The Doctrine of Church
Can one be a Christian and never go to church? Of course, we need to define "going to church." The Scriptures condemn the pointless practice of going to an institutional assembly for the wrong reasons (Ps. 50, Amos 5:21-24, etc.). Many say they avoid church because they worship God alone, "in their own way." Well, we certainly are not required to worship in the identical manner--besides, there is no one way described in the Bible anyway. But one can't really be a Christian alone. Christianity, just like Judaism, is corporate from its very roots. It is absolutely essential for God's children to learn to work and play together in the kingdom, as house church theology places the kingdom both here (in the church) and in the future (in heaven). So there can be no individual Christian, nor can there be a "radio" church Christian, nor even an "Internet" church Christian. Why? Because of the person-to-person relationship that is at the very heart of the doctrine of church.
One might say that the relationships in the institutional church excel in quantity and the house church provides a chance for better quality. But when Jesus said "the two or three gathered together" (Mt. 18:20), it seems that he had the house church in mind. One can hide in a large church--going week after week and never really building a relationship with anyone. When people ask, "How are you?", one responds with an automatic "Fine" no matter how big the hurt may be inside. This is not the way the church is to behave, whether it be big or small. But it is easier to share burdens within a small fellowship because the the lower risk that a confidence might be abused.
Recovering the Fallen Church
By the time of the Protestant Reformation, "church" had so long been in alliance with the state that it surely must have seemed a "department" of the government to its subjects. One would go to the state to pay taxes or register the transfer of a deed, and one would go to the church to register a birth or to have a marriage performed. It would be a long and acrimonious process that would span continents and centuries before the notion that there should be a would reach the acceptance that it has today--and there still remains great political pressure in our own day that laws based on the Bible should be re-instituted in order to rid society of harmful elements.
The house church movement saw the church as having "fallen," and probably would have dated that fall in AD 313, when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which gave Christians tolerance in the Roman Empire. Later, in 380, Christianity became mandatory for Roman citizenship. Many in the institutional church today still regard these events as a great and glorious day for Christ, but the radical reformers saw in it a tremendous evil. Constantine began a process that changed the church from a persecuted minority to the status of royalty. When he summoned the bishops to Nicaea for the First Ecumenical Council in 325, he had them all arrayed in robes of royalty and saw to their comfort as honored guests of state. He doted over the bishops who had suffered crippling injury during the persecutions of Christianity. It is not hard to see how these bishops saw in this radical change in their social status the very fulfillment of the promises of God--the state would help the church reform the world and then Christ would return to reign.
As it quickly became flooded with unregenerate people, the church was forced to form hierarchical systems like other human organizations and evolved a theology around the "bishop." That is, where the was, there was the church. God was understood as working through this chain of human power. This idea had its roots not in the Bible, but in Greek philosophy--God was perfect, humanity was corrupt; therefore, the way to build the church is to create a layered organization that increased in purity from the bottom to the top (see the figure).
Protestants reject this approach in general. Luther spoke of the "priesthood of the believer," rejecting the need for any intermediary between the individual believer and God. The radical reformers accepted this contribution but centered their understanding of their relationship with God on community, rather than on the individual. They saw the Protestant model as excessively individualistic. It did not take into account the need for relationships between believers.
The Biblical Material
According to (Anabaptist) Conrad Grebel, the church was not to be found in the bishop's multitudes, nor in the "partially" reformed state church of the Protestant Reformation. Rather, it was "the few who believed and lived right." It was a fellowship of people who held each other mutually accountable and who covenanted together to follow their Lord. Biblically, this concept is found in Mt. 18, where Jesus speaks of the "two or three gathered together" in his name. When they so gather, they have the power to meaning to reject or accept behaviors (ethics) and that the results of the deliberations that they conduct in this manner will be honored by God. In Mt. 16, the term "bind and loose" appears again, this time in the context of the church having the "keys to heaven." In Acts 15 there is an example of such an assembly, and we are told (Acts 15:28) that the result of their meeting is "good with the Holy Spirit and with us." This is the biblical basis of the house church doctrine of church: it is only when believers meet in the company of other believers, put aside their own agendas and ambitions, and open themselves to the Holy Spirit, that can they properly hear the voice of their king, the living Christ, as he now sits at the right hand of the Father and rules his Kingdom. Always persecuted by authority figures, the early house church people felt that the Holy Spirit spoke most clearly to the group. Because this corporate process is centered in a desire to be obedient to Christ, God honors the decisions made in this manner.
House church theology says that the work of the church is to co-operate with God (1 Cor. 3:9). This means that 1 Cor. 13-15, Rom. 12-14, and Eph. 4 (the "spiritual gifts" passages) are intended not as general statements of Christian behavior or of individual gifting, but are intended to instruct local churches (house churches) in proper behavior, to appropriate spiritual gifts in a corporate context, to appreciate the gifts of fellow brothers and sisters, to manifest other behaviors that make the church an effective outpost of the Kingdom of God on earth, and, especially, to love each other within the church fellowship (the proper context for interpreting 1 Cor. 13). So the house church doctrine of church centers on gathered people, never the individual, the denomination, or the "universal church" (which has no real biblical basis at all). When Paul speaks of it is always the local church to which he is referring.
When the people of a house church gather, it is not properly a mere group of individuals that walks through a liturgy or receives grace from a treasury administered by human agents. Rather, it is an assembly of believers that comes together as part of the "family" of God (Eph. 3:15) for fellowship, mutual support, and to further the agenda of God. The relationships that are to be built within that family are to prepare us for an eternity with God and to be a model for our own, biological families in this fallen world.
A Final Caveat
One more thing needs to be said about the church. This doctrine was a costly one, thousands of martyrs having paid the ultimate price. When one reads Lk. 12:51-3, Mt. 5:11-12, and many other passages, one sees that the believer's life is not expected to be an easy one. In Jn. 13, when he realized that "the Father had put all things under his power," Jesus' response was to wash his disciples feet. We get this doctrine not so much from the text of the early Anabaptist and Baptist confessions--we get it from the manner that those confessions were made. Believers huddled together and decided whether to give in to the powers that oppressed them or to carry on and take the consequences of continuing their struggle against the state church and its minions. It was true in those days, and it is true in the underground churches in the world today--where the church suffers, it is strong. When the church relaxes in comfort and ease, it declines.