Response to the House-Church Movement: Part Two
Written by Keith Throop
Does the Bible require that church gatherings be “completely open and participatory with no one leading”?
Many in the House-Church Movement (HCM) believe that this is the case. For example, Beresford Job argues in favor of this view in his article entitled “The Apostles’ Traditions – The Heart of the Matter: Part 4 – What the Bible Says,” in which he seeks to make the case that “New Testament church gatherings were completely open and participatory with no one leading from the front”:
In 1 Corinthians Paul’s context from chapter 11 through to the end of chapter 14 is how the believers there ought to conduct themselves when they come together as a church (this is not something that any Bible commentator would challenge and is self-evidently the case). He is particularly concerned, in the light of their obsession with the verbal gifts of the Spirit such as tongues and prophecy, that they nderstand the rules he had previously given them concerning their use. Further, he couches his teaching in terms of each person in the church being a different part of a body, and that the key to a healthy body is that each part functions properly and according to its design. Against this background it becomes clear that what Paul writes only makes any sense at all when understood as instructions and rules laid down for a corporate gathering at which all present are free to take part without the controlling presence of anyone ‘leading’ the proceedings.
Steve Atkerson agrees with Job and writes a more comprehensive defense in an article entitled “Interactive Meetings,” which contains a section devoted to “Scriptural Arguments for Interactive Meetings.” Given that these arguments are more detailed and comprehensive that Job’s, I have chosen to restrict my response primarily to Atkerson. In what follows I will cite and respond bit by bit to a significant portion of the article in which he attempts to set forth his Biblical case. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations by me are from the New King James Version.
Interactive meetings are indeed Scriptural. For example, Paul asked the Corinthians, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1Co 14:26 ).
Had Scripture used the words “only one” instead of “everyone,” the verse would be more descriptive of most modern church services. It is clear from the text, however, that those original church meetings were much different. There was interaction, spontaneity and participation. In a sense there really wasn’t an audience because all the brothers were potential cast members!
Atkerson goes beyond what the text he has cited clearly indicates when he says that “there was interaction, spontaneity, and participation” in the sense that “all the brothers were potential cast members.” There are at least a couple of reasons why I say this.
First, although the version cited by Atkerson says that “everyone” has a hymn, word of instruction, revelation, tongue, or interpretation, the Greek word Paul used was hékastos, which may perhaps better be translated here as “each one” (ESV, NASB) or “each of you” (NKJV). Regardless of how it is translated, however, it is patently obvious that Paul cannot be referring to every single brother present as a potential contributor, since four of the five actions mentioned are discussed in the context as gifts of the Spirit which not all possess. For example:
1) Although the version of 1 Corinthians 14:26 cited by Atkerson refers to “a word of instruction,” the Greek word used is didachē, which in this context would better be translated teaching, thus properly alluding to those who have the corresponding spiritual gift and who are mentioned earlier in 12:28 as “teachers” (didáskalos). But not all possess this gift of teaching (12:29), so Paul cannot mean that each one in the church has a teaching to offer. He must rather mean that each one so gifted may have a teaching to offer.
2) When Paul refers to “a revelation” (apokálupsis) in 14:26, he is clearly referring in the context to the gift of “prophecy” (prophēteía,12:10; 13:2,8; 14:6,22) and to those thus referred to as “prophets” (prophētēs,12:28-29; 14:29,32,37), since it is the prophets to whom things are said to be “revealed” in this passage (apokalúptō, 14:30). But not all posses this gift of prophecy (12:29), so Paul cannot mean that each one in the church has a revelation to offer. He must rather mean that each one so gifted may have a revelation or prophecy to offer.
3) Likewise when Paul refers to a “tongue” or “an interpretation” in 14:26, he is clearly referring to the gifts of speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues previously mentioned (12:10, 28). But not all posses the gift of tongues or the interpretation of tongues (12:30), so again Paul cannot mean that each one in the church has a tongue or an interpretation to offer. He must rather mean that each one so gifted has a tongue or an interpretation to offer. And, as matter of fact, even each one gifted with tongues is only allowed to share it if there is an interpreter (14:28).
4) As for Paul’s reference to each one having a “hymn” (psalmós), we have no clear connection to a specific gift mentioned earlier. However, given that Paul’s earlier list of gifts does not appear to have been exhaustive, I think it best to see it as a spiritual gift here since it is clearly mentioned among four other gifts. At any rate, we can hardly avoid reaching the same conclusion as we have regarding the other gifts mentioned. When Paul states that “each one” has a hymn, he cannot mean that each one in the church has a hymn to offer. He must rather mean here something like each one so gifted has a hymn.
Now, given the context of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:26, can we really assert with confidence that Paul thought that “all the brothers” would possess at least one of these gifts? If so, on what basis, since Paul had already made it abundantly clear that only some would have each of these gifts and that there are more gifts besides? In other words, if Paul couldn’t have been referring to everyone in the church when he used the word hékastos in this verse, then on what basis do HCM advocates read it as though He does? The most that can be said is that Paul is referring to each one of those who have these particular gifts.
Second, there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 14:26 about these gifts being “spontaneous” in nature. To be sure, later in the context the gift of prophecy is described as functioning this way (as we shall see below when discussing 14:29-32), but there is no reason at all for Atkerson and other HCM advocates to assume this about the other gifts Paul mentions here. They are simply reading into the text something that is not there. I agree that each and every brother will have some gift for the building up of the body, but Paul only seems to mention here such gifts as may typically be shared in a common gathering for worship, edification, and instruction. Or, more likely, he is mentioning the particular gifts that were being abused by the Corinthians in their public gatherings, as this is the focus of his instruction to them in the context.
The spontaneous and interactive nature of early church meetings is also evident in the regulations concerning those who spoke in tongues: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three, should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (1Co 14: 27 -28).
Were these speakers in unknown tongues scheduled in advance to speak? Not likely, given the supernatural nature of the gift. That the meetings were interactive is evident from the fact that up to three people could speak in tongues and that there was the need for an interpreter to be present.
Where, I ask, do these verses clearly indicate that the gift of tongues is “spontaneous”? Why would the “supernatural nature” of the gift make this more likely? Now, it may be the case that one or more of those so gifted could spontaneously be led to speak in tongues, but this would only mean that the gift itself may function in a spontaneous manner, not that the sharing of that gift was necessarily a spontaneous thing. After all, the second one to speak in a tongue had to wait at least for the first to finish and for there to be an interpretation. In addition, even if this gift did function in a spontaneous way, it certainly wouldn’t mean that every other gift or the involvement of anyone or everyone else in the rest of the meeting should be characterized as “spontaneous.” But isn’t this the position of the HCM advocates?
I also wonder in what way these verses clearly indicate that the church meeting involved the interaction of any other than those gifted with tongues and the interpretation of tongues. In fact, I am not sure that one speaking in a tongue, followed by one interpreting what is said, can itself properly be characterized as “interaction.” After all, they are not necessarily engaging in a conversation with one another, let alone with the rest of the congregation. The most that can be said is that, when there are those present with the gift of tongues, there may be at least three or four more people who speak in the meeting.
Further indication of the participatory nature of their gatherings is seen in the guidelines given for prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32. We are informed that “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” ( 14:29 ). The spontaneous nature of their participation also comes out in 14:30 -31a, “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn.” Clearly, some of the prophets came to church not planning to say anything, but then received a revelation while sitting there and listening.
I agree that these verses describe the gift of prophecy as functioning in the meeting in a spontaneous manner. I also agree that this means that the meeting was participatory in the sense that it involved the participation of up to two or three prophets in addition to the two or three tongues speakers (and at least one interpreter) already mentioned. But how does this translate to saying that the entire meeting was participatory in the sense that anyone could participate? All that can be said from the passage thus far is that some may participate who have particular gifts to share in such a meeting for worship and instruction. But it can also be said that there would be some who could not participate. For example, the fourth guy to receive a prophecy will have to sit silently by. Perhaps he can share it at another time, but Paul would not allow him to do so on this occasion.
Perhaps one of the most controversial paragraphs in the New Testament occurs in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, regarding the silence of women in the meeting. However one interprets this passage, there would have been no need for Paul to have written it unless first century church meetings were participatory. It is implied in 14:35 that people were asking questions of the speakers during the church meetings: “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.” Even if Paul only meant that women were not to be the ones doing the questioning, it still remained that the men were free to quiz a speaker. The point to be gleaned is that a church meeting is not supposed to be a one-way communication. There is to be dialog and interaction among those who gather.
I agree that these verses have been difficult for many, but I think that the context gives us some help as to what Paul is referring to, and I do not think it necessitates that the men would all take part in questioning anyone who spoke in the meeting. After all, the context has to do with weighing what is said by the two or three prophets who were allowed to speak. Wayne Grudem agrees and has offered an interpretation of the passage which I think does the best job of understanding these verses in their context. Grudem argues the following with respect to 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36:
In this section Paul cannot be prohibiting all public speech by women in the church, for he clearly allows them to pray and prophesy in church in 1 Corinthians 11:5. Therefore, it is best to understand this passage as referring to speech that is in the category being discussed in the immediate context, namely, the spoken evaluation and judging of prophecies in the congregation (see v. 29: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said”). While Paul allows women to speak and give prophecies in the church meeting, he does not allow them to speak up and give evaluations or critiques of the prophecies that have been given, for this would be a ruling or governing function with respect to the whole church. This understanding of the passage depends on our view of the gift of prophecy in the New Testament age, namely, that prophecy involves not authoritative Bible teaching, and not speaking words of God which are equal to Scripture, but rather reporting something which God spontaneously brings to mind. In this way, Paul’s teachings are quite consistent in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2: in both cases he is concerned to preserve male leadership in the teaching and governing of the church. (Systematic Theology, p.939)
If this understanding of the passage is correct – and I believe it is – then the only interaction going on here is the weighing of the prophecies given by the two or three prophets who have spoken. And this hardly amounts to questioning anyone who speaks. Rather it is a cautious approach to the use of a gift in which one says that he/she has been given revelation of some kind from God. It does not necessarily address, for example, the response of the men in the congregation to the gift of teaching, which Paul clearly differentiates from the gift of prophecy earlier in the context and which is not under discussion in the immediately preceding verses.
Almost every New Testament letter is an “occasional document,” so-called because it was written in response to some local problem. Evidently some in Corinth wanted to conduct their meetings differently than this passage requires. Clearly, some aspect of the church meetings in Corinth was amiss. This much is obvious from the nature of the two questions asked of them: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1Co 14:36).
The word of God certainly had not originated with the Corinthians, and they most certainly were not the only people it had reached. These questions were thus designed to convince the Corinthian believers that they had neither right nor authorization to conduct their meetings in any other way than what is prescribed in 1 Corinthians 14. The inspired correction served to regulate orderly interaction at church gatherings, not prohibit it. Paul wrote, “Be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” ( 14:39 -40).
I agree with Atkerson that Paul was correcting the Corinthian church. I also agree that he was regulating some interaction that was going on at their church gatherings, not prohibiting such interaction. But the issue is what kind of interaction was actually happening there and whether or not Paul required that all such interaction take place at any and every gathering of the Church. For reasons already given, I do not see the same kind of interaction that HCM advocates see here. I think they have overstated their case. But even if one does assume that the passage describes the church gatherings at Corinth as interactive and spontaneous in the sense that HCM advocates seem to mean it, this does not mean that Paul would command that all churches have such meetings. After all, to regulate the abuses in what one church does is not the same thing as requiring all churches to do the same things in the first place. It would only require that all churches that do the same things follow the regulations set down by Paul. But Atkerson anticipates where I am heading:
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.
Here is where Atkerson once again goes beyond what the text explicitly says. He misses the fact that much of the passage is, in fact, descriptive and not prescriptive and that the only commands Paul gives do not say that a church must have spontaneous, interactive meetings. In fact, I have questioned based upon my own exegesis of the passage whether or not such meetings – as HCM advocates appear to understand them – ever took place at Corinth at all. But, even if such meetings are described in the passage as actually having taken place at Corinth, the fact would still remain that Paul nowhere in the passage commands other churches to do the same. For example, where does Paul command in this passage that all participation must be spontaneous? That is, that all gifts must operate in the same spontaneous way as the gift of prophecy? And where does he command that anyone be allowed to participate? And where does he command that no one should exercise any leadership over what takes place? In fact, doesn’t Paul himself exercise leadership from afar in this very epistle? And doesn’t he exercise leadership even over the spontaneous use of the gift of prophecy?
When we understand the historical context of the early church, it is not surprising that the meetings of the first-century church would have been interactive. The first believers in most areas of the Roman Empire were Jewish. They were accustomed to gathering in the typical synagogue format, which was open to participation from those in attendance. An examination of Acts 13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10 , 18:4 and 19:8 will reveal that the apostles could never have evangelized the way they did unless the synagogues allowed input from those in the audience. The apostles were always permitted to speak in the open meetings of the synagogue. In fact, if those first century synagogue meetings were anything like most typical twenty-first century church worship services, Paul and his companions would have had to find another way to reach the Jews with the gospel!
After having examined the passages in Acts that Atkerson has cited, I see no clear evidence that the synagogue services were the kind of interactive meetings he envisions. In one passage, the leaders of the synagogue are said to have invited Paul to speak (Acts 13:15). Why can’t we assume that this wasn’t unusual, or that Paul may simply have asked if he could speak? After all, he was obviously a well known scholar who was advocating something new to them that they clearly wanted to know more about. There is no reason to think that Paul’s ability to speak in these synagogues is necessarily evidence of spontaneous or interactive meetings there. Now, it may be that these services were the kind of interactive affairs that HCM advocates imagine them to be, but the texts cited do not prove this, and they certainly do not prove that the church necessarily followed their example.
There are other biblical indicators as well. In Acts 20:7, we discover that Paul “kept on talking” (“preached,” KJV) to the church at Troas until midnight . The Greek word translated “talking” is dialegomia which literally means “consider and discuss, argue.” Our English word “dialogue” is derived from it today. That meeting in Troas was interactive.
Besides the fact that the meaning of the modern English word dialogue has nothing to do with what Luke wrote in the first century, I would point out that Atkerson has been selective in his use of lexical information here. In fact, Beresford Job does the same thing in his article entitled “Paul Preached to Them” (found at house-church.org under “general articles”):
The original Greek doesn’t say here quite what the translators would have you believe, and Luke doesn’t use any of the various Greek words for preach at all, but rather describes what Paul was doing here until midnight with the word dialogemai [sic]. And dialogemai [sic], as any Greek scholar will tell, means to converse, to discuss, to reason or dispute with. It denotes a two-way discussion between different parties and is actually the Greek word from which we get the English word dialogue.
Notice that both Atkerson and Job argue that the lexical meaning of the Greek word dialégomai excludes the meaning commonly found in translations – and thus agreed upon by the Greek scholars responsible for these translations – such as the KJV (“preached”), NKJV (“spoke”), NASB (“began talking”), NIV (“spoke”), or ESV (“talked,” which may or may not agree with HCM advocates). But despite their confidence in this regard, both Atkerson and Job are wrong in their contention about the lexical meaning. Here is what a few of the most notable Greek lexicons actually have to say about the matter:
… (1) of a reasoned discussion discuss, discourse with, conduct a discussion (AC 18.4); (2) of disputations contend, argue, dispute (MK 9.34); (3) of speaking to someone in order to convince address, speak, reason with (HE 12.5). (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, BibleWorks #6308)
… 1. to engage in speech interchange, converse, discuss, argue [where it cites Acts 20:7 as probably having the meaning discuss, confer]… 2. to instruct about someth., inform, instruct [where it admits that passages cited with reference to the first meaning – which would include Acts 20:7 – may have in fact this meaning and also cites Hebrews 12:5]). (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, BibleWorks #1868)
… a) argue 33.446… to argue about differences of opinion – ‘to argue, to dispute, argument’… (b) make a speech 33.26… to speak in a somewhat formal setting and probably implying a more formal use of language – ‘to address, to make a speech’ [where it cites Acts 12:21 and 20:7] (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, by J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, BibleWorks #1565)
Observe that all three of these reputable Greek lexicons agree that dialégomai may also have the kind of meaning so commonly expressed by English translations, i.e. to address, speak (in the sense of a formal speech, such as when preaching), or even instruct. And they cite at least two other passages which they believe clearly do have this meaning: Acts 12:21, which refers to a speech given by Herod, and especially Hebrews 12:5, which reads, “And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks [dialégomai] to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him.’” There is definitely not an interactive discussion being thought of here!
Thus, Job’s contention that “any Greek scholar” would tell you the same thing he has said about the meaning of dialégomai is just plain wrong. None of the Greek scholars responsible for any of the translations or lexicons I have cited would agree with him. Yes, they would certainly agree that the word can mean – or even may usually mean – what Atkerson and Job contend, but they would not agree that it can only mean what they and other HCM advocates have argued that it must mean in Act 20:7.
But this begs the question, What is the correct meaning of dialégomai in Acts 20:7? And why do so many translations appear to disagree with the meaning supposed by HCM advocates? The answer to both of these questions is to be found in the context in which Luke uses the word:
Acts 20:7-10 “7 Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke [dialégomai] to them and continued his message [lógos] until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. 9 And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking [dialégomai+prepositional phrase meaning Paul spoke even more], he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, ‘Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.'” (Bold emphasis mine.)
Observe that the emphasis of the passage is upon Paul speaking. In fact, the passage does not say that any other people were speaking there, but that Paul himself was speaking. He had a message he was delivering (vs.7), so we are not surprised that the emphasis is upon him being the speaker. Now, I suppose it is possible that there were some questions directed at Paul throughout the course of the evening, but 1) the text does not say this, 2) the word dialégomai does not necessitate this, and 3) the context appears to indicate otherwise with the emphasis placed solely upon Paul as the speaker. But even if this passage did indicate that discussion was going on, we have here again a descriptive rather than a prescriptive text. And we have no clear command by Paul or any other New Testament writer that requires that delivering a message include an interactive time of “quizzing” the speaker.
HCM advocates have been selective and misleading – whether intentionally so or not – in their use of lexical evidence in interpreting Acts 20:7, and in my opinion they have also failed to take the context fully into account when assessing the meaning of dialégomai. But the translators they believe to have gotten it wrong apparently have done their homework a bit better.
But I would also include yet another bit of evidence ignored by HCM advocates regarding the meaning of dialégomai as used by Paul and Luke, namely that dialégomai can apparently be used interchangeably with didáskō to describe the same ministry activity. For example, in Acts 19:9-10 Luke tells us that in Ephesus Paul was “reasoning” [dialégomai] daily with the “disciples” in the school of Tyrannus and that he continued in this ministry for two years. But when Paul later described this same ministry in his recollection to the Ephesian elders, he said, “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed [anaggéllō] it to you, and taught [didáskō] you publicly and from house to house” (20:20). So, apparently Paul could use didáskō or anaggéllō to describe what Luke called dialégomai, and vice versa. But there is no evidence that either didáskō or anaggéllō require any notion of interaction or dialog.
There is still more. The author of Hebrews urged his readers to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (10:25). Early believers encouraged one another when they gathered. That encouragement, of course, required interaction. Additionally, believers are nstructed in Hebrews 10:24 to meeting in order to stimulate each other to love and good deeds. This too required interaction.
I agree with Atkerson that we should encourage one another when we gather together. I also agree that this may often best happen in smaller groups where there is room for interaction. The issue is whether or not this requires that we forgo the kind of worship services typically engaged in by most congregations on a Sunday morning. At Immanuel Baptist Church (where I serve as an elder), for example, we usually have quite a bit of interaction and mutual exhortation during Sunday school and the Sunday evening teaching time, and the people spend a good bit of time visiting before and after the primary worship services as well. This does not take into account the many times people may meet together outside of the regular church meeting(s). I would also point out that many churches have begun having small group ministries in addition to their typical Sunday meetings just for this purpose. So, I fail to see how Hebrews 10:25 argues for having only spontaneous, interactive meetings such as HCM advocates think of them, since it is clearly possible to gather for mutual encouragement without resorting to such meetings, and especially since they can offer no clear evidence that the early church would only have engaged in such meetings in the first place.
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.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, in which I will respond to the argument that the Lord’s Supper may only be rightly observed if in the context of a “full meal.”