It is appropraite to ask, "What do you mean by counter-culture?" In the 1960s, the term came to mean civil disobedience or any number of other anti-establishment activities, usually associated with activism. The counter-cultural nature of the Christian gospel is not that at all--rather it is the embodyment and actualization of Philippians 3:20 in the life of every believer. The disciple echos Paul's words, "Our citizenship is in heaven...." We are all brothers and sisters in common citizenship in heaven--a new and different culture. Yes, we are to live in the culture of the world--and we are to witness to it--but heaven is against the culture of the world. Likewise, we are against the culture of the world.
Mt. 5-7 is so counter-cultural that the Scofield Reference Bible assures its readers that they need not pay it any heed, arguing that it only kicks in during the "coming kingdom on earth" (note on Mt. 5:3). House church theologians, on the other hand, have always understood this sermon as outlining the radical discipleship that a true commitment to the Lord entails--the very "teachings" that Jesus commissioned the church to bring to the whole world at the end of Matthew's gospel.
Nevertheless, the culture itself has appropriated portions of the Sermon on the Mount to promote its own "civic religion." But these passages were intended to demonstrate the radical nature of true discipleship, the followers of Jesus even taking the risk of further injury in order to be a right witness to those in the culture who persecute them. Consider the following:
|Verse||Culture's Interpretation||Biblical Interpretation|
Turn the other cheek.
|Forgive and forget. Make peace, not war.||The passage does not say "Turn the other cheek" as if to say that the disciple should invite another blow of the same kind. The first blow was to the right cheek, which was the backhand slap that demonstrated the dominance of the powerful over the powerless. The slapper wants the slappee to slink away in shame. But when the slappee is a disciple, he/she is to hold his/her ground and offer the left cheek. This forces the man of power to either escalate his persecution to a blow in earnest or to himself back down and slink away in shame. The disciple reflects the evil back to its source, exposes the sin, and begs repentance.|
Give the other cloak.
|Don't get upset over a minor loss. After all, you have insurance.||After a landlord foreclosed on a failed farm property, he would sue the farmer for everything else he might own--but would never claim the "cloak"--the garment warn closest to the skin--by Deut. 24:12-13. But Jesus says that the disciple will not withhold even the cloak. He would add the cloak to the pile of assets and walk, naked, out of the court and into the arms of his fellow disciples--saying, in effect, "There--now you have everything. You have no more hold over me." This, of course, forced the persecutor to look upon nakedness, a sin (see Gen. 9:20ff--it is not a sin for circumstances to cause one to be naked; the sin is in looking upon nakedness). Again, the sin of the persecutor is reflected back to its source by the disciple of Christ.|
Go the second mile.
|Do more than the boss says and you will get the promotion.||The verb here is not "force," but "requisition." It is only otherwise used in the New Testament to describe the requisitioning of the labor of Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus' cross (Mt. 27:32). Roman centurions had the right to requisition citizens to carry a pack for one mile--but anything further than that would cause the centurion to be judged guilty of the abuse of a citizen! It was common for the powerless to be "hassled" by the Roman occupying forces in this way--but Jesus says that the disciple is to pick up the pack gladly (perhaps engaging the adversary in banter as he carries the pack--asking about his family, the weather, and so on!). By continuing past the 1-mile limit, the disciple turns the tables on the persecutor, forcing him to beg him to drop the pack!|
Outstanding examples of house churches since the Protestant Reformation have demonstrated their intense counter-cultural nature, and left a trail of documentation that cites the Sermon on the Mount with great frequency. Here are just a few of the major house church movements in history:
One might ask just what these struggles have to do with "house church theology." The answer is, "Everything!" The doctrines to which this site is dedicated were born out of these struggles--particularly those of the Anabaptists (represented by the various Mennonite denominations, including the Amish). Many of those who most influenced house church theology had once been well trained Catholic priests who left the establishment church because of deep convictions for which they would pay the ultimate price. Nearly all of these perished in the first few years of the persecution, to be replaced by untrained people who were responsible for some of the few outrages that would stain the Anabaptists in history right up to modern times.
Here is an old account of the fateful house church meeting that gave birth to the Anabaptist movement. It took place on Jan. 21, 1525, in the home of Felix Manz in the city of Zurich. It was an illegal meeting, as the Zurich City Council had forbidden this group to meet on pain of death. The decision they took to follow their consciences and defy the state church would ultimately cost all of them their lives.
And it came to pass that they were together until a dread began to come over them, yea, they were pressed in their hearts. Thereupon, they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Knower of hearts, implored him to enable them to do his divine will and to manifest his mercy toward them... After the prayer, George Cajacob arose and asked Conrad [Grebel] to baptize him him, for the sake of God, with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with that request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained deacon to perform such work. After that was done the others similarly desired George to baptize them, which he also did upon their request. Each confirmed the other in the service of the gospel, and they began to teach and keep the faith.
One of the earliest of the Anabaptists, a Swiss Brethren named Conrad Grabel, defined the church to be "the few who believed and lived right." Do you see the house church in that definition? Grabel would have been completely happy to see the great masses of unregenerate people who had flooded the state churches of his day walk out and never come back. He wanted to bring the church back to the way it was in the first century, before the corruption of the state church that can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
Many think the true church in America will be eventually forced into the house church "underground" because of its refusal to accept the civic religion that now manifests itself as "political correctness." Some foresee the Bible itself as being deemed "hate literature" because of its strong condemnation of certain sins that our society now regards as completely acceptable. Of course there will always be large churches that play the political game well; their Bibles will be those that leave out the "offensive" material (those "Bibles" are already in our bookstores).
There is a wealth of literature on these topics. Durnbaugh's The Believers' Church is a good starting place (see Resources). Other sources available in theological libraries include William Estep's The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), Champlin Burrage's The Early English Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), Henry C. Veder's A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1912), just to name a few.
Revelation 2 and 3 evaluates seven house churches, some receiving praise and others severe warnings. Read those chapters carefully and try to determine how they were ranked. As Vernard Eller once commented, some of these churches were "successful," and some were "faithful." It was the faithful churches that were praised, and the successful churches that were condemned. Indeed, the Lord stands outside the door of every church and knocks (Rev. 3:20). Some churches will let him in to rule, others will be ruled only by human decisions and the dictates of the culture. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches" (Rev. 3:22).
Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believers' Church,, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 70. Richard Gardner, Matthew, Believers Church Commentary, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 108-110. Both of these books are listed on the Resources page.