Monday, January 16, 2023

Anonymous Asks (232)

“Are home churches biblical?”

The first church in Jerusalem was made up of many smaller home gatherings. The Jewish believers displayed their new Spirit-empowered unity by “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”. Some commentators suggest the words “breaking bread” in Acts 2 simply refer to sharing an ordinary meal in common. It is certainly possible to construe them that way; however, breaking up into smaller groups gathering in private homes to remember the Lord Jesus would simply have been good strategy.

The Church in Jerusalem

Indeed, it is hard to conceive of any other manner in which the early church might have effectively obeyed the Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” With 3,000+ new converts at Pentecost and increasing in size daily, attempting to stage a regular remembrance meal in a single, massive gathering on the temple precincts would have provoked the leaders of the Jews into curtailing the practice in short order. It was also quite unnecessary. The Passover precedent on which the Lord’s Supper is modeled took place in the upper room of a private home, not in temple or synagogue. A private home would therefore have been the most natural place for the early believers to celebrate it.

Thus, when Peter sought out his fellow disciples after being miraculously released from prison, he did not meet up with them in the temple, but looked for them in the house of Mary the mother of John Mark, “where many were gathered together and were praying”.

New Testament Gentile Gatherings

But we need not appeal only to the early church in Jerusalem to answer our question. The New Testament is full of Gentile churches that engaged in various aspects of Body life in homes. The Christians in Philippi met, at least initially, in the house of Lydia. Since most or all of them were members of her household, this made perfect sense. Paul mentions several churches that met in homes. Prisca and Aquila had a church meeting regularly in their house, mentioned in both Romans and 1 Corinthians. Colossians has a greeting to “Nympha and to the church in her house”. The letter to Philemon starts with a reference to “the church in your house”. For that matter, I view 2 John as a coded warning to a late first century home church to refuse to receive false teachers into fellowship, but of course we cannot be adamant about that interpretation.

So then, home churches are very biblical indeed, assuming we care about precedent. In fact, there is little biblical precedent for any other kind of Christian gathering once persecution drove the believers from meeting together publicly.

Patterns and Precedents

I did a little internet research on the subject and found this post at the usually-orthodox GotQuestions website. It makes many of the same points I have made above, though it ducks the precedent issue by pointing out that “the fact that first-century Christians did something does not establish it as a pattern for all generations to follow, unless there is also a clear command to do so”.

This is certainly true, but we are not disputing the validity of buildings constructed for the purpose of gathering to the name of Christ, only pointing out that the home model is consistently found in scripture. True, we have no command to meet in homes. Equally, we have no command to construct church buildings.

As to the issue of where churches should meet today, we have only precedent to work with; there is nothing else available to us.

Authority in Home Churches

The GotQuestions article also raises an important issue about authority in home churches:

“One final consideration is the issue of accountability. Any church, large or small, should follow the instructions of 1 Timothy 3:1-13 regarding elders and deacons. Members of a house church should make sure that (a) there are recognized elders and (b) the elders are biblically qualified. These men should be held accountable even as they hold the group accountable to follow sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).”

This presents a bit of a problem. In theory, having elders and deacons in every local congregation, whatever the size and wherever they meet, is a great suggestion and obviously the ideal to strive for. The sad fact is that many congregations meeting in specially-constructed buildings today lack biblically qualified elders, and many do not bother with formally recognized deacons at all. It’s hard to imagine being able to produce a plurality of such men in home meetings of five to thirty people.

Addressing the “Churches”

Fortunately, the necessity for dedicated elders in each and every home meeting does not follow from the premise that churches should be subject to elders and deacons. When Paul wrote to the Romans, there were up to a million people living in and around the city from which the letter takes its name. The population of Corinth may have been as high as 90,000, while Philippi was probably home to 10-15,000 people. So when he uses terms in his opening addresses like “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”, “the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae”, “the church of God that is in Corinth” and “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons”, we have little ground to imagine all these Christians met regularly together in a single gathering. Even if they did so initially, they would not have been able to do so indefinitely as the gospel spread throughout the region.

Given the pattern of regular persecution experienced by the early church, it is far more likely most Gentile believers met from house to house just as the early believers in Jerusalem did, and that the overseers and deacons Paul refers to in the letter to Philippi were familiar with the believers who gathered in each of these little fellowships, going from home to home teaching, encouraging and shepherding the saints. We should probably think of the early churches in this city or that as more like semi-formal networks of believers than modern megachurches, having regular fellowship indiscriminately with other saints, but not necessarily gathering in the same location every week.

The Church as a Network

This explains why Paul could mention Archippus (who was part of the house church referred to in Philemon) in his letter to the church at Colossae, where Philemon and his family presumably lived, as well as the church in Nympha’s house two verses earlier. That’s at least three gatherings scripture calls churches in the Colossae area alone, or maybe one “super-church” with a minimum of two regular gathering places in its network, each also called churches. Regardless, Paul clearly intended his letter to be read, enjoyed and obeyed by all of them.

This sort of networking, where qualified elders and deacons serve multiple home gatherings and care for all the sheep in their area of service regardless of which congregation they attend, is extremely uncommon in our day. Frankly, I have never heard of it in North America. But it seems like an excellent model for a church that is not affluent enough to buy a large, common piece of property to meet in and/or has fallen out of favor with the secular authorities. It certainly meets all the requirements of scripture.

In short, then, are home churches biblical? Absolutely. Should they have biblical leadership? Ideally. Can we anticipate that they will all have elders and deacons that serve them exclusively? Unlikely.

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