Sunday, September 14

Luther on house churches

The following material comes from Lutheran pastor, Tim Thompson's blog The Feral Pastor. If reformer Martin Luther would have followed his stated beliefs on church praxis, the evangelical "norm" might well have been house/simple churches, rather than what we have today.

"...Luther himself proposed house churches as the natural, even preferred context for people who were serious about following Jesus. (He calls these people the ones who are "desirous of being Christians in earnest and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth.")

The following characteristics summarize Luther's "Order of Divine Service" as to the "how" churches should be organized.
  • Self-organized
  • Home-based
  • Lay led
  • Full sacramental life
  • Stewardship and social ministry
  • Simple catechetical instruction
  • Ideal context for loving accountability after Matthew 18
  • "Form and Order" are not imported but emerge spontaneously from community life.
These are derived from material found online at the Hanover Historical Texts Project, and in Volume 53, pp. 63-64 of Luther’s Works, American Edition.

Here is Luther in his own words:
But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love. Here we should have a good short Catechism about the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can. In the meantime, I would abide by the two Orders aforesaid; and publicly among the people aid in the promotion of such Divine Service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together; to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head.
So why didn't Luther follow through with these convictions concerning church practice?

Thompson shares two reasons: 1) he lacked the "requisite persons" (leaders, presumably), and 2) no one wanted to do it. So he decided to wait "until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together."

But Tim Thompson also suggests that the time is ripe today for reversing Luther's reasons for not implementing these views on church practice:

"Well, we've got lots of people capable of leading this now, and lots of people who want it, and I can tell you, there are a whole lot of people discovering each other and cleaving together..."

Do you agree that the conditions are finally ripe today? Can today's churches gather in ways similar to those suggested by Luther clear back in 1526?

I think so. Let's bring on the New Reformation!

------

P.S. If interested in reading more on this subject, check out Alan Knox's two excellent posts along the same lines, Luther and the Church, and Luther and the non-Christian "worship service".

17 comments:

Steve K. said...

Guy,

Thanks for posting this! This is great stuff. As some who is pursuing the dream of organic Christianity in my context, I am really encouraged to read stuff like this -- and about the house church ministry you are participating in there in Ecuador.

Shalom,
Steve K.

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

I've written a couple of posts Luther's "German Mass and Order of Divine Service" (1526). Besdies the face that Luther believed that true followers of Jesus will meet in simple, organic ways, Luther also stated that the traditional "church service" of most evangelicsl churches is not for Christians at all. This is what Luther says about the non-organic style of service (in both German and Latin): "Both these kinds of Service (German and Latin) then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians."

Isn't it interesting that we're all following Luther, but Luther didn't think the service he described was for Christians at all?

In answer to your question: Yes, I think its time for the church to start meeting the way Luther described (his third service), because I think it is closer to how we see the church meeting in Scripture.

-Alan

Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...

Hello, Guy,

I have made it back south of the equator once again. Ten months is far too long to be absent. We are still getting our feet on the ground. We just got internet last Thursday!

Guy, the most interesting thing I noted in the post was the description of church, not so much the location of it. I see our company as on target with what we seek as markers for our description of church.

As to conditions being ripe, it's a contextual thing that cannot be readily answered in a generic form. I have to shy away from generalizations. The western mindset is distinct from the eastern. There are issues about "doing church" that are not addressed in Scripture, hence not in the spiritual parameters of "right" or "wrong."

For example, the location. Does it have to be in a building that enables public access? No. Does it have to be in a house? No. That issue is not addressed for us, and should not be an issue at all.

There are other things that should concern us, though. Participation by the congregation and the sense of freedom to participate (or lack thereof) should concern us. As you said in another post, we are far too program-oriented, even to the point (I think) we have programmed away the involvement of the common person.

So, friend, there are points where we agree; and there are probably points we disagree on. But it is all good; God is building his church for the glory of Christ.

Catch you later,

kds

GuyMuse said...

Steve,

Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. I appreciate your kind words.

Alan,

While realizing Luther spoke of three types of services (the one I describe being the third) I hadn't fully realized he also felt "Both these kinds of Service (German and Latin) then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians." Wow, it makes you wonder why he didn't take a stronger stance than he did about these convictions.

I'll have to look up the couple of posts you refer to from your blog. I find it fascinating that 500+ years after the Reformation, there are so many who are finally giving serious consideration, to not only the theology of the church, but the structure and practices of the church. In the same way the Reformation was so crucial to correcting doctrinal error, maybe this "second wave" will finally address the needed reforms in church practice.

Kevin,

Glad to have you "back home" in South America! I agree with your observation the most interesting thing I noted in the post was the description of church, not so much the location of it. I see our company as on target with what we seek as markers for our description of church. As you point out, it is not so much an issue of where the church meets, but how she meets when believers gather. This, too, is my concern. Saludos!

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

My two posts are called "Luther and the Church" and "Luther and the non-Christian 'worship service'".

-Alan

The Feral Pastor said...

Guy -

I'm glad to see you found this stuff from Luther helpful. It was quite an eye-popper for me the first time I read it, since somehow this whole thing never quite came up when I was in the seminary. And when someone did point it out to me years later, it was brought up to validate the importance of small group ministry within conventional congregations, not as a suggestion for starting house churches.

Luther was such a radical. Too bad so many of his children have their faith "domesticated" in the wrong sense of the word.

Anyway, thanks for passing it on and blessings on your ministry in Ecuador!

Tim

Darrell said...

Fascinating stuff! I had no idea.

Do I want this 100%. Do I think out here in my neck of the woods the current batch of Christians can make the switch? No. After spending 3 years working toward that change with believers who have grown up our traditional church setting I don't think they can change. I hope I am wrong. They are consumer minded church goers to the core and look at the church service as their "right". I look to the new believers as the ones who can make this a reality.

GuyMuse said...

Alan,

Thanks for the two links to your previous Luther posts. Both were reread with much interest. I especially found interesting that the first two orders of worship were intended for non-believers. Yet this is the very order adopted by most Christian Protestant churches today! As you point out, Luther intended the third order (what we would call "house/simple church") as the order for sincere believers!

Feral Pastor,

What an interesting observation, this whole thing never quite came up when I was in the seminary. And when someone did point it out to me...it was brought up to validate the importance of small group ministry within conventional congregations This is exactly what we have been told as well. Few question the validity of small group ministry, but it is to be done as another "program" of the established congregational churches. It is seldom viewed as something valid in its own right apart from the covering and supervision of a "real" church.

Darrell,

I agree wholeheartedly with your statement, I look to the new believers as the ones who can make this a reality. In our own work in Ecuador, we focus exclusively upon winning the lost to Christ, and not trying to convince believers from established churches that they are "doing it wrong."

We prefer to focus our energy upon new disciples, teaching them from the beginning what it means to be a follower of Christ and how believers gather in His Name. I don't have the time, disposition, or patience to spend the energy trying to convince fellow believers who have spent their whole lives in institutional Christianity that the NT understanding of ekklesia is not the same as is regularly practiced today in most legacy churches. This may well be someone else's calling, but it is not mine.

Deborah said...

Guy, I read a BP article about the situation in the New Orleans area. The DOM there is thinking that house churches might be a solution to small congregations trying to rebuild year after year.

Here's the article: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=28928

Isn't it interesting that even weather can play a part in the missional task?

GuyMuse said...

Deborah,

I tried the BP link, but it isn't working for me. But, regardless, the DOM's observation makes a lot of sense to me!

Jonas Melin said...

I think the time was ripe for house churches already in the 16th Century. The Anabaptists planted housechurches then and were persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. I am sorry that Luther dropped his early vision for simple house churches. But the Lutheran Pietists had house churches in the 17th century and the Methodists had them in the 18th and so the story goes on. I really hope that we will have house churches in this simple way all over the world soon.

J. R. Miller said...

Hi, I am new to your site, but appreciate the post.

I have a question though. You seem present this as Luther's ideal for church. In context, he does not say this is the only way to pursue Jesus. Here is the part you did not quote.

"Now there are three kinds of divine service or mass. The first is the one in Latin which we published earlier under the title Formula Missae.1 It is not now my intention to abrogate or to change this service. It shall not be affected in the form which we have followed so far; but we shall continue to use it when or where we are pleased or prompted to do so. For in no wise would I want to discontinue the service in the Latin language, because the young are my chief concern. And if I could bring it to pass, and Greek and Hebrew were as familiar to us as the Latin and had as many fine melodies and songs, we would hold mass, sing, and read on successive Sundays in all four languages, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I do not at all agree with those who cling to one language and despise all others...

The second is the German Mass and Order of Service, which should be arranged for the sake of the unlearned lay folk and with which we are now concerned. These two orders of service must be used publicly, in the churches, for all the people, among whom are many who do not believe and are not yet Christians. Most of them stand around and gape, hoping to see something new, just as if we were holding a service among the Turks or the heathen in a public square or out in a field. That is not yet a well-ordered and organized congregation, in which Christians could be ruled according to the gospel; on the contrary, the gospel must be publicly preached [to such people] to move them to believe and become Christians.

The third [this is what you quoted above without quoting the other two orders]"

Certainly he does feel the third is best for mature Christians, but he also says that he would not abolish the other two.

Are you in favor of only the "home church" and the dissolution of the other types of gathering, or do you think the church should offer multiple venues for people at different places in their walk with the Lord?

GuyMuse said...

Jonas,

Reading about the Anabaptists is very enlightening, and it is indeed strange that Luther himself was so opposed to the Anabaptists seeing them as a threat to all that had been accomplished in reforming the church. Thanks for your comments and for pointing out that organic/simple way of meeting has been around along time and is certainly not something "new" that some are claiming as simply a fad.


J.R.,

Thanks for stopping by and for leaving your comment. I would encourage you to read Alan Knox's two posts that are linked at the end of my post.

Also, Alan, comments above in response to your observation...

I've written a couple of posts Luther's "German Mass and Order of Divine Service" (1526). Besides the face that Luther believed that true followers of Jesus will meet in simple, organic ways, Luther also stated that the traditional "church service" of most evangelicals churches is not for Christians at all. This is what Luther says about the non-organic style of service (in both German and Latin): "Both these kinds of Service (German and Latin) then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians."

J. R. Miller said...

Sure, I am familiar with Alan's site... I jut thought you might have some thoughts of your own. Thanks though for links.

GuyMuse said...

J.R.,

You ask, Are you in favor of only the "home church" and the dissolution of the other types of gathering, or do you think the church should offer multiple venues for people at different places in their walk with the Lord?

That is a good question. I think there is a place and time for many different types of gatherings, with the primary gathering of believers being the simple, home-based gatherings of small groups of believers around the Lordship of Jesus.

Many churches try to do both: a large gathering and small groups. For me, those who take this approach are headed in the right direction. But ultimately (usually because of finances needed) the large institutional gathering will trump the smaller groups. The groups become subservient to the overall task of "real church" with its agenda. I personally do not feel this is the best way to operate, and certainly not as effective at truly making disciples as we have been commanded to do. There are many good things that the large gatherings can offer, but being the Body of Christ and fulfilling the "one anothers" of the NT are really only accomplished in the intimacy of a smaller group setting.

Would love to hear more of your thoughts on this as well from your own church planting experience.

J. R. Miller said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Overall, I would agree with your assessment. I think many different kinds of gatherings for different purposes, people, and seasons of life are good.

I have written a bunch about my view of church and how I approach church planting. The links at the beginning of this post on missional church is a good place to look. You might enjoy my post which is linked from this page to "Doing Church Around Tables".

Colin M. said...

Guy, Thank you, I enjoyed the read. I think your questions are certainly worthy of addt'l discussion. Noting that we all likely agree that Scripture guides us, thus Luther on insofar as he squares with Scripture on his ecclesiology, we certainly see room for lay led ministry, yet the predominant biblical argument actually argues in favor of payment of clergy. The argument therefore transcends talk of the *right way* to do church, and explores another way to do it. Yet, we are likely to agree that some rapidly-reproducing model will be necessary to keep up with the population and slow church decline.

In my (N. American) context, I have seen plenty of home church attempts. To date, I have yet to see one grow evangelistically. They seem to attract people of like mind (usually around a legalistic ministry methodology), become increasingly monolithic and introspective, and quickly draw the short straw of irrelevancy.

On the contrary, I love the missional churches around me trying to reproduce house churches. These, however, are at least palatable. Yet, cultural context seems to matter.

Additionally, it is evident that (in America, at least) the biblical knowledge (and desired access to the biblical languages) is abhorrently low, and the desire to learn doctrine and Bible is not on the increase. The unlearned ministry has garnered quite a following. It would be tenuous to argue that we *now* have people to do house church, whereas Luther did not. At least desire for biblical learning was on a severe growth curve during the 16th-19th centuries. Not that we have to have degreed leaders, evidence of a desire to be knowledgeable seems to be waning.

It can be done, but outside those like CPM's that Garrison wrote about, where are they being done well? I hope they are, and maybe it is more successful in true missionary contexts. Again, thanks for the questions and the thoughts. I pray that all goes well in your neck of the woods.