House Churches & Institutional Churches, Part 5

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 —

Born of Water

Index to series on baptism

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to House Churches & Institutional Churches, Part 5

  1. Jerry Starling says:


    Now you have certainly left the fold of the Church of Christ!

    At least that is what many will conclude and they will write you off (if they have not already) as a certified heretic.

    However, as you point out, this is in reality a return to the roots of the Stone-
    Campbell Restoration Movement – or as Campbell preferred to call it, "The Current Reformation" of the church.

    Less attention to who WE are (whoever WE may be) and more attention to who HE is will make us better off.

    Almost 50 years ago I read a book (I do not recall the name of the author) simply called The Church. It was published in the 1920's or 1930's, I believe, by the Gospel Advocate. The author was a regular writer in the Advocate. His theme was that the church is all of those whom God adds to it on their confession of faith in Jesus and submission to baptism. He spoke much of our language of WE and US – while insisting that the church is much larger than any one group.

    What we need is to do some serious thinking about Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; and Romans 14:1 – 15:13. You have written well about Romans 14ff – and I have especially appreciated your comments on Romans 15:7. These passages will help to get us away from the US-THEM division among professing Christians and turn it our attention, rather, to the dichotomy between light and darkness (as in 2 Corinthians 6:14ff).

    I commend you again for your provocative thinking in areas we (see, here is that WE language again!) have too long neglected – or in which we are unnecessarily dogmatic. [Dogmatic is to make dogma; unnecessarily dogmatic is to make dogma where God has not made it.]



  2. aBasnar says:

    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.

    Maybe a shocking proposal: Look at how the Roman Catholics did it … (not endorsing all the hierarchical structures and fancy titles that go along with it, but the basic idea and principle)


  3. aBasnar says:

    The Jews could build synagogues, but the church had no such option until the time of Constantine.

    They actually had in the very beginning when the Romans id not yet persecute the Christians and could not even tell the difference between Jews and Christians. We also have to take into considerations that bacj then there wre not “THE” Jews, but even the Jews disagreed amongst themselves on various issues. so there were the GHellenistic and the Hebrew synagogues in Jerusalem. an Synagogue of Liberated people and one of people from Cyrene. Who would have objected to a synagogu of messianic Jews?

    Well, they did not. And actually, i have never heard of a synagogue of the Essenes either. So a synagogue is not essntial for practicing church life even in a Jewish setting. A synagogue is basically a “bible school” – worship was in the temple, where the sacrifices were made.

    I think it is intersting that the Jewish Christians, although the ydiffered in almost nothing from their Old Covenant Neighbors (they still circumcized their boys and held the Mosaic Law) did not set up Messianic Synagogues but met in homes after haveing worshipped in the Temple.

    We might add – in a good CoC tradition – there was nmo authority for synagogues in the OT anyway, was there? So the scriptures were silent, and accordin to the cherished RP it would have been a sin to build a synagogue without authority from God’s word. (Just to ad som pepper to the soup)


  4. aBasnar says:

    such a long post cannot be commented on in jut one reply 😉

    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.

    Of course not, because this whole church system was unknown to the Apostles. And – as I must stress and underline – church autonomy is totally alien to the NT.

    But I was baptized in a church that operated exaclty the same way (an evangelical church). It was started around 1970, and from this church at least ten other churches were planted in the described way in various parts in and around Vienna. And although the process has slowed down, they still continue to evangelize and to plant churches.


  5. aBasnar says:

    The persecuted church had been forced to use methods that were quickly left behind upon legalization.

    This is an excellent example of a pragmatic interpreting history …

    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!

    Well, that's one of the burden of being hospitable according to the scriptures. Of course it is easier NOT to have guests, and hosting a congregation sometimes means taking up a cross. Yes, we should be very thankful for church models that help us avoid such crosses … maybe that's a bit harsh, but just to illustrate the strange aftertaste this "observation" leaves (based on an ancient survey among Christian housewives from the 300s).


  6. aBasnar says:

    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.

    No, but we are sold to God by the blood of Christ. therefore we should be very diligent indiscerning His will according to His Word. This does not allow much freedom to push aside approved precendents/examples/patterns by calling them an accidental coincidence in an unfriendly setting that was finally overcome by our great Saint Constantine, to whom we owe o much thanks for finally adding some architecture to the church of Christ.

    I am definitely not sold to the idea that the church benefitted from Constantine … God did not even hint to building church buildings in the NT. This silence is significant, because it urges us to understand the church's nature as a temple built of living stones. This got lost as soon as "houses of God" became associated with "cathedrals". Look at the fruit and judge the tree.


  7. Clayton McCool says:

    I wish we could get over the frivolous and just DO what we know to do, where ever we are, what ever group, what ever division, whether in homes or exclusive buildings, what ever is written on our divisive signs, push them all down and just function as the body:

    "Be at peace with each other" (Mk. 9:50)
    "Wash one another's feet" (John 13:14)
    "Love one another" (John 13:34, & 12 other references)
    "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love" (Rom. 12:10)
    "Honor one another above yourselves" (Rom. 12:10)
    "Live in harmony with one another" (Rom. 12:10)
    "Stop passing judgment on one another" (Rom. 14:13)
    "Instruct one another" (Rom. 15:14)
    "Accept one another, as Christ accepted you" (Rom. 15:17)
    "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 6:20 and 2 Cor. 13:12)
    "When you come together to eat, wait for each other" (1 Cor. 11:33)
    "Have equal concern for each other" (1 Cor. 12:25)
    "Serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13)
    "If you keep on biting and devouring each will be destroyed by each other" (Gal. 5:15)
    "Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other" (Gal. 5:26)
    "Carry each other's burdens" (Gal. 6:2)
    "Be patient, bearing with one another in love" (Eph. 4:2)
    "Be kind and compassionate to one another" (Eph. 4:32)
    "Forgiving each other as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32)
    "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19)
    "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph.5:21)
    "In humility, consider others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3)
    "Do not lie to each other" (Col. 3:9)
    "Bear with each other" (Col. 3:13)
    "Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another" (Col. 3:16)
    "Teach one another" (Col. 3:16)
    "Admonish one another" (Col. 3:16)
    "Make your love increase and overflow for each other" (1 Thess. 3:12)
    "Encourage one another" (1 Thess. 4:18, and 5:11)
    "Build each other up" (1 Thess. 5:11)
    "Encourage one another daily" (Heb. 3:13 and 10:25)
    "Spur one another on to love and good deeds" (Heb. 10:24)
    "Do not slander one another" (Js. 4:11)
    "Don't grumble against each other" (Js. 5:9)
    "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (Js. 5:16)
    "Love one another deeply from the heart" (1 Pet. 1:22 & 4:8)
    "Live in harmony with each other" (1 Pet. 3:8)
    "Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling" (1Pet. 4:9)
    "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others" (1 Pet. 4:10)
    "Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another" (1 Pet. 5:5)
    "Greet each other with a kiss of love" (1 Pet. 5:14)

  8. Charles McLean says:

    "Dear Certified Heretic, please pick up your CH badge of honor at the office…" ;^)

    Jay, I appreciate your point about not binding the pattern of house churches any more than we should bind any other pattern. As a long-time house church proponent, we forget this at times. I can see, however, a city eldership scaling up as a network rather than a hierarchy. The picture I see is like rain on a pond. Each drop creates concentric ripples. Stronger contacts happen between nearby ripples, weaker contacts with more remote ripples, but there are no discrete boundaries. Some splashes make more ripples than others. And those ripples may well move around as new shepherd/sheep relationships emerge. It's living, it's flexible, but it has an essential dynamic form to it. The church is not a house of dead brick, but of living stones, a paradox which we must embrace if we are to see both the life and stability of the house of God.

    Good word, mi hermano.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Charles,The network/ripples analogy works for me quite well. For example, what happens when a charlatan “finds Jesus,” gets baptized, and begs for money in multiple churches? I’ve seen it more than once. If the leadership doesn’t talk to each other, the charlatan continues to fleece the flock.

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