Clarifying what I mean by household church

Oh no, not household church!?

My time in the United States made me realize that the term ‘household church’ has negative connotations for many people. I realized I had to clarify what we mean when we use the term.

There is a house church movement in the United States, some of which is what I call restorationist and some of it reactionary. Or at least that is how it is often perceived. I’m not in a position to evaluate how accurate those perceptions are. But I can clarify what I mean by the term.

For me household church is not restorationist

My reading of much house church writings suggests a movement that is often ‘restorationist’. What I mean by that is that it is concerned to replicate what took place in the first century church. So its literature is taken up with detailed exegetical discussions of the New Testament in order to establish exactly what was the common apostolic norm. The debate inevitably becomes somewhat introspective.

I believe there are apostolic principles and that apostolic practice reflected those principles. But I do not thin there was one apostolic . I think there was a significant degree of freedom. What matters is that we put into practice apostolic principles in a way that matches our context. Therefore I think a home is often a great context for church, but I do not believe it is the only context.

For me household church is not reactionary

Often house churches seem to be defined by their opposition to ‘traditional church’. This does not seem to me to be a healthy attitude. If people have been wounded by church, my approach would be to pastor their hearts rather than offer them an ecclesiological ‘solution’. Again, this approach does not create communities defined by mission.

In 1 Timothy 1 Paul urges Timothy to tackle people who were arguing among themselves, using the word of God to ‘convert’ believers to their causes rather than declaring the wonderful gospel of God’s grace. We need to be careful not to let our ’cause’ become more important to us than mission. Often movements focus on their distinctives. This, after all, is what marks them out. But over time the danger is that their distinctives come to matter more than the gospel.We often wanr each other in The Crowded House not to let household matter more than Jesus. We must not let ourselves be defined by our distinctives rather than the gospel.

8 thoughts on “Clarifying what I mean by household church

  1. Salutations Tim! I’ve been wound up over the last couple of days by a book and an email correspondant who have both been angry reactionaries and restorationists. Good to hear from a helpful perspective again! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the term, ‘simple church’. It seems to me to be a better way to describe a missional house church.

  2. Very interesting! I guess this highlights one of the main reasons I occasionally find myself at variance with fellow TCHers from time to time. From your definitions, I would probably fit into the ‘restorationist’ category. Why? Because, from the only reliable evidence we have of how church was done in the 1st century, there does seem to be a pattern of apostolic practice. Paul seems to refers to his teaching and outworking being the same everywhere (eg. 2 Thess 3: 6-10; 1 Cor 11:16). The apostles obviously chose to do things the way they did for very good reasons and following principles they thought were important. I feel very uneasy saying that I can pick or choose which to follow and which to ignore or to say where things are fixed and where flexible to do as we wish.
    Let me give an example to explain where I am coming from. Among the practices concerning elders I would identify the following three (with an indicateion of underlying principles in brackets)
    1. each church has a plurality of male elders (elders always mentioned in the plural, Paul stated they should be male, not female, because of Adam/Eve & headship (eg. 1Tim 2)
    2. elders were always chosen and appointed FROM WITHIN a church (because character observed over a period of time and in various circumstances is vital, eg 1 Tim 3)
    3. elders commanded to work to support themselves just like all other disciples (so as to be an example to the flock and not be a burden to anyone, eg 1 Thess 3)
    To me all three of the above are NT practices adopted for very valid and important apostolic principles (as I’ve tried to indicate in brackets) and therefore we should be seeking to practice them as we do church in the 21st century. How then do we justify adopting some of these principles rigidly but deciding others are ‘flexible’ or ‘optional’ on a sort of ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ basis? And who decides? I guess my basic question is this – how do we stop ourselves subconsciously just ignoring the ones we don’t like and, in doing so, basically ending up putting ourselves at the centre, with church ‘in our image’ and negating some very important gospel shaped principles?
    You must have a comment back to this?!
    With much love in Christ
    Paul

  3. I think your example actually proves the diversity that could exist within the NT. Leadership seems commonly to be plural, but this is never stated as a rule. Leaders could be appointed within the church, but Paul could also send people like Timothy and Titus to ‘govern’ churches. Some leaders received support (1 Timothy 5), but others (if Paul’s example is anything to go by) at times support themselves.

  4. Hi Tim
    This is a fascinating example of how different people come to different understandings from the same passages!
    You seem to use the broader term ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’ where I understand the passages to be referring to elders. I differentiate between elders, who were the spiritually mature servent examples from within their own local churches and who were expected to provide for themselves like everyone else, and apostolic workers who were predominantly itinerant in nature and therefore couldn’t necessarily provide for themselves (although Paul usually could do tentmaking wherever he went – unlike Peter who neded a boat and water to catch fish!). Apostolic workers obviously received gifts and offerings of support to enable them to devote more time to their ministry and Paul commends this for those elders laboruring in teaching, which is how I understand ‘not muzzling the ox’ in 1 Tim 5, but I don’t see this as a justification for creating our modern full-time salaried/ professional clergy/ minister elder idea. I guess I understand the ‘double honour’ in 1 Tim 5 to be more about recognition and respect, not a salary – otherwise we may need to revise our practices about ‘honouring widows’ and ‘children honouring parents’!
    My understanding of Timothy’s situation is that he was an apostolic worker sent from Paul to work ALONGSIDE the elders of the church at Ephesus and to help them correct some of the things that were going wrong. I certainly don’t see him as having been sent to ‘govern’ in any way. Surely the fact that Paul needed to encourage him to ‘do the work of an elder’ and not to be looked down on because of his age underlines the fact that he wasn’t already regarded as an elder in the church at Ephesus.
    Please feel free to come back to me on any of this Tim. I really do appreciate the chance to discuss such things openly with you in this way without feeling condemned for holding a different view.
    With much love in Christ
    Paul

  5. I’m a bit confused by your argument. You seem acknowledge that 1 Timothy 5 speaks of paying elders. But then suggest this is not how it should be read. (Double honour is surely honouring in the sense of showing respect and honouring in giving financial support – a sense retained in our English word ‘honorarium’).

    I’m was hesitant about using the word ‘govern’ – hence the inverted commas. But I’m not sure how else to read an exhortation ‘to command certain men not to teach’. It’s a bit more than working alongside the elders!

    The minutae of these kinds of debates just reinforces for me the sterility of this kind of approach to reconstructing NT structures. We have deacons in Ephesus, but they are mentioned nowhere else. (The seven in Acts 6 are not called deacons. They are said to ‘deacon’ [verb], i.e. serve, but then so are the apostles in the same passage.) So must we have a category of people called deacons? I really don’t see that it matters. Let’s apply NT principles to our context in the way that best serves our mission.

  6. Thanks for your comments. My apologies for not explaining very clearly what I meant. My understanding is that all Christians should work so as to support themselves and their families and have something to give to others (1 Thess 3). Obviously they can accept financial gifts and offerings to free themselves up to spend more time in ministry, especially if their ministry is itinerant (therefore making it difficult to ply a regular trade) or to spend more time in teaching as a church elder. BUT this is still far removed from making their ministry into a full time paid salaried job, which removes their need to provide for themselves and not be a burden on others. That just removes them from the real world and starts to open up the clergy/laity divide that is so destructive to christian community life.
    That’s an example of why I think these issues are much more fundamentally important than them just being the minutiae of theological debate. They are principles which have a huge outworking on how we do church and how we live out the gospel and do mission from day to day.
    I’m certainly not claiming that everything is black and white, clear cut and that there is no flexibility in the way apostolic principles are worked out in the 21st century church. However, I’m don’t see how I can select some principles to be rigidly adhered to, while feeling free to ignore others or declare them of little importance. I therefore feel compelled to at least try to understand why the apostles chose to do misson and establish church life in the way they did and to do likewise.
    As far as deacons are concerned, I don’t have all the answers. However, they are mentioned in Phil 1:1 as well as the verses in Ephesians where Paul carefully describes what sort of christian character suitable deacons (and deaconesses!) should have and that such people should be recognised and honoured as examples of servanthood in the church. Paul obviously thought it important enough to write about, so I’m loathe to declare that I don’t really see that the subject matters!
    By the way, I finally got a copy of ‘You can change’ today and am looking forward to reading it over the next couple of weeks.
    Enjoy grace!

  7. You seem to be saying: Leaders can sometimes be paid. Leaders can sometimes not be paid. We don’t want payment to be abused and morph into a professionalized career-oriented clergy.

    But that illustrates my point precisely. There is not a universal pattern or blueprint or for church life (in the sense, for example, that we can say ‘leaders should never be paid’ or ‘leaders should always be paid’). What we have instead are a lot of principles (in this case, for example, 1 Peter 5:1-5) that we apply flexibly in the light of our context.

    And so an endless debate picking over what the NT pattern is sterile and introspective as well as making us less adaptable to our context and mission.

    I think saying ‘Paul obviously thought it important enough to write about, so I’m loathe to declare that I don’t really see that the subject matters’ is a cheap shot. I did *not* say the service of people in the church does not matter. I said it does not matter whether we call people deacons or not. I am not convinced we can claim there should universally be a category of people called deacons in every local church. Not the same thing at all. Whether you give them a particular name or not, it clearly matters what kind of people are chosen for roles in the church or that they are honoured appropriately by the church.

  8. Hi Tim
    My comment certainly wasn’t intended as a cheap shot and I really do apologise if it came across that way. However, I did misunderstand that you meant it was only the name ‘deacon’ you thought didn’t matter, and not the concept of acknowledging another servent role within churches alongside elders.
    I wouldn’t ever claim there is a fixed blueprint which exactly delineates precisely how we order our churches and go about mission and from which there can be no deviation. However, I do see a number of important principles that the apostles were applying which perhaps suggest limits WITHIN WHICH we have flexibilty to do as is most appropriate in our mission context and beyond which we start to get into dangerous practices which ultimately detract from gospel life and witness (salaried professional clergy, expensive church buildings, etc).
    I’m not sure we are ever going to agree totally on this Tim. However, I want to thank you for being willing to share and discuss our varying understanding of God’s Word. For someone like me in a full time secular employment, this is a greatly valued opportunity to discuss things with someone which much greater experience and understanding than I have (even if I don’t necessarily agree!!).
    Great to see your books appearing in other langauages. Are there any plans to get them into Arabic and/or Kurdish in the near future? I’m thinking particularly of ‘From Creation to New Creation’ and ‘Delighting in the Trinity’.
    With love in Christ
    Paul

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