The New Testament House Church: Is it for today? by Dr. Larry Spargimino
26/01/2010


Dr Larry Spargimino (right) with Alan Franklin on a conference tour of California in 2003.

In some areas there are churches on almost every corner. Some are large, others quite small. Some churches feature a variety of activities and experiences—musical productions, whole-life programs, pastoral counseling, and so on. All claim to be “the right church for you and your family.” But how does one choose which church is really the right one? People choose a church for different reasons. The store owner looks at the church as an opportunity to meet people and make new contacts. The socialite family chooses one in which their daughter is most likely to meet “the right man for marriage.” Older couples are interested in meeting friends with whom they can have fellowship.

Others decide on the basis of the denominational affiliation of the church. All of this suggests that most people “shop” for a church as people “shop” for a new product. They decide on the church that best suits their particular needs. Needless to say, none of these reasons are honoring to God. Questions that should be asked are: “Does this church teach and preach the whole counsel of God?” “Does it stand for the fundamentals of the faith?” For anyone asking these and similar questions, the list of suitable churches is shrinking on a daily basis.

As more churches are departing from the New Testament model and becoming the casualties of apostasy, more Bible-believing Christians are being confronted with a monumental question: “Where can I attend church?” We have received countless numbers of calls and e-mails from Christians asking just that question. Many have tried speaking to their pastors, church leaders and others in leadership positions. In most cases, they have been unable to halt what has been a church takeover by radically-minded leaders trained in new-school teachings. Since the New Testament mandates meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25) could the New Testament house church model be an answer? The Church Of The First Century In his Roman epistle the apostle Paul mentioned Priscilla and Aquila and said, “greet the church that is in their house” (16:5).

In the apostolic era Christians did not meet in special church buildings, but in homes (see 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Church buildings are a later innovation. There were times when the gathering of Christians grew to great numbers. In Acts 2 we are told that “there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (vs. 41). Later in the chapter we read that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (vs. 47). Large numbers, however, do not necessarily indicate large church buildings. Christians met in a variety of places that were not necessarily designated as “church.” “And they,” we read in Acts 2:46, “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”

The New Testament picture is not a gathering of believers in a fixed location, but rather many gatherings in various places. Some in the early church were opposed to building “temples” and may have deliberately avoided any kind of formal place of worship. Around AD 195 Clement of Alexandria wrote: “The Word, prohibiting all sacrifices and the building of temples, indicates that the Almighty is not contained in anything.” By AD 390, however, the Apostolic Constitutions give specific directions for the construction of a church building: “Let the building be long, with its head to the east, with its vestries on both sides at the east end—so it will be like a ship.”

We would certainly not want to say that having a church building is wrong. Undoubtedly, there are some congregations that have grown to such numbers that a building constructed for Christian education and worship can actually facilitate ministry. But is it not a bit strange that many today equate the word “church” with a church building? Support Your Church It is not our purpose to split churches, or to take members away from their churches. There are still many Bible-believing churches that, though less than perfect, are still faithfully serving the Lord and doing the work to which God has called them. No church is perfect. As someone once said, “If you find a perfect church stay away from it—your presence will make it less than perfect.”

It would be a tragedy if someone were to read this article and leave their church without much serious prayer, thought, and consultation with the appropriate individuals. If you are not sure about whether or not you should leave your church, DON’T. Wait for further guidance and confirmation from the Lord. What, then, are some valid reasons for starting a house church? First, serious doctrinal deviation from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Jude 3 counsels Christians to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” There are some things taught in the Bible that are so fundamental and basic to the Christian faith that if these doctrines are omitted, or even altered, the Gospel message would lose its efficacy and power. However, though everything taught in the Bible is important, not everything is a fundamental item of truth.

Moreover, not everything taught in the Bible is taught with equal clarity. There are some things that even well-meaning and devout Christians who love the Lord will never agree on. Some believe that foot washing is an ordinance with continuing validity, others don’t. Some believe that the Lord’s Supper is to be observed every Sunday, others don’t. We could go through a whole list of beliefs on which Christians differ. Moreover, many Christians have strong opinions about certain things, but we must avoid forcing our opinions on others.

To do so is to set ourselves over their consciences and to violate the sole prerogative of the Lord Jesus Christ. When contemplating leaving your own church it is imperative that you make sure that you have solid doctrinal grounds for leaving. Secondly, an unwillingness on the part of the leadership of the church to examine and evaluate your concerns in light of the Scripture. The Bible commends the Bereans and says “these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). In some cases, we have found that when pastors and church leaders are shown how a certain program or teaching is contrary to the Word of God, they are quite willing to change, and to go back to “the old paths.”

We have also found, however, that sometimes their minds have been made up and they are really not interested in hearing what the Bible has to say. When a Christian expresses a concern with the direction the church is going, he must express that concern in a respectful and appropriate way. Even David, when mercilessly hunted down by King Saul and his troops, refused to lay a hand on “the LORD’S anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6). Church leaders are to be respected and honored. The apostle wrote to the saints at Thessalonica and stated: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).

A growing number of individuals who have the same concerns as you do. Generally speaking, departures from the New Testament model are observed by more than one individual. We would encourage extreme caution in leaving a church for reasons that no one but you can discern. While it is possible that only one individual would notice the changes, it is also possible that a single individual could be deceived. We have found that when a paradigm shift makes itself known in a local church, these changes are simply the tip of the iceberg.

The leadership has been working behind the scenes sometimes for month, or even years, to bring in new ideas. New staff people have been hired, congregational meetings have been suspended, new literature is being used and the church has, to all intents and purposes, already been “hijacked.” It may very well be too late to do anything to change the downward plunge of the church. Dangers Involved In Starting A House Church We certainly don’t want to create the impression that starting a house church is easy, or that there are no problems inherent in such an endeavor.

There are many dangers and pitfalls involved. A house church can very easily become a seedbed for apostasy. A single individual can quickly lead a group astray. Paul wrote to Titus and stated: “For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert WHOLE HOUSES…”(Tit. 1:10-11). House churches have no denominational or ecclesiastical oversight. Whether or not they stay on course is dependent on the leader or organizer, as well as other factors. In a sense, not having denominational or ecclesiastical oversight will protect the individual groups from the errors of the denomination.

The downside of this, however, is that a lot of responsibility is put on the leader. Another difficulty concerns the facilities. If you attend an established church there already are parking facilities, nurseries, classrooms, church libraries and other features that already exist. In a house church setting, the participants have to start from scratch. And what about a place in which to meet? Established churches have church buildings, house churches have to establish their own place of meeting. Once you have a meeting place then you have to think of parking space and city ordinances. In many areas if you put up a sign advertising a meeting or a church group, you will receive a visit from a city or municipal official who will tell you that you need to comply with certain rules and regulations.

Many of these challenges are not unique. Established churches were at one time “home churches.” Someone started a Bible study in their home. The size of the group grew to a store front, or a rental space, and then, as the group grew in size, they were able to move into their own building. To be fair, we should point out that house churches have unique advantages and are especially useful in areas that are becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. In many cases the high cost of erecting a church building and maintaining a large church plant are prohibitive. Multi-use facilities (a private dwelling that is also used as a meeting place) shows a wise use of funds.

The temptation to not preach the whole counsel of God for fear of running off the big givers in the congregation is minimized since expenses are kept at a minimum. Is The House Church Really A Church? No doubt, for some the idea of a house church is really quite radical. They are so accustomed to “church” being a building with stained-glass windows, a steeple and a cross that they will ask: “Is the house church really a church?” In order to Scripturally answer this question a brief Bible study is in order. The New Testament Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia. It consists of two words, ek (“out of”) and kaleo (“to call out”). The church consists of people, called out of the world to serve and worship the Lord Jesus Christ. It never refers to a building, or to a hierarchy of individuals exercising some kind of ecclesiastical authority.

In Acts 19:24-41 we are told that Demetrius, a silversmith who manufactured idols, caused an uproar by stating that the apostle Paul’s preaching was harming his business. Paul had been preaching that idols cannot save. In verses 32, 39 and 41 we find the word “assembly.” It’s a translation of the word ekklesia, the same word that is translated “church” in reference to a local assembly of believers. This “assembly” is a group of people. Acts 19:32 states “the assembly (ekklesia) was confused.” Verse 39 reports that the town clerk stated: “But if ye inquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly.” Of course a gathering of people is not a New Testament “church,” or “assembly” in its fullest sense.

For it to be a church those who are part of the assembly must confess the essential doctrines of Scripture and must seek to live according to the will of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. We must never confuse the New Testament church with an institution. This is an important consideration since there are Mormon “churches,” Universalist “churches” and other groups that deny the essentials of the faith. It is quite common for Christians to refer to the church building as “the Lord’s house.” But is it? Does God dwell in the church building in a special way that it not true for other places?

In speaking on Mars Hill Paul stated, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). Under the Mosaic administration God’s special presence centered in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (1 Kings 8:1-13), but in the Church Age the church building is not “the sanctuary.” So, rather than asking “is the house church really a church?” we ought to ask, “is the modern-day church building really a church?” The answer would have to be, “no, it is only a building.” The New Testament Pattern While many Christians are rightly concerned about proper eschatology and other central teachings of Scripture and diligently search the Scriptures on various points of doctrine, what many believe about the church comes from tradition and from the beliefs and practices of the churches in which they were raised.

But we have to ask: “Can we rely on what we have been taught about the local church as being biblical? Are the beliefs and practices of the churches that I have attended, and that have formed my beliefs concerning the local church really in accordance with Scripture?” In reading the New Testament we can’t escape the fact that God established churches in the world of the New Testament era. This was the New Testament pattern. The only visible organization mentioned in the New Testament having rules for operation and oversight is the local assembly of believers. God gave His requirements for those who would serve in ministry in the fellowship. (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9).

Those who are called to ministry in the local church were chosen not through politics but through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which wisdom was given to the body as they examined the man’s qualifications as outlined in the New Testament. Could it be that the many moral lapses of which church leaders are guilty are the result of having man-made criteria instead of following the New Testament model? When Paul wrote to the Philippians he addressed them with the words, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi,” and added “with the bishops and deacons” (1:1), these are helpers in ministry in the local assembly. In Titus 1:5 the apostle likewise wrote about the local assembly: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.”

Quite clearly, the New Testament pattern is that there be local churches in every place. Many of these churches were small and were actually “house churches,” but they were all serving according to the will and plan of Christ, who is the Head of the local assembly. House Church Meetings House church meetings should be no different than New Testament church meetings. We should seek to base our practice and beliefs on the examples given us in the New Testament. What do we find in the churches of the New Testament world? Prayer – Paul instructed Timothy, a house church pastor, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

When there was a special need, prayer was made for that need (Acts 12:5). James 5:14 states: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Preaching, Teaching and Exhortation- At first, no doubt, meetings will consist of a Bible study type format. It is important that the Bible hold central place in all the meetings. Preaching involves teaching the Word of God with application and exhortation. We often think of preaching in terms of someone standing behind a pulpit and expounding the Scriptures to a large group of people.

However, preaching can also take place in a house church setting. “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread,” we read in Acts 20:7, “Paul preached unto them.” The gathering of Christians can be unique opportunities for encouragement and instruction. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch we read that they confirmed “the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). But they didn’t stop at that. The next verse states: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church,” or assembly of believers, “and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”

The Exercise of Spiritual Gifts- The spiritual gifts were given for the purpose of service and ministry in the context of the local assembly. They were given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7) and were ministry gifts. Often, the exercise of spiritual gifts is seen as a kind of performance viewed by those in the audience, yet this is not the pattern of the New Testament. There was obviously an interaction of believers. Paul could write: “And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another”(Rom. 15:14). Worship-Jesus said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The church is called “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In worshipping the Lord believers must assemble under the authority of the Scriptures for their spiritual strengthening and edification.

Though the New Testament does not prohibit music in the assemblies of believers, it certainly does not give music the prominence that it has today in many churches. Music has often become “the back door” through which Satan enters churches and brings about a radical departure from the principles of godliness. Nevertheless, the right and appropriate kind of music can be used to honor God and edify the saints. Ephesians 5:19 states: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” So much of the music done in churches is performance-oriented and is done for others. Scripture reminds us that in worship we have an audience of One—the Lord. Giving- Christians have always been concerned about the Lord’s work and the special needs of Christians.

When it was revealed to the church at Antioch that there would be a great famine we read, “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea; Which also they did, and sent it to the elders [servants in the local church] by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29-30; see also 1 Cor. 16:1-4). The Lord’s Supper- Traditionally, the Lord’s Supper has seen an unbelievable number of refinements, developments and expansions that have blown it out of biblical proportions.

Thousands of pages of theological and philosophical treatises have been written on the subject, yet we fear that most, if not all, have missed the simplicity and beauty of what the New Testament means by the Lord’s Supper. As instituted the Lord’s Supper was a fellowship meal, such as what one would expect in a house church setting. 1 Corinthians 11:33-34 states: “Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home…” This is an exhortation base on the apostle’s observation of verses 21-22: “For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in?” The disorders at the Lord’s table in Corinth consisted in what essentially was a lack of concern for others who had also come to eat. Some came early and ate more than they should have. Others became inebriated.

Everything here describes a house church. House churches can do everything that is required of a local church. They can worship, study the Scriptures, and perform all that God has described in the New Testament regarding the purpose and function of the local church. In an age of doctrinal confusion and outright apostasy, the house church can be God’s answer. Assemblies of God’s people are to pass on apostolic doctrine and remain faithful to God’s Word. Paul instructed Timothy, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). This is still good advice. Reprinted from the May Prophetic Observer published by Southwest Radio Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (www.swrc.com) Dr Spargimino, a noted author and speaker, is a staff broadcaster with SWRC, which broadcasts a prophetic word for half an hour every day on over 100 radio stations across North America and Canada. You can hear their archived broadcasts on the web - and we thoroughly recommend that you do.


 
 
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I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them...I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them, says the LORD your God.
Amos 9:14,15

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