In the last post I said that scripture speaks of only one kind of church, the church in the city. Brother Johnny over at Phoenix Rising, however, was kind enough to point out that this isn’t entirely accurate. On more than one occasion, in fact, Paul also spoke of the church in so-and-so’s house (Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15). This means that house churches are warranted by scripture, too, right? All I can say to this is that I believe the home meetings spoken of in the New Testament were fundamentally different in nature from a lot of what we see in the “house church movement” of today. Allow me to explain.
First of all, I am a fan of “house church” in the sense that there is no better or more natural place for believers to meet than in their own homes. Not only was this the tendency of the early Christians, but there is nothing better suited to the “family” aspect of the church than gatherings that take place in some brother’s living room rather than a large gothic building with hard back pews all lined up in a row facing the front.
However, there is no reason for any of us to be under the delusion that meeting in a home rather than a “church” building will form the panacea for all our spiritual ills. In fact, very much of what you encounter out there in the world of “house church”, “simple church”, and even “organic church” (so-called) seems to be nothing more than a scaled down version of the same old thing. And for this very reason I am not a fan of house church, because I’m very definitely not a fan of the same old thing.
Most of that is another story, though. For the moment, the thing that relates to this matter of church unity is the simple yet regrettable fact that most of what goes by the name of “house church” in our day is at its core no different in nature than the denominational and organizational divisions that characterize the institutional church from which they have departed. While there may not be all of the same titles, offices, and organizational labels, the heart of the matter remains the same. Unless they are meeting on the ground of the one Body locally expressed, the field is still left wide open for divisions on the basis of doctrine, practice, or personal opinion of any kind. We who have gone “outside the camp” of institutional Christianity can talk all we want about “unity in diversity” and believers coming together in Christ, but until we become bound to one another with a revelation of God’s design for the local church, we will still naturally gravitate toward and group together only with those “like-minded” believers who possess a “vision” that is similar to our own. And like it or not, this is still sectarianism.
Suffice it to say that the house churches spoken of in scripture had no such consciousness of being a sect. That is, they did not view themselves as their own unique “body,” separate in life and administration from the rest of the church in their town. That, I believe, is the fundamental difference between house churches in the first century and (most) house churches today. Aside from this, I’m also of the persuasion that in such places as Colossae or Laodicea it’s very likely that the church in so-and-so’s home may have represented the totality of the church in that town, as most churches in the first century were “no doubt small, often no more than a handful of poor people” (historian Philip Schaff). In other words, the church in the home was often equal to the church in the city.