Now, the fact is that neither the institutional church nor the house church model coheres with the First Century model for how to organize a church. In the New Testament, there was but one church in a given city. That church might have met in numerous locations — houses — but it was one church under a single eldership.
We don’t really know quite how scalable this model was. How large could a church get before a group of elders couldn’t manage it without forming it into smaller, more manageable bodies? Well, the church in Jerusalem quickly grew to 5,000 men (Acts 4:4), and was surely well over 10,000 in total membership early in its history, and yet it was under the apostles and the elders (e.g., Acts 15:2). But what about a city with 1,000,000 Christians? How is that best organized? We don’t know. But it’s surely hard to imagine a single group of elders overseeing 1,000,000 Christians.
Regardless of that problem, this information plainly contradicts the old Church of Christ notion, still heard on occasion, that a church should plant a new autonomous congregation once it grows to over 150 members. The apostles obviously didn’t agree.
Are house church a binding pattern?
One might argue that the “pattern” therefore is to break up into small house churches, all led by single, city-wide eldership. But I’m not sure that’s a fair reading of history. After all, the Christians didn’t choose the house church model; it was imposed on them by the Romans. As soon as the Jewish authorities rejected the church and the churches began to fill with Gentiles, Christianity ceased to be a sect of the Jews and so became an illegal religion. As a result, they couldn’t build buildings. The Jews could build synagogues, but the church had no such option until the time of Constantine.
When Constantine became emperor, he legalized Christianity and began a program of building massive church buildings. I can find no evidence that anyone in the church objected to the new facilities! Indeed, they seem to have been thrilled to move out of their catacombs and houses.
According to Peter Leithart in chapter 5 of Defending Constantine (highly recommended for you history buffs), part of the reason for the building program was the large number of people converting due to the legalization of Christianity. They just couldn’t hold all the converts in their houses — and I’m sure the wives of the owners of the house churches were delighted to no longer have to clean and prepare for weekly gatherings in their homes!
The persecuted church had been forced to use methods that were quickly left behind upon legalization. I don’t think the house church model died when the church was legalized, but it certainly seems to have become a secondary, unusual mode of meeting. If the church thought there was some scriptural or orally communicated tradition demanding that the church meet in houses, it was forgotten by the early 300’s AD.
Therefore, I just don’t buy the idea that the house church is theologically demanded or superior to the church that has a dedicated building. On the other hand, some churches do quite well in rented space, at least for a while. It certainly saves a lot of money to use someone else’s building on Sunday! And there are settings where that is the superior approach.
In short, I’m just not sold on the idea that God has told us where to meet or whether to buy a building. I think we should consider a number of available options and apply them with sensitivity to the culture and context.
A church plant targeted to young singles might well choose a very different facility from a church plant targeted to inner city African-Americans, which might be very different from a church planted in suburbs or exurbs. Rather than arguing over the best form, we should celebrate the freedom we have to use whatever form best serves God’s mission in a given time and place. And we should not let custom or tradition constrain us when another method may serve God’s purposes better — here or in the mission field.
Possible models for greater unity
To me, the real lesson — the one most people are missing — is the necessity for greater unity across denominational lines. The current form of autonomy/isolation practiced in the Churches of Christ is indefensible.
Regardless of the form chosen, unity is not optional. Division is never contextually appropriate. Sin is sin is sin.
So how does the contemporary church unite in the same sense that the early church was united? Here are the options:
1. Agreement is negotiated among denominational leaders. This is the ecumenical movement, and it’s largely been a failure.
2. The denominations go out of business, being replaced by independent, autonomous congregations. This is happening but not nearly as rapidly as many would imagine. Many “nondenominational” churches are actually very denominational but they’ve branded themselves as nondenominational. Saddleback is a Southern Baptist church that’s branded as nondenominational.
However, Saddleback is quite nondenominational in the sense that it serves and cooperates with churches across denominational lines. Unlike most Baptist Churches (and Churches of Christ), Saddleback does not limit its missional cooperation to sister congregations of the same denomination. And that’s worthy of serious reflection.
3. Local churches unite to better do God’s mission in their communities, and loyalty to the churches in one’s own community begins to supplant loyalty to one’s own denomination. Rather than thinking of ourselves as part of the community of Churches of Christ first, we think of ourselves as part of Christ’s church in Tuscaloosa first. After all, local mission can be best done through local churches.
Rather than defining our community of Christians in terms of an array of doctrine, we define it by a common mission. It’s not that doctrine is irrelevant, but that we aren’t forced to divide over all doctrine or even most doctrines. We can together teach children to read whether or not we agree on apostolic succession.
I’m not sure that option 3 would ultimately replace denominations, but it would dramatically change how church is done locally. We’d still need the specialized support structures available through denominational institutions. In Church of Christ parlance, we’d still want to support our universities and such ministries as Agape and Missions Resource Network.
But in terms of local mission, rather than going it alone or doing mission only with sister Church of Christ congregations, we’d work with the entirety of Christ’s church in Tuscaloosa. The best way to fight poverty and hunger and illiteracy locally is through the concerted efforts of the entire body of Christ.
Now, if the churches were to actually get organized to do that, some exciting things would happen. We’d start to see the churches down the road as fellow Christians in more than a theoretical sense. After all, we’d be working side by side with them at the food bank or soup kitchen. We’d know their pastors. We’d know their core volunteers. We’d see people at Chamber meetings and the grocery store, not merely as neighbors, but as brothers and sisters in Christ.
At some point, we would surely have a periodic time of joint worship. And we’d join all Christians in town in song and prayer — people that until then we only considered fellow residents. Our view of the church and the importance of local mission would change.
I don’t imagine that the congregations would cede authority to some organizing group, but there would have to be some sort of organizing group that puts together joint worship services, that organizes ministry to the poor, that plans evangelistic campaigns, that prepares for the next tornado or hurricane. [I'll consider the form of that organizing body in the next post of this series.]
Cooperation doesn’t require yielding power, because Christianity isn’t about power; it’s about mission. And as much as we feud and fight amongst ourselves, we can agree on local mission. You see, we’ve been organizing and dividing and damning over doctrinal distinctions as though doctrine were the most important thing. It’s important. But the mission is more important.
When we appear before the Throne of Judgment, we won’t be asked our position on evolution or whether the United States was founded to be a Christian nation or even our views on cessationism. We’ll be judged by whether we believed in Jesus and whether we fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Jesus was quite clear on that last point, and I don’t think we’ll be excused by some clever argument about autonomy.
Alexander Campbell wrote in The Christian System,
But the grandeur, sublimity, and beauty of the foundation of hope, and of ecclesiastical or social union, established by the author and founder of Christianity consisted in this, – that THE BELIEF OF ONE FACT, and that upon the best evidence in the world, is all that is requisite, as far as faith goes, to salvation. The belief of this ONE FACT, and submission to ONE INSTITUTION expressive of it, is all that is required of Heaven to admission into the church. A Christian, as defined, not by Dr. Johnson, nor any creed-maker, but by one taught from Heaven, is one that believes this one fact, and has submitted to one institution, and whose deportment accords with the morality and virtue of the great Prophet. The one fact is expressed in a single proposition – that Jesus the Nazarene is the Messiah. The evidence upon which it is to be believed is the testimony of twelve men, confirmed by prophecy, miracles, and spiritual gifts. The one institution is baptism into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Every such person is a disciple in the fullest sense of the word, the moment he has believed this one fact, upon the above evidence, and has submitted to the above-mentioned institution; and whether he believes the five points condemned, or the five points approved, by the Synod of Dort, is not so much as to be asked of him; whether he holds any of the views of the Calvinists or Arminians, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, or Quakers, is never once to be asked of such persons, in order to admission into the Christian community called the church. The only doubt that can reasonably arise upon these points is, whether this one fact, in its nature and necessary results, can suffice to the salvation of the soul, and whether the open avowal of it, in the overt act of baptism, can be a sufficient recommendation of the persons so professing to the confidence and love of the brotherhood. As to the first of these, it is again and again asserted, in the clearest language, by the Lord himself, the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, that he that believes the testimony that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, may overcome the world, has eternal life, and is, on the veracity of God, from his sins. This should settle the first point; for the witnesses agree that whosoever confesses that Jesus is the Christ, and is baptized, should be received into the church; and not an instance can be produced of any person being asked for any other faith, in order to admission, in the whole New Testament. The Saviour expressly declared to Peter that upon this fact, that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, he would build his church; and Paul has expressly declared that “other foundation can no man lay [for ecclesiastical union] than that JESUS IS THE CHRIST.”
Baptism is, of course, an issue that we’d have to wrestle with, but we’ve considered how baptismal disagreements affect fellowship several times here. Rather than re-covering that ground, I’ll just refer the readers to —