Joe Housechurch grew up in the institutional church. For the last ten years, he has been dissatisfied with it. Yet he has a heart for God and sincerely wants to be used by Him.
When Joe picks up a book on house churches, he has a crisis of conscience. He ends up learning some amazing things. Namely, that there is no contemporary pastor in the New Testament. There are no church buildings. There is no paid clergy, and church meetings are open for all to share.
All of these discoveries rock Joe's world, so much so that he leaves the institutional church (after facing the fury of the pastor, by the way). You see, Joe makes the mistake of sharing these "great revela-
von Soden, Die Schriften des Newen Testamentes, 482.
tions" with other people in his church. When the pastor gets wind of it, Joe finds himself in the pastor's crosshairs and is called a heretic.
After licking his wounds, Joe picks up his New Testament, never realizing that the cut-and-paste approach still lives in his brain. The "clipboard mentality" was never extracted from his thinking. And he is blissfully unaware of it—as are most Christians.
Joe begins looking for the ingredients to start a New Testament church. So he begins to do what most Christians are conditioned to do when seeking God's will. He cherry-picks verses out of the New Testament, ignoring the social and historical background of those verses.
Joe comes across Matthew 18:20: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Joe keeps reading and discovers in Acts 2:46 that the early Christians regularly "met in homes" (NLT). Joe gets a revelation. "All I have to do is open up my house, have two or three people gather here, and voila! I have planted a New Testament church!"
So the next Sunday, Joe opens his home and starts a "house church" based on the New Testament (so he thinks). Soon he has another revelation: "I am a church planter like Paul. I started a house church just like he did." Joe does not realize that he has just lifted two sentences from two documents—completely out of historical context—and sewn them together to do something that has no root in Scripture.
Matthew 18:20 is not a recipe for founding a church. That passage is dealing with an excommunication meeting! Acts 2:46 is simply a report of what the early Christians did. Yes, the early Christians met in homes. And it is highly recommended that we meet in homes today.' But opening up one's home and inviting people to meet there does not make a church. Nor does it make the owner of the home a church planter.
The churches that were planted in the first century were planted
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out of blood and sweat. The people who planted them did not leave the synagogue on Saturday and decide they were going to plant house churches on Sunday. Every man in the New Testament who was involved in planting churches was first an ordinary brother in an already existing church. And in time that man—after a lot of tribulation and exposure in a church that knew him very well—was recognized and sent with the approval of that church. This is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament."
You can prove anything with verses. Birthing a church that maps to those of the first century takes a whole lot more work than opening up your house and having people sit on comfy couches to drink Java, eat cookies, and talk about the Bible.
What do we mean by a first-century-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation. Such a group of people can function organically together as a body when they are left on their own after the church planter leaves them. (This does not mean that church planters never return. There are many times when they are needed to help the church. But after planting a church, church planters should be absent more than they are present.)
The one who plants a first-century-styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher. If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings. They will bring their own songs, they will write their own songs, they will minister out of what Christ has shown them—with no human leader present! What is described here is not armchair philosophy. I (Frank) have worked with churches that fit this bill.
To equip people to do that takes a lot more than opening up your house and saying, "Come, let's have Bible study."
See Viola, So You Want to Start a House Church?
Let's go back to our story. Joe Housechurch now has what he considers a New Testament church. As in all small groups like Joe's, the issue of leadership is raised. What does Joe do? He gets his cherry picker out and begins looking for verses on leadership. He stops at Acts 14 and is arrested by verse 23. It says, "Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church" (NLT). Joe gets another revelation! The word of God declares that every New Testament church has elders, he muses. Therefore, our house church needs elders! (Joe makes this discovery only two weeks after opening up his home.)
After lifting that verse out of context, Joe appoints elders. (Joe happens to be one of those elders, by the way.)
What is the historical context of Acts 14? Two church planters, Paul and Barnabas, are sent out from their home church in Antioch. Before this sending, both men had already experienced church life as brothers, not leaders (Barnabas in Jerusalem and Paul in Antioch).
Acts 14:23 is part of a description of what took place after these two church planters were sent out. They are in south Galatia. The two men have just planted four churches. Now they are returning to visit those churches six months to one year after those churches were planted. Paul and Barnabas return to each of the Galatian churches and "publicly endorse old men" in each church.'
Joe has made another, more subtle mistake while interpreting this passage. The verse says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. Joe takes this to mean that every genuine church has elders. Yet this text says no such thing. The verse is referring to an event in south Galatia during the first century. "Every church" means every church in south Galatia in AD 49!" Luke is talking about the four churches that Paul and Barnabas just planted. Do you see the problem that we run into when we blithely lift verses from their historical setting?
The truth is, Joe Housechurch is totally outside biblical bounds. First, he is not an itinerant church planter. (These are the men who
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Antioch of Syria and Corinth had no elders as far as we can tell.
acknowledged elders in the first century.) Second, his church is far too young to have elders. In Jerusalem, it took at least fourteen years for elders to emerge. But Joe Housechurch has his verse, so he is "standing on Scripture" (in his imagination).
Later, the issue of giving money comes up. So Joe parks at 1 Corinthians 16:2, "On the first day of each week, you should each put aside a portion of the money you have earned" (NLT). Based on this verse, Joe institutes a rule that everyone in his house church should give money to the church fund on Sunday morning.
Again, Joe has taken a passage out of context and built a practice upon it. First Corinthians 16:2 is dealing with a onetime request. It was written about AD 55 to the church in Corinth. At the time, Paul was collecting money from all the Gentile churches that he had planted. Paul had one goal for this: He wanted to bring that collection to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who were going through severe poverty. Paul was saying to the Corinthians, "By the way, when I come and visit, I want that money up front to bring to Jerusalem. So every Sunday when you come together, would you please gradually lay aside a portion of your earnings to create a relief fund?" First Corinthians 16:2, therefore, has nothing to do with a perfunctory ritual of taking up an offering every Sunday morning.'
Next Joe's house church begins to discuss the question of the church's mission. Naturally, Joe takes out his cherry picker and seeks verses that will yield an answer. He stops at Matthew 28:19, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations." He cross-references this to Mark 16:15, which says: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel." He continues on to Acts 5:42: "They ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ."
Joe muses to himself, Our mission is to preach the gospel. That is why we exist. Why shucks, if God did not want us to preach the gospel He would have killed us after we got saved! So the only reason we breathe oxygen—the only reason why we have house churches—is to preach the gospel. This is what
I fully support regularly giving to the needs of the church (nut pastor salaries or church buildings, mind you). But you cannot use this verse to make a law out of a Sunday morning offering.
the New Testament says. I just read it. And if we don't preach the gospel regularly, then we are sinning against God!
Once again, Mr. Joe Housechurch has lifted three verses totally out of context. In Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:15, Jesus is sending His apostles. And in Acts 5:42, these same apostles are preaching the gospel. In the original Greek, the "Great Commission" reads: "Having gone on your way . . . " Therefore, it is a prophecy ("having gone"), not a command ("Go")." The Lord did not command the apostles to "go." He told them that they would be going. There is a valuable point here.
Unlike Christians today, the early Christians did not share Christ out of guilt, command, or duty. They shared Him because He was pouring out of them, and they could not help it! It was a spontaneous, organic thing—born out of life, not guilt.
Joe's thought processes about the church's mission have been shaped by two things: nineteenth-century revivalism (see chapter 3), and the clipboard approach to the Bible.
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