Should House Churches Have Names?
Editorial by Herb Drake

It is the nature of any Christian--especially a house church Christian--to reach for the New Testament when faced with such a question. It is quickly evident that there is no text that speaks directly to the issue, but there are nevertheless ways that we can use to determine the first century practice. All one needs to do is to look at any of the many epistles written by Paul:

To: the First Christian Church of Corinth
From: Paul
xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxxx
xxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxx.

What? Paul didn't begin his letters that way?

Well, how about the messages addressed to the seven churches in Rev. 2 and 3? Or Peter's letters? Or Jude? Or the three letters of John? James wrote to the "scattered" tribes.

Probably the most helpful text is to be found in Rom. 16. Here we have a number of churches mentioned, most of them clustered into a single city, and Paul spends a whole chapter mentioning several of them, including

Rom. 16:1:"the assembly in Cenchrea"
Rom. 16:4-5:"the group that meets in their [Priscilla and Aquila's] house."
Rom. 16:10:"those that belong to the [fellowship in] the household of Aristobulus."
Rom. 16:11:"those [in the group] in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord."
Rom. 16:14:"[the assembly consisting of] "Asncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Pattobas, Hermas and the brothers [and sisters] with them."
Rom. 16:15:"[the gathering consisting of] "Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them."

Indeed, if there is a consistent theme in the New Testament, it is that the churches don't have names at all! Not only that, but churches are never associated with any one individual. I go to a house church a house owned by a man named Tom, but I do not ever refer to it as "Tom's church." Instead, I refer to it as "the group that meets at Tom's house."

A Church? Or a Group?

Notice that I called the house church that meets in Tom's house a "group." The word "church" did not come along until well after Constantine issued in the age of the institutional church (the word comes from late Greek roots, probably from kyrios (Lord), as in "the house of the Lord.") But the word the Bible uses is ekklesia,, which simply means "group" or "assembly." But I prefer to think of it as the gathered people because it reminds me of "the two or three gathered together in Jesus' name" (Mt. 18:20). Since I date the fall of the church with Constantine (or even earlier), I began to feel uncomfortable using the word "church" once I learned of its medieval origins and all the baggage that the institutional church put on it. The meaning of ekklesia is centered on the people, yet the word "church" has its etymology centered on a building. Yet none of our popular translations of the New Testament take this into account when they automatically insert "church" every time ekklesia appears.

The biblical evidence regarding the naming of a gathered people is not strong enough to build a doctrine. One could easily argue that not having a corporate name was more a cultural characteristic of the times. Or one might say that these gatherings had names but that they were systematically left out of the canon for some reason. But it is nevertheless interesting that none of the very many references to the churches in the New Testament contain a church name. It is also important to bear in mind that the Hebrew idea of name is an important one--the renaming of Abram, Sarai, and Jacob just as one example. The idea is that God assigns the name, as upposed to our "making a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4). Where God insists that we come up with a name (Gen. 2:19-20), the intent of Scripture is centered on the need for us to appropriate the essence of something God has made.

The Baggage that Comes with a Name

Now this business of not having a name is not so easy in the modern West! One can't ever file corporation papers without having a "fictitious" name. One would never be able to get permission from the Internal Revenue Service to exempt contributions of time and money to the ministry of an unnamed church. I suppose one could add quite a number of other problems to this list--you could never, for example, get a listing in the yellow pages without some kind of name.

But consider this. Is our generosity in Christian ministry supposed to be tax deductible? What strings does a church attach to itself when it registers with the state in this way? Consider what Jesus did in Mt. 17:24-27. Jesus saw to it that a tax, however unfairly based, was paid--but he nevertheless found a way to pay it that sent a message of his disapproval (the money came out of the mouth of a dead fish!). And is the Church really to grow by such marketing methods as the placement of an advertisement in the yellow pages? Or in a newspaper? Or might it be better to offer a quiet invitation to a colleague at work, or a person one might meet in the marketplace? Certainly, there are circumstances that easily justify giving a house church a name, but those circumstances should stand the test of Scripture.

The house church--like the home school--requires some significant changes in the way we look at things. That is the nature of the "radical" reformation--"radical" means getting back to the roots. The house churches of Paul's day were a persecuted bunch that gathered in houses because of the secret nature of their gatherings. They were an underground church--just like the churches in today's world that are persecuted. How does one join any secret assembly? Through modern marketing methods? No, by personal invitation. Indeed, that is the way of the house church.

HCC Magazine