What comes to mind when you hear the word “church”? Most people think of a special building, a stage area, a preacher, people sitting in pews, and music. But that’s only one form of church, which can been labeled the institutional or traditional church. The traditional church comes complete with a special building, an organizational structure, and a set liturgy.
But there’s another form of church commonly referred to as house church. A house church is not a cell group, Bible study group, or fellowship group. A house church is simply a church that meets in a house. (Well, not necessarily in a house. The meeting could be held in a park or just about anywhere.) House church participants usually don’t feel the need to attend a traditional worship service in addition to their home gatherings because they believe everything essential for corporate worship can be found in the home.
Supporting House Churches
If you’re wondering why anyone would want to participate in a house church, think through the following arguments used by house church advocates.
- The first Christians gathered for worship in homes (see 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3,5; Phile. 2; Col. 4:15). Therefore house churches are the most ancient form of church.
- Worship in the early church seems to have been less structured and more open to any believer who desired to share and participate (1 Cor. 14:26).
- The informal setting of a house church provides more opportunity for interaction which corresponds with the “one another” commands in the New Testament. Where else can a command like “encourage one another” be practiced than in an interactive environment?
- The offering money can go to people in need. Without a building and staff salaries to maintain, overhead expenses are minimal.
- Because of their simplicity, house churches are easily reproduced.
- In places of persecution, house churches (in this case, literal house churches) provide a less public and therefore less dangerous venue for Christian fellowship (House Church and Mission, Roger Gehring, 302).
Concerns with House Churches
Despite these arguments, traditional church supporters still have a few concerns with moving corporate worship back to the home (or the park). Here are six concerns along with a possible response (in italics) from a house church advocate. According to the critics, house churches are:
- Cutting themselves off from Christian tradition and Christian wisdom. While some house churches ignore church history, others intentionally try to incorporate lessons from the past. Connecting to Christian tradition brings up difficult questions for any form of church. For example, what parts of Christian tradition are we going to incorporate and why?
- Prone to stray into heresy. For example, consider the doctrinal problems within the house churches in China. Perhaps, but every church has to be on guard against false teaching. In addition, the traditional church is prone to fall into its own unique problems such as a lack of serious discipleship, an emphasis on programs over people, and the professionalization of ministry.
- Cultivating an unhealthy isolation and an in-grown mentality. This unhealthy mentality can develop in any group, therefore both forms of church must guard against this tendency.
- Lacking accountability. Who will arbitrate if a controversy breaks out or the group goes into heresy? House churches can network with other house churches thereby gaining outside help in time of need. Also this lack of accountability isn’t too different from the thousands of independent churches throughout the United States.
- Lacking qualified leadership. How do you define qualified? If qualified means seminary graduate then this concern is valid, but what would that say about the church’s leaders during the first few centuries of Christian history as well as the many godly leaders serving today without a seminary degree? If character, the ability to teach, and faithfulness to the doctrines of Scripture, constitute a qualified leader then this criticism is not easily confirmed.
- Lacking leadership. That depends on how you define leadership. Traditional leadership isn’t the norm in house churches since that would discourage participation. The leadership style in house churches is seen as more of a guide and facilitator.
Biblical Support for Traditional Church and House Church
I won’t go into detail defending the traditional church from house church critics because, at least in the West, that would be like defending Goliath against David. The reality is that each expression of church has latched on to a distinct theme of Scripture. While the traditional church reaches for the defined leadership hook (i.e. 1 Tim. 3), house church participants are hanging their coats on the equality-of-all-believers hook (Gal. 3:28).
From the sparse details we have, it looks like the first-century church meetings were a mix between a traditional church and a house church gathering. The first-century believers enjoyed an informal meeting in a private home with singing, eating, teaching from appointed leaders and an opportunity to share for any who desired to do so (1 Cor. 14:26). Since these two forms of church have hung their signs on distinct teachings in the New Testament they serve to challenge each other in the following ways.
Challenges to the House Church
- Recognize the need for structure and planning. Spontaneity is good, but it shouldn’t be elevated to a super-spiritual status. Planning and organizing are necessary and the larger the group, the more planning will be required. For example, we can’t run a care-free participatory discussion with two hundred people like we would with ten people. Structure must increase as the size of the gathering increases. The traditional church has structured itself in certain ways out of necessity.
- Respect the role of leaders and teachers. While everyone should feel free to participate, some people in the group have the gift of teaching and therefore they should speak more than others (Acts 14:23; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:2).
- Compensate your leaders and teachers. That doesn’t mean you must give a full-time salary with benefits, but some form of compensation should be given. Teachers spend time studying and preparing so they should receive something. “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6; cf. Lk. 10:7; 1 Cor. 9:14; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). Of course, teachers may choose not to exercise this right (1 Cor. 9:11-12).
- Appreciate how God has used and is using the traditional church. Hundreds of thousands have come to Christ through the traditional church. The traditional church isn’t the enemy.
Challenges to the Traditional Church
- Appreciate and respect the house church. House churches are the most ancient form of church and the most common form of church in many parts of the world.
- Take the mantra, “the church is not the building” seriously. How much time and money are spent on matters of the building and property?
- Reconsider the standard of success. A large congregation with a beautiful building and wonderful programs doesn’t equate to a successful church. Many house church advocates have an aversion to the large program-driven, building-centered gatherings that typify the traditional church. Their view of success is small gatherings of believers practicing the “one another” commands without programs dominating the agenda.
- Keep traditions in their proper place. For example, the Bible doesn’t say church services need to begin with a prayer or the church needs to own its own property or every church needs a youth pastor. Human traditions aren’t divine commands and therefore we shouldn’t be afraid to change or adjust them as desired.
- Leaders, consider refusing compensation or at least honor those who are serving for free. The apostle Paul and modern-day house church leaders serve as a challenge to those who receive a regular full-time salary for their work of ministry. While Paul had a right to material compensation, he didn’t always make use of this right (1 Cor. 9:11-12). And Paul not only bypassed his right to receive, but he earned money through manual labor so that he could give (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-9). (For more on Paul’s example see my post on Paul’s income.)
The house church and the traditional church are two distinct expressions of church, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, both forms of church should be willing to learn from each other.