The New Testament: a theological foundation
for house churches
...and to the church in thy house, Philemon 2
It does not hang on two or three or four passages. Many Christians are aware of the references to house churches in the New Testament. But it is more than just apostolic practice. (Though, that in itself is sufficient reason to imitate it.) It is an expression of the New Testament doctrine of the church.
This doctrine of the church is so important because it supports, it provides the doctrinal foundation for, the ministry of the saints. This is the Christian ministry. It is not something high and lofty. It is for all the saints.
There is a diversity of gifts, but the same Spirit. All the saints are members of the body of Christ and for that reason need one another. In addition to the spiritual gifts there are the gifted men Christ gave the church, cf. Ephesians 4. However there is no division of the brethren into two classes. Jesus said, Ye are all brethren. Everyone is a minister, and not just in theory.
Now, there is nothing sacrosanct about meeting in houses. Heresy can be promoted in houses. (Of course the same is true in the churches-in-buildings.) However meeting in houses was apostolic practice. These meetings were conducive to the mutual, one-another ministry of the saints. If the saints met elsewhere than in houses we are not apprised of it in the New Testament. In the days after Pentecost there was no time to build "church buildings," no perceived need for it, neither was there money for it. The apostles were concerned with the ministration for the saints and for evangelists and itinerant teachers. This is evident throughout Acts and the epistles.
In the early days, before Christianity attained respectability, churches met in houses. Furthermore, throughout church history persecution required meeting "underground" in houses. Perhaps this was God's plan all along! It certainly was the apostles'.
The churches-in-buildings (others call these "the institutional church") are not conducive to Christian ministry for at least four reasons. First, the configuration of the assembly hall (the "pulpit/pew" arrangement) supports the "clergy-laity" system. This disables the mutual ministry of the saints at the time when we are all assembled! Second, the clergy-laity system is not only supported by the arrangement, it is in fact in force in virtually every one of these buildings. Third, these churches are typically too large to encourage mutual ministry and spiritual intimacy. House churches obviously have size limitations. However we find no mention in the New Testament of this "problem" because it was never perceived as such. Fourth, and by no means least, churches-in-buildings have historically resulted in an unscriptural misallocation of the economic resources of the saints, to the detriment of the Christian ministry.
My intention is not to assail churches-in-buildings. We are to keep the unity of the faith. We gladly recognize any Christian's profession of faith in Christ without reservation, without needing to know "which church you attend," as a basis for fellowship. The question is, could we go to church together if we lived in proximity? Could we assemble on the Lord's day? This is the Church Question. It is quite possible to keep the unity of the faith and yet be unable, due to doctrinal differences, to assemble with various of the brethren in Christ. Yet it is tragic when we cannot. Who has put up the walls? Spiritually, doctrinally, and literally? There is nothing inherently divisive about advocating house churches, much less advocacy of a return to the Christian ministry as taught and practiced by the apostles.
The basis for unity of the faith is in simple belief of the Word as opposed to revering mere men "above that which is written," 1 Cor. 4:6, which was the basis for Corinthian divisions. The hundreds of Christian sects are testimony to unbelief of the Word and belief in men. Good Christian teachers are worthy of respect but not adulation; the Bereans always had their Bibles in hand.
Therefore the championing of the Christian ministry as taught and practiced by the apostles, in contradistinction to the historical and current practices of the majority of the churches, is not disruptive to Christian unity but, rather, a remedy to prevailing disunity. Sectarianism, no matter how mild and "ecumenical," is disunity. Further, we know not a few who readily receive the brethren from among the various sects, yet are suspicious of house churches! Whatever this is, it isn't Christian unity.
The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. So ultimately this is not about house churches versus churches-in-buildings. The question is, which does New Testament teaching indicate? A related question is, which is conducive to the Christian ministry?
The relationship between house churches and the Christian ministry is bilateral: the Christian ministry according to the apostles indicates house churches, and house churches are conducive to the Christian ministry. That is not to say house churches have no problems. Of course they do. We are sinners. However the problems in house churches are personal and/or doctrinal, and not intrinsic, institutional, or systemic. That is, the problems in house churches are not doctrinally built-in. The church at Philippi is a sterling example of healthy church life. There were many mature (perfected) saints there; they worshipped God in the spirit, rejoiced in Christ Jesus, and had no confidence in the flesh. However it remained for them to maintain spiritual vigilance, Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision; and to work out relational problems, as Paul admonished Euodias and Syntyche that they be of the same mind in the Lord. Churches, as with individuals, never "arrive," but rather continue to press on for the prize. House church is not an end, it is a beginning.
That said, this ministry is not so concerned with house churches as it is with the Christian ministry as delivered by the apostles to the saints. We are concerned with the doctrine of the church, also called ecclesiology, also called the Christian ministry. Only in teaching—and believing—the apostolic doctrine of the church will our churches function as intended. Of course this is precisely the teaching that will most strengthen and encourage and fortify believers in house churches. We hope and pray it will strengthen and encourage believers outside the house churches as well.
To this end the work of Thomas Hughes Milner is featured here in the form of a book, originally titled "The Messiah's Ministry" and published in 1858. Long out of print, found in only a few libraries in the world and for all intents and purposes inaccessible, I have republished it as "The Christian Ministry According To The Apostles" in 2013. So far as I can tell it stands alone in its coverage of the Christian ministry in every aspect. Not only is it comprehensive, but the simplicity of the author's design of his treatise is striking (see the contents page here), and a testimony to the simplicity that is in Christ. This is the Christian ministry taught in the apostolic language.
The Lord Jesus Christ is not only Head of the church but Chief Architect. Let us be careful we build according to plan, which plan was taught by the Lord to the apostles, for delivery to the saints.