The History of House Church Theology

House Church Theology has a long historical thread. That is, certain writers over the centuries have built upon the contributions of those who lived in prior generations. This page presents a shortened list of contributors--but in listing these persons it is not the intent of this short essay to necessarily "claim" them for the house church movement. It has been said elsewhere that house church theology is not a narrow path, but that it has its own "right" and "left." Even more importantly, these writers were fighting different enemies and lived in different cultures. Nevertheless, they tended to share the following common attributes:

  1. They insisted on the Bible as their sole source of theology.
  2. They were not afraid of being a persecuted minority.
  3. They, for the most part, worked outside of the establishment church, often being thrown out of, or even executed by, the church state church of their day.


We all know that the writers of history have their biases, and Church history is no exception. The great majority of our history comes from writers who were sympathetic to the church as an institution. Eusebius of Caesarea comes to mind--his fourth century writings were so a partisan that modern historians often qualify his evidence with a few grains of salt. And a great number of primary sources that represent the writings of those who did not toe the establishment line are simply no longer extant, having been either actively destroyed or simply allowed to slip away. So it is not possible to chronicle the demise of the first century house church and whatever attempts there may have been to revive it in early church history.

The late third century writer known as Tertullian is, to some extent, an exception. Although Tertullian's brilliant apologetic works have been a delight of the establishment church, his later writings have tended to have an antiestablishment-church edge. In fact, he abandoned the church in his later years to join a heresy called Montanism, a move that some have suggested as perhaps being more a protest against the enculturalization of the church than it was an actual embracing of Montanism.

Besides Tertullian, Vernard Eller has mentioned other individuals that might properly belong in this category, including Waldo of Lyons (c. 1170), Francis of Assisi (1208), John Wyclif (1320-1384) and the Lollards, and John Hus (1374-1415). All of these worked to restore biblical Christianity, although some managed to do so without directly challenging the establishment church.

The Protestant Reformation

Erasmus (1456-1536), the Dutch scholar who first published the Greek New Testament and advocated its use to reform the church through what he called "humanism," the discipline of recovering ancient texts and studying them in their original languages, was a spark that set the Reformation afire. While Erasmus never left the establishment church himself, his humanist approach and his Greek New Testament had a great impact on Luther, Zwingli, and Anabaptist reformers like Grebel. It is in the latter, the so-called "radical" reformation, that we see the biblical approach to recovering first-century Christianity most strongly expressed as it was there that masses of men and women submitted to extermination for that principle. Again, "radical" means a desire to return to the "roots," not fanaticism or zealotry--although history has shown that radicals have quickly tended to be seen as fanatics and zealots and it is for this reason that the word "radical" has seemed to have lost its original meaning. Many brilliant and courageous Christian writers--Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hübmaier, and Michael Sattler, just to name a few--had their lives extinguished during the initial years of that inferno.

Post Reformation

The Pietist movement (or, perhaps "movements," as there were so many) sprang up following the Reformation and persisted as late as the mid-1800s. Pietism was seen as a kind of second phase of the Reformation. An interesting feature of Pietism was the formation of cell groups, which were called "conventicles."

The denominational outgrowths of the Radical Reformation (Mennonites, Baptists, The Church of the Brethren, Friends, etc.) has preserved many of the works of their founders, but the contributions of pietist writers has also influenced the modern theologians that have articulated house church theology for our own culture. This historical bridge includes a relatively short list of individuals, and is charted below:

The Blumhardts, a father-and-son team, were solidly rooted in Reformed Pietism. Both were trained in the Lutheran tradition, and quickly got in trouble with the church for preaching a radical return to biblical living. Although both were mere pastors, their writings influenced a number of later theologians, including Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Kierkegaard, trained in the Lutheran tradition as a theologian, never was ordained. He was a prolific and popular writer, however, who took the Danish state church severely to task for preaching a comfortable gospel that, in his view, was a complete break with New Testament teachings. His writings have also had a significant influence on Barth and others of his generation. According to Vernard Eller, Emil Brunner once opined that "the best predecessors of Neo-Orthodoxy were 'two great figures of Pietism--Chr. Blumhardt ... and Kierkegaard."

Barth is probably the single, greatest theologian of our own century. He broke the back of nineteenth-century German theological liberalism, and when his works came to America he even won praises from Reinhold Niebuhr, prompting the editorial writer of The Christian Century to complain

At this moment of great confusion, of intellectual and moral bafflement and widespread despair, when men's hearts turn easily to many forms of magic and mysticism and subjectivity ... it is profoundly sad to find intellectual leaders who are the heirs of the liberal tradition ... renouncing their spiritual mother and pouring odium upon their head. ("Is Liberalism Bankrupt?" The Christian Century 101 (7/4/84), 664-666.)

Both Barth and Bonhoeffer were important interpreters of biblical Christianity. While these two theologians were not strictly part of the "house church" movement themselves (Barth seems to have come very close in a number of his writings), they continue to be a strong influence on contemporary writers in the house church theology field.


Christian History Magazine, especially the issues on Pietism (5:2) and The Radical Reformation (4:1).

Vernard Eller, "The Four Major New Testament Components of Radical Christian Discipleship," unpublished, 4 pages.

________, "Who Are These Blumhardt Characters Anyhow?" The Christian Century Oct. 8, 1969, 1274-1278.

________, Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, ix, xiii-xx.

________, Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship: A New Perspective. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1968.

Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian, A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Revised with corrections and a postscript: NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.