremony imparts some quasi-magical properties to the clergy. Why not take their own arguments to their logical conclusion? The Holy Spirit works within the local church to teach truth and lead into knowledge. He can teach, restrain and rebuke without any human help. So who is in charge in the house church—the Holy Spirit.
Many mistakenly believe this is a recipe for anarchy in the church—“each man did what was right in his own eyes.” Anarchy is never God’s plan; “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”1 God has called and appointed certain men (notice the plural) to lead the local assemblies. These men are the elders called by God to shepherd (pastor) and oversee the local church2. Unlike the traditional pastor, these men were a plural body of equals. As for ordination these men and the churches they lead understand that God alone ordains. The local church recognized what God had done and set them apart for the work God called them to. There is no regulatory body, synod or presbytery to oversee this, the local church recognizes and looks to those called by God to lead.
Traditional church leadership obliterates the scriptural concept of the priesthood of the believer. Peter described us as a royal priesthood, but this truth was stolen from God’s people when an artificial priesthood was placed in the church to Lord it over the people. Because this system is impossible to defend from the New Testament its proponents turn to the Old Testament and the Levitical priesthood. Churches today use a system that was never meant to be part of the New Testament.
Authoritarianism is a major cause for the flight from traditional church. I have seen people driven away by elders and pastors attempting to silence them. While I was serving as the American Minister of a Korean church the senior pastor hired an American woman to lead the Sunday School program. I discovered in a conversation with her that she believed in baptismal regeneration and rejected the trinity. I brought this to the pastor’s attention through an intermediary because he did not speak very good English. That night my wife, who is Korean, told me that the pastor declared from the pulpit that the woman leading the Sunday School was a godly woman and those speaking against her should sit-down and shut up. He was actually shocked when we left! For years I thought that such abuses of power were an exception but I learned otherwise.
On several occasions I visited with people who tried to take serious questions to their church leaders in an attempt to find a biblical answer and only found themselves on the firing line. With accusations flying about these people often find themselves unwelcome. Thousands have left the traditional church because pastors, boards, deacons and elders often feel threatened by anyone bringing up serious questions. Of course these questions can be threatening. When someone begins questioning the tithe, or salaried clergy, or even the concept of clergy itself, pastors quickly develop a deer in the head-lights look and begin to worry about their checkbook. When a man feels his livelihood is threatened he can do things he ordinarily would not. I seem to recall Jesus saying something about the heart being where the treasure is. I guess he really knew his stuff. People asking the hard questions can quickly find themselves branded and ostracized. Such questions often grow out of the next reason.
Every pastor and church board understands how difficult the budget process can be. Too often, churches must decide between outreach or keeping the lights on and salaries paid. If we take a look at where the average church spends its money we can see another reason why many are leaving the traditional church.
A study of church budgets reported in Christianity Today3 shows where the average church spends money:
- 43 percent for staff compensation
- 20 percent for facilities (rent, mortgage, utilities, upkeep)
- 16 percent for missions
- 9 percent for church programs
- 6 percent for administration and supplies
- 3 percent for denominational fees
- 3 percent other.
Compensation, facilities, administrative and denominational fees combine to an average 72%. Almost three quarters spent for maintenance of systems and practices not even mentioned in the New Testament.
Another study by McGraw Hill Dodge of religious buildings4 shows that churches will spend an estimated $4.4 Billion Dollars in 2008 on building or remodeling facilities. This is a huge amount of money to spend on structures for which we have no scriptural warrant. We spend huge amounts of God’s resources to support a system that is actually counter to what he laid out in scripture. This, of course, brings us to another reason people consider house church.
III Scriptural Fidelity!
My exeriences with institutional church reflects another major reason for the migration into house church. As a senior pastor in a small Montana town many things caused me to seek out what scripture actually says about church. Other pastors spent a great deal of time declaring their church structure to be more scriptural: Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic all claimed scriptural warrant for their church structure and practices. Rather than simply regurgitating denominational propaganda, I wanted to discover what was central to being a New Testament Church. Being willing to follow the answers wherever they led required willingness to dispose of my most precious ideas about church. The search and resulting conclusions caused me to wonder how we got where we are today.
Many others have gone through a similar search and found that no encouragement to build impressive buildings, create complex programs, or orchestrate elaborate services. The meetings of the early church were simple affairs held in a home. It is hard to not want to do likewise when one truly wants to line up with scripture in all their practices.
Have you ever studied why we get together on the Lord’s Day each week. I once believed that the most important thing when we came together was reaching the lost. I had a very pragmatic view of church, figuring if people were being saved then all was well. When a friend challenge me on this I started studying the purpose for our meetings and discovered he was right, we don’t meet to evangelize. Evangelism is done by God’s people as they are out and about in the world. This doesn’t mean we can’t hold special evangelistic meetings, but the church comes together so that we can encourage and build up one another.5
When we come together in house church everyone has the opportunity to speak into the lives of those around them. The right to speak comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit, not from some artificial rite of ordination. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence I want you to speak into my life and comment on what I share. Likewise, you want me to do the same. We meet for mutual edification—I build you up, you build me up.
Too many churches expect you to come in, sit down, sing what you’re told, drop something in the plate and stay awake for the sermon. The clergy direct the laity while the laity support the clergy. It is expected that the Holy Spirit will speak to the pastor and he will relay the words to his people. In the ancient mystery religions the initiated mediated between god and the uninitiated. This is totally contrary to Christian meetings where each member is to contribute as Christ leads.. All those indwelt by Christ contribute something to the meeting and to their brethren. In house church you don’t find services, you find opportunities to serve one another.
So long as institutional church do not find ways to address these concerns they will continue to bleed people. The answer has to be more than “Sit down and submit to what we tell you.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:40 NIV
- Acts 20: 28; 1 Peter 5:2
- Hebrews 10:24f; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 4:11ff