M. Scott Johnson
One thing I love about Alaska is the pioneering spirit of independence evident in so many people here. “Do it yourself” is just a way of life for many Alaskans.
But this mind-set doesn’t carry over very well to a Christian’s relationship to the church. Many Christians have left traditional churches in favor of forming loosely organized groups of people who fellowship and worship together at someone’s house. These “home churches” are a kind of do-it-yourself or homemade church, with no formal organization or structure, and no ties to established ecclesiastical bodies. (To be clear, by “home church” I don’t mean small congregations with proper ecclesiastical connections that meet in someone’s house).
I’ve been an OP pastor in Wasilla, Alaska, for about seven years, and our congregation has seen people leave to join home churches. Obviously, I don’t want people to leave, but I also believe that a careful consideration of biblical teaching will bear out my concerns.
My aim is not to impugn the faith, sincerity, or character of those who have chosen home churches over traditional churches. But I believe they are making a mistake. Here are my concerns:
First, home churches fail to conform to the New Testament description of churches.
We sometimes get the impression that the first Christians enjoyed a sort of pure fellowship, blissfully free from the suffocating structure of institutionalization. Indeed, the book of Acts does describe a wonderful, Spirit-wrought harmony and joyful fellowship among the initial converts to Christ (Acts 2:42–47). It’s hard to picture them at a congregational meeting, debating the finer points of Robert’s Rules of Order.
But the Lord did give to the early church a definite order and organization. Churches may disagree on the shape of that order, but all agree that in the early church there was an organized system of church government.
Clearly, the church had an appointed and acknowledged leadership. The ascended Jesus gave leaders to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Paul told Titus, as part of his assignment, to “put what remained into order” and to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). In Acts 6:1–7, in an orderly fashion, men (probably the first deacons) were chosen and appointed to assist with distributing food to needy widows. And when Paul greeted the Philippians, he included “the overseers and deacons” among them (Phil. 1:1).
Surely if the Lord Jesus considered ordained leadership to be incidental to the health and well-being of his people, or merely optional, he would not have provided for them in every congregation (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
The first Christians were commanded to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17), and to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12). These commands presuppose that certain men were officially set apart and acknowledged as church leaders.
Also, the worship of the church necessitated some degree of order and structure. Who would teach and preach? Who would decide who would be baptized, and who would do the baptizing? How was the Lord’s Supper to be administered? If worship was to be done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), then some formal organization was needed to maintain that order.
Next, the Bible’s several provisions for church discipline (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:12–13; 6:4; Titus 3:10) assume a structure of authority in the church. And they require some provisions for due process. It’s impossible to conceive how church discipline can be carried out fairly and consistently in the absence of recognized leadership, without church membership, and without some rules ensuring a just proceeding.
In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit quietly brought organization to the church. When there was a sharp disagreement among believers concerning circumcision, the “apostles and the elders” held a council in Jerusalem to adjudicate the matter (15:22). Their decision was binding on all the churches. Again we see the presence and activity of acknowledged authorities and discernible structure in the church. The churches in the apostolic age had a definite structure, given by Christ himself (Eph. 4:11–12).
Home churches, on the other hand, lack ordained leadership and formal organization. They have no provisions for ordination. The organization and structure necessary for faithful church discipline is lacking. In this way, home churches fall short of the biblical norm for Christian congregations.
Now I don’t deny that Christians may be blessed by the fellowship they enjoy in a home church. They may love the people in their group, and they may receive edifying teaching. But if the structure of New Testament churches is normative, and if that structure includes officers and provisions for church discipline, then are we being as faithful as we should be to the body of Christ if we are not involved in a church that has those characteristics? Churches must seek to mirror the New Testament model.
If you are in a home church, let me ask more pointedly: who are the church leaders whom you are called to obey (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17)? Were they made leaders by others, or were they self-appointed? If they decide to exercise church discipline with you, have you formally submitted to their authority? If they are unfair, how would you appeal?
My second concern is that home churches are more vulnerable to poor, and even abusive, leadership.
Of course, no church structure can guarantee the full protection of God’s people from leaders who are incompetent or even hurtful. That is why the right selection procedures and accountability mechanisms are important.
Paul lays down certain qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Peter, knowing the danger of heavy-handed leadership, warns elders not to domineer over those in their charge, but to be examples to them (1 Peter 5:1–4). In fact, we even see in the Bible a certain circumspection regarding church leadership. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers,” and 1 Timothy 5:22 warns, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Clearly, a church must take great care in how it selects, trains, and tests her potential leaders. But is this possible without some formal process in place?
What’s more, each church should have a mechanism in place that ensures some accountability for leaders. In Presbyterian churches, pastors and ruling elders are accountable to their session and to their presbytery. If a church member has a complaint about the leadership, he will be heard by the session. He may even bring it to the presbytery if he believes the elders have not fairly handled his complaint. And if still not satisfied, he can appeal all the way to the general assembly.
This provision of accountability is a biblical principle, not the invention of Spirit-quenching church bureaucrats. Paul gives specific directions on how charges against elders are to be handled (1 Tim. 5:19).
Underlying these formal constraints against poor or abusive leadership is the biblical understanding of human sin. Even otherwise godly men may overstep their bounds once they are in a position of authority, or they may have certain flaws that render them unfit for leadership.
My concern is that in an informal home church that lacks appropriate provisions for leadership and accountability for leaders, the wrong people are more likely to become leaders. Leaders may emerge based on the strength of their personality, or based on their knowledge of Scripture or ability to teach. They may be natural leaders, but they may not possess the biblical qualifications, or even the character, to lead in a way that is humble and not self-seeking.
My third concern is that home churches may rob believers of the resources of the broader church.
Most likely, a home church will not have the services of a trained pastor and preacher. But Christians are ordinarily better off sitting under the teaching of a man who has spent time studying the Scriptures, theology, and the work of ministry, and whose overall fitness for pastoral work has first been tested by others.
I don’t want to sound like a clerical snob; I know all too well my own shortcomings as a pastor and teacher. And I admit that there are men who may be more gifted and better than I at preaching and teaching, but who have never had an opportunity for theological study or ministerial training. But on balance, churches that have the structures and means to produce a learned and trained ministry will receive better teaching and leadership than those that do not.
In traditional churches such as ours, ruling elders and deacons are also trained and tested. Again, this doesn’t make our church perfect—not by a long shot. But the point of all this is that traditional churches have far more resources available to them for the raising up of qualified leaders and servants in the church.
Furthermore, a home church, because it is by definition unaffiliated with a larger ecclesiastical body, and because it does not have a formal commitment to any particular body of doctrine, will not benefit from a developed and time-tested confession of faith or system of Christian theology to ground its teaching and worship.
Both a trained ministry and a shared body of doctrine (such as a confession of faith) will help prevent what may be a particular vulnerability with a home church, namely, a teacher who focuses on his own personal interests or passions. Indeed, a home church will probably tend to attract like-minded people to its fellowship, thus only magnifying the potential for a teaching ministry to dwell inordinately on a few choice issues. For these reasons, it seems less likely that in a home church, especially in the long run, a believer will hear “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and be exposed to a faithful ministry of systematic, Christ-centered, scriptural exposition.
My fourth concern is that home churches may offer a narrow vision of the kingdom of God.
Because home churches lack ties with larger ecclesiastical bodies, it seems inevitable that they will struggle to maintain and communicate a vision of the kingdom of God that is broader than the personal concerns and ties of the people in their small circle. What may develop is a kind of spiritual myopia, in which the work of Christ beyond the small orbit of the home church gradually fades from view.
Although the church I serve is small, we belong to a larger denomination and have a stake in its various ministries at home and abroad. We pray for missionaries throughout the world and for other churches in our denomination. We have had speakers visit from other places who are engaged in different types of ministry, including church historians, biblical scholars, Christian authors, missionary workers, pastors, and others. They have broadened our horizons.
If home churches lack that broader vision of Christ’s church, will their children grow up with an interest in devoting their lives to some form of full-time service in the greater church? Or do they view the work of missions, pastoring churches, theological instruction, etc., as concerns that are alien to them? It would be a shame if home churches inadvertently kept talented and gifted young Christians from devoting their lives to full-time Christian service in the broader church.
In addition to that sort of danger, a home church may be prone to a similar shortsightedness. Will the home church be the same home church for their children, for their children’s children, and so on? A home church arrangement may serve well in the present circumstances of the families involved, but without some formal structure that survives the present, I don’t see how a home church can continue down through the generations. For all the problems of church tradition divorced from a living faith, Bible-based tradition (including forms of worship, a codified body of doctrine, and provisions for church government) provides a wonderful mechanism for enabling future generations to inherit the “faith of our fathers.” Paul certainly looked far beyond his own time when he commanded Timothy to take the teaching he heard from him and “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
I’ll admit that the programs, committees, bureaucracies, and other creations of institutional churches can have a negative effect on Christians who long for the pure joy of fellowship and worship with others. A home church holds out the prospect of undiluted Christian fellowship, free from institutional constraints. That seems to be an attractive promise.
But structure and organization need not be the enemy of true fellowship and joyful worship in the body of Christ. Ideally, in fact, they facilitate these things. Like a well-built system of aqueducts, proper church structure and organization are stable channels through which God’s grace flows freely to bless his people. Neither is church authority necessarily oppressive and antithetical to Christian freedom. When leaders are faithful to Christ, their authority is nothing more than a ministry of the lordship of Christ, obedience to whose will is the very key to true freedom and liberty.
Let’s remember that God is a God of order. “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). The creation reflects his concern for order. God gave order to marriage and the family. The Old Testament people of God lived under a divinely given and structured system of laws governing all aspects of their lives. The New Testament church possesses a definite order of government.
If God is the author of order, even of the order of institutional structure, then why would we seek to establish a separate Christian community that rejects the structure and order of every existing church in the community? Why do that, especially when there are churches nearby that are faithful to Christ, proclaiming the gospel and ministering the Word of God? Why not unite with such a congregation, rather than forming a home church that is arguably, in essence, a new and separate denomination? Is this not a further severing of the already tragically splintered body of Christ?
One final observation. It’s safe to say that Christians in home churches are virtually all Protestants. And, from what I understand, some people in home churches are even sympathetic to historic Reformed theology. But the rejection of the institutional church per se is an idea that was anathema to the original Protestants, especially the Reformers. With that in mind, let’s give John Calvin the last word:
[It is] the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. “For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder” [Mark 10:9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.
A home church just isn’t the same as the church as it has been understood historically, by Calvin and others. And, more importantly, a home church is not the same as the church that was founded by Christ.
The author is the pastor of Grace OPC in Wasilla, Alaska. New Horizons, May 2015.