House Church Theology


House church theology might be described as that branch of Christian theology that centers on the small assembly of men and women that covenant together to follow rule of the living Christ and to be mutually accountable for living the Christian life. Right away you can see that it is the assembly (the Greek ekklesia that English Bibles translate "church") that is at the heart of house church theology, and it is for that reason that the doctrine of church is the first doctrine that needs to be set forth because it is in that doctrine that the essence of the house church is discovered. Above all, house church theology is centered in the gathered people just like the ancient synagogues upon which the first century churches were modeled. This is no trivial distinction, because it is very difficult for those of us who were brought up in the West and who were steeped in the rugged individualism of the early 1900s and the self-esteem of the late 1900s to think of ourselves as a mere parts of a corporate body. Yet Paul constantly reminds us that our house church fellowship is the "Body of Christ" and that we each need to work on making ourselves smaller and our Lord greater as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Table of Doctrines

There is a lot more to Christian theology than the doctrine of church, of course. House church theology embraces the great doctrines of Christian orthodoxy. As time permits, it is intended to present all of the essential doctrines in these pages. It is inevitable that some readers may disagree in many areas, and one advantage of publishing theology on a web page rather than in a book is that it is possible here to engage in discussions and to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth together. You might, therefore, look at this site as a "dynamic book"--one that is in the continuous flux that comes from the interchange of ideas. Is this not so for each of us? As we live through our own experiences, many of our beliefs and understandings change. There are things I have put here that I will regret years from now, so let it be stated right here at the start that it is very likely that much of the material presented here is in error. One can only echo the words of the early house church theologian and martyr Balthaser Hübmaier:

If I have taught only truth, why abuse me? If error, any man may set me in the right way with the 2 spiritual Word. As man I may very well err, but will be no heretic.1

Jas. 3 starts with the words, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." Contemplating how teachers will be called to account for all the error they have presented during their ministries, Dr. Walter Kaiser once quipped, "Should you find two lines when you get to heaven, and one line is full of pastors and theologians--get in the other line. It will move much faster." In any case, don't get in the line behind me.

Source of Theology

The ultimate source of house church theology can only be the Bible. But there is a great deal more to the development of doctrine than merely sitting down with the Bible and writing theology, as such modern ideologues as Lewis Sperry Chafer have attempted to do. Chafer commented that his eight-volume theology had the benefit of "unclouded objectivity" because he came to his subject with absolutely no academic training!

Flow chart

The relationship between doctrine and the Canon (Bible) may be seen in this way. God works through "salvation history," producing an inspired record that is used by the Church as a basis for its interpretation of that revelation and to validate its mission. The church documents its understanding by writing doctrines that are colored by its own history and by the gradual resolution of conflicting positions within the church. Those doctrines serve as a source of teaching and guidance for the community of faith. Therefore, doctrines are written by the church, for the church.

The process of doctrinal development is shaped by the struggles of God's people in a manner that is illustrated by the diagram. Theology is shaped by history. The struggles of the church today are not all new with our generation--most have been worked out before by brilliant and devoted men and women in history. It is for that reason that these web pages are laced with historical references. House Church History

This is not to say that theology is static. Far from it. Every generation and culture brings new problems that require new theology. New understandings from historical or archaeological research need to be integrated into our theological thought. The very language in which doctrine is expressed changes, creating a need to rewrite and rephrase. Scripture, of course, has veto power over doctrines, and we need to constantly test our doctrines against the Bible--but it is absolutely essential to keep the history of each doctrine in mind both to understand, and to consider modifications to, Christian doctrine.

The Development of the Canon

The Bible is also called the "Canon" of Scripture because it serves as a measuring rod. The reformers used it to measure the state church, and the modern house churches use it to measure and validate Christian experience and doctrine. The word "canon" also describes the process by which material entered the Bible:

  • The Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
  • The Prophets (Judges-Kings, Isaiah-Malichi).
  • The Writings (Others, including Psalms, Job, etc).
  • The New Testament witness--the "capstone."

It is important to view canon as process not only because of historical development, but because each part depended upon, and was compatible with, the part(s) upon which it continued to build. The "house" illustration attempts to convey this point. Nothing in the Prophets contradicted the Law--the foundation that had already been laid. Nothing in in the New Testament contradicted the Old (Mt. 5:17)--in fact, Paul always taught the gospel to the Jews by demonstrating that the Hebrew Scriptures already contained that gospel (Acts 17:2-4, 18:4-5; see also Lk. 24:27).

The canon developed as the community of faith embraced new materials that continued to shape and fulfill God's revelation in a manner that was compatible with that which had already been revealed, while discarding those books that were incompatible. A prophet's work would be accepted or rejected, for example, by testing its reliability (Deut. 18:21-22) but also on its compatibility with that already revealed (Deut. 13:1-5).

That the canon has not grown since the Patristic period of church history is therefore not a result of God ceasing to reveal himself (hardly the case--see the doctrine of Revelation). It is a result of the fact that no new material of biblical stature has come along since. The canon is already quite adequate for guiding faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Such materials as The Book of Mormon and The Gospel of Thomas are not in the canon because they are incompatible with the material already established--whether they are recent (the former) or ancient (the latter) in origin.

The Apocryphal books warrant a special note. Church fathers such as Jerome (who translated them into Latin) had a very low opinion of these books, and they were not part of the canon as it emerged from the Patristic period. They were appended by the Roman Catholic church in 1546 as a polemic against the Protestant Reformation. It is for this reason that they continue to be rejected by Protestants.

The Shaping of Doctrines

Different denominations, even different churches, have appropriated the Bible in various ways and have ordered their doctrines differently. One might say that they have colored some doctrines with different hues, have altogether denied others, and have developed whole new ones. While some Christians depend on creeds (and house church theologians affirm the great creeds of orthodoxy such as that of Nicaea), house church theology tends to be confessional. We are witnesses to what we believe rather than an institution that places limits on what may be believed for the purpose of excluding outsiders. Several of these historical Confessions of faith that have been passed on, especially by Anabaptists and early Baptists, and these provide a foundation for the understanding of Scripture just as they provide a way to trace theological thought through the history of the house church movement. Doctrines, in other words, evolve. They are the result of historical trials and events as much as they are the fruits of intellectual inquiry or academic study. It is the conviction of the writer that doctrines cannot properly be understood without studying that history. God has blessed the church with great men who have helped articulate doctrines, just as he has blessed it with theological "villains" who served to bring on controversies from which doctrines emerged. Without an understanding of this history, it is feared that these doctrines might tend to appear as just so much dogma.

Nota Bene
One thing follows from the above discussion. Doctrines are the result of a group's understanding of Scripture; they never should be allowed to supercede Scripture. As such, they stand before the church as guides to faith and teaching and are always subject to revision as the Holy Spirit guides the community. The house church tends to have a great deal of freedom in its doctrines, perhaps even to the point that many are on the brink of heresy. The best protection against error is to simply take the advice that Paul gave to the Thessalonian church: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from all forms of evil" (1 Thess. 5:19-22). The culture wants to influence our doctrines. We need to be careful when we accept innovations and ideas from the culture by constantly comparing our beliefs, teachings, and doctrines against the canon of Scripture. The Epistles show that, even in the first century, many churches failed to perform this test. The situation is surely the same today.


1. H. C. Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier, The Leader of the Anabaptists (NY: Knickerbocker Press, 1905).

First Doctrine