This is an article from the March-April 2018 issue: Movements: Learning to Cross the “Bridges of God”

Why Not Simple?

Why Not Simple?

Why Not Simple?

Before I moved to a Muslim-majority country (over two decades ago), I was on pastoral staff at a church in rural upstate New York. I knew a few families who did what they called “house church.” These families had attended our church for a while, then left. They had also left most or all of the other gospel-preaching churches within about a 30 minute drive. No existing church was doctrinally correct enough or Spirit-filled enough or something enough for their taste. So they worshiped by themselves at home and called it house church.

 To my knowledge, those “house churches” brought few if any others to saving faith (except for some of their biological children) and never made a significant impact on the community. Their vision reached no further than being “more biblical” than the churches they had recently left. They seemed to embody the rustic independent spirit of the region. I wasn’t favorably impressed.   

 Over the past year I’ve edited dozens of case studies of Church Planting Movements among unreached peoples. The vast majority of these movements are growing through rapid reproduction of some form of house churches – relatively small fellowships led by non-ordained believers, fitting most or all of the factors described in articles such as Generational Mapping: Tracking Elements of Church Formation Within CPMs”. After asking and receiving answers to my questions about doctrinal soundness, spiritual maturity and sustainability, I’ve come to view house churches such as these much more favorably than the family gatherings of chronic church-leavers I had previously known in the US. These house churches are vibrant and continually multiplying as they reach unbelievers around them. The simple churches that make up most Church Planting Movements facilitate the rapid Kingdom advance that characterizes these movements, a dynamic similar to what we find in the New Testament. 

Among other things, though, I’ve noticed a surprisingly common theme in many of these movements. When asked about challenges their movement faces, many have said, “Our biggest challenge is from other Christians.” I recently edited a case from Asia that said: “Although this country is generally hostile to the gospel, we found that the biggest trouble, by far, came from traditional Christian leaders. They caused much confusion in the new churches as they regularly challenged the ideas that any disciple can make another disciple, can baptize another disciple and/or can serve the Lord’s Supper. From the start of this work until now, traditional Christians have been by far the largest problem the movement has faced.” How tragically ironic that when millions of lost people are coming to saving faith and fellowship with the Living God, the greatest hindrance comes from other Christians! 

 I leave aside suspicion of selfish motives such as sheep-stealing to produce bigger church growth reports or bring in more donations. I leave aside suspicion of religious vainglory: desiring a bigger ministry in order to look and feel more impressive. Hopefully we all agree that such motives (whether implicit or explicit) run contrary to the gospel and the will of Christ whose name we claim. Building a ministry with those ingredients constitutes the wood, hay and straw destined for destruction by God’s holy fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).  

I appreciate a concern for new believers to enter a fellowship with sound biblical teaching and adequate shepherding. Yet when Christ’s Kingdom is forcefully advancing among those who have never before known him, it seems counterproductive to disrupt the process based on secondary issues, such as points of church order and issues of ordination. The closest biblical parallel that comes to my mind is the Pharisees’ response to Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath (e.g. Luk. 6:6-11; 13:10-17). We see there a stark contrast between powerful Kingdom manifestations and religiously-based criticism. All four gospels portray clearly Jesus’ strong opinion on those subjects.   

 My own reading of the New Testament doesn’t turn up any text requiring that baptism and/or the Lord’s Supper only be administered by an ordained pastor. I understand the reasonable and biblically-based trains of logic explaining the importance of pastoral oversight for the ordinances. Yet these explanations always seem at least one step removed from actual biblical commands or examples. One crucial question would be the Lord’s intended application of the Great Commission (“make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey…” Mat. 28:19-20). Was that only for the first apostles? I think most evangelicals would say not. Is it, then, only for ordained pastors? I don’t remember ever hearing anyone make that claim. Is it applicable to all followers of Jesus? If so, the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5-9) would seem to extend to the baptizing of new disciples.   

In a similar vein, some object to God’s Word being taught and applied by someone other than a publicly ordained pastor. This seems more a continuation of Roman Catholic clericalism than anything recommended in the New Testament. Limiting preaching to theologically educated clergy severely restricts potential for church multiplication and reaching the unreached. Ironically, the argument often presented most strongly for the necessity of theologically educated clergy (to prevent false teaching) turns out to be spurious. The spread of liberal theology and decimation of mainline churches in the Western world came largely through, rather than being prevented by, theological higher education.     

In the denomination in which I was raised, I often heard unhappy comments about young people who went off to seminary excited about Jesus and the Bible, and graduated not believing strongly in either. I think theological education has great value, but I don’t buy the argument that it prevents bad theology or guarantees sound and edifying teaching. Major heresies seem to arise far more often from a talented charismatic preacher/teacher whose followers hang on every word, than from small groups of believers inductively studying the Bible and living out the applications they feel the Spirit giving for their lives. Consider not only Mormonism and the Watchtower Society, but also heresies named after their progenitors, such as Sabellianism, Arianism, and Apollinarism. Small group Bible studies with accountable life application may miss some hermeneutical nuances, but they generally pose less theological danger than polished one-way communication to large admiring crowds.  

In the eighteenth century, John Wesley’s lay preachers both scandalized the religious establishment and brought salvation to huge numbers who would have otherwise never heard. The unflinching accountability of his small group “class meetings” cemented those preachers’ fruit into fellowships of growing disciples. Yet more than two centuries of zealous effort by “lay” preachers plus ordained preachers has still left us too far from the goal to “make disciples of all nations.” What if we find (as seems to be the case) that small groups inductively studying the Bible can sufficiently understand God’s message to become rooted and established in Christ? What if their mutual accountability leads to lifestyles of obedience and effective evangelism of the unreached? What if God’s Spirit is able to lead his people into all essential truth and raise up generations of leaders through life-on-life discipleship and on-the-job training by believers more mature in the faith? I propose that we do whatever we can to encourage such movements of advancing biblical faith. This would include not trying to pull multiplying house fellowships toward our own denominational structure or flavor of ministry.   

As I’ve sought to understand nay-sayers’ concerns about the validity of simple/house churches, the issues usually seem to boil down to one or more of the following: 

1. People are not baptized by an ordained person.

2. The Lord’s Supper is not served or overseen by an ordained person.

3. The fellowship is led by a person with no formal theological education.

4. The group is not registered with or recognized by the national government.

5. The group is not associated with any recognized Christian denomination.

6. The group doesn’t have a formal written creedal statement. 

I don’t see the New Testament presenting any of these as an essential element of a God-pleasing church. From a NT perspective, they seem best viewed as “adiaphora”—actions neither mandated nor forbidden. (For more details, see my article “What is Church? From Surveying Scripture to Applying in Culture” in EMQ October 2011.) I don’t criticize a church that has or practices any of these things. But I believe Jesus stands strongly against those whose “teachings are merely human rules” (Mat. 15:9), and who use such rules to oppose other believers, thus hindering advance of his Kingdom. 

Can we agree that God intends us to use New Testament teaching as the standard for his church? Can we not attack, criticize or steal sheep from one another based on added patterns that our own group believes will be a helpful addition? Maybe that’s a radical idea. But when simple church can effectively accomplish God’s purposes, why not simple?

Comments

Thank you - a highly interesting article - balanced and with deep wise thought - & especially from a Biblical perspective/tone & not a traditional denominational, structural one.
Such scriptural perspective often evaporates most of the above common traitional objections to new shapes (or is it the original, we are so afraid of) that maybe being discovered

With 15+ years muslim world field experience, I would have strong agreement that one of the greatest difficulties to The Gospel and Kingdom Community (often seen in ‘house’/informal fellowship settings) breaking through, is from other building oreintated denominational thinking ‘christians’.

Often talk and words are spoken about transforming society and culture for The Kingdom (of Jesus Lordship), yet this rarely happens. The end result, in vast majority of cases (95%+) is of a fringe outsider ineffective minority, that struggles to maintain any traction or accepted identity in its muslim culture.

Is there any desire to step back, & take a completely fresh look - to what The Kingdom of God (the Lord Jesus) is?
& dare it be asked, that The Gospel that is proclaimed, is lacking in the depth of power and transformational effect that scripture points to? Does this Gospel result in authentic Disciples? Some truer indicators needed perhaps? - The ‘Gospel’ is not addressing the true spiritual need (has this been honestly indentified) & only gone deep enough to the ‘religious’ level?

My observations are, having seen many formulas come and go - that the end result is “to be like it is in the ‘western’ pattern”
- without addressing big elephants in the room of - “what is brought from the west, is majorly flawed & our deep held convictions far short of the Kingdom reality that only The Gospel brings?

Thank you - For The Lords Glory and for the Billions yet to hear

Twenty years ago our young family walked away from institutionalized church to begin what I have learned to call 100% church. Over the previous 20 years God had taught me many things about following him that a preacher will never speak about, and as you do, overtly mock. “...something enough for their taste. So they worshiped by themselves at home and called it house church.” I don’t know if you had any personal discussions with them, but from my experience, institutionalized believers are clueless when interacting about many scriptures they directly disobey. If an organic church believer shows them the scripture from the Bible they STILL don’t get it. I’m talking about men who are “devoted full time to the Bible”. They may be the most closed minded and resentful Christians who are unable to interact about following Jesus without the pew and pulpit routine.

This is what God taught me I should pursue as a member of his body:
1. 100% giving going beyond me. Normal church consumes 84% and can only release 16% for reaching all nations or serving the needy.
2. 100% mutual relationships. “You are all brothers…” is very clear. No power pyramids or chain of command relationships. “...exercising authority…not so among you…” The scripture twisting by hired Bible experts is horrendous on this.
3. 100% two way communication. There are 58 “one another” instructions. There is no time left for a lecture. Where is there an instruction for a lecture anyway? “Preach the word…” equals lecture the word by one man? “...feed the flock of God…” equals lecture the flock of God..”? This is not exegesis at all but forcing tradition on the word of God. Every hired Bible expert does it.
4. 100% reproducing leadership. No reserving any ministry for anyone, not even a Dr. of something.
5. 100% intergenerational meetings - Never send the children away. “...for of such is the kingdom of God…”

Simple church or Super Relational Church, is highly reproductive for leadership building and evangelism. Some American saints who exit the institutionalized mold of faith never fully recover from all the self-serving false dependencies they left. They bring them into their home fellowship. I understand the struggle to practice the “new and living way” every day all week. Hebrews 10:19-25. This is the simple 3 step process to be be ready EVERY gathering to “stir up one another to love and good works and encourage one another”. This is the “habit” of “meeting together” believers are not to “forsake”.  Listening to a Bible lecture every week is “forsaking” this “meeting together” since it is the opposite dynamic.

Apparently you have no idea how disobedient institutionalized church is to God’s word. Perhaps any model of church is fine if it seems to work. That is pragmatism driving church, not revelation driven church. There is only one church on this planet the Jesus is building. He has given one set of instructions that will work every where in every culture in every generation. Is this too simple? Can our anthropology, sociology, missiology, and theology experts improve on it? Satan is successful in suckering them to think they can. My sister and brother in law, just retired from 30 years of church planting in the Philippines. The scripture I give him is meaningless. He says the Filipino saints are too addicted to the traditions we have given them and cannot tolerate being exposed to the truth. So they practice the American form of church. They consume 99% of their “giving” to make the pulpit and pew routine function, and the preacher is almost starving. How do many thousands of churches send Filipinos around Asia? They can only send about 30 units. They would be far better missionaries than Americans because they would learn the language 20 times faster, adjust to the local culture 50 times quicker and closer. But they are stuck with consumer church - consume the giving. The household of faith is to be others-supporting, not self-supporting in terms of financial elements. God’s people have God’s enablement to “build itself up in love” for free. This is meaningless to the institutionalized leader it seems. 

I’m not trying to be cynical or sarcastic with you. Just direct. We should be able to interact on these things if you are willing. I’m not using a pseudonym for my identity.

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