CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
A Congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City
A Critique of Home Churches
Thus says the LORD: "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way [is,] and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the typical picture of a Christian home in America was the family gathered around the dinner table, with the father at the head, holding an open Bible. The home was viewed as a “little church,” and the father was seen as the prophet, priest, and king of his home, under the lordship of Jesus Christ. He was a prophet in that he brought the Word of God to the family from the Bible. He was a priest in that he led the family in worship and prayer. And he was a king in that he ruled them. For many centuries, people had believed this was the biblical model, but things would soon change.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a radically different picture had emerged: the children gathered around the organ, with the mother playing, and the father either singing along with the children or absent. These are the descriptions given by Ann Douglas in her book, The Feminization of American Culture. Though not a Christian, she shows great perception in identifying the causes for these changes: both are the manifestations of radically different theologies.The older picture was based on an understanding that the Christian faith is inseparable from a fairly substantial body of knowledge. Children within the Christian home were viewed as naturally sinful, or as Jonathan Edwards had described them, “little vipers in covenant diapers.” Thus the firm, loving hand of the father was needed to restrain them and educate them in the faith.
The latter picture developed as a more sentimental, Victorian, view of human nature and the Christian faith gained ground. A “head knowledge” of God was pitted against a supposedly superior “heart knowledge.” A “head knowledge” of God was seen as optional, if not antithetical, to a true “heart knowledge.” Children also came to be seen as naturally innocent, and thus the gentle nurture of the mother was assumed to be the best vehicle for passing along the faith. Much more could be said about other factors at work (e.g., industrialization that took fathers out of the home, and a growing confidence in institutions), but fundamentally the Christian home was remade and the fallout has been enormous.
Fathers became less and less involved in the church as well as the family. The church labored to take up the slack through the addition of programs. The Sunday School movement had begun in the late eighteenth century as a means of educating the unchurched children of the factories in basic skills as well as introducing them to the Gospel. But over the years, what had been meant for the unchurched became the main means of teaching the children of the church the basics of the faith.
By the late twentieth century, a third picture of the American Christian home had emerged. Many people assumed the biblical model of raising children in the faith was sending them to public schools for their “secular education,” sending them to Sunday School an hour a week for their “religious education,” saying grace before meals, and keeping them involved in the youth group for a positive peer influence. The result has been a generation that knows little about the Bible and has been easy fodder for seduction by the world. They demonstrate little knowledge, fear, or love of God. Having abandoned doctrine, the church was left with little beyond entertainment and moralism to keep people in the pews. The church has often become less a “city set on a hill” than a saccharine imitation of the world.
Thankfully, many have realized that this is unbiblical and ungodly. Unfortunately, as parents have tried to restore a biblical view of the family, they have often found the church to be their greatest opposition. As doctrine was devalued, church programs regularly became the glue that held the institution together. When fathers forfeited their roles as the spiritual heads of their homes, the vacuum was regularly filled by pastors, who were resistant to surrendering that power. Families, who have tried to recapture a biblical view of the home, have often found themselves being accused of institutional heresy.
Many have therefore reacted against what they see as the “institutional” church in favor of a more grassroots, house church movement. It carries with it no clear statement of faith, no formal accountability, and no structure. Though it avoids some of the problems of the “institutional” church, it is a system that is just as unbiblical and just as spiritually dangerous as the one it rightly criticizes. The movement is amorphous, and not all the criticisms that follow apply to every part of the movement, but they are meant to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the whole.
A Biblical Model
God ordained three basic covenantal structures for man: the family, the church, and the state. In each, we have God-ordained offices and systems of accountability.
In the family, the father is the head, not by default, but by God’s decree (Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11). The father’s authority and duties are defined by God for the good of his wife and children. The roles of the wife and children are likewise not left up to popular vote, but are defined by God. These institutions of marriage and parenthood have often been corrupted by sin, but those sins have never invalidated the institutions. Rather than sin becoming an excuse to destroy the family, it should drive us back to what God has called us to be.
Likewise, God ordained the state as a covenantal relationship (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, Titus 3). We are not given the option of anarchy; we are called into community and accountability. The state and family have their proper spheres and are not to intrude on one another. The state is not intended to educate our children; likewise the family is not to execute murderers.
Most people recognize the structure and authority within these first two spheres, but the modern house church movement tends to ignore that God has similarly set up structures and accountability in the church.
God set up elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Philippians 1:1). These men did not appoint themselves, but were set apart by the other officers of the church (1 Timothy 4:14). They were not just the heads of households, but men specially qualified (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). Their function is to shepherd the people of God. Acts 20:17ff, reads,
And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them. . . Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-5)
This shepherding is not done in a vacuum. The church is to submit to their leadership, as described in Hebrews 13:17,
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:17-19)
God establishes authority and responsibility. In the family, husbands are to be obeyed by their wives, but the husbands are also supposed to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Similarly, elders have their authority, but also their responsibilities. 1 Peter 5:1ff reads,
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 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; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
If we say there is no basis for rule in the church, then we also undermine all claims the father has in the home and the ruler in the state. The problem with the “institutional” church is not that it is illegitimate, but that it has too often neglected its ordained role and too often usurped the role of the family. The answer is not to jettison the “institutional” church, but to have it be what God has called it to be.
Shortcomings of House Churches
In Matthew 18, cases of church discipline are to be brought to the church, but in the house church movement, there is no real church, just a loose-knit collection of families. Many people in the movement have come out of churches that have rejected membership and formal discipline. In such a situation, there are no formal channels to resolve accusations of sin. It lends itself to “Evangelical popes” who simply make decrees, from which there is no appeal. The reaction has often been to turn the father into a little pope over his own family, a situation just as unbiblical as the first.
In Acts 15, a church council was called in Jerusalem to settle a matter of doctrine. Where is there a mechanism for settling such issues in the house church today? The house church movement has become notorious for its heresies. Even Dan Trotter, a prominent house church advocate, says,
Having been involved in the home church movement for the last decade, I have seen wandering around within the movement enough doctrinal screwballs to fill a theological zoo.
The idea is often presented that doctrinal nitpicking is at the root of the splintered state of American Christianity. The reality is that it is men like Gene Edwards who are the real culprits in most of the schisms. Many of the modern denominations owe their existence to individuals who were very good at articulating the frustrations of others. They tap these frustrations not to reform the church, but to further splinter it for their own ends.
Religion has become a cottage industry in America, and any person with a bone to pick can become an entrepreneur. In the nineteenth century, Thomas and Alexander Campbell decried all the denominations and thus helped create several new ones. They blazed a trail followed by many today. In 2001, Harold Camping argued there was heresy in parts of the church, so all faithful Christians must leave their churches and listen only to Family Radio.
Many of the advocates of the house church movement argue like Joseph Smith that all of church history is to be ignored. The church is not to be reformed but restored. Supposedly, no one for 1-1/2 millennia have really understood the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit has not been leading them into all truth. But now, the leaders of the house churches have discovered the secret malaise of the church and they have the cure.
Pointing out problems in the church is never difficult. It wasn’t difficult in the days of the apostles, and it is not difficult today, but it should always be with the goal of seeking the church’s peace, purity, and progress. This is why nearly half of the second epistle of John is focused on love for the brethren. John warns them not to greet or encourage heretics, but he seems to be cognizant that such a warning may cause the people to overreact into schism. He tells them they are to hold fast to Jesus and to their true brothers and sisters.
A focus on unity over doctrine has not brought real unity to the house churches anymore than it has within the “institutional” church. A long-time advocate of house churches has had to admit that the movement is,
as spiritually divided and doctrinally fragmented as any of the institutional churches or denominations they would like to view themselves as alternatives to. The institutional churches and denominations maintain an artificial unity by means of things like property trusts for the buildings they meet in. The house church movement maintains an equally artificial unity by means of merely meeting in homes. It is not the packaging that determines what something is in its essence, it is the substance inside the package. Meeting in homes is no more a basis for a genuine unity of the Spirit than is meeting in Cathedrals.
Biblically and historically, unity is only found when it is built on a common, clearly-defined faith.
A Call to Faithfulness
The house church movement is correct in many of its criticisms of the modern church, but it uses these criticisms to offer an unbiblical solution. The answer to heresy is never schism. If our thinking is reactionary, it will almost always be wrong; we have to have a positive vision of what God calls us to be as His church.
Historically, the three marks of a biblical church are faithful preaching of the Word, right administration of the sacraments, and discipline.The preaching of the Word means to declare the whole counsel of God. Unless we do, we are guilty of the blood of those we do not warn (Ezekiel 3:17-19; Acts 20:26-27). God is not only concerned with the pet doctrines of a self-appointed teacher or a truncated version of the Gospel that glosses over real disunity. He has given us 66 books of the Bible, and they are all to be thoroughly and faithfully taught. Faithfulness is no less important today than it was then. It is as we grow deeper in our understanding of God that we love Him more and have a basis for real unity with one another.
The sacraments are also to be rightly administered. There is no room in this short booklet to deal with the controversial subject of infant baptism, but it should be clear that baptism of an adult is not something to be done lightly. We are not to satisfy ourselves with a formula prayer, but we are to be sure the person is aware of the seriousness of what they are doing and the faith they are professing. Otherwise, we give false comfort to those who have never been truly converted and we undermine the unity of the brethren.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 11, we see that people are sick and dead because they have abused the Lord's Table. When it is celebrated, it is to be done with sufficient warning. There are also people who are to be excluded from communion (Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5). The Lord’s Supper is meant to demonstrate our union with Christ and one another. If only a “generic” communion is practiced with whomever shows up, the sacrament is emptied of its significance.
Finally, there is to be discipline. Hebrews 12:6 tells us that whom the Lord loves He chastens. If we love our brothers and sisters, we are to encourage them and correct them. The point of Matthew 18 is to regain our brother. Few churches, house or institutional, practice discipline anymore. Their view of the church is too often like that of a country club: you join when you like and leave when you like.
The biblical view is that we are called into community and accountability. The church is not optional, but, like the family and state, mandatory. When we separate ourselves from one another, we are like a disembodied eye (1 Corinthians 12), cut off from our means of support and sustenance. This does not mean that we can never separate from a local congregation, but we are in a covenant relationship with one another. We should no more splinter arbitrarily from the church than we should from our families or the state.
It has never been assumed that these institutions can create loving relationships where none exist, but they do help maintain them. God commands husbands to love their wives because they are often tempted to do otherwise. God tells us to love the brethren because we are by nature schismatics.A biblical church is one that faithfully functions within its appointed sphere. We cannot let the church usurp the family’s role, nor the family the church’s. The church is meant to strengthen and equip the families, while also providing accountability. Accountability in the family is meant for our good, because we are sinners and need restraint. Likewise, God has ordained the state, and He has ordained the church. The church is meant to aid the father in being the prophet, priest, and king of his home, while discouraging him from being a pope.
The biblical model of a church is neither the institutional “country club,” nor the house church. Regardless of where it meets, it is to be the household of faith, a gathering of all the believing households: the “little churches.” We have to recapture the biblical and historical view of the church where a knowledge of God feeds our love for Him and our love fuels our desire to know Him more and serve Him more faithfully.
We invite you to discuss these matters further with us further at Christ Presbyterian Church.
We seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God. We are clear about what we believe the Bible teaches. It does not change from week to week, but is written down in our Westminster Confession of Faith, so that there are no surprises. The Westminster Confession is what biblical Presbyterians have believed since 1648. It was considered so well written that it became the model of the Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration and the Baptist Confession of 1689, only being tweaked in the areas of church government and baptism.
We have a Book of Church Order that spells out how we practice Matthew 18 discipline. It is not meant to replace the Spirit with a book of rules, but it is meant to outline biblical channels of reconciliation to which everyone can agree before emotions are running high. It is also meant to make clear a system of checks and balances so that no one can lord themselves over anyone else, while also maintaining the purity of the church.
We strive to be a family of brothers and sisters. The elders are intended to be faithful imitators of the Great Shepherd. They are to lead, but they are not to lord themselves over the congregation. Instead they are to be the servants of all. We are not merely a club where we deal with one another at arm’s length, but we believe we are to love one another and bear one another’s burdens.
We believe a biblical church is like a three-legged stool, standing on biblical truth, a biblical relationship with God, and a biblical relationship with one another. If we lose any of the legs, the whole stool topples. It is as we faithfully pursue all these things that the church, by God’s grace, becomes what He has called her to be: a city set on a hill that demonstrates His love to this dark world.