Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.
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Loren Mead, in the Appendix of his The Once and Future Church, dismisses the notion that "free" churches are essentially different from any of the older churches that once enjoyed church-state unity. By a free church, Mead means those that do not have a direct line of descendency from the European Church-State model known to us as "Christendom," such as the Baptists. He comes to this conclusion through the work of Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), who made a respected study of the various Christian denominations and came to the conclusion that any new expression of the church (a "sect") would, if it were to become successful, eventually become indistinguishable from any institutional church. The sect may at first be fervently anti-institutional, counter-cultural, and nonconformist--but eventually it would embark on a path that led it first to toleration, then acceptance, and finally into a state of full equality with those expressions of the faith that had persisted over a longer history.
It seems to this writer that Troeltsch was definitely onto something. One can place the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglicans, the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians, and the London Confession of the Baptists side by side and compare them point by point and find a number of differences--differences that were important enough for people to die for in those early days. But over several centuries the differences would have gradually have been forgotten except for a few very distinctive ones that had become manifest in fellowship practices (e.g., the manner of baptizing, serving the Lord's supper, or the kind of polity used). Keeping the membership of the church up on the controversies that caused a given denomination to come into existence has traditionally not been a priority, and so the Christendom/Constantinian character of the magisterial churches has drifted over to the free churches through the culture. If you could take a typical Anglican, Presbyterian, and Baptist and put them in a room to work out a list of differences that divide them, my guess would be that they could only come up with a very short list of relatively trivial differences, and would likely have no clue as to why some of those at one time had any importance.
Reflecting on this sociological tendency has caused me to wonder whether house churches might be vulnerable to a kind of "Troeltschian trap." If a house church grows rapidly and decides to multiply into two house churches, for example, is there a tendency for one of the two to be considered a "senior partner" and insist on some form of control over the other? If so, it would seem that a new institution has just been formed. Gradually the expanding network of house churches requires an official organ, an editor, and some form of moderator. Soon the skills necessary for the caucus to function become those of organizational communications, leadership, and public relations. It is not difficult to see how that all the present "denominations" went through this process at one time in their development.
If we are serious about the house church being the ideal witness of Christ in the world, it would seem to this writer that we should never forget this Troeltchian trap. When a fellowship begins to grow towards the limits of its physical meeting space and as it becomes no longer possible for individuals to know their brothers and sisters in the fellowship well enough to remain within the New Testament model of the gathered people, it should begin to expect the Holy Spirit to begin a gentle separation into two or three smaller groups in a manner that gives each a sufficient inventory of gifts so that they might function as a new house church. It may be necessary for some with key gifts to circulate among the new churches for a while, but the ultimate aim should always be a complete independence.
The notion that house churches be independent--that is, that they should be individually and separately accountable to their source and King, Jesus Christ--does not mean that there should be no communication and cooperation between them. But it would seem to this writer that the threat that cooperation can eventually become corporation is something that needs to remain high on the list of concerns within the house church community as it grows.