Response to the House-Church Movement: Conclusion
Written by Keith Throop
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.
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.
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?
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.