Saturday, June 27, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Unsanctioned “Churches”

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I just came across a blog entry by a Christian fellow named Danny Eason

Danny had this silly idea of inviting a bunch of random (I believe his own description is “ragamuffin”) believers into his home for “Coffee and Jesus”. He describes their get-togethers like this:
“... fellowship, studying the Word (we’re walking through Ephesians), corporate confession and prayer, and worship through song. The time together is incredibly relaxed with no official format.”
That and, oh yeah, “Breaking of Bread”.

Tom: Well, Immanuel Can, maybe you can tell me: How can we put a stop to this sort of thing? I mean, it hasn’t been approved!

Immanuel Can: Good heavens! Call head office! Alert the clergy! We can’t have this: it doesn’t fit on our “org chart”. What will we do if believers start thinking they can carry on their own relationships with the Lord in their own homes? Does Eason mean to send us back to the days of the early church?

Tom: Yeah, I had the same reaction. But seriously, how is it that something so absolutely biblical has to be presented as almost revolutionary these days? I mean, Danny Eason comes a hair from actually apologizing for it: “This post isn’t a dig. I know there are many faithful believers who are blessed by and grow in their attendance of traditional expressions of church. And if that’s you, carry on!”

What has the church come to that this is actually shocking?

The Advent of the Home-Based Meeting

IC: Quite. A few years ago, there was a revival of interest in home-based meetings among conservative evangelicals. People started using the term “life groups” or “home churches” to distinguish them. The former were usually started as supplements to larger local congregations, and the latter as substitutes for them. The former were often started from the local church and the latter by smaller groups seeking an alternative to the traditional practices of local churches.

In any case, I remember that in the denominations, and even among conservative evangelicals, there was a significant backlash. The claim made against them was that they usurped traditional local-church functions or even encouraged people to forsake the local church.

Tom: I can imagine that could easily occur. But if believers are continuing in “corporate worship, devotion to the word, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread”, as Eason describes it, and if they find it more fulfilling than “traditional expressions of church”, what biblical objection could be raised?

I mean, I well understand the practical concern that may drive such criticism. Here we are with buildings with mortgages and commitments to a schedule of meetings that we can’t be guaranteed of keeping up with when our “members” disappear to these home meetings. That’s a major problem. But could there be any legitimate spiritual concern?

IC: No.

The concerns voiced at that time were practical (“How will we fund the building budget if people do this?”) or personal (“I like my big church, and I feel threatened”, or “What if these people start following their consciences instead of our Statement of Doctrine?”). There were, in my experience, no scriptural objections. But maybe I could ask you, Tom: you don’t seem worried about this trend; don’t you see any potential problems?

Tom: Oh, certainly. Not insuperable ones, but definitely there are potential issues to be aware of if you have a genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of those involved in home meetings. Leadership is one: in your small group, who is going to shepherd? Do you have adequate gift present to care for those involved? Then there is church order, for which you should probably decide whether it’s a “life group” extension of a local church or whether it is its own entity. If the latter, there are certain issues of New Testament order that ought rightly to be discussed. And the moment you do, some of that “freedom” and “casualness” you are currently enjoying is likely to encounter the test of obedience to scripture.

Advantages and Disadvantages

IC: Fair enough, Tom. Do you think we have reason to think that any of these things is a deal-breaker? And if so, which item is most likely to become an issue?

Tom: Well, leadership is an issue everywhere, so I don’t know that it’s necessarily going to be worse in a small group in a home. But I’d say the New Testament order is almost inevitably going to become problematic if you decide you’re an autonomous local church responsible directly to the Head of the Church.

Why? Because these meetings gain fans precisely BECAUSE they are so relaxed. Now, “relaxed” for me means I can bring a coffee to Bible study, or leave early without causing a scene if I have to go, or wear my jeans. But for many, many people, “relaxed” is code for women praying out loud, making comments during Bible study and not covering their heads. With a couple of families in a home having a private study, I don’t see that as problematic. But with thirty people calling themselves a church, however, it would be a departure from the teaching of the apostles.

And if you’ve been having that relaxed, easy-going home order and now decide you have to “tighten up” because you’re going to be a real church, some folks invariably are not happy.

IC: Hmmm. Yes, that could be an issue. The “conversion” if you will, from home meeting to small, local church would be tricky. So let’s consider for a few moments the “cell” form, the “life-group” model, in which the smaller groups are still members of a larger local church, but meet in a smaller, less formal environment in order to promote deeper interpersonal relationships but not to supplant the local church or start a new church per se. Any problems there?

Life Groups and Hospitality

Tom: Depends on the intent. There already exists a biblical means of establishing “deeper personal relationships”: it’s called “hospitality”, and it’s enjoined on all believers. The nature of New Testament hospitality makes it the perfect builder of the local church, without any likelihood of supplanting it.

On the other hand, when you meet week after week in small groups in a home, in a nice relaxed atmosphere, doing absolutely everything you would do in the local church (singing, prayer, breaking bread, Bible study, fellowship), you are precisely duplicating your local church, except with none of the disadvantages, obligations, pressures and costs.

You are absolutely going to find yourself either supplanting your local church or starting a new one. You may not have set out to, but you will.

IC: The “life groups” I’ve seen don’t have all the church functions. Congregational singing, the Lord’s Supper/Communion Table, giving, preaching and so on are still done in a common building with a larger congregation. It may be that some of these eventually develop into true house-churches, but today many are associated only with other functions, like discussion, hospitality and spiritual friendship-building, as well as particular attention to one’s own personal life, as the name suggests.

Any residual worries?

Tom: No, if that’s all that occurs, it sounds like biblical hospitality to me, and I’m fine with that. But in Mr. Eason’s case, there’s evidently more going on. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, we’re a church”. And nobody’s stopping you. No sanction is required; no board of directors need be consulted. The word of God is adequate authority for the worship of his Son.

The New Testament Church Order Issue

But if you do decide to be a church, then it is important to observe the sorts of things that would be considered “decent” and “in order” according to the New Testament, rather than just picking and choosing the bits of church life that are the most fun — or the most acceptable to current social norms.

IC: Fair enough. If Mr. Eason has tipped over the line between life group and house church, how ought he to know? What would be his best indication(s) that it was time for him to open the questions of how to observe church order?

Tom: Oh, a number of things might tip you to that. For instance, showing hospitality should be a regular thing for Christians, but when the same fifteen people are in your home every Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. for three hours, there is something more than hospitality going on. Another obvious sign is that you find yourselves engaged in all the normal functions of a local church: worship, singing, Bible teaching, fellowship and so on. A third indicator is that people start saying things like “I wish church could be like this” and “Why don’t we make this a regular thing?” A fourth: people start bringing their friends and you find yourself wondering if the local church you attend is really the best place for them to grow, or if it might actually present hurdles to their development that would need to be overcome. At that point, you have some choices to make.

IC: Maybe this is opening up a topic for another time, but I think there are plenty of people who have the idea that there is no longer such a thing as “church order”, and that anything is, in principle, open to innovation based on the latest trend of thought in society at large. Others think there might be a “church order”, but it’s really composed of hallowed traditions such as, “speak quietly in the foyer during sermons”. Can you give an example of what should be regarded as important “church order” principles?

Tom: You’re quite right about both sorts of misunderstandings. An example? Sure, how about this one: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches”. There is little more universal than the words “all the churches of the saints”. That clause makes it clear that Paul is not simply issuing a culturally-based command to the Corinthians, but that he intended all regular gatherings of believers everywhere to observe it. In any home Bible study/support group/small group/life thingummy, this is almost invariably the first item of church order to get scrapped, and the hardest or second-hardest to institute or re-institute if you decide that what you are doing is actually meeting as a church.


IC: Well, and something else that occurs to me is this: who is in charge of a home church? Is it the homeowner or those who fit the qualifications of elders as given in scripture? That too would have to be decided quickly.

Tom: Agreed, but I don’t think it’s a bigger problem in a home than in a church. You either have elders or you don’t, and when you devolve that responsibility onto people that don’t meet the qualifications, it’s bad news whether you’re in a building or a basement. But I do think it’s a problem less likely to exist when you start from scratch with the agreement that you are meeting according to the principles of the New Testament.

The situation I find really hard to imagine working well — unless everyone is very gracious and obedient to scripture — is the one in which a gathering starts as one thing and transforms into another. I’m aware it has been done successfully many times, but I can imagine there were many transitional bumps.

IC: Well, it can’t be an impossible transition. For as we said at the beginning, home churches are the pattern from which all local churches started.

Tom: Absolutely not. No argument there. But what I’m suggesting is that home arrangements that are something more than hospitality — that have the potential to become anything church-like down the road — are better, safer, and less likely to lead to grief the closer they hew to New Testament church order.

So enjoy the relaxed atmosphere by all means. I think it’s probably a lot closer to where all of us should be. But if we can be relaxed and real while simultaneously remaining attentive to the word of God, that’s so much better in the long term.

Otherwise … well … expect some challenges.

IC: There are challenges, to be sure, but they must not be insurmountable.

Tom: No, certainly not.

IC: It’s interesting, though, that in our day so many people are finding reason to reverse the order — going from “big church” to “home church” in order to recover something of the freshness of faith that characterized the early church.

And if that’s what it takes for our faith to “get home” to us, then maybe it’s not a bad thing at all.

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