Cell Church? Home Church?
The HCC Position, by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1997, Herb Drake.

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Venn Diagram: Cell vs. home
The cell and independent home church
share a common doctrine of church.

Put in the simplest possible way, House Church Central is interested in promoting the "small" church--whether it sees itself as a "cell" of a large institutional church, an independent home church, or even a small congregation that happens to meet on Sunday mornings in a building set aside for that purpose. How small is small? There is no set number, but the idea is based on the doctrine of church. If the gathering is so large that all the people cannot relate meaningfully and functionally as a single body of Christ, then it falls outside of the definition. The "House Church Theology" that is presented on this site, plus all the other resources contributed by this writer or others, is dedicated to serve all the "small church" categories. The Venn diagram above is an attempt to illustrate the common area that this site strives to serve.

Within the first few months of bringing up House Church Central it has become quite clear to this writer that there is a rather considerable gulf between the cells and the independent home churches. The key word that keeps coming up when comparing the two is "authority." Both positions attempt to be biblical, but they each have greatly different views of authority.

  • Many in the Independent Church arena see far too much authority in the cell systems, and they are often so vigorous in their opposition that one has to wonder whether some of them have had bad experiences in the institutional church setting. As Yet they have a point--Del Birkey points out in The House Church, the New Testament speaks of the church as having a vertical relationship to Jesus Christ and horizontal (not vertical!) relationships among its constituents (pp. 87-91). In Mark 10:42-44 Jesus says, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them ... Not so with you...."
  • But those who gather in tightly knit cells, within a hierarchical reporting structure, can easily counter that the complete autonomy of the independent home churches leave them vulnerable to a different--and more pernicious--kind of authority: the possibility of false teaching and resultant heresies. While it can be easily shown that the first century biblical expression tended toward the independence of the churches (a vote in their favor), it is also true that those churches tended often to go into a great number of heresies and poor practices as attested by the many corrective epistles that are in our New Testament.

It is certainly not my intent to attempt to arbitrate this matter here on House Church Central, other than to point out that both approaches tend to have flaws. If my many studies of Christian theology have taught me anything, they have taught me that good theology is dialectic, just as is much of the Bible itself. The very nature of theology resists any sort of definitive, absolute position because, no matter which direction one takes, it is possible to go too far in that direction and get into heresy.

Other Models?

It is my hope that those in the house church movement can concentrate on those things that cause them to be similar rather than those things that make them different. By all means let the debate between the cell and independent model continue, but please--don't anybody expect me to take sides. But I will say this: Perhaps a third model is needed--one that maintains the independence of the house church unit but which still allows for a weekly institutional gathering or some other means ensure that the house churches are receiving good teaching. There is so much bad teaching out there!

I have heard from some who have set up loosely knit networks of house churches--an idea with great potential (hint hint--this would be a great topic for an article in this section of HCC).

By "maintaining independence," I mean that the home based units need enough independence so that they could still function if the institution or other methodology that bound them together were to be suddenly taken away (that is, if the church was forced to go underground due to political or other changes in the surrounding culture). By good teaching, I am simply pointing out the sheer impossibility that the available store of seminary-trained teachers could spread themselves thinly enough so that they might to provide checks and balances on the large number of house churches that have the potential to materialize in the event that God chooses to lift them up in our age. (I realize that remark will irritate those of my brothers and sisters who resent the academic study of theology and biblical hermeneutics, but I will have to freely admit that I respect good scholarship and have been greatly blessed by those who struggled in the past because they felt something important would be lost to the Kingdom of God were they to remain silent).

Conclusion

So the hope harbored by this writer is simply this: Cells and independent house churches share a common doctrine of church. They share virtually all other house church doctrines as well. They have virtually identical needs and need virtually the same resources. Surely there is enough overlap that they can respect one another and work side by side to accomplish an end that is much more important than debating who is the greatest in the kingdom of God--the need to bring in the great harvest that God has made ready for us to reap.