Where Should We Meet?

A Theological and Historical Response to the Contemporary Home Church Movement

By Paul Barreca
Pastor, Faith Bible Church, Vineland, NJ
ABI Co-founder

A recent Associate Press article highlighted a trend among Christians to leave their churches and worship at home instead. (1) Sometimes called Organic Church, Missional Church or House Church, this movement appeals to many who have grown dissatisfied with the corporate and impersonal nature of many American churches. Propelled by books such as Pagan Christianity (Frank Viola and George Barna), Life After Church (Brian Sanders) and They Like Jesus but Not the Church (Dan Kimball), some Christians urge that the only legitimate form of worship is a small, non-institutional gathering. They claim to have re-discovered the true origins of Christian worship. On one extreme are the cultic teachings of Harold Camping, who advocates leaving the church because the church age has ended. More moderate examples include believers who have dropped out of their local church because of theological decay, an emphasis on methodology, and corrupt leadership. As we will discover, some illegitimately transfer these accusations to their church as they excuse themselves from its structure and accountability.

Some proponents of the house church idea foresee the demise of the church as we know it.

“Unless the church in North America makes big changes we are facing sure death, (Reggie McNealy, Missional Church Network).

“American Christianity is dying. Our future is in serious jeopardy. We are deathly ill and don’t even know it,” (Neil Cole, “Organic Church”).

Noted church statistician George Barna wrote,

“If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” “Local churches have virtually no influence in our culture… The church appears among entities that have little or no influence on society.” (2)

Because this trend emphasizes independence, it is difficult to estimate the number of American Christians that worship in this manner. A recent Barna study demonstrates a variety of responses. When Christians were asked whether they attended a religious service in the past month in a place other than a church, approximately 24% said “yes.” However, when asked if “you participate in such a group, sometimes known as a house church or simple church, that is not associated in any way with a local, congregational type of church?” the response dropped to somewhere between 3% – 6%. (3) This statistic reveals that while gatherings such as home Bible studies are popular, the number of Christians who have left their local church is still fairly small. However, this movement is very attractive to Americans who have been raised on a strong diet of anti-institutional free thinking. Our cultural focus on independence and our resistance to authority may very well mean that the house church movement will grow in the days ahead.

Some of the criticisms that cause people to leave their church are valid. We are living in a time when many churches have neglected the gospel and turned their focus on numeric growth by becoming more culturally relevant. Churches have compromised the gospel with bad theology and scintillating antics meant to draw a crowd. Everything from crass talks on sex, to reviews of raunchy movies are common fare in many churches. The response from some believers is to abandon the church all together, but this is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. While there are a growing number of churches that have abandoned the gospel, not all churches have followed the errors of our day.


When the Church Began

Buildings dedicated exclusively for Christian worship did not come along until Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325 AD. Before that, Christians worshiped in homes or public gathering places. This was not because worshiping in a home is a better way to worship. It was simply the only way to worship. During this period, Christians were persecuted by the Jews in their synagogues, and by the Romans through a series of local and empire-wide persecutions. Scripture gives us some indication regarding the places where believers met.

Homes. Aquila and Priscilla led a church gathering that met in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:5). Colossians 4:15 also indicates a church meeting in a home. But we ought not assume that this was a gathering of only a few people. The most likely place for Christians to meet would have been in a large home, rooftop or courtyard. Some Mediterranean homes were large one-family dwellings up to four stories high. (4) Architecture in this warm climate emphasized open air courtyards where large gatherings were held. Some homes could easily accommodate an assembly of up to 100 people, and it is possible that church meetings in such houses could have been at least that large. (5) Their purpose for meeting in homes was not a statement against organization or buildings. Churches during this time were carefully structured and included discipline, elders, and mission endeavors. They were not the casual, free flowing meetings that are common in today’s American version of the house church. Paul’s missionary journeys were organized by the church in Antioch. Paul’s greeting in Romans 16 includes a tally of 28 individuals with at least three entire households included in the Roman church. If these people met in a home it would have been a church of at least 50 people. They met in homes out of necessity. As Kevin DeYoung writes, “They didn’t meet in homes in an effort to start the world’s first nonreligious religion.” (6)

The New Testament contains examples of places other than homes where the believers met. This reinforces the idea that they met where it was most convenient and practical. Other New Testament meeting places include the following:

Solomon’s Colonnade: Acts 5:12 (7) The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.

The Hall of Tyrannus: Acts 19:9–10 So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
The Synagogue. James 2:2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. The word “meeting” is a translation of the Greek word for Synagogue. It is possible that the majority of Jews at this location, or at least the synagogue leaders trusted Christ and their synagogue continued to be their place of worship.

The Beginning of Church Buildings

Church historian Everett Ferguson gives us insight concerning the move to public buildings. “With the Constantinian peace, church buildings became public monuments, and the basilica type predominated. (This type of building) was widely used in Hellenistic and imperial times for both private and public purposes: as audience halls in homes of the wealthy and of the imperial officials, as law courts and exchange buildings on the forums, and as gathering places in the larger baths.” (9) Once it became legal to meet publicly, churches quickly utilized commonly available spaces, allowing their outreach to expand and the church to grow. This practice has been widely followed in various cultures throughout church history.

Today there are many places in the world where Christians meet in homes because they are not permitted to meet publicly. Under these circumstances, there is no alternative other than a house church. Missionary Kevin King reaches many Chinese students through his ministry at Columbia University in New York City. Those who trust Christ are directed to a house church that Kevin leads. He does this because he wants to provide a reproducible form of church worship that they can carry with them when they return to China. Since independent churches in China are not permitted to hold public meetings, Kevin’s example of a house church is the best way for them to learn how to lead a church in their native country.

Churches that meet in homes are also an important part of inner city evangelism. Many new churches begin in a home. But the fact that many churches meet in homes does not mean that every church must meet in a home. This is reductionism. Those who advocate the house church as the only legitimate way seem to be suggesting that most congregations over the past 2,000 years have been worshiping the wrong way. Such a suggestion is very misguided. By their insistence on house churches only, they silently accuse millions of Christians around the world of worshiping in the wrong way. Thanks to their superior enlightenment, the rest of us can be freed from our ignorance if we see the light as they have.
New Testament principles for the local church do not focus on the form of worship, or the location of worship. These have varied from time to time and culture to culture. Rather than determining whether a group is a legitimate church by virtue of where they meet, we should examine the validity of a church according to whether it meets the requirements of the New Testament. It is by these standards that many groups meeting in homes today cannot accurately be described as fulfilling the criteria of a New Testament church.

The Essentials of the Church

1.    Properly-appointed godly elders: Nowhere in Scripture do we find self-appointed elders. Leadership must be approved by existing leadership. Every New Testament church was led by elders, and we must insist that our churches today follow the same guidelines. Churches must be led by men whose calling has been verified by other elders. Mission and church planting endeavors must have the support and backing of a church where biblical eldership is present. This continuity of leadership is essential to maintain the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

a.    Titus 1:5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
b.    1 Peter 5:2–3 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

2.    Willing followers: A church must have followers who submit to spiritual leadership of its elders (pastors). Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

3.    The preaching of the gospel: Galatians 1:9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

4.    Teaching that produces mature disciples: Matthew 28:19–20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

5.    Ministry through spiritual gifts: The body of Christ is diverse. Each part needs the others. Rather than isolation, the body principle emphasizes cooperation and mutual edification, as we are instructed in Romans 12:5–6, “so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.”

6.    Faithful administration of the ordinances: The church is required to conduct the ordinances of Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

7.    God-centered worship: The Lord calls us “a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Public worship is the delight and privilege of God’s people.


Conclusion

The location where a church meets does not determine whether or not it is a legitimate church, or whether or not it is worshiping properly. There are Christian gatherings that meet in homes on Sunday which are not a legitimate churches. And there are groups that meet in ornate buildings with a cross and a steeple who are devoid of spiritual life and do not proclaim the Truth of the gospel.

Some who advocate the house church concept have a misunderstanding of the New Testament examples of house churches. They also oversimplify the problems in the church today and transfer the guilt of some churches which meet in buildings onto all churches which meet in buildings. Pastor Kevin DeYoung responds to the criticism of what house church advocate Frank Viola calls the organized church by writing, “the church is always deserving of some critique, or even a lot of critique at times, but isn’t it a bit sweeping to declare that “everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible?” We should not disqualify all churches because of the gross failures of some.

For some believers around the world, the house church is the best, and often the only way to conduct corporate worship, teaching and the administration of the Christian ordinances. This will most likely continue until the Lord returns. There may even come a time in what was once “Christian America” where full-fledged persecution may force the closure of public church gatherings. That day has not yet come, but if it does, God’s people will continue to worship in whatever location the Lord provides.

We live in a culture that emphasizes isolation and independence. Many people seldom come out of their homes. Public interaction is avoided by many people who plug in their ear buds, roll up their windows, close their doors, shop online and remain in the comfort of their modern American homes More and more, we are being drawn into our own exclusive bubble of isolation. We need one another, in spite of our weaknesses, peculiarities, and failures. When there are disagreements, the Lord gives us Scriptural guidelines to resolve them. Unless your local church is teaching false doctrine or embracing sin, leaving it is not the best way to honor the Lord and encourage the body. The Lord Jesus died for the church and will return to bring her to glory. Until then, we should honor His body, the church, and embrace every opportunity to promote it’s growth.

____________________

1. Linda Stewart Ball, “House Church – Skip the Sermon, Worship at Home.” The Associated Press, Wed Jul 21, 2010, accessed August 12, 2010 http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100721/ap_on_re/us_rel_religion

2. Quotations from Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2009), 26-27.

3. The Barna Group, “How Many People Really Attend a House Church?” http://www.barna.org/organic-church-articles/291-how-many-people-really-attend-a-house-church-barna-study-finds-it-depends-on-the-definition accessed August 13, 2010

4. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 128.

5. DeYoung, 120.

6. Ibid, 120.

7. Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com.

8. Fergusson, 129.

9. DeYoung, 117.

9 Comments
  1. Viola is too “out there” for me with some of his comments, as cited in the article. Many good points by Paul. Thanks for posting.

    I agree that what we do when we gather as God’s people is much more important than where we meet.

    The size of a group can affect what you can do — both pro and con.

    A large group can pursue projects which require greater resources or more people with a variety of gifts.

    Smaller groups which meet in classrooms or in homes, as many large churches also offer, can include more intimate interaction and participation.

    One area I would take exception with Paul on is his idea that a church is not a church until it has appointed or recognized elders.

    Identifying elders usually presumes there is a congregational body out of which men are recognized or called whose qualifications are known by the assembly.

    What is this body of believers if not the church (ekklessia: the called out assembly)?

    In Acts 4:23, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them [the disciples, v. 22] in every church.” Apparently, these disciples belonged to groups which were already identified as churches. However, the Titus 1:5 verse which Paul quoted does point out that an absence of elders — a plurality of elders, not simply one man — means there is something “lacking” which remains to be supplied or corrected in churches.

    So I would agree that recognizing men who are qualified to be elders — not merely hiring the “lone pastor” — and submitting to their seasoned judgment, wisdom and experience in the Lord is both necessary and beneficial to the health and maturity of any church.

    Thanks again for the article. I hope it will provoke some thoughtful reflection and discussion.

    • Rick, Any group of believers no matter how large or small are part of the Body of Christ – the universal church – but that is different from a local church, which is an organized group of believers (to at least the degree there is appointed and recognized spiritual leadership) who constitute a localized expression of the Body of Christ. Contrary to the way Matthew 18 is often misinterpreted and misapplied, you don’t have a church whenever “2 or 3 are gathered” in His name. And you don’t have a church if 1000 are gathered in his name – i.e., a Christian conference. A local church has specific characteristics beyond simply being an assembly of believers.

  2. I agree with you, Dave. I also think the Acts 4:23 “every church” is referring to local churches. Don’t you?

    If it was speaking of the universal church, it would probably have read “the church,” but since it reads “every church,” this leads me to believe it is speaking of local churches.

    From this passage, it appears Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in existing churches.

    • I think you meant Acts 14:23. Yes, of course those are local churches.

      One major problem with the House Church Movement, however, is the underlying premise that you both can and should try to re-create the first-century church which is both inappropriate and impossible. (This also underlies much of the problem with the Pentecostal / Charismatic Movements.)

      The fact that they appointed elders does not so much confirm the fact that you can have churches without elders, as it does that groups of believers cannot function appropriately without them.

      You have several factors that must be considered. This was a transition period from synagogues to churches as the gathering places for believers – not so much the buildings, but the assembly itself. The new believers were just learning how the local expression of the Body of Christ was to appropriately function. Also, you have the matter of the progress of revelation – and Paul didn’t write to Timothy and Titus concerning many of the details of the functioning of the local church until almost over 15 years after Paul first first went through Galatia on his first missionary journey. Paul was still learning from the Lord how this was to work. And there is the matter of the Apostles and their associates being the first church-planters and they had limited resources and manpower for discipling people into leadership positions.

      Necessity for house churches still exists in contexts where similar issues exist for whatever reason, like China. But even then, the issue is not where the believers meet, but how they function as a local body.

      Another major problem with the House Church Movement is that many favor the dismantling of the God-ordained structures of leadership in the local church and the exodus of believers out of biblically-functioning churches and into small groups with little genuine spiritual leadership and few who know the Bible well enough to teach it correctly and effectively. (And I’m not implying “trained” clergy.)

      I have been saying for several years now that I believe that history will show that a major decline in evangelicalism can be traced to the small group movement of the 90s. I think that these largely became theological free-for-alls – in which the authoritative proclamation of the Word and right doctrine gave way to “here’s what it means to me.” Then when small group attenders went to church, this is what they wanted from the pulpit – and because of the involvement of pastors in some of the small groups, this is what they began to give them. And I think there is an organic connection between the small group movement and the House Church Movement.

  3. I commented on this a few months ago, and I guess you deleted my comment. I am not sure why because it contained valid questions. I can only say that as the church (according to your own articles on events of our day), pulls farther and farther away from Sound Doctrine, home churches will become necessary. As in the days Jesus walked the earth, the Pharisees persecuted followers of Jesus; so too will so called Christians persecute those who live by God’s Word. Itchy ears are now being found in my church. It is only a matter of time before all Doctrine is perverted. Where then are we to go? Certain parts of the Gospels are outlawed in Canada, soon it will be here too. My idea of a home church is not to circumvent elders or deacons, but to continue to hear God’s Word preached truthfully. I see the deterioration of my church, and I have visited a few others only to find the same thing. Disconnect from God’s Word, and teachings that tickle the ear of the so called Christian who wants to worship the God of their imagination instead of the One True God. You Pastor Barreca may one day preach at someone’s home, and what Jimmy DeYoung does may be outlawed completely. Thanks for hearing me out.

    • I’m sorry if I deleted your comments – I don’t remember seeing anything – and I don’t delete comments unless they start to get way off topic – and then only after letting the commenter know.

      We don’t know what the future holds – except that the church will survive until Christ returns (re: Matthew 16). The local church is simply the local expression of the Body of Christ as believers come together for fellowship, worship, teaching, observing the Lord’s table, edifying one another, etc. The Scriptures prescribe many things, but the necessary size or optimal size or preferred size is not one of them. Neither is where they meet. The functions are clear although we are given more freedom with form.

      Also, I don’t think it can possibly be true that all doctrine will be perverted – because that would mean the end of the church – which again, won’t happen until Christ comes for his church.

      We may be driven underground – that would not be the first time. Things will continue to get worse, while at the same time we cannot exclude the possibility of periodic and localized revivals as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people where the gospel is preached.

      I don’t know that Pastor Barreca will see this, unless you would like for me to forward it to him for him to reply.

      Thank you for your comments.
      Dave James

  4. Dave,

    But doctrine is being, if not perverted, distorted. The church I belong to has become the fun house. So many events, but not one that is considered an outreach. Bible teaching to the youth has become like a faucet with a drip. Its all about making it fun for the assembly, not about God’s Word.

    I do not proclaim to know the Bible through and through, my study is not yet complete, however Jesus gave us the Great Commission…to go throughout the world spreading the Gospel. I did not read where He said it has to been done in a church. Please help me understand how a church operates if I am in error, because perhaps I just don’t understand, and I need guidance.

    All I can do is speak on what I have been eyewitness to0 and what I am told, and what I read. Many Pastors (a news story on ABC News) do not believe the Bible is the true and infallible Word of God. They teach the “tickle ear” gospel because they don’t believe, and want to remain in secret. So they give just enough to make it look good. Isn’t that perverting the Word? I have been to many churches, and what I am hearing is not Truth. This movement the article speaks about to me is either a way for people desperate to hear Sound Doctrine, or its another way to distort the Bible. But I am one of those people desperate to hear Sound Doctrine, and I’m just not finding it so I would seek to start a home church in order to get that teaching. Am I wrong?

    Christ coming for His church is very near. That is why we are having this discussion. There are no more “elders” in the church that I have seen, much to my dismay. Only men who look to appease the Pastor.

    The evidence that the Apostasy has been happening is in the article. I remember hearing about this kind of event, but never thought I would be experiencing it first hand. Paul’s letters are instruction for the establishment of churches, but where are those churches today? The church I belong to does not follow the instructions given. The Pastor has made it clear to me that its his way or no way. I am saddened to see discussion such as this, but in a way it gives me hope that the call to come hither is near.

    Thank you for bringing to our attention these issues, but I want you to know what is going on in other areas. The church age is ending, its evident. My concern is what do I and my family do in the mean time? Is the Home Church really that bad? God Bless.

    • Cherie,

      I agree with you completely and I have seen exactly what you describe – and I have heard about it many more times. It is happening all over – and Pastor Barreca and I are painfully aware of the problem.

      And I completely understand why there would be a need to start a church – and a home is the logical place to start. But, if so, you will want to make sure that it is functioning biblically.

      The problem with the movement that Paul Barreca is discussing is that some take it so fare to reject any sort of formal leadership because of the corruption that can happen. However, we are not free to set up our own model based on what we think the church should be – we are guided by God’s word. Also, even though there might not be any good churches in your area – and I realize that may be true – there are some very, very good churches out there. We attend one of them – and it is exactly the opposite what you describe in every way.

      I say this to say that it can and is being done – albeit with less frequency than in the past – and there are many churches that used to be great that have gone the way you describe.

      But I believe the Lord is at work and ministries like ABI are beginning to have an impact – and there is a conservative backlash (somewhat paralleling what we are seeing politically). There is a growing movement to get back to the word of God. These cycles have happened any number of times – and just when it looked the worst, God did something to bring out a remnant. There is always the 300 that have not “bowed the knee to Baal.”

      This could be the end of the cycles as we near the Lord’s return – but we can’t assume that. Many throughout the history of the church thought they were the terminal generation. There is biblical reason to think that we truly could be it – but we have to live and minister both as if the Lord is coming tomorrow – and as if he won’t come for another 100 years or more.

  5. Cherie,
    I can sympathize with your concern for the manner in which many churches dilute the gospel. It is becoming more difficult to find a Bible preaching, soul-winning church, especially in some areas of the country. I do not think that we should demand that God’s people meet in a building with pews and a steeple. However, we must maintain that wherever the location, the New Testament principles governing the local church are maintained. My concern is that some advocate that all formal churches are apostate. This is a broad characterization that leads many into a cocoon of private, unaccountable Christianity. I wish that you were close enough to visit Faith Bible Church! Please go to our website and read through some of my sermons. I hope that you will be encouraged that there are still churches where the gospel is proclaimed clearly and boldly. May the Father give us grace to faithfully serve Him until His Son comes in glory to catch up His Bride!


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