Many people today are searching for more meaningful Christian fellowship. Some belong to a traditional church but are no longer getting their spiritual needs met. Others are new to Christianity but are not interested in joining a traditional church for various reasons. And some are survivors of abusive religious systems and are reluctant to join another organization. Where can people like these turn? The answer for many has been house church. But what is house church? Is it biblical?
What is House Church?
The word church in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek ecclesia, which means an assembly. It refers to the people of God, not to the building. A house church is a group of people, perhaps a dozen or so, that meet together to practice simple, informal Christianity in someone’s home. Together, they pray, sing, study the bible, and share meals. As they get to know one other better, they may share their most intimate problems and challenges. As the group develops and grows, they may have to split into two or more house churches, but will usually meet periodically as a larger group.
House churches were the norm in first century Christianity (Ro 16:3-5, Col 4:15). The professional pastor-led and board-controlled church of today with its Sunday morning service and rows of people in pews would appear uninviting to Jesus’ early disciples. They practiced their faith in a more intimate and informal setting.
House church should be distinguished from cell groups. Cell groups are the traditional church’s response to the need for more intimate and meaningful fellowship. The main church organizes several cell groups that meet during the week in homes. They will then all assemble together, usually on Sunday in the larger church building, for their traditional denominational service. Authority is still in the hands of the head pastor, who usually appoints leaders for each of the cell groups. The agenda is often defined centrally and disseminated by the cell group leaders. Although there is more intimate and informal contact between members, which is beneficial, there is usually little room for exploration of scripture according to individual conscience or for the development of individual gifts of the spirit.
Conversely, in a house church, the leadership is not so clearly observable. The group is autonomous — it does not report to any governing authority except Christ, who is head of the congregation (Eph 5:23). All members participate, exercising their particular gifts from God for the building up of their brothers and sisters (1 Cor 12:7). The goal is to have the meetings led by Christ through God’s spirit, not controlled by detailed human agendas (Mt 18:20, Gal 5:19-25).
As the body has many parts, each with a God-designed purpose, so the house church has several members, each with God-given gifts for the building up of the body (1 Cor 12:14-28). As the holy spirit develops gifts in individuals, these gifts will be recognized by the other members. Some will be natural organisers; some gifted teachers; some natural evangelists; others exceptionally hospitable, and so on. The key is to have faith that Jesus will lead his own church, and be discerning of the activity of the spirit of God (Eph 4:7-13).
What does a house church meeting look like? It will depend on the backgrounds of the members and how the group evolved. Some house churches look very much like a formal bible study. After prayer for God’s direction, a section of scripture is read and discussed by the group. A facilitator, which should be a rotating role, will coordinate the meeting. Other groups may be more free-form, with a lot of singing of praises and group prayer. The discussion and study will be dynamic—dependent on the spirit’s leadings and current needs. Some house churches are very charismatic, praying for healing and exercising prophetic gifts (1 Cor 14:1). Most house churches set aside time for common meals and fellowship (Ac 2:46).
We will typically gravitate towards a house church that is more in line with our personal background, but we should not judge those that are different (Lk 6:37). In fact, visiting other house churches can be educational and edifying. We learn firsthand that the body of Christ is diverse. We learn to be more tolerant of those whose backgrounds are different than ours.
Although house church is generally more rewarding spiritually than the traditional church service, it is not without its challenges. This should not be a surprise considering people are involved! A cursory look at First Corinthians demonstrates that congregation life will inevitably involve conflict. Sadly, many house churches fail because their members are not aware of the benefits of basic conflict resolution skills, practiced with Christian love. Knowledge of the phases of group growth and the problems encountered at each stage can be very helpful in addressing interpersonal issues. A useful tool for understanding group dynamics is the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing model.1
A new house church is created when a group of people commit to meeting regularly for fellowship in someone’s home. This is the Forming phase. The members are on their best behaviour. There is excitement in the air—something new has begun. Each member is trying to understand what their role is. Disagreements are generally not aired. Things appear to be going well, but the group is interacting only superficially.
Soon questions of leadership, agenda, roles or goals will emerge. We have entered the Storming phase. Who will facilitate the meeting? Who will host it? Who will teach? What will be the subject of discussion? In which direction are we headed? Infighting may occur and alliances form. But don’t be alarmed—this is natural and a sign of growth. The key is to communicate clearly and openly with each other (Mt 5:37). A common mistake at this stage is to ignore issues for the sake of ‘peace’. They will only resurface later with greater intensity (Mt 5:23-24). Problems and issues need to be discussed openly if the group is to grow beyond the Storming phase.
In the Norming phase, roles are finally sorted out and the group finds new energy. Members learn what to expect from each other and each member knows where they can best contribute. Ideally, roles will be recognized as appointed by the holy spirit. Elders, for example, will be those who have developed, under God’s direction, the scriptural qualifications (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim 3:1-7). And the roles are generally not static. One person may be qualified to teach on one subject; another person on another subject. The role of facilitating the discussion will usually rotate. A member who has been making good spiritual progress may now be recognized by the group as capable of exercising a role they were previously unqualified for. Conversely, someone who has regressed spiritually will now be seen as unqualified for a role they previously filled. The important point is that these various scriptural roles are raised up by God’s spirit and recognized by the ecclesia. They are not formal offices such as the clergy occupy in a typical church. Sorting out the roles that Jesus wants in his local ecclesia brings a welcome stability and strength to the group.
If the house church continues to progress in the spirit of Christian love, it will eventually achieve a mature closeness. This is the Performing phase. The members will respect each other’s contributions and gifts, and will recognize and appreciate the role each plays in the building up of the ecclesia. There will be a high level of commitment and caring. Christian freedom and principled love will abound. Members will be free to form relationships with those external to the group without the group feeling threatened. Problems and issues are clearly identified and discussed. This local body of Christ will be a true reflection of the life of Jesus in an ungodly world, and a place of refuge for those seeking God. The group will increasingly look outward for opportunities to represent Jesus in the community.
However, as a car requires regular maintenance, the group must keep itself healthy and functioning. As new members join, old members leave, or the group takes on new tasks, it will tend to revert to earlier phases of development. Issues of leadership, agenda, roles or goals will again arise. We should not be discouraged when the group seems to regress but recognize this as normal dynamics. Experience will teach us that through gentle and patient pastoring, the house church will again rise to the level of mature closeness and harmony.
Typical house churches are comprised of people from different traditions. This variety provides an opportunity for enhanced learning and is encouraged, but it also presents challenges. Some may feel very strongly about teachings that others view as optional or even unscriptural. How does a house church deal with such potentially provocative issues?
There are usually three concerns Christians have regarding doctrine. The first is unity, the second is orthodoxy, and the third is message. Many feel that a common doctrinal system is needed to reduce disagreements. There are concerns that if safeguards are not put in place, the house church will drift from “orthodoxy” into “heresy”. Related to these two concerns are questions about the message: How can a church evangelize if it doesn’t have a common gospel? These are valid concerns and we will address each one in turn.
First, it should be understood that true unity occurs when Christians love one another deeply and are Christ-centred, not just by signing a common doctrinal statement (1 Cor 8:1-3, Phil 2:1-3, Eph 4:15). Jesus commands us to love one another (Jn 13:34-35, Ro 13:8), but sadly many Christians spend more energy justifying their doctrinal position or trying to convert others to it than obeying him in this matter. Most issues of unity would disappear if Christians practiced more love in their fellowships, focussed more on Jesus, and spent less time on theological debates (2 Tim 2:14).
What about “orthodoxy”? Shouldn’t Christians strive for “orthodox” belief?
“Orthodoxy” and “heresy” are relative concepts and are deeply misunderstood by most Christians. The idea that historic Christianity had a common, homogenous doctrinal position is a myth. Scholars now understand that Christianity of the first few centuries had a rich and varied tradition. “Orthodox” came to refer to those with the most power, and “heretics” to those that resisted them2. John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and John Huss were all considered heretics in their day (the latter two were burned at the stake by the “orthodox” Church) but are now considered saints. We should reject the terms “orthodox” and “heretic” as being relative, unhelpful and misleading.
So are we then to follow post-modern relativism? Should house churches be a confused market-place of ideas no matter how absurd? Certainly not! We are commanded to worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). Paul warns of those who would try to suppress the truth or who would not obey the truth (Ro 1:18, 2:8). But what exactly is this truth?
Many Christians think of “the Truth” as a doctrinal system. But note that Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). Being “in the truth” does not mean to adhere to some theological system, but refers to being united to Christ in discipleship. It is he that reveals himself to us by the spirit and the word of God, and through him, we come to know the Father and his purposes (Jn 14:7-11). The centre of Christianity is Jesus, not a theological system purported to be based on scripture (Jn 5:39).
Reading and Discussing Scripture
Of course Jesus and his apostles did leave us a body of teaching in the New Testament. We need to prayerfully study and discuss it, using a good bible translation, while asking God to enlighten our minds and hearts. We should be careful not to impose our ideas on scripture, but rather let scripture speak to us in its original context. Considering the writer’s purpose and his reader’s probable understanding is much more profitable than picking out isolated scriptures that appear to support our personal ideas. The latter practice often leads to a misunderstanding or even a subversion of scripture.
Another helpful principal is to divide teachings into essential and non-essential. Essential doctrine is that which is crucial for salvation as defined by scripture. For example, the teaching that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is essential and non-negotiable (Mt 16:16, Ac 8:37). The belief that Christians are under the Law of Moses is not (Ro 6:14, Gal 5:18).
Another good principal is “two or three witnesses” (Mt 18:16). If two or three scriptures, taken in context, agree, and there are no clear contradictory scriptures, we can assume the teaching is sound. If contradictions are found, however, we may have to suspend belief or reject the teaching.
Finally, it is important to see how the New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament. We need to follow the same pattern. For example, many scriptures which originally applied to Israel are reinterpreted to apply to Christians (see Ex 19:6 and 1 Pt 2:9). The Old Testament points forward to Christ, and the New Testament proclaims he has arrived. In Jesus, all of God’s purposes come to fruition and this needs to be kept in mind, especially when reading the Old Testament.
Essential teaching is tied to the Gospel. What do we tell others who are interested in Jesus? We should have a consistent message. If we examine the cases of conversion in the New Testament, we will glean some important information regarding essential teaching and the Gospel.
To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness, that everyone putting faith in him gets forgiveness of sins through his name. (Ac 10:34-38)
“Sirs, what must I do to get saved?” They said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will get saved, you and your household.” (Ac 16:30, 31)
For if you publicly declare that ‘word in your own mouth,’ that Jesus is Lord, and exercise faith in your heart that God raised him up from the dead, you will be saved. (Ro 10:9; also see Ac 2:36-39, 8:34-39)
Despite the claims of some religious leaders, the good news that saves is simple, and centered on Jesus. It has nothing to do with complicated theological systems or prophetic speculations. That which was sufficient for salvation in the first century is still sufficient for salvation in the twenty-first. The Christian message has not changed. To suggest otherwise is to subvert scripture with our own salvation scheme. By focussing on salvation through Jesus Christ, as the scriptures do, we will be unified in the essential Christian message.
Of course, there is much material in the bible beyond basic salvation. There are details about God’s kingdom, which Jesus proclaimed extensively. There is information regarding the state of the dead and the resurrection. There is practical guidance on daily Christian living and fellowship. There is much bible prophecy which requires diligent study. The bible encourages us to “call out for understanding”, to “keep seeking wisdom as for hidden treasures” (Prov 2:3-4). Christians should have the goal of progressing in their spiritual understanding through serious bible study and prayer. Gaining a deeper knowledge of God and His purposes equips a Christian to be a better teacher, able to “bring out of his treasure things new and old” (Mt 13:52).
However, caution is in order. Although Christians should pursue a deeper understanding of scripture, we should not insist that others adopt our particular view as essential belief—no matter how convinced we are of its truth. We must remember that no one can lay any other foundation than that which is already laid: Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). We should keep in mind the principal: In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things love. And the essential teachings are focussed on Jesus, our Lord and Saviour: what he has done and continues to do for us, to the glory of God the Father.
For those who are searching for more meaningful Christian fellowship, house church is a good option. It has its challenges, but the rewards far outweigh the costs. To be a part of a functioning, spirit-led house church is to be near the heart of Jesus. If you can’t find one near you, simply ask a friend or two to come to your home for a meal and some bible study. Jesus promises to be there (Mt 18:20). Pray for direction. Pray for each other and for those in need. Sing praise songs. Be patient, empathetic and loving as your group grows and matures (Ph 2:3). Be unified in biblical essentials, but allow freedom in non-essentials (Rom 14:5). Experience the peace and joy of worshipping God in true Christian freedom.
1 Proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 for business management applications.
2 See for example, Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity, Athenum, New York, 1985, p. 43.