Designing a “House Church”

A Short Outline of Biblical Principles

Before I get into specifics below regarding the detailed design of a “house church,” (and I will get there — please be patient or else skip ahead) I begin with a serious discussion for those “fundamentalists” who despise “house churches”: Biblically, it is clear that the New Testament local church consists of the assembly of believers. Where they meet, whether in the forest or a cave, a rented store front, a huge palace, or the living room of a house is irrelevant. Many large facility-based churches started out in someone’s living room once. Throughout the last 2,000 years right up until today, especially in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and in other areas of severe persecution, the ONLY option is to meet in homes. I would rather challenge critics to justify Biblically their stewardship choices in building and maintaining huge facilities and paid staff. The history of such religious investment is tied to the historic Roman Catholic Church, not independent Bible believing churches. For a solid Biblical explanation of just what a New Testament church is, I highly recommend The Christian Ministry According to the Apostles, by Thomas Hughes Milner, written in 1858, but republished recently.

Clearly, for a “house church” to be a legitimate New Testament church, it must include such characteristics as preaching the Gospel to the lost (outside the assembly), baptizing new believers, celebrating the remembrance of the Lord’s supper, teaching the believers the word of God, and such other matters as are detailed in the book of Acts and the epistles. A group of believers that merely gets together for fellowship and Bible study, neglecting such disciplines, does NOT qualify to be a church.

So why call it a “house church”? Because this simple New Testament pattern is so disdained in the West in lieu of pulpits, pews, steeples, and vaulted ceilings, that the phrase communicates some essential differences. These differences, as mentioned below and in the two accompanying articles, Three Pillars . . . and Two Church Models . . . , can determine whether a local church really has a chance to serve God in a Scriptural manner. In your “church,” however you are organized or where you meet, consider whether every little thing that is done is consistent with New Testament teaching.

What about the objection often hurled from establishment pulpiteers? “What is your authority to start a church? Have you been ordained? What Bible college did you graduate from? Don’t you know that only churches can send out men to establish new churches?”

I’ll force myself to be brief here. If my tone sounds a little angry in the next few paragraphs, it is because I AM ANGRY at those who would hinder the Gospel and squash the spiritual growth of God’s people. If you, O reader, have a logical and reasonable mind, you’ll get it quickly. If you’re determined to miss it, a lengthy treatise won’t help. To start with, my authority is the Great Commission, given 5 times during the 40 days before Christ’s ascension. (Look up the passages.) Christ sent His followers into the world to preach the Gospel, to baptize those who believe, and to teach the new believers “all things.” “All things” would include training the next generation of believers to go and do likewise. You could call that a “recursive algorithm,” which has allowed the survival and propagation of the Christian faith throughout the last 2,000 years.

If only “officially ordained” Bible college graduates are allowed to preach, baptize, and teach, then why do so many of these clergy tell their laity in the pews to share the Gospel, too? Even your most rabid establishment preacher endorses the principle that all Christians are to share the Gospel. Share the Gospel . . . that’s preaching, and preaching is to be done out in the community. Shame on “preachers” who claim that they have been “called by God to preach,” but do so primarily from their pulpits instead of at their neighbors’ doors. And if all Christians are to preach the Gospel, by what authority do you constrain them from baptizing, teaching, and commemorating the Lord’s supper . . . I mean by what Biblical authority is there such a distinction between clergy and laity? (For the novice, let me explain that “clergy” and “laity” are viciously anti-Biblical concepts, sustained by the Roman Catholic church. Biblically, all believers are brothers and sisters, with different roles and responsibilities in the family and church, but with no vital spiritual distinction.)

Next, show me by what New Testament authority Bible colleges have any standing whatsoever? Note that — in practice — churches won’t ordain a church planting missionary unless he has the diploma. I won’t repeat the relevant arguments here. See my article, “Don’t Go to Bible College.” The local church has the responsibility and authority to make and train disciples. Even within local churches who establish their own Bible college or Bible institute, why is it that the really good training is only provided to the few who sign up and pay for the courses? Aren’t all of the Christians supposed to be trained in the ministries of evangelism and discipleship??!!?

Finally, regarding the constraints by which a New Testament church may be formed . . . Acts 13 records the selection of Paul and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit and the church at Antioch to launch into church-planting missionary work. In Paul’s letter to Titus, the apostle instructs Titus to ordain elders in cities where churches are planted. The establishmentarians declare, “Aha! Thus we have the only legitimate method to start a local church. God must call and an already existing church must send!” I point out that in Acts 13 it is the Holy Spirit that explicitly separates Paul and Barnabas for the work. The “call to preach” cited by most modern pastors is quite vague in comparison, often provoked in young people by a pulpit-thumping sermon that invites them to surrender to such a “call.” Also, in Titus, Paul instructs him to ordain “elders” — plural! The New Testament consistently shows a pattern of a plurality of elders in any local church. So even in the “ordination only” camp’s favorite examples, they are not consistent.

I emphatically agree that we see the pattern God desires to propagate the Gospel and establish churches. The method displayed is certainly a sufficient method. But Scripture does not stipulate that these historical cases determine all necessary methods. Please . . . simple logic dictates that for only one method to be authorized, that method must be both necessary and sufficient. I endorse the pattern of churches reaching out and establishing new churches. But what happens when you have a group of believers in a location where no Bible-believing church has reached? Could they join a local Roman Catholic church? Or a Mormon temple? Or a Kingdom Hall? Or even a Hyles-like Baptist church where a repentance-less false gospel is preached that produces a church full of false converts? God forbid.

Let me amplify a bit. Throughout the last two millennia, and demonstrated dramatically in the present day in places such as China, where the Gospel is persecuted, there are countless cases whereby groups of believers were converted by tracts or Scriptures they have acquired. They had no opportunity to welcome an ordained Bible college graduate to pastor their church. The modern establishmentarian would have them waste the rest of their lives, because they would have no apparent authority to preach, baptize, and teach. You say, “But that’s insane!” You’re right. They have the Great Commission. They can baptize each other, frankly. Scripture constrains that the object of baptism be a believer. The Bible does not constrain the baptizer to be “clergy.”

Furthermore, I defy any of the establishmentarians to validate their own authority by tracing the pedigree of their ordainers all the way back to the apostles. For the “establishmentarian” to have a valid ordination himself, clearly his “ordainer” must be valid . . . and so on. Even that concept smacks of Roman Catholicism and its vile and false claims of apostolic succession. The idea of “clergy only” doing the preaching and baptizing also reeks of Rome. So don’t let the establishmentarians intimidate you into joining an ungodly “church in name only,” if you find yourself with a group of believers who want to follow Biblical Christianity. (**I have just a few more comments on this subject at the end of the article.)

Let’s now turn to the practical side of what a “house church” might look like. I offer my “best shot” at the subject. We have much liberty from the Lord in many of the specifics, so treat the following as a suggested guide.

Somewhat relevant Scripture references are listed below. Please do look these up and consider prayerfully what the Holy Spirit is trying to get us to understand.

John 13:34-35; John 15:10-14; Acts 1:14, 2:1,42,46-47; Ro.15:5-7,14; I Cor.1:5,8,10; I Cor.16:13-16; Gal. 6:10; Phil. 1:9, 2:1-4; Heb. 10:24-25; Mark 16:15-16; Ps. 116:12

Objective of a local church: To glorify God, producing other Christians that do so also (Rev 4:11).

What kind of characteristics do we want to see Christians develop?

+ Know the Bible and make it the basis of life in the home, at work, in the community (2 Tim 3:16-17).
+ Be able to articulate answers from the Bible (I Peter 3:15).
+ Love for God and compassion for people (Matt 22:34-40, Ps 73:25-26).
+ Strength and boldness to stand for Biblical truth (Eph 6:10-17).
+ Prayerful (Eph 6:18).
+ Zeal to give out the Gospel (Eph 6:19).
+ Giving (2 Cor Chapters 8 & 9 (which have nothing to do with tithing or facilities)).
+ Discerning: How do Baptists fit into history? Into modern Christianity? Is there spiritual warfare in this world? Can we tell wolves from sheep? Should we be concerned about tares amidst the wheat? (Matt 7:13-23, 2 John 7-11, 3 John 4)

If the list above reflects the discipleship goals for the growth of Christians within a church, shouldn’t weekly church life contribute to these goals? Clearly, we have enormous individual responsibility to grow as Christians. We also have responsibility for the growth of those in our immediate families. Additionally, God has established the local area church to help Christians and their families grow more Christ-like day by day and year by year. Therefore, your weekly church life MUST be designed to HELP!! So consider whether the elements of your weekly church life contribute to the discipleship goals delineated in the New Testament. I suggest the list below.

Elements of Weekly Church Life:

• The Bible is taught and learned in a relevant way for the apostate age in which we live: teaching, reporting, testifying, discussing, etc. are shared so that everyone learns in a variety of ways . . . and the burden is distributed.
— YES, there are pastors / elders to teach, lead, coordinate, and care is taken so that spiritual gifts are in use by every member.
• Christians must have practice in articulating the Bible and its principles.
• To love the brethren there must be meaningful interaction about substantive issues.
• Pray with/for each other and for the lost in the world.
• Prayer lists should be balanced between spiritual and physical needs. (Most churches seem to focus on the physical.)
• Train for and practice personal evangelism.
• Preach the Gospel one-on-one and any other way we can think of:
— on the streets & in our neighborhoods
— door to door
— on the campuses
— special events
• Scheduled time for fellowship for encouragement and friendship.
• Zero budget for salaries, facilities. Giving goes 100% to needs.
— Needs / emergencies within the church are addressed privately.
— Missionaries and evangelistic outreach (buying tracts, for example) are supported directly from individuals & families without a “joint bank account.”

Key point: All of the above must be part of the regular weekly life of the church. The conventional American church program with scripted services, led by the salaried few, has a design which prevents the objectives outlined above. If your main church experience is centered around observing the platform show from the pew, then how is it possible for a church to grow in love, wisdom, and zeal? It’s not.

Here is a sample outline of a weekly schedule for a house church which has been tested and found to be useful. (Note that the Bible gives us liberty on our schedules. We do NOT have liberty on the objectives.)

Sunday
10 – 11:15 am. Bible study with discussion and questions, led by the senior elder/teacher in the church. Typically one chapter per week through selected books of the Bible. In one three-year period, this Sunday morning study has covered the following books: John, Acts, Revelation, Genesis, Exodus Chs. 1-20, Matthew, Daniel, and Isaiah.

11:15 – 11:35 am. Singing. We usually pick traditional hymns strong in doctrine.

11:35 – 12:00. Book discussion. In one three-year period we have read and discussed the following books: Defense of the Faith (Cloud), A History of the Churches (Cloud), The New Answers Book (Ham), Heaven (Alcorn), Psychology and the Church / Occult Invasion (Hunt, condensed ed.), Forever Settled — A Survey of the Documents & History of the Bible (Moorman), Understanding the Times — The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Noebel), Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret (Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor), Prayer — Asking & Receiving (John Rice), Cowboy Boots in Darkest Africa (Bill Rice), America in Crimson Red (Beller), Letter from a Christian Citizen (Wilson), The Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan).

Wednesday
7 – 7:45 pm. Prayer requests and prayer meeting.
7:45 – 8:30 pm. Open discussion Bible study led by a different man in the church. Responsibility rotates as we go from book to book. In one three-year period we have taught through the following books: Galatians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1 & 2 & 3 John, Jude, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and started Proverbs.

Saturday
6 – 10:00 pm (or earlier or later as people desire). Pot luck fellowship. Open discussion of life issues, current events, and anything else that someone wants to discuss. Occasionally we include a DVD on topics such as creation/evolution, church history, prophecy, etc. We also discuss the evangelistic efforts made during the week. Occasionally, someone will bring a guest to this fellowship (or to any other meeting). We do have some screening standards before inviting someone into one of our homes, however, for safety’s sake.

Unscheduled, but it happens every week: We typically get out over 1000 tracts each week and share the Gospel personally with 30 – 40 people. Our intent is to try to make a convert “out there” and then “bring him in.” The “church” is for the believers and, while an “inquirer” is welcome to any meeting, he won’t be comfortable for long unless he repents and trusts Christ. The meetings are designed for the edification of the members.

Many pulpit/facility-driven churches design their services in part for the purpose of evangelism. The preacher aims part of his message at a few visitors who may be lost, while the majority of the congregation gets no edification. Thus members are encouraged to “do evangelism” by “inviting people to church.” We find no Scriptural support for this practice.

Final note: Over the three-year period cited above, our “attendance” has varied from 6 to about 20. Some of our folks have moved out of state. (That hurts! But on the other hand, they have each started their own house church. That’s encouraging!) Others have simply come for a while and then decided we’re not in sync with them. That’s OK. We want to have as many people in fellowship as are of “one accord.” That will likely keep the numbers very modest. We’d rather have very few of like mind than multitudes going in different directions. See John 17:17 and Romans 16:17-18.

** Just a few more comments about the “who has the authority” issue in the establishment of a local church. In David Cloud’s excellent book, History of the Churches, 2002 ed., he emphatically makes the case from both a Scriptural and a historical point of view. From pages 9-11, three relevant quotes:

“Every Bible-believing church ultimately originates with the Bible and with Jesus Christ. That is the sole authority and foundation for a true church. The human origin is not of great consequence.”

“It is not possible to trace a lineage of true churches back to the Apostles. Nowhere in Scripture are churches required to trace their earthly lineage, and the attempt to do so by some has resulted in error and confusion. If God had wanted us to do this, He would have instructed churches in this manner. Also, we would need to set up genealogy centers after the fashion of the Mormons. Surely one reason why God has allowed the record of the vast majority of churches to be destroyed is to keep us from following such vanity. It is Romanism that boasts of a lineage back to the Apostles and that claims to derive its authority in this manner. The New Testament church requires no such thing. Our sole authority is the Bible itself and Jesus Christ Himself and a sound church can be established upon that Authority at any point in history, even when the truth has temporarily died out in a region, as has often been the case. We do not have to compass land and sea in an attempt to find “the true church that has descended from the Apostles” in order to obtain the proper authority, because that church is right before us on the pages of the New Testament. We have the authority of the apostles, not by ecclesiastical succession but by their holy writings. When the Ethiopian eunuch was saved and went on his way rejoicing back to Africa (Acts 8:39) , we are not told that he had to contact the church at Jerusalem for the right to carry the gospel back to that dark land or even to gather a church upon reaching there.”

“While it is proper for churches to send out missionaries and to establish other churches (Acts 13), an ecclesiastical linkage is nowhere said to be necessary for a church to be authentic.”

In Cloud’s 11/13/12 web site article, “Are You a Baptist Brider,” (check the index on wayoflife.org), in exactly the same context as in the book cited above, his conclusions include:

“Though I see a good and wise pattern for church planting in Acts 13-14, and I follow that pattern because I want to do everything in good order (1 Corinthians 14:40), I also believe there can be exceptions to this rule. I believe that a sound church can be established on its own without another church being involved, particularly in certain extenuating circumstances. I don’t see this as something that should be done routinely. It is an exception, not a rule.

Consider the Ethiopian eunuch. He was led to Christ and baptized by Philip. (He wasn’t baptized into any certain church, by the way.) And after he was baptized he continued his journey back to Ethiopia, and tradition says that he founded churches there, which would have been a natural thing for him to have done. Would those churches have been scriptural?

If I found a church that had been established in some remote mountain village in Nepal by some zealous believer working on his own, I wouldn’t require that they produce their church pedigree. I would test that church by God’s Word to see if it was scriptural in its doctrine and practice, and I would do what I could to instruct them.”

In private communications with David Cloud, he has made it clear that he is on the opposite side of the issue from me, with him and most Baptist preachers in the “ordination only” camp. So I should make it clear that he does not think that his own words from these references are relevant to establishing house churches in America. I think they are. You can decide.

– Dr. Dave

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