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House Church Central Letters

Occasionally e-mail addressed to House Church Central raises questions that may also have occurred to others. A selection of those letters and the response appear below.

The identities of these letter writers, of course, have been suppressed.

Authoratative Churches

So much of what is expressed on this site is an echo of my heart's cry regarding the church. About five years ago my wife and I were basically thrown out of a Baptist Church because we simply asked the pastor to show us--from the scriptures--a justification for what they were doing. At the time I was serving as a deacon and a Bible study teacher. I expressed both via letter and phone conversation that I needed them to present to me scriptural support for (1) having more than half the $1.2 million budget go to staff salaries and benefits, (2) slashing all charity/benevolence from the budget, (3) using a hot marketing firm to recruit members, and (4) spending $12,000 for huge video screens. I told them that I would gladly recant my resistance and support them if they could show me that the church there was operating according to scriptural principles. Immediately their response was "If you're not happy here, go somewhere else."

I ended up voting against the budget, the marketing program, and whatever else I felt conviction was wrong. Consequently, I was shunned by all "leadership" and made to look like a renegade. All I wanted was for the church to be faithful to what the Bible taught. I was called into a private "conference" with the deacon board leadership and hammered about both my "lack of respect" and my less than 100% support of everything the pastor did. I was told I could not be a deacon if I did not submit and publicly agree with the pastor and the budget. All I did was express my concerns from passages of scripture and emphasize the desire to see scriptural defense/support from them or the pastor. They offered none, of course. Needless to say I resigned shortly after that (but not until I saw them publicly attack and humiliate another deacon who asked a simple, honest question about how staff were recruited--it was then that I wanted no part of that "office").

Shortly thereafter a fellow teacher and I were called into the pastor's office (by deceit of someone else calling us and giving us a vague reason for needing to talk). The pastor and executive pastor both commenced shaking their fingers in our faces, calling us "wolves," accusing us of undermining the church, laughing in our faces, mocking us by comparing their "years of professional ministry and study" to our relative amateurism, and tauntingly yelled at us, "you don't have any power!!!" They subsequently tossed us out as teachers and sent "agents" to a Bible study we held on Wednesday nights to take over and destroy the Spirit-led efforts there.

When I was asked, "why aren't you teaching any more?," I always responded, "you really don't want to know." Only after they relentlessly insisted I tell them did I hand them a packet containing the letters that went back-and-forth between me and the pastor and complete transcripts (generated immediately from memory after the meetings) of the conversations I had with various members of the "leadership." In every case the "friends" handed the packet back after reading through it, and proceeded to treat my wife and I like lepers. No one would believe what happened and no one would support us--we were abandoned by many close "friends."

Not all turned their backs, but none of them came to embrace the direction I ultimately went. God used this trial to urge me along in my study of "what the church ought to really be/do." I now know that what is called "church" these days is a distorted, pale shadow of what is found in the Bible. Praise God that He takes what is seems to be ruins and builds glorious mansions. I would like the Lord to use me in forming a house church--pray for us.

You have no idea how many stories like this arrive at House Church Central. So many churches seem to exist for the sole purpose of inflating the ego of their "leaders."

One proof text I've had thrown in my face by those who defend despotic leaders in the church is 1 Pet. 5:5. Those who wield this verse read it as if God had ordained "elders" as dictators over the flock. In so doing they neglect to see what the "elders" that Peter is actually talking about are doing. They are not "lording" over the flock--they are being "examples" (see verse. 3). They are stepping out in suffering service so that those "in their charge" might learn to do likewise. (See also Jas. 5, and note that it is the "elders" who are visiting the sick and saying "the prayer of faith.").

When the New Testament speaks of "leadership," it never means human authority--authority belongs to the Lord alone, who has not delegated it. The leadership Peter is speaking of is stepping out in suffering service, imitating our Lord's own witness, as an expression of God's love for the world.

Being told that you"could not be a deacon" if you "did not submit..." is especially ironic in view of the meaning of the word "deacon," which is "servant."

Your separation from that church was no doubt painful, but if you look back on it, your leaving might better be interpreted as a deliverance. I hope you will connect to a proper fellowship soon--whether it be a house church or an institutional church that understands the right meaning of "leadership."

How can discipline be handed out without some authority? We are all to be subject to one and other yet some group (elders/Pastors etc) needs to be the Spiritual leaders and act as Spiritual parents at times. I think their role is both servant and authority. Jesus was viewed as a servant but then as the authority depending on a given situation. I do believe that both the Church and the cell can share the center of worship idea that you mentioned. Both will draw different types of people who picture church life differently. Please comment.

Your question probably arise from the the "green-key" essay titled bishop.

I attended a lecture a few years ago by the late professor James Wm. McClendon, probably the greatest (in my view) writing American theologian of our age. A question similar to yours was asked, and Dr. McClendon responded something like this: "Why do [people] keep trying to bring authority and heirarchy back into the church?"

Referring to what he called "rule of Paul," which he finds in 1 Cor 14:26, all in the fellowship need to be heard. None should be silenced. Silencing voices through whom the Spirit may be working quences the Spirit.

Dr. McClendon did a capsule exegesis of 2 Cor. 13:13, the famous benediction often called "the Grace" and frequently used to close modern worship.

Dr. McClendon's full exposition can be found in his Systematic Theology: Doctrine (Abingdon, 1994), 454-488.

Indeed, Paul wants order in the church. He condemns confusion in worship, but he would not silence any voice that is making a positive contribution. We cannot pervert Paul's "order" command to enforce a human hierarchy in the church, because all authority is in Christ who has never delegated it. Should a member of the church need discipline, it should not come from an authoratative leader, but rather the process described in Mt. 18. The offending party is not disciplined by an individual in whom authority has been vested, but by the community--first by a few, then by more, and finally by all (Mt. 18).

"Small" Ecclesiology

Could you furnish [me] with the biblical passages in the OT/NT explicitly teaching and/or implicitly hinting this concept? Do you recommend books expounding this ecclesiastical practice? Are there other weblinks discussing this thought?

Thank you for sparing time teaching me. I'm a pastor ....

The small church (cell group, home church, etc.) ecclesiology is centered in the "gathered people" of Matthew 18:20, where the number "2 or 3" is used. Obviously Jesus did not mean a church was to be 2 or 3, and institutional churches have allowed the number to go into the hundreds and even thousands. But if you look behind Jesus' words, it is the "gathering" that is important. Christianity is not an individual religion--it is centered in the corporate, gathered people. That is what ekklesia actually means, a gathering. The Holy Spirit is said to speak most clearly through a gathering, not an individual church leader or preacher.

A Christian gathering cannot be so large that it loses intimacy, and that is where the word "small" comes in. Matthew 18 describes a situation in which a people are struggling with an ethical problem--whether a behavior is to be "bound" (prohibited in the church) or "loosed" (permitted in the church). They solve this not by expecting the Holy Spirit speak to a leader. Nor does the passage tell them to go and fight over the priority of verses from scripture. Rather, it tells them to gather, and in that gathering--through the Holy Spirit--their Lord will give them the answer they seek because He sits among them.

The House Church Central website is built totally around this concept. I call it "house church theology" (or ecclesiology, if you prefer), but its official name in academia is "believers' church" theology. It is a way of thinking that can be traced at least as far back as the Anabaptists and early English Baptists, but home churches probably existed since the birth of the church in Acts 2....

Believers' church is very biblical. You will find ample scripture citations on the web site, just as the Anabaptists and Baptists always documented their confessions of faith with scripture. On the House Church Central site you will find my Th.M. thesis on Romans, where I present the case for it there.

On Women: Is there a "Particular Submission"?

Note: This is from a criticism of the "Submission of Wives" editorial in the HCC magazine.

The weight of Scripture shows that there is to be particular submission, and so we should interpret these Scriptures in the light of the others. One of my concerns about the theology of many in the house church movement is that they catch on to a general principal, and carry it out to an extreme which goes beyond Scripture. The IC has gone to extremes on authority. But, some in the HC movement go to the extreme of thinking there is no authority in the body. But the Bible doesn't teach that there is no authority.

Another example would be that the body is an organism, but not organization. Legitimate aspects of organization in churches in the Bible are overlooked or interpreted away because people are holding on to a philosophy of 'no organization' as their source for doctrine, rather than interpreting the Bible rightly.

Someone once said that most false doctrines come into the church by taking to its apparently logic conclusion, that which has only been revealed in part.

The issue before us is not that of grasping a verse here and there from the Bible and developing it into a full-blown doctrine. Rather, it is how one reconciles a passage (1 Cor. 14:33ff) that stands out in contrast to the larger body of scripture. Commentators have puzzled over the passage in question for some time. Many simply say that the passage was an interpolation (that is, that it had its origin in a margin note that somehow got incorporated into the text in a later copy). That is the position taken by the NRSV translators, who have enclosed it within parentheses.

Others have taken the position advocated by Del Birkey in his book The House Church (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1988), p. 100, which would have Paul quoting the position advocated by his theological opponent at Corinth and then demolishing it. I find that explanation the most appealing, but will have to admit that I stand with the minority.

Your approach is to attempt to syntesize a solution that subordinates the egalitarianism of Gal. 3:28 with the the so-called "submission" passages by introducing the idea of "particular" submission. It is a dangerous idea. It has been used to make slavery biblical. It has one human using the Word of Truth to place himself above other humans. It takes John 13:1-15 out of the Bible, not to mention all of the "first/last" and "last/first" passages in the gospels. It imposes a class structure on the church. I cannot accept it. To be sure, I am making the egalitarianism of Gal. 3:28 foundational in the gospel, and putting it before (that is, using it to explain) other passages--but I find Gal.3:28 throughout the New Testament witness, including the teachings of Jesus and the presence of various women who actually held offices of influence in the early church. (For a thorough treatment of egalitarianism, see Birkey's book, pp. 91-103.)

Is there a center of the gospel? Perhaps it is John 3:16. Perhaps it is the cross. Perhaps it is the kerygma found Peter's sermon in Acts 2. I don't think I would make Christian egalitarianism the center, because that would cheapen Christianity to a mere religion of liberationism. But Gal. 3:28 is, for me, very close to the heart of the gospel. There can be no "particular submission."

Was the First New Testament Church Meeting in a House?

I agree with you that the New Testament church met in homes; however, you need to understand that the very first house meeting recorded was attended by at least 120 people. Homes were somewhat different then than now.

Furthermore, when the various letters to the churches were sent they were sent singularly to the church at Ephesus, the church at Phillipi, the church at Thessalonica, etc. The same is true concerning Christ's messages to the churches of Asia as recorded in Revelation 2 & 3. Paul writes concerning the elders and deacons (plural) in the church in the various communities he visited. Obviously in a house church of a small group of people it would hardly be necessary to have such organization and structure. I suggest to you that the house churches were not independent, but served very much as part of one church in each community.

The church that I am the Pastoral Team Leader of is virtually a church of churches. We have approximately 80 pastors leading house churches, but we are one church. This is in accordance with our understanding of how the New Testament church functioned....

God bless you in your missions to exalt the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Were the 120 people assembled in Acts 1:15 in a "church meeting"? Can we deduce from that verse the demographics of first century housing?

Actually, the question is a good one. It is easy to miss the shift in location that takes place between Acts 1:14 and Acts 1:15 and thus place the remaining events in chapter 1 (if not the Pentecostal events of Acts 2) in the "upper room." It is probably better to locate Acts 1:15-2:20 in the temple courts--a setting that would much better accommodate the "crowd" of 120 and explain the overhearing of Pentecost by the people described in Acts 1:5ff.

References to the temple as the site for early Christian assemblies are a feature of this part of the Acts account (Acts 2:46, 3:1), and they probably were assembled in the area known as "Solomon's Portico" (Acts 3:11, 5:12). The word "house" (Acts 2:2, 36) would be a reference to the Temple (which Jesus often referred to as his "Father's house"), thus making the "filling the house" miracle not only greater, but also consistent with such OT passages as 1 Ki. 8:11, Isa. 6:1, and especially Ez. 43:5 which was thus fulfilled at Pentecost.

Once we move past the Pentecost itself, the community is shown spending time both in the "temple" and in the "home" (Acts 2:46). Shortly thereafter, the "temple" assemblies disappear. Soon the word would be transferred to the corporate assembly of believers, rather than to any physical structure (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16ff--note the plural "you" in the Greek).

The circumstances of the distributions of Paul's letters are probably clearest in Romans, although one first has to be comfortable with the fact that Romans was--like the letters you mention--a letter to specific churches with a particular purpose (this is the current consensus, but only over the past several years, according to Donfried's The Romans Debate). Romans is addressed to a number of churches in Rome, somewhat enumerated in Rom 16 (at least 4 and perhaps 7 or more). We also are introduced to the courier, Phoebe, at the beginning of the chapter. Paul wrote from Corinth, and no doubt knew Phoebe well enough to select her for the job.

I imagine that Phoebe went to the first church, participated in their worship, and waited until she was invited to share what she had brought from Paul. The next day she would have gone to the next church. And so on. The churches probably differed (the one at Prisca and Aquilla's house, no doubt, had less of a problem with Jew-Gentile relations, for example, because those two where a mixed couple), so it is possible that Phoebe may have been at liberty to omit parts of the letter or elaborate on others depending on her perceptions of the various churches. Now this is mostly my imagination, of course, but it does portray Romans as a circular letter addressed to several churches in that city. This was probably the pattern for most of the letters you mention (but Rev. 2-3 are probably not letters--see J. Ramsey Michaels commentary, Revelation, IVP, 1997).

Robert Banks has probably made the most thorough study of the matter in his book Paul's Idea of Community, now in a new Hendrickson edition. The churches did enjoy a great deal of autonomy and were regarded as independent, self-sufficient units. The "body of Christ" metaphor has surely the individual, local church. But Banks will also admit to the possibility of some sharing and, of course, we have Paul's letters and visits and his own encouragements for collecting funds to help distant brothers and sisters in distant congregations.

Traditional vs. Contemporary Worship

Note: This is in reference to Vernard Eller's article titled Worship.

I read his article on Contemporary Vs. Traditional and it was sad. Mr. Eller is a sad, sad man and I feel bad for him. He seemed to pick verses from the Bible to support his own conclusions about Contemporary worship rather than letting the Bible speak for itself. He twisted many verses which talked more about empty worship than any styles of worship. I think that many "traditionalists" are giving the outside world a bad view of what Christianity is by trying to pick fights about something that doesn't matter. I prefer contemporary worship but I grew up worshipping in a traditional manner and I can praise and worship God either way--I think it is more a matter of your heart to God than styles. I think that if someone can not worship God with a hymn then the problem isn't the hymn, it is the heart of the worshipper and the same is true of a chorus. I hope Mr. Eller will re-evaluate his position on contemporary vs. traditional and stop dividing the body of Christ.

As one (like you) who can appreciate both contemporary and traditional forms of worship, I evaluate Dr. Eller's remarks along somewhat different lines.

God, of course, has not ordained any specific form of worship. Worship is our response to God, not some kind of mechanical rite that we do according to some formula.

Given that, I see Dr. Eller as reminding us of an essential biblical truth that can help us design our own response--namely, that the audience of worship is God, and not the "people." He seems to be saying that the style we call "traditional" has taken this somewhat into account both in the quality of the text and the participatory nature of the worship. The contemporary style has yet to find a satisfactory solution to this, too often being the work of a select few "performers" with the balance of the body reading from an overhead projector or something.

I have both criticism and praise for both of these pure forms. We need to do better--remembering that the people (all the people) are the performers and that God is the audience.

Charismatic House Churches

I found the House Church Central site last night. I was encouraged to find such a site. All of the material I have found on Christian small groups has been either of the form small groups as an activity within a "real church" or concerned with the cell church, a la Ralph Neighbors. Thank you for providing such a site. I have some questions.

  1. First, is your site in some way representative of a specific group of house churches, with a defined, however loosely, theology, polity (obviously!), and a recognized fellowship? I realize that in 20th century this more or less defines a denomination, but sometimes we have to face up to the fact that we are part of a denomination whether we like it or not.
  2. The theological material appears to to have a definet flavor of anabaptist/Menonite origin. I'm not complaining, I am just curious as to the extent to which the house churches you address are from this tradition.
  3. I am Charismatic, that is I believe that Christianity is all about God breaking through to this material world. Consequently, I see the manifest workings of Holy Ghost: prophecy, speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, etc., as a part of the gospel. These workings are not simply a confirmation of revelation necessary to "kick start" the Church in the past, nor an occasional "add on" today, but should be a normal part of church life. However, for such manifestations to become normal, they require the nurture that only small groups can provide.... I think that indeed each one "hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation" (1 Cor. 14:26), but only in a small enough group can these things be "done unto edifying".

All of which is a long winded way to ask, do the house churches you "service" (include) charismatic groups?

Thanks for writing about your first impressions of House Church Central. Let me try to answer your questions:

  1. No, the site is not intended to serve just a particular group of churches nor a particular denomination. The site is intended simply as a resource for house churches AND cell groups. In other words, I am attempting to deal with "small" church (read "New Testament" church) no matter where it may exist--the Mt. 18:20 church. Certainly there are quite different issues and problems in independent home churches and cell churches, and those are areas I try to stay away from. I do not enjoy "bashing" the Institional church per se--as I can imagine small institutional churches (and large ones that center their worship in "cells" or whatever they call them) as being biblical. The issue is simply this: I am convinced that many churches today are wildly inept theologically--whether they have seminary trained pastors or not. In particular, the believers' church ("anabaptist") branch of theology is not understood and is being neglected or superceded with such ideas as the "authoratative pastor."
  2. Yes, I suppose I'm an "anabaptist" at heart. I'm more of an anabaptist than I am a Baptist, although it was the Baptists that trained me. My Baptist theology professor, Stan Nelson, always describes himself as an "Anabaptist," so I feel that I am in good company. So Anabaptists like Conrad Grebel and Balthasar Hübmaier were my spiritual ancestors, but I also regard Martin Luther, Athanasius, and Tertullian as my spritual ancestors. The theology that emerged from the Radical Reformation--a theology that went (to borrow the words of James McClendon) through Jesus rather than around Jesus, is good theology. It finds its fullest expression in the small fellowship. If it is not "House Church" theology, it ought to be.
  3. It is clear from the HCC/HCDL directory that many--perhaps most--home churches are charismatic. I am certainly not against charismatic worship, and I agree that the gifts of tongues and propecy exist and that they are valid in the modern church. However, you will see in the House Church Central pages that I feel that many of the ways that my charismatic brothers and sisters approach the exegesis of certain passages of the New Testament is flawed, blinding eyes to the more important teachings that they actually contain. Certainly, to ignore the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our assemblies is to practice empty worship, but I feel that we need a balance to keep us from being so centered on spiritual experience that we fall short of the mission the Lord has for his church. So I don't pick fights on the issue, but welcome the opportunity to engage in serious dialogue. While working out their salvation with pain and trembling, all believers need to steer a path somewhere between charismania and charisphobia.

Here's the bottom line: this is a question that I do not waste much energy on. It need not be a subject that divides us. My theological opponents are far more subtle and pernicious.

Copyrights

I recently visited the HCCENTRAL website. I was just wondering about the information there. Is it OK (copyright-wise and all) to download information from the site, make backup copies, convert from HTML to other formats if necessary, print it out, etc.? I would only be using it for personal/ministry purposes, and not to make any profit. Please let me know if this is OK.

Thanks, and God bless.

All of the material on the House Church Central web site is copyrighted. The electronic publications on House Church Central each have a header that explains the rules of fair use, which generally stipulate that you may make as many copies as you want and distribute them any way you want provided that you do not charge any more money for them other than your copying costs. Any copies that you make must include the copyright header.

You may not copy the material and include it in another web site. However, you are encouraged to make links to any of the material on on House Church Central.

The same policy also applies to the other material on House Church Central unless specifically stated otherwise. Where there is no copyright header, please make sure that the word "House Church Central" is present and that the web address is legible.

Letters for this feature of House Church Central are gratefully received. Send them to hdrake@hccentral.com.