Thursday, June 18

A thoughtful response to: "Why are we afraid of house churches"

Lance and I go way back. He is a good friend and pastor of Iglesia Betania, a Spanish-speaking Reformed Baptist Church in Denton, Texas since 1989. Sometimes, people choose to respond privately to things shared here on the blog. In this case, I asked Lance if it would be all right to share his email about my recent blog post Why are we afraid of NT house churches?

I am a great advocate for a simpler church model and have no objection to house churches as such. My congregation's biggest burden is a building. It drains our resources, financial and man-power, and adds little if anything to the effectiveness of our ministry. House churches have clearly been effective in spreading the gospel in South Korea and other parts of the world.

I do, however, question whether the model you speak of is actually the New Testament model. My understanding of New Testament practice—I prefer 'practice' to 'model'—is that the believers met in small groups rather regularly, perhaps daily, and then the smaller groups came together less frequently. However, the New Testament gives only sketchy information about how the church was organized and claiming anything to be a New Testament model is claiming more than the Scripture itself teaches.

Furthermore, because details of organization are not mandated in the Scripture, I have to ask if we are required to duplicate their church organization and practice. What worked in first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures may not work in twenty-first century Anglo-American or Ecuadorian or British or any other culture.

In other words, we are too stuck on the concept of a New Testament model when the New Testament model is not really relevant. That said, I find nothing unbiblical about the practice you describe. Neither do I find anything unbiblical about the more traditional Anglo-American practice most of us grew up in. It may not be very effective. It may be outdated. It is not, however, unbiblical, nor should it be casually replaced.

I also share the concerns about sound doctrine and teaching expressed by several. Many advocates of house churches dismiss this issue, but it is extremely important. By God's grace it has not, apparently, been an issue in your work in Ecuador. However, here in the States it is a major issue. All of the house churches or 'cell group' churches I have any experience with very quickly degenerated into heresy in some degree. That is not necessarily because they were house churches—many traditionally organized churches in the U.S. have also degenerated in heresy—but, it is a 'pinch point' in the practice that must be anticipated and actively monitored.

Leadership selection and training must be a primary concern to those involved in house church ministry. Leaders must be well trained in Biblical truth and what those truths mean in terms of practice. I have long said that we as Baptists have very good doctrine, but our doctrine and our practice rarely come together. Furthermore, that training will be more effective if done through the local churches rather than separate seminaries or schools.

All that said, I believe we must do church more simply in the near future. That means fewer and smaller buildings, less money in general, more worship and teaching and less activity, and more involvement of the entire congregation. I am a great advocate of bi-vocational ministry. After all, no one is more free to be obedient to God than he who has nothing to lose.

Also, if we want to talk about a New Testament model, we cannot escape the fact that in practice even Paul was bi-vocational. One of the most effective times of evangelism in the United States was during the frontier days when the farmer who plowed a field during the week stood on a stump in that field on Sunday and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. This was not a house church model, but it was generally a small and intimate community of believers. This is one of the reasons Baptists, Methodists, and the Churches of Christ are so strong in the South and Midwest. They allowed, even encouraged, bi-vocational pastors. During that time, one of the primary purposes of local Baptist associations was pastor training. In spite of the informality of the system, this was a time of good, solid doctrinal teaching and practice. Sadly, the deterioration of the evangelical church in America has be presided over by seminary-trained, vocational pastors.

Most importantly, as a general observation without judging any one person, group, or congregation, we must regain our high view of God's holiness and sovereignty if we wish to see effective evangelism. That can be done in a house church model or a more traditional church model, with a vocational pastor or a bi-vocational leader. It is imperative, however, that we regain a biblical view of God if we are to be his people doing his work.
What do you think about Lance's observations? I think several of his points deserve our attention.

Is a NT model of church irrelevant for us today?

Is sound doctrine and teaching amiss in the house churches you are familiar with?

Are simple/house churches on shaky Biblical ground when they claim to be New Testament models of church?

Since we are not part of the Roman-Greco world, are the apostolic prescriptions for church something intended only for the first century ekklesia?

Is our Anglo-American tradition equally valid with church practice as found in the New Testament?

Are bi-vocational workers more the ideal than trained, professional seminary graduates?

Good questions. Thoughtful material for consideration. What do you think? Pick one (or two!) and dive in!

--Lance Johnson blogs at Except by Prayer and Fasting.

7 comments:

jeff w. said...

Guy,

I liked a lot of what Lance said. The NT is not a church governance manual - had God wanted to leave us one, He could have quite easily - but He didn't. We tend to cause problems when we try to make one way (usually our way) "God's way." The Lord seems to use a lot of different ways to get His work done.

I remember reading about the “Great Escape” when I was young. As you probably recall, several hundred allied prisoners escaped after months of building a tunnel from their prisoner of war camp. The tunnel was shored up with wood, had air pumps, electric lights and a train. I recall reading (from years ago, so take my facts as my memory) that a couple of prisoners, however, developed another type of tunnel – they called it “a mole.” They would dig a shallow tunnel and push the dirt behind them, closing the tunnel up behind them as they went. They took a rod to push air holes for fresh air. In this manner, they could basically tunnel out overnight. Which method was better? Which method was right? Both led to freedom.

Too often, people will say that one way or the other is "God's way." We like to focus on certain aspects of Scripture and build huge arguments as to how or why this must be right. I have moved to a simple view of what it takes to be a church - a view that would include your house churches and the group that meets in the red brick building on Main Street. "Which is better?" is probably the wrong question. "Which is obedient?" is probably a better question.

I like the simple church model, but have to admit that God has used more than the simple church to reach people. Taking a group back through Experiencing God this spring has reminded me that God uses His people when they are obedient - the context doesn't seem to be the issue. I do see a problem in that the "non-simple" church too often becomes an organization rather than a living organism. But there are dangers in the simple church as well.

It was my impression going through seminary that the seminary training was partly to "make us safe" - to keep us orthodox. I would like to have the time to study church awakenings and their relationship with clergy training. My impression from church history (perhaps erroneous) is that a well-educated clergy has kept the church from heresy, but an uneducated clergy has made the church fly higher and closer to God.

I speak from a strange position - my heart and desire is the simple church. God, however, has put me in the traditional church. I know He has me here for a reason, so I serve where planted.

Jeff

Lance Johnson said...

Quickly, Guy, let me make a couple of comments about your questions. First, NT teaching is always relevant today (I am sure you know that and are speaking rhetorically), and while the NT does not mandate a specific church organization, there are principles which must apply to all ages. For example, the emphasis on evangelism and fellowship and the instructions about social impartiality. One of the things that often frustrates us is that God generally spoke to us through stories rather than instructional texts, so we must understand God's character and will from examples rather than a list of bullet-points. In other words he gave us a redemptive history rather than a systematic theology. (See my most recent two and the next five posts on my blog for more about this. The series is "Just One Story".) Our challenge is to faithfully understand and apply the great truths contained in the stories to our lives and world.

Secondly, you asked, "Since we are not part of the Roman-Greco world, are the apostolic prescriptions for church something intended only for the first century ekklesia?" I may be making more of your choices of words than you intended, but of course the "prescriptions" are intended for the church in all ages. Those are the basics I mentioned above and are true regardless of culture or generation. Other issues—frequency and time of services, facilities, small vs. large congregations, independent or denominational structure, and many more—are an entirely different matter.

Thanks for the post, Guy, and the mention of the blog. It does not get updated nearly as often as I would like. One of the negatives of bi-vocational ministry is there is just not enough time.

Blessings my friend.

GuyMuse said...

Jeff and Lance,

Good words from both of you. There is much I could comment on, but your thoughts stand on their own merit.

Just as there is a need for the more traditional churches to learn from the simple/organic church movement and our desire to return to more of a 1st century form of church; the same hold true that the simple/organic church movement can learn from the history, experience and deep Biblical scholarship coming out of Institutional Christianity.

Wolfgang Simson wisely wrote several years back an article entitled, 3 Strands of Church - finishing The Task together
Traditional Church - Cell Church - House church


Today we see the global presence of three distinctively different types of mission-minded Churches, who quite radically differ in their genetic code, core values and therefore practices, but still have the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Each family of churches will have a unique contribution to make, and has specific strengths - and weaknesses. If the strengths are brought together in synergy, the African proverb might prove true again:

One donkey carries one man, two donkeys pull a cart, three donkeys can move a mountain!

The current challenge is not to use valuable energy and resources to "evangelize" each other, but to facilitate the corporate fulfillment of God´s main purpose for His Church on Earth: to disciple the nations - together!

He then goes on to describe the three main strands: traditional, cell, and house/city church with what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

While I am solidly convinced in my heart of the "third strand", we are first and foremost KINGDOM oriented. The Kingdom is made up of all kinds of believers, churches, persuasions, organizations, ministries, etc.

One of the tasks I feel is imperative and one I work hard at, is to strive for unity and cooperation within the many expressions of Kingdom outreach. It is not easy, especially when other Kingdom believers do not share one's own convictions about the church, the task, and ministry in general. But, nevertheless, we are One Body in Christ, and anyone who seeks to divide the Body is going against Christ himself.

movementquebec said...

Guy,

I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate many of your observations on church planting, cross-cultural ministry, and theology. Your blog was recommended to me through my good friend Titus Folden (whom I have the pleasure to spend time with in Oregon as we are both back visiting supporting churches at the same time).

Just wanted to throw out a word of encouragement. Keep at it brother!

GuyMuse said...

movementquebec,

Thanks for visiting the M Blog and for the kind words. Feel free to stop by any time and share your thoughts as well. Tell Titus and family "hola" for us, and that we are anxious for them to get back!

Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...

Guy,

I believe that we would all benefit from a dialog about what defines a NT church. What are the distinctives so that we can call an assembly a NT assembly? I may blog about it myself if I can make time to do that. Brother Lance has given a good point of view in his words.

Thanks,

KDS

GuyMuse said...

KDS,

I would be interested in reading anything you come up with as to what constitutes a NT church. Blog away!