House Churches and Biblical Churches Part 1
There is a growing fad in forsaking what is called the “institutional” church in order to worship in a “house” church or fellowship. This post will discuss a few things about the movement, addressing both the good and the bad that often goes with it. It should be understood that the terms “house” and “institutional” are meant to differentiate. A church is a body of believers and can meet in any type of structure or even in the open. What is being discussed here is churches made of only a few individuals who meet together in a home (not a church plant that’s just getting started) vs a larger church body meeting in a centralized corporately owned property.
First the good. There are several positive things that are both noble, healthy, and biblical about this movement. The first is the focus on mentorship and discipleship. For the most part this group is tired of the evangelism model of church, which focuses its energy on bringing the unsaved into the church so they can become the saved. This discipleship focus is very biblical and is exactly what the church is meant to be. It was never intended by God to be an evangelistic rescue station, but a boot camp for Christians. Even a casual glance at the letters to Timothy reveal that the focus of the teaching in a church is to be that of doctrine. Ultimately, the reason for the evangelistic model comes down to size and numbers. The church that has the most people in it must be the best. The house church instead is typically motivated to develop deeper theology and to motivate its members to be evangelistic instead of expecting the minister to be the evangelist.
Second, the house church tends to emphasize relationships over programs. Programs tend to divide the churches into smaller segments, which is seen in junior church, Sunday school, youth ministries, ladies ministries, senior ministries, etc. This is a consumer oriented church, it is about entertaining the visitor or member instead of building close multi-generational relationships. The consumer oriented church looks at how they can serve the customer instead of how the church member can serve the rest of the body of Christ. This differs from the house church in which each member is there to serve because each member is necessary. When a church is small, it must by default require more service from each individual than a large church would. As a pastor of a small church (about 100 people), I have been the counselor, the youth minister, the song leader, an usher, the janitor, the moving crew, and pretty much anything else. I have actually said that one of the tempting things about a larger church is that I would have much less work to do. House churches see programs as weak attempts at trying to educate with entertainment, which in reality is sacrificing theology on the altar of fun.
A third good thing about the goals of most house churches is the desire to really get into what the Bible is actually saying instead of what a denomination may say it means. Most house church members feel strongly that their decision to worship in a house with a couple of families is a more biblical representation of what the early church did (more about this in the second half). They tend to feel strongly that the institutional church has corrupted or at least cluttered what God really has said and as result they feel that they are reclaiming truth for Christ. They tend to be really passionate about theology and discovering truth.
Fourth, the typical house church is a close knit group, who actively engage with each other outside of the “church” time. They tend to interact with each other a few times a week in a purposeful way. They also tend to be willing to sacrifice for each other and to eagerly provide help in times of need. In these ways the church is truly “doing life together”.
Another reason for this movement, but not necessarily a good one is found in their desire to be free from authority (which can sometimes include abuse) found in many institutional churches. Many house churches are filled with individuals who have been abused, ignored, neglected, and ridiculed by arrogant pastors, deacons, and/or elders in denominational institutional churches. As a result house churches often function with a plurality of teachers/elders, many of which have little to no formal training, but are relying on their interpretation of the Bible as their authority.
I wish that we could just end this here, but we can’t. The house church movement also has many bad elements which are attached to it. Before jumping into those elements, it is important to note that almost every one of the good points of a house church are valid problems in many institutional churches today. Many are hyper evangelistic in focus, many are program driven, many do discourage close relationships due to size, many fail to provide meaningful service opportunities for their members, many have abandoned strong biblical teaching, and many are too authoritarian. However, many of these problems can be solved without abandoning the established church in favor of a house church. With that in mind it is time to examine a few of the problems with the house church. As we do so, I will be specifically drawing from the writings of Dale Partridge, who is the founder of Relearnchurch (dot) org, a site dedicated to showing people how to start their own house church. I realize that his views do not speak for all of those who practice house churches, but his views do seem to encapsulate the general views that I have personally seen and studied.
The first problem is the assumption that the house church was the earliest model in the book of Acts. Typically those who are advocating for house churches tend to feel that Acts 2 sets the gold standard for what a church should look like, and then they ignore what the passage says. Seven times in Scripture is the word “house” attached to the church. Twice it specifically says that they were in the temple daily and then broke bread house by house, and once that Paul taught publicly and house to house. The other four usages were in Paul’s epistles specifically saying to greet the church in a particular home. Each of those were the homes of wealthy individuals who would have the room to hold a large assembly. We see that the passage typically used which says “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart..”. Thus the breaking bread was not the teaching aspect but a separate fellowship aspect. They learned at the temple and then ate with each other. The problem with that is by 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, we can see that the church had a definite hierarchy, a definite meeting place, and definite doctrinal position. We can establish much of this by the fact that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to correct structure and doctrine problems, and by his use of assembly in chapters 10,11,14, and 16. By 3 John there existed established locations for the church as noted by Diotrephes’ refusal to allow some individuals in.
This also leads us to the second problem with the house church movement, they tend to feel that God’s desire is that a church should only have between 5-20 people in it. Dale Partridge’ site specifically states that up to 40 is possible, but that it should consider splitting at that point as it is impossible or difficult to maintain a family feel. Yet, they use Acts 2 to support the movement. The context of Acts 2 is that around 3000 were added to the church that day. So the breaking bread house to house was to feed the 3000, many of whom were foreigner Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost. They literally had nowhere else to go. This group then sold all that they had and developed a commune together in chapter 4. The church had by this time grown to have several thousand. This definitely doesn’t fit the house church narrative. I agree that it wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t in a house. Eventually persecution came to break up the assembly so that they would move on to spread the Gospel to other regions, but as they went they tended to find locations where they could assemble together, as seen in Antioch and Samaria.
The third problem with Partridge’s view is that it is based on skewed biblical interpretation. He claims to be a truth teller, but when it comes to understanding even the basic context of a passage he fails miserably. In defending his view of a church ideally having less than 15 people in it, he states that Christ set the example by having only 12 disciples. This is not the case. For a movement intent upon biblical study this should have been easy to discover. Again, Acts shows the answer, chapter 1 verse 15 reveals that the number of the disciples at the time of Christ’s resurrection was at least 120. These were men who had followed Christ through much of His ministry, and who had not abandoned Him. It should be noted that they were all in the same location, possibly the home where they were staying.
The fourth problem with at least Partridge’s view of the “biblical” church is in what he declares to be the essential elements of worship. He claims that 1 Corinthians 16:26 provides the answer for the appropriate liturgy. “How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” It seems strange that this would be what he chose for a support passage. This is coming from a chapter where Paul has just discouraged chaos, corporate speaking in unknown tongues, and was filled with division. This verse is actually (contextually) condemning the chaos that was going on. Partridge uses this verse to show that everyone should have a part in the service, when in actuality it is condemning that very thing. This is not going to be a discussion of whether the gifts such as prophecy or tongues are still in use today, but instead one of properly exigeting the text. What Partridge is doing is called eisegesis, when an individual is interpreting a passage through what he is looking for instead of allowing a passage to just say what it means.
The fifth and final problem that I will address here is that of authority. This movement tends to shy away from the title of pastor and instead focuses on plurality of elders. In a church of 5-20 this would end up being essentially every adult man in the group or at least the leading 2. When many of these churches were started because of problems with authority (some for good reasons), they tend to have a lack of desire to be under authority. Often the men leading these churches are poorly qualified, falling into the same poor type of biblical interpretation that Partridge shows on his site. The Scriptures put forth that the elder/bishop must not be a novice, but one who is tested and tried. This is sadly lacking in many of these churches.
As a quick recap for this first part on house churches and biblical churches. The problems listed here are not exhaustive, but the most obvious ones, while also noting that the reasons for the house church have developed through real problems in the institutional church. In the next segment, we will look more closely at what a biblical church actually looks like and then explore where those elements fit best and how to develop them.