Thursday, March 19, 2009

Response to the House-Church Movement: Conclusion

In this conclusion to my series in response to the House-Church Movement (HCM), I would like first to list for you the links to the six main articles in the series. Since several people have indicated that it would be easier to have the articles listed in order, I hope that doing so here will provide what they have requested:
Part One: Does the Bible require that churches meet strictly in houses rather than in other kinds of buildings?
Part two: Does the Bible require that church gatherings be “completely open and participatory with no one leading”?
Part Three: Does the Bible require that the Lord's Supper be celebrated only as part of a “full meal”?
Part Four: What kind of authority – if any – do elders have in the churches?
Part Five: What is the meaning of ekklēsía?
Part Six: What is the proper understanding of Hebrews 13:17?

Although these six articles do discuss many of the major problems to be found in the House-Church Movement, I think it will be helpful to conclude the series by providing a summary of some of the primary concerns with what the HCM advocates are saying and of some of the possible ramifications. I will list briefly a number of points by way of both positive and negative critique.

Positive Critique

First, the focus upon every member of the body of Christ being truly necessary for its health and edification is a much needed reminder for many churches. There is a tendency in many churches to focus too much on a “professional clergy” to do the ministry instead of encouraging all the members of the body to discover and use their gifts for the edification of the whole. HCM advocates are right to seek to correct this problem. For example, the Apostle Paul says in his first epistle to the Corinthian church:

NKJ 1 Corinthians 12:4-22 “4 There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. 12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free-- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? 18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. 19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
Second, the emphasis upon building relationships that are necessary to fulfill the Bible's commands regarding our responsibilities to one another is much appreciated. The Bible teaches, for example, that we must love one another (John 13:34), admonish one another (Rom. 15:4), bear one another's burden's (Gal. 6:2), and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). All such commands require that we actually know one another well, and HCM advocates are right to try to foster an atmosphere in which this may be more easily facilitated. This is especially important given that we live in a society that relies more heavily every day on technologies such as phones, email, and internet chat, all of which serve a good purpose but also tend to depersonalize interaction.

Third, the reminder that there is a future focus to the Lord' Supper is also appreciated. In my experience, far too many churches seem to miss this altogether. Yet, along with reverently remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross (Luke 22:19), this is a legitimate and important focus of the Lord's Supper. For example, when He instituted the Lord's Supper, Jesus said, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom” (Matt. 26:28-29, see also Luke 22:16-17). And Paul reminds us that when we partake of the Lord's Supper, we “proclaim the Lord's death till He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).

Fourth, I also appreciate the warning by many HCM advocates about the danger of identifying the church with a building rather than with the body of Christ. This is another way in which people may too easily miss the Biblical emphasis upon relationships rather than events that happen at a building. The Bible clearly teaches, however, that the Church is the true temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22) and that the Church is a family, a “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). HCM advocates are right to point out the danger of too much emphasis upon a physical building, especially when the building tends to become more important to some than the people who use it.

Negative Critique

Sadly, it is disturbing to me that the negatives outweigh the positives with regard to the House-Church Movement, at least as I see it.

First, HCM advocates tend to undermine the authority of Scripture through emphasis upon a “tradition” that they read back into Scripture. In this way, many of them are making requirements of certain practices that the Scriptures do not require. For example, they are teaching that meeting in homes, partaking of the Lord's Supper as a part of a larger meal, and having completely open, spontaneous meetings with no one leading, are all requirements of Scripture. Steve Atkerson provides a good illustration of this problem in all three of these areas:

1) With respect to meeting exclusively in homes, Steve Atkerson says in his article entitled Participatory Church Meetings, "In short, we believe that the patterns for church life evident in the New Testament are not merely descriptive, but are actually prescriptive (2Th 2:15 , 1Co 11:2). Thus, we believe in home-based and sized fellowships...." (See Part One of this series for my response.)

2) With respect to having completely open meetings that are interactive and spontaneous, with no one leading, Steve Atkerson says in the aforementioned article, “Holding church meetings in this spontaneous, interactive manner is in fact declared to be imperative according to 1 Corinthians 14:37, 'If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.' Thus, 1 Corinthians 14 is not merely descriptive of primitive church meetings. Rather, it is prescriptive of the way our Lord expects meetings of the whole church to be conducted.” (See Part Two of this series for my response.)

3) With regard to eating the Lord's Supper as a part of a larger meal, in an article entitled The Lord's Supper - Rehearsal Dinner For The Wedding Banquet of The Lamb, Atkerson argues in the same way he has about the Apostolic tradition and meeting in homes: "Why would anyone want to depart from the way Christ and His apostles practiced the Lord’s Supper? The apostles clearly were pleased when churches held to their traditions (1Co 11:2) and even commanded that they do so (2Th 2:15 ). We have no authorization to deviate from it." (See Part Three of this series for my response.)

In each of these cases – as I believe my responses in this series have demonstrated – HCM advocates are making these matters requirements when the Bible does not do so. But doesn't this actually lead to the subversion of Biblical authority? Doesn't it make the HCM advocates themselves out to be the real authority?

Now, I will be quick to point out that I do not think this is an intentional thing on their part. I don't think for a second, for example, that Steve Atkerson would ever intentionally undermine Scriptural authority. But the fact remains that this is what happens when anyone tries to say that his own practices have the same authority as Scripture when, in fact, Scripture itself does not command them.

Second, I am also concerned about the danger of legalism, which follows from my previous point. For the very heart of legalism is to demand of people what God does not demand and to judge their spirituality – or perceived lack thereof – on the basis of such supposed requirements.

Now, I again will be quick to add that I have not seen a big problem with legalism in most of the HCM advocates I have met. Most of them believe in salvation by grace through faith alone and would quickly decry legalism as a means of salvation. But this does not mean that the danger of legalism is not there when a group of Christians begins to teach as necessary what God has not said is necessary. Legalism is a danger for any such group. We all have this tendency, and we all need to remember Jesus' warning to the Pharisees:

NKJ Mark 7:6-7 “6 He answered and said to them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. 7 And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”'"
Third, I am concerned that their strong emphasis upon partaking of the Lord's Supper as part of a full meal will lead to the danger of falling into the kind of abuses Paul confronted in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:17-34). For example, I fear that they will begin treating it as just any other meal, a problem that the church at Corinth had precisely because they were apparently partaking of the Lord's Supper in conjunction with a larger meal. (See my treatment of this issue in Part Three of this series.)

Fourth, I am concerned about an apparent lack of respect for Biblically constituted authority in the churches. I have highlighted and addressed this issue in Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six of this series. There is a simultaneous minimizing of the role and authority of elders in the churches while emphasizing the role of the congregation. While I appreciate their renewed stress on the importance of every member of the body being involved in ministry, I fear that there is not a due appreciation for the Biblical teaching of the necessity of godly elder leadership in the churches.

I also sense some hypocrisy here. HCM advocates often claim that the rest of us have been too influenced by pagan culture in our practices, yet they apparently fail to consider that their own lack of respect for authority (and church history) just happens to coincide very nicely with current cultural influences. This indicates a big blind spot in HCM advocates, for they seem quite willing to see most Christians – at least over the past 1700 years or so – as blind to cultural influences in their interpretation and application of Scripture, while they do not seem to recognize the likelihood that it is they who have been so blinded. It is particularly striking to me that they are even so critical in this regard of Christians since the Reformation. I mean, doesn't it seem to be at least possible – if not probable – that it is they, and not virtually all Evangelical Christians for the past 500 years, who have gotten it wrong?

Conclusion

I have attempted to summarize here some of the best and worst aspects of the portion of the House-Church Movement to which I have been responding. I hope that this series has been helpful to the blog's readers. For those who are interested, I would also remind you that there is an interview available, in which I have discussed a few of these issues with Roderick Edwards. In this interview I point out what I would like to end with here. I understand that these HCM advocates are attempting to hold us accountable to Scripture in their challenges to so many of our practices, and I actually appreciate their efforts to some extent. In response, I want to stress that it is my desire to return the favor. I hope in the process that I have spoken the truth as I see it with love (Eph. 4:15). Although I have had to adopt a confrontational tone at times, I want to assure my readers that my intentions – insofar as I am aware of them before the Lord – have only been to help my brethren in the House-Church Movement and in the larger body of Christ.

I am gratified that many have indicated to me that this series has indeed been helpful to them and has even helped a few churches to overcome or head off a great deal of strife over these matters. But, whether in agreement or disagreement with my views, as always, I welcome your comments.

Soli Deo gloria!

Keith


P.S. I have noticed that the titles of a few of the articles I have cited in this series were changed between the earlier posts and this conclusion. However, I have done my best to check the sources and believe that the titles and citations here are accurate. When I have time, I may try to go back and edit the previous articles to reflect these changes. I assume the links will still work correctly, but I haven't yet been able to go back and see if the articles themselves have been changed since I first cited them. This can be one of the more frustrating things about responding to blogs and online articles. Also, both Steve Atkerson and Beresford Job have published books since I wrote much of this series, but I think the content here – taken from their online sources – is still an accurate assessment of their respective positions.

Update Friday, August 07, 2009

I have now posted a followup article indicating some of the differences between the original articles I cited in this series and the present articles posted at the NTRF website. So far I have not seen anything that would lead me to change anything I have stated in this critique.

8 comments:

  1. Keith,

    I appreciate your detail and Scripture-driven approach to this article. I also share your concerns over HCM advocates that have become legalistic and anti-authority in their positions.

    What would you say about a house church that upholds the biblical offices, has order and teaching in their gatherings, and who does not believe that their mode is prescriptive for all, but rather one way of doing church that is just as legitimate as the traditional model?

    Thanks,

    Rick

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  2. Rick,

    In answer to your question, here are a couple of quotes from my previous articles.

    1)On the issue of meeting in homes:

    "I will finish by saying that I am not at all bothered if there are churches that prefer to meet in houses. But neither am I bothered in the slightest if they should choose to meet in some other kind of building. I am only troubled by the tendency of some among the House-Church Movement who try to say that meeting in houses was what the Apostles taught and therefore is essential to proper church order today. In my opinion, there is no credible case to be made for such a position."

    2) On the issue of interactive meetings:

    "Well, I have attempted to respond to the primary Biblical arguments of HCM advocates. I believe I have demonstrated in the process that there really is no clear case for their contention that the Bible requires that church gatherings be 'completely open and participatory with no one leading.' To be sure, the meetings at Corinth did contain the spontaneous use of the gift of prophecy, along with the interactive weighing of the prophecies given, but this does not mean that every part of the meeting was characterized by either such spontaneity or such interaction. HCM advocates have merely assumed this and required it with no clear Scriptural warrant."

    "Having said all this, however, I must say that I don't necessarily have a problem with a church's conducting meetings in this manner, so long as things are done, as Paul does command, “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). But this brings up the role of the leaders of the church, the elders. It is their role to to ensure that the church is properly taught and to oversee its ministry, and this would certainly also be true of the gatherings of the church for worship, instruction, and edification. I will address the role of the elders in a later post."

    3) On the issue of partaking of the Lord's Supper as part of a larger meal:

    "It is not that I have a problem with HCM advocates observing the Lord's supper in the context of a larger meal in anticipation of the future kingdom. I actually think it could be a beautiful thing to do so long as the kinds of errors to which this may lead are avoided (errors that will be discussed below with reference to the church at Corinth). My problem with the HCM position is that it makes a requirement of something Jesus nowhere required."

    "We have seen why it is that the Church for so many centuries has not held as necessary the eating of a larger meal with the Lord's Supper. It is not because so many Christians have been so blinded to the correct reading of Scripture at this point. Rather it is simply because there is no such requirement in Scripture. In conclusion I would just say that, while I see no real problem with the practice of HCM churches regarding the Lord's Supper, I am once again troubled by their tendency to make requirements of things not clearly commanded in Scripture."

    As you can see, I am open to other ways of doing things, so long as they are done in a scriptural manner and so long as they do not become legalistic requirements.

    I hope this helps to answer your questions, brother. If you have any further questions or comments, please fell free to post them here.

    Keith

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  3. Thanks again for your thoughts. I've been exploring the possibility of pursuing a house church plant. And I'm in total agreement with your concerns and thoughts that you shared.

    Do you know of any reformed house church networks or resources that you believe are doing things well that would be good to study? Or are they mostly a mixed bag? Thanks!

    Rick

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  4. I am sorry I cannot be of help here. I don't know of any such Reformed groups or networks. If you find any, please let us know here at the blog.

    Keith

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  5. Dear brothers,

    I have been challenged by the writings here, but also wishing for a possibly more constructive approach. It is always easy to criticize. It is much harder to propose a reasonable and thoughtful alternative.

    To that end, I had tried to contact you but could not find any email address for any of this site's contributors. So instead I'll post a series of replies that are meant to open a conversation on the topic what IS church?

    I don't have time to write a lengthy research paper. As a result, I expect that readers are familiar with the Bible and can look passages up for themselves to check any and all of this.


    Here is my guiding question:

    In the Bible, is the Body of Christ more like a corporation, with a hierarchical and authoritarian leadership, or more like a clan of families, with heads of households that periodically met to discuss and decide matters of strategic importance to the clan?

    Let's start by asking "Where is God's family present in the Bible?" starting in the Old Testament.

    Here is an incomplete list.

    * The Father, Adam, Eve, the snake.
    * Pages and pages of genealogies.
    * Listings of those who entered the Promised Land were by family.
    * Noah and seven others (all family members), saved in the Ark.
    * God's promise to Abraham to give him a family (and make that family into a nation of families)
    * Lot and his family saved out of Sodom
    * Jewish festivals were celebrated by family.
    * God specifically commanded for Passover to be celebrated by family, “A lamb for each household” (Ex 12:3)
    * The monarchy was according to family line
    * Israel was a clan ruled by “elders”, who really were the heads of households who got together to make important decisions, like electing the family who would be the ruling dynasty and to go to war.
    * The Tabernacle was maintained by the family of Levi.
    * The Tabernacle was administered by the family of Aaron.
    * The praise in the temple was led by the FAMILIES of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthan.
    * Listings of families that returned from exile in Babylon.
    * Listings of men who married foreign wives (in Ezra) and repented (a negative example).


    What about the New Testament?


    ...continued.

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  6. ...Continuing the series of comments (which I chopped up due to comment length limitations on Blogger)...


    And what about the New Testament?

    When Jesus sent out the 12, and later the 72, he sent them to FAMILIES. “Enter the house...”

    Interestingly, and perhaps shockingly based on our modern “church” mindset that emphasizes "bringing people to 'church'", Jesus DIDN'T tell them to bring the families back to him to come worship with him, but rather to GO TO THEM and to preach “the Kingdom of God has come NEAR YOU”.

    As mentioned before, in Exodus 12:3, God specifically commanded Israel to celebrate Passover by family.

    However, Jesus celebrated Passover with his 12 disciples, in seeming direct disobedience to the Father's command (see, for example, Matthew 26:19-20). At least it would be in seeming direct disobedience from a Western cultural mindset.

    When I pointed this out to an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine, he looked at me funny and said, “What you're saying doesn't make sense to a Jew. To a Jew, one's most important father is his Rabbi, his spiritual father.”

    Taken in this context, what Jesus did made perfect sense. Prophetically speaking, the disciples were the family, and Jesus was both the spiritual father and the Lamb, who was about to have his own blood spilled for them.

    In Acts, the Gospel was TAKEN TO people, along their natural family and social lines. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house” is but one example.

    The ONLY place I am aware of in the New Testament that prescribes anything about what to do “when you come together” is 1 Corinthians 11-14, which prescribes a family-style gathering with EVERYONE participating. “When you come together, EACH ONE has...” (14:26)

    It's easy to rationalize “That was just for Corinth” but the concept of the Family of God is so prevalent throughout the whole Bible that I would greatly hesitate to say that Corinth was an aberration.

    (Please correct me if anyone knows of another place in the New Testament that prescribes ANYTHING ELSE about what to do “when you come together”.)

    But this isn't the end. In the book of Revelation, we see God's family again, perfected, in heaven: the Father, the Son, and his Bride.


    So, if the dominant Bible idea of God's people is primarily a family (and I'll welcome alternative proposals supported by Scripture), then the second question is “What is family and where does it *typically* meet?” Or: “How do I understand this in the context of a modern society?”


    In the New Testament, we find believers meeting as God's family pretty much anywhere and everywhere that people gathered. Homes, synagogues, riverbanks, and the Temple in Jerusalem are the main places that come to mind. Yes, homes are the main place that families gather. (Yes, homes are not the exclusive place.)

    At the sending out of the 12, the 72, and the Last Supper, Jesus redefined family to be God's Family, or the natural social groupings of people who love God, believe in him, and want to be in his “kingdom”, or under his rule.

    When Jesus sent out the 12 and 72, the families they reached out to to were traditional organic families/households.

    At the Last Supper, the family was the spiritual family of Jesus and the disciples, defined by their RELATIONSHPS to one another and to him apart from their physical blood-lines. Instead, their relationship was based upon the spiritual blood that Jesus was about to shed for them.

    In Acts, we often see whole households saved together.

    But not always. Like the disciples in the upper room, sometimes the Lord uses business or other relationships as the common bond.

    So in my view, family is both our “blood relatives” according to the flesh, and also those others who are in relationship with us. I have found study of the Greek word oikos helpful in understanding this dynamic.

    What are the implications of this?

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  7. So: Does this give us enough to be able to define and understand God's ekklesia? Also what is the Body of Christ?

    Although I think this gets us a long way to an answer, I'm honestly not fully sure yet. Although we tend to use the terms “church” and “Body of Christ” interchangeably, it doesn't seem to me that Scripture does. In my view, this is still worth a careful study in the Greek.

    But one thing I am fairly sure is that in the Bible, God's people is mainly presented as God's family.

    In the Bible, it acts like God's family—meeting in homes and other small-group social locations.

    The church did this beginning immediately after Pentecost, when with 3000 they could have easily built a building if they wanted to.

    Decisions were decided like an extended family—by heads of houses meeting together and deciding for the group.

    In the Bible, God's people shared meals together, usually accompanied by breaking of bread (but not always).

    Members help each other, look out for one another, forgive one another, and so on.


    On the other hand I cannot find any precedent in the Bible for church as a hierarchical corporation, even just on a small local level. Rather I see Peter saying:

    “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)

    In other words, WE ARE God's house, we don't “go to God's house”.


    Conclusion

    We see the theme of Christ's Body as God's family reflected through Old Testament types and shadows. We see this taught by Jesus in the Gospels. We see it reflected in Paul's teaching. And finally, this theme draws to a conclusion in the book of Revelation.

    In my view, there are few themes so pervasive throughout all of Scripture than God's family.

    I would invite anyone to show such a detailed theme of Christ's Body utilizing a corporate hierarchical authoritarian structure, from Genesis to Revelation. If it exists, I haven't seen it. But if it exists, I would like to see it.

    What does this imply?

    My understanding is that the Body of Christ is present any time two or three are gathered in Christ's name. Anywhere. Any time.

    In homes.

    In a coffee shop.

    In a restaurant.

    In a motel.

    In any other public building,

    But to be consistent with scripture, it makes sense to me that the character of the gathering should conform to the natural ways that families gather, meet, help each other, care for each other, and ultimately love ONE ANOTHER.

    I believe that this is consistent with how Jesus told the disciples to operate; and I believe that it is consistent with how the early church functioned.

    Personally, I am less concerned with the EXTERNALS--if "family" gatherings occur in a public place like a kirche building or in a private home--than in believers everywhere understanding their IDENTITY as God's family, EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME.

    Because when we understand and LIVE this, we put ourselves in a place where God can work miracles through us, glorifying only HIMSELF.


    Warmly, your brother,

    Dave Orme

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  8. David,

    As you can see, I published all three of your comments to the blog. However, I do not have time today to offer a response. I will try to find time later this week.

    Keith

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