\o/    House Church Basics

The House Church Movement

     by Lorin Smith

This two part article appeared in Bermuda's daily newspaper,The Royal Gazette.

A largely hidden, yet growing phenomenon is changing the face of Christianity in the West and profoundly affecting the way in which Christians are choosing to practice their faith. Disillusioned by the lack of New Testament realities, abusive authority and the spreading apostasy within large segments of institutionalized Christianity, thousands of Christians across America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are gathering in homes to study the Scriptures together, pray, share the Lord's Supper and experience the fellowship and simplicity of first century Christianity.

"Yes, we are right now in the midst of the early days of a sovereign, very radical, move of God," says Nate Krupp, publisher of the book God's Simple Plan For His Church on his home church website, Radical Christianity. "We are seeing God do incredible things: people are leaving the institutional church by the thousands; they are tired of being an audience, instead of a body; they question increasingly all the money that goes into buildings; they are tired of being controlled and manipulated; they long to use their giftings to serve God and see 'the priesthood of all believers', instead of 'the clergy' and they long to see the Holy Spirit allowed to freely move instead of everything being controlled. God is sovereignly, in these days, raising up a massive, growing movement of people who are desiring to function like the early Christians in the Book of Acts. Believers are turning their backs on all the programs and returning to their first love, Jesus."

In a recent interview, Krupp claimed that he committed himself to a return to radical Christianity back in 1966 after a period of serious theological reflection. "After a week of prayer and searching the Scriptures to find out whether God had a plan for his church, I came to some very radical conclusions," Krupp explains. "God does have a plan for his church. He is calling his people back to the radical Christianity of the New Testament. Since the late 80's, I have been traveling across the United States and around the world sharing this message."

Krupp characterizes radical New Testament Christianity as a movement away from clergy-dominated services and programs to mutually participating assemblies of believers, from a gospel of "easy-believism" to the gospel of the Kingdom, with its call to repentance and submission to Christ as Lord, from one-man leadership to plurality of servant leadership and from gathering in church buildings to gathering in homes. "I do not believe that buildings as sacred places of worship are Biblical," Krupp maintains. "That is a part of the old economy. When Christ came, he did away with the old economy. The New Testament tells us that we, as the people of God, are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4 that the time was coming when the worship of God would no longer be confined to or connected with a [sacred] place (i.e. The Temple in Jerusalem). Our whole lifestyle is to be an act of worship."

James D.G. Dunn, professor of New Testament at the University of Durham, highlights the incident that lead to the irreconcilable breach between Christianity and the predominant Temple-centered Judaism of the mid-first century in his book The Parting of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity. " It was the Temple, not the claim regarding the messiahship of Jesus as such which led to the hostility against Stephen," Dunn explains. "When the new teaching was directed against the Temple, the warning lights started to flash. The larger community of Hellenists had invested too much in the Temple to allow any kind of radical criticism of the cult to go unchallenged; and the larger circle of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, including the high priests, depended on the Temple too much in economic and political, as well as religious terms to sit idly by in such circumstances."

However, what really infuriated the Jewish religious leaders was Stephen's bold assertion that " the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands." (Acts 7:48) Dunn explains. "The [Greek] adjective chosen, cheiropoieton, 'made with hands,' would be a horrifying word to use in this context. Why so? Because that was the word used by Hellenistic Jews to condemn idolatry. For that word to be used of the Temple would certainly have sent shock waves through any Jewish audience… that God's presence cannot be encapsulated or represented in any physical or man-made entity! &endash; the Temple itself an idol! The Temple was so central for Jewish worship and Jewish identity. Anyone who put forward these views, and in Jerusalem (rather than from the safety of, say, Qumran or Leontopolis) must have enraged a Jewish audience beyond bearing," Dunn maintains. (Emphasis in original) Outraged by Stephen's sharp rebuke, the Sanhedrin cast him out of the city and stoned him to death.

What has been the reaction of Christians to Krupp's radical conclusions, especially his advocacy of house churches? "Generally, they are quite receptive. Quite a number indicate that they have also been considering something similar. I've even found unbelievers receptive to the idea. The greatest opposition comes from the clergy," Krupp explains. "Some react out of insecurity. There is this feeling that 'you're leaving us and we will no longer have your tithes, we won't be able to meet budget.'"

Calvin Guy, one-time Chairman of the Missions Department of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in an article entitled Pilgrimage Toward The House Church: Controls That Limit the Spread of the Gospel, in discussing the subtle differences between the practice of New Testament Christianity and its contemporary counterpart, writes. "We talk about the church building when we go to the church; they spoke of the congregation that met in someone's house. {See Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 2). Spared both the expense and concern of erecting and maintaining a building, they were soon involved in expending all available funds in loving service to the widows and orphans. Charity was not the incidental, fractional percentage of the budget. It was the budget." (Emphasis in the original)

Krupp has generally observed two ways in which Christians are choosing to meet together and practice their faith. "Thousands who have left the institutional church are simply worshipping in homes with their families, just a father, mother and children gathering around the headship of Christ. Then there are others who have left and networked with other house churches in an area. Some house churches are being established by church planters, while others are springing up spontaneously. The movement is so large I don't even try to keep up with it," he says. "Just look at the number of home church websites on the Internet. It's phenomenal!"

Jon Zens, editor of the quarterly publication, Searching Together, and another advocate of New Testament church life, has also observed a growing exodus of people from institutional churches across America. "I see three basic phenomena as to why people are exiting the institutional church," Zen explains. "After years of starving in the institutional church, they leave to find New Testament realities. People study their Bibles and come to perceive a huge chasm between the New Testament and the traditional church and often they leave after the institutional church disregards their pleas for change."

If there has been some success with the traditional church model throughout the centuries, why bother to change? "While the traditional one-man, church building model has some visible success, there are many undeniable statistics that point to the reality of such success being short term, " Zens answered. "Divorce, suicide, nervous breakdown, burnout, etc abound among clergy. The average pastorate in the Southern Baptist Convention is under 18 months. The high-pressure altar call tactics have proven to produce "converts" that rarely last. Even with all the empirical evidence that many things are amuck in the traditional model, the real issue is 'what does the NT teach?' If any model contradicts or stifles the New Testament pattern, it should be jettisoned for such reasons alone. The early church had no clergy and no sacred buildings, and in this regard was radically different from all other religions, including Judaism. The proliferation of expensive church buildings constitutes a fundamental compromise of what Christ intended to build. Thus, believers gathering in informal settings [in] homes, rented store-fronts, outdoors and apartments apparently provides the best context for the 58 "one anothers" [in the Bible] to be fleshed out."

Certainly, the writers of the New Testament seem to have had a clearer understanding of what truly constitutes "the church", something that is foreign to most Christians today. They referred to the people of God as God's building (1 Corinthians 3:9, Ephesians 2:19-22), God's temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), God's house (1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 3:6, 10:21, 1 Peter 2:17), God's household (Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10) and Christ's body (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12, Ephesians 3:6, 5:23, 30). Christians in the New Testament didn't go to church. They were the church! They were God's building! They were God's temple! As Howard Snyder states succinctly in The Problem of Wineskins Today " A church building cannot properly be "the Lord's house" because in the new covenant this title is reserved for the church as people. So, if church buildings have any justification, it can only be practical &endash; simply a place to meet and carry on essential functions, as necessary."

In an article entitled Four Tragic Shifts in the Visible Church, 180-400 A.D., Zens writes. "Some assert that since the early church met primarily in homes, we are obliged to emulate this example. I think the primary theological point of the New Testament in this regard is that under the New Covenant there are no holy places. Contemporary Christianity has almost no grasp of this significant point. Taking a cue from the Old Covenant, people are still lead to believe that a church building is 'the house of God.' Believers are free to meet any place in which they can foster, cultivate and attain the goals set before them by Christ. The problem today is that many church structures neither promote nor accomplish Christ's desires for His body. Homes are a neutral place for believers to meet, and the early church flourished well into the first and second centuries without erecting any temple-like edifices. But the issue is still not in what type of place believers gather, but what shape their committed life together takes as they wrestle with the many duties and privileges flowing out of the priesthood of all believers."

Christian Smith, writing in the journal Voices In The Wilderness, develops this theme further. "God intends church to be a community of believers in which each member contributes their special gift, talent, or ability to the whole, so that, through the active participation and contribution of all, the needs of the community are met. In other words, what we ought to see in our churches is 'the ministry of the people,' not 'the ministry of the professional.' The role of the clergy is essentially the centralization and professionalization of the gifts of the whole body into one person. The problem is that, regardless of what our theologies tell us about the purpose of clergy, the actual effect of the clergy profession is to make the body of Christ lame. This happens not because clergy intend it (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers."

This fact is borne out in such passages as Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12, and in 1 Corinthians 14:26 which states. "What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church." Ministry in the New Testament church was not centered on one man, but involved each member of the "ecclesia" as a functioning "priest" (1 Peter 2: 5, 9) under the headship of Christ and directed by the Holy Spirit exercising his/her gift for the mutual edification of the body.

In his widely acclaimed 8-volume set, History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff dates the separation of Christians into clergy and laity distinctions to the third century. "During the third century it became customary to apply the term 'priest' directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called 'clergy,' with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was distinguished by this name from the Christian people or 'laity.' In the apostolic church preaching and teaching were not confined to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray and teach and exhort in the congregation. The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers 'saints' though many fall far short of their vocation," Schaff writes. "Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high-Priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship of believers." (See 1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6)

According to Zens, a number of institutional churches are moving away from clergy driven hierarchical structures and promoting 'the priesthood of all believers,' in order to address these concerns. "The phenomenon has already, I believe, caused traditional churches to reconsider the functionality of their structures. In the past 20 years, there has been a plethora of books advocating fewer clergy and more priesthood. Larry Richards' New Face for The Church was probably one of the first attention-getting books in this regard. And Howard Snyder's The Problem of Wineskins was another landmark volume. Some institutional churches sense that something is wrong, so during the week, they break up the large numbers into smaller house or cell groups."

A number of observers suggest that the movement back to the simplicity and intimacy of New Testament Christianity is a part of God's overall plan to prepare the church for difficult days ahead.

Al Dager, in a recent issue of Media Spotlight, writes. "Recognizing that there are some churches whose leadership are operating with servant's hearts and godly spirits, we nevertheless have concluded that the vast majority of churches are leaning toward the one-world, ecumenical religious system that ultimately will be the only one sanctioned by governments around the world. Those who resist the politically correct standards of the world's religious community will eventually be forced to conform or lose their tax-exempt status. It is because perilous times are upon us that the Church must begin to look anew at its form and function. While the present forms and functions have served since the Reformation, they will prove inadequate, and in some cases, even dangerous to the spiritual and temporal benefit of Christ's body. We are witnessing the beginning of the Underground Church in America - a church that will take lessons from the brethren who have survived in other countries where Faith has been and is still persecuted. If we in the West think we will escape what our brethren have suffered for centuries merely because we trust that 'things like that can never happen in America,' we are closing our eyes to reality. The persecution will come from our own households and from the churches themselves."

Unfortunately, Zens points out that Christians who follow their convictions and leave the institutional church to experience New Testament church life can expect to be misunderstood. "When believers leave the institutional church, friends and family often misunderstand and react negatively. The institutional church leaders often treat with disdain those who exit, and label them 'rebels'. The institutional church is an intimidating entity. If you leave it, people equate it with leaving Christ. We live in Minnesota, which is very Lutheran and people view us as being quite strange," he says laughing. "We've been labeled a cult and all that, but the way to show people that you are not a cult is by being non-sectarian."

It's amazing that a practice that is so clearly revealed in the New Testament has today been vilified by Christians, who react more out of fear and a sense of loyalty to tradition than a commitment to Biblical truth. Christians in the Greco-Roman world of the first century met in homes and Paul's letters in the New Testament were addressed to house churches. In fact, the very first church established on European soil was in the town of Philippi in the home of Lydia, a successful businesswoman from Thyatira. (Acts 16:15) Paul, in his epistles to the Christians in Rome, Corinth and Colossae exhorts them to greet churches that met in the homes of fellow believers. (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15)

The frequently quoted scriptural admonition about "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" used to foster guilt upon the consciences of Christians who no longer view the church as a "building", but as "the people of God," in its proper context, refers to Jewish Christians who were considering forsaking Christianity and returning to Judaism in order to avoid persecution. So the author of the book to the Hebrews (Jewish Christians) was exhorting them not to cease assembling together in their home fellowships since the early Christians had no specially designated church buildings in which to hold meetings at that time. As Craig S. Keener points out in The IVP Bible Background Commentary-New Testament, "Believers met in homes rather than church buildings for the first three centuries of the church." This later changed in 312 AD when the Emperor Constantine came to power and made institutional Christianity the state religion in Rome, converting pagan temples into Christian churches, while using state funds to support the clergy.

Howard Snyder, in his provocative book Radical Renewal: The Problem of Wineskins Today, proposes that the church adopt the radical ecclesiology of the first century to impact the world with the life-transforming message of the gospel. "A Biblical conception of the church will make it clear that the church is essential to the gospel, for it is the body of Christ," Snyder writes. "At the same time, it will be clear that human institutions and structures are not themselves the church; they are not hallowed. These are days when Christians must be clear about what the church is and what it is not. Just as many false Christs will come in the last days, so many counterfeit and apostate "churches" will litter the spiritual landscape. The church must be prepared, both as persons and as the Christian community, for the lash of persecution and the lure of the antichrist. This means the necessity for doctrinal clarity and authentic community - for both orthodoxy of belief and orthodoxy of community. Under the threat of persecution, life in community becomes both more difficult and more essential. Thus the priorities of structures which are flexible, mobile, inconspicuous, and not building-centered."

Asked whether the house church movement is simply another religious fad that people will soon tire of, Zens had this to say. "No, I don't think it will ever be just a fad for several reasons. One, it's been around a long time. There was a significant home church movement in Australia beginning in 1968. Obviously, for years home meetings have been the norm in China, Latin America and other places in the world. Two, it has New Testament justification and sanction, and so could hardly be a fad. If persecution erupts in America, the house church model could suddenly be very common, as churches that require immense weekly overhead to operate could fold virtually overnight. I think it will take catastrophic events to awaken the church to what is important in the Kingdom. If and when that happens, the shape of believers' lives together will change rapidly. As long as our affluence continues, the informal approach to church will remain. But whether something is minority or majority is hardly the issue. Our concern must be, 'how will we follow Christ in all areas of our lives? Are we going to obey the New Testament or not? One brother in our assembly has said, 'our way of doing church is not popular. It requires hard work and commitment.' The home church movement, of course, is not monolithic," Zens pointed out. "I have no idea where it will go in the next five years. But I know this, no movement will prosper long if it does not center on exalting Jesus Christ and obeying His Word."

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