"Mission" and the House Church

In his book The House Church, Del Birkey lists the three essential "priorities" of commitment in the church:

  1. Commitment to Jesus as Lord,
  2. Commitment to Christ's Body in Community, and
  3. Commitment to the World--My Work In It, and My Witness to It.

The church, in other words, needs to be made of committed believers, it must function in a corporate manner, and it must have a sense of mission.

Many house churches maintain a membership in an institutional church as an outlet for Christian mission, and there is certainly nothing wrong with this. But it is also possible to envision "mission" completely within the house church. What does it mean to be a "missionary" when operating out of a small fellowship?

The Great Commission

The most quoted "mission" verses are surely Mt. 28:19-20, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations...." The passage is the climax of the whole of Matthew, because it immediately follows a statement that the resurrected Christ has all authority on heaven and earth. After asserting this complete authority, we should not be surprised to find an imperative--a command--and we are not disappointed when the word "Go" appears in the first or second word of the next verse.

But the actual Greek text does not have an imperative verb here--rather, it has an aorist participle--a form of verb that can support a number of interpretations. Since "go" is a verb of motion, the imperative is a valid translation. But it is just as legitimate to translate the participle with the adverbial sense of manner, modifying the finite verb, "make disciples," which is an imperative verb and therefore the true mission command. Since the two remaining verbs, "baptizing" and "teaching," are also participles of the same case, number, and gender as "going", the passage makes a wonderful three-way parallel:

Therefore, make disciples in this manner: by going ... baptizing ... teaching....

These three participles give the Great Commission command a dynamic, rather than puncticular flavor. The "going" is among the ethnos--that is, the people of various ethnic groups. The Great Commission is therefore a manner of life for the disciples--a way of life that is commanded in the climax of the book by the one with authority over all things:

THEREFORE, make disciples--and do it in this manner--by going among the people of all ethnic groups, churching them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you [in this book].

Tradition holds that the Twelve disciples did, in fact, go great distances to spread the gospel. Paul, of course, did so too (but, remember, he was "set apart" by the Holy Spirit to do so in Acts 13! Why would the Spirit have done this if all Christians were to be foreign missionaries?). The main body of early Christians stayed where they were. Were they being disobedient? Or is it possible that they understood the Great Commission as a call to a life of obedience to, and witness for, the one who has authority over all things? You decide.

For me, I take the great commission in this way: The normative Christian life is one that takes the great commission very seriously--we are to make disciples--all of us, not only those set apart for foreign missions. We are to do this by going through life very much like the non-Christian--accepting employment, buying goods and services, mixing with the crowd (all ethnic groups), and dining with sinners and tax collectors. But we are to do this with a proper witness to the world, constantly seeking opportunities to be the light of the world and salt of the earth. Matthew's gospel is full of ways to do this, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5 - 7). Let's look at some specific opportunities for Mission in this manner for which the house church is particularly well positioned in the present age:

  1. Evangelism. 1 Cor. 14:22-25 describes a house church setting in which a visitor has been invited. When that church is functioning rightly, its members "prophesy." What can this mean? I suggest that Paul is saying that its members converse about the activities of God. This is the way modern house churches operate--allowing a time for fellowship during which its members speak of the things they have seen God do since their last meeting. Theologians call this "theological reflecting." When the church does this, the visitor becomes "convinced that he is a sinner and will be judged by all" (NIV, cf.: NRSV, "reproved by all and called to account by all"). Paul goes on to describe how God can use that encounter to draw the visitor to Himself. In other words, although house church theology is centered around the gathered, committed believers, it is okay to invite visitors! The same is true in Jas. 2:2. Why? It seems clear that the visitors are there because they have been invited and that the Holy Spirit has caused them to look with favor on the invitation.

    Institutional churches, of course, welcome visitors too. But they go on with their planned liturgy, visitors doing the best they can to figure out what is going on. But, in a house church, the presence of the visitor should have first place on the agenda. All members can show the gentleness and love of Jesus to the visitor, and can devote time to answering questions and clarifying what God is doing in bringing him or her into their midst. What a wonderful way to evangelize the world! No printed tracts, no "four spiritual laws," and no "Roman Road"--just a simple sharing over the open Bible about the very real work of God among real people who happen to be in "all the world."

  2. The "Damaged." I, personally, have knocked on many doors and have spoken with many secular people about church. Some have never had any kind of church experience, and are simply disinterested because of the negative propaganda they have received during their schooling. This is easy to understand and difficult to overcome, and the house church has no particular advantage in this case.

    But a great number of non-church going adults seem to fit a different pattern. They have been to church in their youth, and some even as adults. Something has caused them to leave! Why do they no longer practice Christianity? Surely, some have simply been to lifeless churches in which God was not present and where Christianity therefore made no sense. Others may have been in youth programs that concentrated on "fun" rather than discipleship, or perhaps they had been rushed to baptism or confirmation with the help of images of fire and brimstone (that is, they have been sold "fire insurance") so that some church's annual report would show impressive growth. But upon probing deeper, many will admit to having left the church because of a political power play, an abuse of authority or of the "counseling couch," a betrayed confidence, something involving the misappropriation of church funds, or some other incident that caused a deep hurt. Others came from a church tradition that subordinated the grace of Jesus to the idea of sin, penance, and eternal punishment to such an extent that they feel the weight of years of unconfessed sin. Some of these people are sure they will go to sleep one night an wake up in hell--can we blame them if they react with anger at the very mention of the words "church," "God," or "Jesus Christ."

    Let's call these people, "The Damaged." Jesus loves them, but they have put up a wall as a reaction to the damage that was caused by some institutional church in their past. It is not easy to tear down that wall--it is especially difficult for another institutional church to do so. But the house church is in a very unique position to rescue the "damaged" because it is much less likely to manifest the problems that cause damage. The house church is not interested in collecting offerings; it's counseling ministry is centered in the group, rather than an individual; it has no authoritative, hierarchical structure; it tends to encourage and listen more than discourage and condemn. It has no sermons that would force a person to be a captive audience to a message he or she is not ready to receive.

    If my own survey results are anywhere near accurate, the ministry to "The Damaged" is a vast mission field right in our own backyard. It tries to reclaim the debris left in the wake of a multitude of well intentioned, graceless, clumsy churches with authoritative pastors, poor exegesis, sloppy theology, and pious deacons. Many of these churches may be gone now, but their legacy lives on in the legions of "the damaged" that have been left behind.

  3. Giving. The New Testament occasionally speaks of the collection of money from house churches in order to help the saints in another place. It is Paul who is the facilitator of this in at least one instance. Perhaps the para-church organizations that fill our mailboxes with solicitations are the best modern equivalents (and this writer has supported many of them). But the real heart of the house church life style is to learn to be generous in a personal way--to "cast one's bread upon the waters" (Eccl. 11:1)--to develop personal sensitivity to what the Holy Spirit is doing within us, showing us where the actual, immediate needs are. Again, going back to that participial adverb of manner, the Christian is to walk through the world looking for needs--both spiritual needs and material needs (Jas. 2:15-17). We have been trained by our tax accountants to only give to organizations that have been certified by the IRS as tax deductions--but the house church member will not be constrained by these kinds of strings between the government and the church. When we learn to open our purse and give to the needy person right on the spot, with no consideration as to the deductiblity of the gift and with no recourse to such time-worn excuses as "he'll just use it to buy a bottle or more drugs," we have learned what Jesus meant when he said "where your heart is, there your treasure will be also." Giving is for us to learn to be Christ-like; whether the receiver of the gift will use it in the right way is his or her responsibility, not ours.

    The polished offering plates and the sealed offering envelopes have their place--but they obscure Christian agape. They insulate the donor from the donee, and make giving a matter of budget and routine. They let us say to the needy one, "We gave at the church." Might we be more biblical by spending a fraction of the sum if we do so in a personal way that responds to the guiding of the Holy Spirit? See 2 Cor. 9:6-15.

    There is a postscript to the question of giving. Have you noticed that many (perhaps most) of the "giving"passages in the New Testament deal with giving to other Christians? If we combine that fact with the idea that the ultimate function of the church is to co-labor with God (1 Cor. 3:9 ), is there a hint that we are to have a hand in helping our brother or sister in Christ as they depend on the assurances of Mt. 6:25-34? Members of a house church should not be bashful about confessing their own material deficits, just as they should not feel insulted when they hear such a confession. Consider the joyful sharing within the house churches depicted in Acts 2:43-47.


The "Climax" of Matthew

That the call to mission in Mt. 28 is the climax of the book is an insight of Oscar S. Brooks, who wrote of the persistent motif of the authority of Jesus that is woven throughout the book. The theme is introduced when the Magi bow to the infant Jesus in Mt. 2:11. In Mt. 3:11, John the Baptist speaks of Jesus as the one with the greater authority. In Mt. 4:23 as Jesus demonstrates his authority over disease and over the demonic (Mt. 4:24). In Mt. 7:29 Jesus speaks "with authority." Almost immediately (Mt. 8:9) a centurion makes much ado of his own authority but submits to Jesus as the one with the power to heal his servant. We quickly see Jesus' authority over nature when he calms the storm (Mt. 8:27), and the crowd remarks on his authority after Jesus heals the paralytic (Mt. 9:8). Jesus delegates authority in sending the Twelve (Mt. 10:1), is Lord of the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1ff), and is "chosen" by God (Mt. 12:18). This pattern is finally resolved in Mt. 28:18 where Jesus' authority is described as complete. Prof. Brooks argues that it can be no coincidence that the call to mission would immediately follow this consummating claim to authority (why else would there be an explicit "therefore"?). Oscar S. Brooks, "Matthew 28:16-20 and the Design of the First Gospel," Journal for the Study of the New Testament (Jan. 1981), 10:2-18.


This word is often translated "nations," but doing so can confuse the modern notion of "nation" with the first century idea of a group of "people" that share language and/or other cultural distinctives. It has the idea of "people as opposed to kings." See Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 218.


The Greek word here can be interpreted in a mechanical sense (dipping, immersing) as in the case of ritual washing (Mk. 7:4, Lk. 11:38), and the immersions performed by John are closest to this meaning since John was immersing people who were already Jews. It also had a special meaning in the first century--an immersion in water that accompanied the initiation of a proselyte into the community of faith (see Theology: Doctrine of Baptism) and it is also used of Jesus in the sense of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11) which was actualized at Pentecost upon the birth of the church (Acts 2). In the Great Commission, the word is associated with the (Trinitarian) name, which can only have the initiatory meaning (cf. the possibility of abuse of baptizing in name, 1 Cor. 1:10-17). The biblical command of Jesus is thus to make disciples, to initiate the new disciples into a house church (through the Judaic rite of initiation that involves water immersion), and to teach them. For more on the word baptizo see Arndt and Gingrich (op.cit.,) 131-132.

The Greek root didomi (to teach, teacher, teaching, etc.) occurs 212 times in the New Testament. A great portion of Matthew's gospel contains teaching material, and the Sermon on the Mount concludes with the statement that "the crowds were astounded at his teaching" (Mt. 7:28). Teaching, not preaching, is the dominant emphasis of our gospels. Preaching (sharing the good news of Jesus Christ) is for outsiders, not people who are already believers, and is best done through dialog, not lecture (notwithstanding such outstanding exceptions as Spurgeon, Whitefield, and Wesley).

Statistics of church-caused damage are just about impossible to come by because of the incentive to cover up such incidents, yet the fact that children and women are often abused by the members of clergy or trusted church workers is an open scandal. When such a scandal breaks, churches often split--half wanting a new pastor and half refusing to accept the fact that their pastor could "do such a thing," and the offender is often free to get another job in another city where he can repeat the same behavior among a new flock. The evidence seems to indicate that we pastors are no different from other counseling professionals in that a disturbing number of predators are attracted into our ranks because they see church people as fodder upon which they may act out their secret agendas. Peter Rutter, M.D., has published a study of the phenomenon:
Almost 80% of the women I spoke with had an incident to recount about having been approached sexually by a man who was her doctor, therapist, pastor, lawyer, or teacher. In about half of the cases an actual sexual relationship took place, with disastrous results.... The 20 percent of women to whom this had never happened all knew two or three other women to whom it had. (Sex in the Forbidden Zone (NY: Fawcett Crest, 1989), 14.)
Are there people who were once abused in this way among those who are hardened against "the church"? You bet there are!