Christian Form of Public Gathering
- Some Historic Considerations
- Biblical Reports of the Practice of House Churches
- Groups of Passages
- The Exposition of Passages
- Leadership in the Church
- The Autonomy of the Local House Church
This article deals with a biblical justification for the necessity and sufficiency of the house meetings in our Christian gatherings. First, we will give a brief historic perspective on house churches. Then, in the second part, we will examine various passages that are relevant for the topic on house churches. This examination will be the most important one, and consequently a long one. These passages are divided in five groups according to their clarity with respect to the relation between the Church and house. The second part will, thus, be divided into five sections according to the type of passages into consideration.
The third and fourth part are concerned with the leadership and the autonomy of a local church.
The purpose of the first two parts is to establish that the New Testament nowhere speaks about Christian Church buildings as public buildings. Instead, we have only reports of house churches, which were private buildings. During our exposition, we will convey a historic perspective of house churches. For instance, we will clarify the relationship between persecutions and house churches, whether persecutions can explain the fact that there is no mention of public church buildings. The last two parts deal with the question of leadership and autonomy (independence) of local churches.
What should be clear is that we do not merely say that there is nothing wrong to have a Service and Worship at house churches. Our claim is much stronger, namely that gatherings at public buildings for Worshiping God, i.e. established Church buildings, should not be practiced by genuine followers of Christ. Such practice is rightfully entitled as a temple-oriented practice, and we urge all genuine followers of Christ to abandon such practice.
Many Christians would agree that there is nothing wrong with house churches. However, they would not be against a temple-oriented practice. In fact, many Christians are quite indifferent towards this issue. We will show that a temple-oriented practice should be rejected because it is not a practice modeled on the New Testament public Christian Worship.
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I. Some Historic Considerations
There is a great truth taught in the New Testament which is shockingly ignored and unbelievably underestimated. The truth we are talking about is so great because of its importance for Church growth. The truth is about the significance of the historical fact that Christians, in the apostolic period (in the first century), only gathered in house churches, where breaking the bread and worshipinging God was performed. It is noteworthy that Christians in the first three centuries did not know about public church buildings. After the union of "the Church" and the State, during the reign of Constantine, Christians began to gather in public church buildings. Those church buildings were usually pagan temples that were changed into "Christian" style and taste. Unfortunately, this form of "Christian" gatherings has dominated almost two thousand years after Constantine, and has infected genuine followers of Christ. Under the reign of Constantine, the Roman Catholic "Church" was born. This "Church" had a great influence in creating false notions about Church, priesthood, bishops, breaking the bread, salvation, worship, etc. Catholic conceptions about the Church and leadership have also influenced the Protestant leaders during the reformation.
Protestantism is not much better than Roman Catholicism. Other Christian groups who were against the union between the Church and the State, who were against infant baptism, who were against false ritualism in the Worship, who didn't believe that baptism and dead faith could save, were heavily persecuted not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Protestants. Protestantism originated from Roman Catholicism as a protest towards some of the Catholic teachings. Notice that it is said "some"; it was not so radical in its protest compared to certain Christian groups existing before the Reformation, e.g. Anabaptists. There were many groups of Christians existing before the Reformation, and they were known under various names. Unfortunately, we do not know so much about them, since they were characterized as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. However, we can plausibly assume that they were gathered in house churches, especially because of the heavy persecutions.
In the history and development of any branch of Church, it has been quite common that Christians gather in house churches in times of heavy persecutions. Compare Baptists and Pentecostals in the former USSR (Russia) and China during heavy persecutions. Anabaptists also gathered in house churches due to persecutions. It is quite possible that Anabaptists were influenced by other groups of Christians existing before 1000 AD, e.g. the Donatists. This assumption is more explained in the article "Brief historic facts about the Anabaptists of Reformation."
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II. Biblical Reports of the Practice of House Churches
A. Groups of Passages
Why do we consider houses churches important? Is not the question about the form of Christian gathering simply a matter of decision made by the local church?
A principle for evaluation of certain practice concerning the Worship is the Principle of Following Biblical Examples. The principle is explained in the article "The Scriptural Law of Worship.". The article shows that biblical examples serve as an important guide to avoid an introduction of new elements in the Worship that might be alien to God's will. For instance, by observing how Christians in the first century were gathered, I can be assured that God approved their practice of house meetings, and thus not worry whether house meetings are according to God's will.
As it will be clear during our exposition, the only biblical examples of Christian gatherings are examples of house churches. We will see that there are many passages from the New Testament about house churches. These passages give us historical reports how the first Christians gathered. They were gathered in private house meetings, where they had their service and worship.
We have five groups of passages telling us about the relation between the church and the house. They are divided into five groups according to their clarity with regard to the relation between the church and the house.
1. The First Group
Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my well beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.
1 Cor 16:19
The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.
And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house.
2. The Second Group
Acts 2:41, 46-47
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. (...) And they, 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, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
3. The Third Group
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
4. The Fourth Group
But Solomon built him an house. Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things? Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
5. The Fifth Group
1 Cor 1:11
For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
1 Cor 1:16-15
And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints).
2 Tim 1:16
The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain.
2 Tim 4:19
Salute Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.
B. The Exposition of Passages
1. The Exposition of the First Group
In the first group it is most clearly shown that the Christians of the apostolic period had their Church meetings in private houses, where they had public service. It seems that these houses belonged to well-respected persons among the first Christians. House churches were private houses chosen with care. It was a privilege to have a church in one's own home. At least you were a respected person and were among the elders. We will return to this question of privilege when dealing generally with leadership in Church.
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2. The Exposition of the Second Group
a. The Temple
The second group tells about the first Christians in Jerusalem. We know that there were more than three thousands of them (see verses 41 and 47). Though they were in the Temple, they did break the bread in houses. The most holy action in a Christian meeting, namely the communion in the Lord's Supper, was performed in private houses. Notice that they were not in one house but in many houses, ("and breaking bread from house to house," v 46).
Could they not build one big public building and have their special church meetings there, so that they could be gathered all together? Someone would say that it was not necessary to build a big church building in Jerusalem because of the Temple, which was not yet destroyed. The Acts informs us that they were also gathered in the Temple. In the same vein it is said that the Temple had precisely the role of enabling Christians to be all together. However, this line of reasoning is wrong, for the following reasons.
The Temple was not a Christian building but a Judaistic religious center at that time. Christian special meetings were not held in the Temple, but in private homes on the sabbaths (historical evidence that the early Christians had their meetings on the sabbaths, see The Sabbath in the Church History). The supreme head of the Temple was not Jesus but Caiphas, who was the high priest at that time in Judea. The Temple in Jerusalem was not the Church because of the obvious fact that Jesus was not the head of the Judaistic religious body. However, the Church is Christ's Body on the Earth, where He is the Head over it, and we are members of His Body.
The first Christians came to the Temple because they wanted to win other Jews for their newfound faith. The most significant fact is that they chose to be gathered in houses and not to build a large building that would be an alternative to the Temple. Nothing hindered them to build a large building where they could be gathered for Worship. They had enough money for such a project and there were no divisions among them. Furthermore, it is not so clear that the first persecutions occurred immediately. If there were no immediate persecutions then they could gather in large public buildings if that was their wish. They did not.
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However, for the sake of argument, we will grant the assumption that persecutions of the first Jewish Christians by Judaists happened immediately. The problem with the assumption is that it ignores the case of Gentile churches. The first heavy persecutions did not affect Gentile Christians. Only Jewish Christians were persecuted. Gentile Christians could, if that was their wish, gather in large public buildings. They did not. The only form of church among Gentile Christians was house church.
There were not yet any persecutions of Gentile Christians during the writing of the Acts and other Scriptures of the New Testament. We read that Judaists, i.e. Jews who rejected Jesus' Messiahship, persecuted Jewish Christians. Roman officials were quite tolerant towards the new Christian religion. The Book of Acts reports that Paul was preaching before great Roman officials such as Agripa and Festus. Furthermore, it is even reported that both Agripa and Festus protected Paul's life from the Judaists (Acts. 25). Thus, we do not have reports in the New Testament about serious persecutions of Gentile Christians. However, it is an established historical fact that the first reported persecution of Gentile Christians started in AD 64, during the emperor Nero. How serious was it?
In AD 64 a fire destroyed much of Rome; the emperor Nero killed a "vast multitude" of Christians as scapegoats. For the first time Rome was aware of the fact that Christians were distinct from Jews. But there was no formal senatorial enactment proscribing Christianity at this time. Nero's persecution was local and short.
The profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime in AD 111, not during the first century. The governor of Bithynia in AD 111, the younger Pliny, told the emperor Trajan that to his surprise he discovered the Christians to be guilty of no vice, only of obstinacy and superstition. Nevertheless, he executed without a qualm those who refused to apostatize.
Early persecutions were sporadic, caused by local conditions and depending on the attitude of the governor. At any time in the second or third centuries, Christians could find themselves the object of unpleasant attention. A pogrom could be precipitated by a bad harvest, a barbarian attack, or a public festival of the emperor cult. Yet, long periods of peace occurred.
In 248-250, when Germanic tribes threatened the empire, popular hostility culminated during the persecution under the emperor Decius (reigned 249-251): by edict all citizens were required to offer sacrifice and to obtain from commissioners a certificate witnessing to the act. Many of these certificates have survived. The requirement created an issue of conscience, especially because certificates could be bought by bribes. Under renewed attack (257-259), the great bishop-theologian Cyprian of Carthage was martyred. The persecuting emperor Valerian, however, became a Persian prisoner of war, and his son Gallienus issued an edict of toleration restoring confiscated churches and cemeteries. The church prospered from 261 to 303, but the empire suffered external attacks, internal sedition, and rampant inflation. So, Christians had 40 years of peace. But during that period there are no reports about public Church buildings.
In February 303 the worst of all persecutions erupted under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. The persecutions ended and peace was reached with the Edict of Milan, a manifesto of toleration issued in 313 by the joint emperors Licinius and his Christian colleague Constantine.
Therefore, the usual explanation for the existence of house churches, namely the explanation appealing to heavy persecutions of Christians, is not a good one. The first Gentile Christians would gather at large public meetings during the first century, but we do not have any report from the New Testament that they gathered in this way. We only read about house churches. Why is the entire New Testament so silent about a practice that dominated 1700 years in the Church history? It is very peculiar that in the apostolic period, where Apostles were still active, Christians did not gather in public Church buildings, if public Church buildings are to be preferred. However, according to the New Testament reports, we can conclude that the Apostles had other preferences than what the majority of Christians held throughout 1700 years of Christian history. The Apostles preferred rather house churches.
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c. Singleness of hearth
An interesting observation about the verses of the second group is that the first Christians "did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart" (v 46). From this we observe that there was no division among them even if they were many. We also observe from v. 46 that one was not lonely in such a large fellowship of first Christians. In large fellowships, it is common that individuals tend to be isolated and lonely. This was not the case with the first Christians in Jerusalem. They were of "singleness of heart." They regarded each other as members of a single family. How was this possible?
It was possible precisely because of the manner of their gathering. They were gathered in the homely atmospheres of the house churches, about 10 to 40 individuals together, depending on the size of the house. Houses at that time were usually small, not like modern houses. In such homely atmospheres there was a single-mindedness in brotherly love, with members having a spiritual kinship. In such homely atmospheres there was also a holy atmosphere filled with an order. They prayed together, someone taught or preached the word of God, they sang and praised the Lord, supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested. Most importantly, the Communion in the Lord's supper, in the remembrance of what their beloved Lord did for them, was performed in a homely atmosphere of house churches.
There were at least one hundred such small house churches, interconnected with each other in one living organism. Truly, the Church in Jerusalem was not an organization but an organism, a living body of our Lord Jesus Christ. If one house church exceeded its limit due to the constraints of space, then there was formed a new house church. It was so simple! This fact leads us to the next observation.
The next observation with the verses of the second group is that "the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." The Church of the first century was an expanding church, in spite of the lack of the modern infrastructure. How was this possible? The great factor in the expansion of the Church was namely the form of their gatherings. Their gatherings encouraged the growth of spiritual kinship where they regarded each other as members of a single family, like brothers and sisters. Let us recall what our Lord said in His prayer: "Neither pray I for these alone [for apostles] but for them also which shall believe on me through their word. That they all may be one as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me;" (John 17:20-21). People who came to Christian meetings for the first time were attracted by the quality of the Christian fellowship. We strongly believe that large meetings can never produce such peculiar homely atmosphere where every member knows each other with a perfect familiarity. They were truly one in the Spirit.
The expansion of the Church and the quality of the Christian fellowship were interrelated through the practice of house churches. Christian faith expanded with a hyper-exponential growth in the first three centuries. This expansion was featured by an important element: there was a freedom involved in the conversion to Christianity. Many men and women became converted through their own free choice, in spite of the danger of persecution. This was not the case after the third century, when people were forced to accept the "Christian" faith. They started to gather in large public buildings after the third century. At that time, they started to name themselves "Catholics." However, not all Christians accepted the new Catholic practice, as it was the case with the Donatists. If you were accustomed to house churches, would you gladly accept to worship God in a large public building where some official appointed priest led the meeting? Certainly not! Many refused to join the new State religion and were heavily persecuted because of this.
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3. The Exposition of the Third Group
In the third group we read only one verse: "he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison." Here we do read how Paul "made havoc of the church," by entering into every Christian house. Why did he do that? From the first two expositions, we can see more clearly the answer. It is because he knew that many Christian houses were house churches, where Christians daily worshiped our Lord. In this verse it is indicated that there is a relation between the Church and Christian houses.
The only way to destroy the Church of that time, "to made havoc of the church," was to destroy house churches, since house churches were the only form of local Christian gatherings
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4. The Exposition of the Fourth Group
The fourth group of the verses deals precisely with the Catholic idea of the Old Testament ritualism.To repeat, it was not so easy for the Catholics to transform the three-century aged house oriented practice into a temple-oriented practice. The proponents for the Catholic Institution had to persuade other Christians that their practice was correct and blessed by God. The only way to persuade other Christians was to apply the Old Testament teachings about the priesthood, rituals etc. This had led the Catholic Church to renew the Old Testament ritualism, to build new temples, to create a new order of priests, etc.
We read that Stephen criticized Jews for their understanding of the Temple and the ritualism connected to the Old Testament way of worshipping God. The center of Judaism was the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews did not understand that the Temple was just an Old Testament image of Jesus' body, which is His Church. We are the Temple as His Church here on Earth, (cf. 1 Cor. 3:9, 2 Cor. 3:3, Eph. 2:19-22, Heb. 9:11).
It is interesting that immediately after his critic against the idea that God is living in a building made of stones, he is saying to them: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye."
The above verse is the transition to the second theme in Stephen's speech. Namely, that the Jews killed the prophets. From Stephen's speech, we infer two reasons why unbelieving Jews were "stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears":
- their confidence in the Old Testamentary ritualism with the Temple at the center of their cult
- their persecution of the true prophets of God
People tend to build large buildings because they believe that a large building is a sign of their greatness. This tendency is not so new. It was known already in the days of the Tower of Babel. Instead of trusting in God, people trust in the greatness of the size of their gatherings. Small gatherings are the key for Church growth.
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5. The Exposition of the Fifth Group
The fifth group does not clearly teach that the true form of Christian gatherings is house church. Nevertheless, they are significant because of its plausible possibility, seen in the light of our previous four expositions. In the light of the previous clear groups of verses, we can plausibly assume that houses belonging to Chloe, Stephanas and Onesiphorus were also house churches.
Why should it be so significant that it was contentions among those of the house of Chloe, if that house was not a house church?
Stephanas' house was the first Christian house of Achaia, and the family of that house "addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints." As the first house with such a dedicated family "to the ministry of the saints," it is highly plausible to believe that Stephanas house was a house church.
Onesiphorus' household was mentioned in connection with Prisca's and Aquila's names, two already familiar persons who had a church in their home, as seen from the first group of verses. Therefore, it is plausible to assume that Onesiphorus house was a house church as well.
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III. Leadership in the Church
To repeat, first Christians gathered in house churches. In the various cities at that time, there were many small house churches. It is important to note that all these house churches were one body in the city where they lived, one church as an organism. It was not a coincidence that they were gathered in house churches. In a house church, which was the home of a bishop, the atmosphere were dominated by agape. Agape is a divine love manifested in the personal fellowship and feeling of kinship bonds, i.e. an experience of belonging to each other as members of a family, as brothers and sisters. The experience of belonging to each other as a family, as a brotherhood, is the fundamental building stone for Church growth.
To have such a church in one's own house was a great privilege. We read that house churches belonged to persons who were respected and well known. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that house churches were chosen with care. At least the person who owned the house was a respected person and was among the elders of the city.
There are two reasons supporting our assumption that house churches belonged to respected, experienced Christians, who were among elders.
First, house churches were private houses where mundane activities took place, where one family lived, where children were raised, etc. Because of being a private place, it was not possible of being a house becoming sacral. Since a great variety of mundane activities took place in a private house, it could not turn into a house that was strictly used only for public services exclusively dedicated for God. The point is that a person, who privately owned a house where church meetings took place, had to serve members of his local house church. It required an unselfish attitude, so that fellowship, sharing, and love were possible. In order to have such an unselfish attitude, the owner of the house, where Christian public Service took place, had to have a great measure of maturity and experience in the Christian faith. His house was the place where the spirit of fellowship and sharing was nurtured. His house, through the spirit of sharing, belonged to brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, the house belonged to the kingdom of God. The evidence of the owner's unselfish attitude can obviously be seen already in the first four chapters of Acts, where we read that the first Christians shared everything. The point is that this unselfish attitude required a noble dedication "to the ministry of the saints," with great sacrifices and genuine love.
Second, many of these houses were visited daily by Christians, apart from their public meetings. The host of the house would have qualities in meeting people, helping them, guiding them, etc. He had many duties and responsibilities, as well as the daily contact with Christians. Through daily contact, he served them, expressing care and love of Christ through counseling, spiritual sensitivity and care. He was a person who had the wisdom and understanding of God's word. Through his wisdom, he was spiritually sensitive concerning the doctrine and he would meet people with different beliefs, talked to them, guided them, and helped them. In the virtue of all these responsibilities and duties, he had a special role and place in the Body of Christ, making him respected and well known among the followers of Christ in the city.
Thus, it is reasonably to assume that houses, where Christian public Worship occurred, belonged to respected brothers, and in the virtue of this natural respect, they were simply elders or overseers. The word "bishop" from Greek "episkope", means precisely an overseer, who takes care of various spiritual needs in the body of Christian believers. We believe that there were no practical differences between bishops and elders. The difference in these two terms is just the difference in emphasizing different functions/ qualities of the one and same person who had great responsibilities to serve children of God. We use the term "elder" synonymously with the term "bishop."
It should be noted that persons who did not own a house, where Christian public service took place, could also be among the elders. It is not implied that all elders had a church in their house. An elder could be a poor person, not possessing anything, but who had a great wisdom in our Lord, who had a gift of teaching, preaching or even prophesying. Nevertheless, we can be sure that every brother who had a church in his home was among the elders and we speak of these elders only.
There was not only one bishop in a city. On the contrary, a city could have 50 house churches; hence, there could be 50 bishops in the city. A house could count about 10 to 40 members led by the bishop who owned the house. If a house church became too large in terms of its members, it was ready to form a new house church with a new bishop.
A bishop was an overseer and was responsible for the guidance of the church by the right doctrine. He was also a pastor because he cared for the souls of those gathered in his house. He was truly a servant to those who was gathered in his house. "He who wants to be first has to be last." In such spirit, it was very difficult to have a struggle for leadership and power. Unfortunately, there were also those who perverted such an order and developed the Roman Catholic system of churches, with the twisted meaning of the word "bishop." A bishop was a person with good character traits; a man who was married to one woman and who had a family in an established home, cf. 1 Tim 3. We understand why it was so natural for a bishop to be married. The reason for this was a simple one: he had a home where Christians could be gathered to publicly worship God. This understanding of the word "bishop" is very different from the Catholic notion, which is a worldly copy of the power struggle for leadership.
With this ecclesiological perspective of the Church, we can observe that we do not need to be bothered about all economical worries that are typically connected to a congregational style of large church buildings. Our offered perspective is really a simple way for the growth of the church in an atmosphere of agape. Still, we could ask ourselves: why should we not gather in larger assemblies?
First, it is not forbidden for Christians to gather in larger assemblies, as long as the meeting place, usually in a public house, does not become sacral, used restrictively for this purpose.
Second, it is sometimes good from time to time to be all together. It is a great experience of belonging to a great family. It is very encouraging for the spiritual growth. However, there is a danger of being in a large assembly, where there is a great mass of people, because of susceptibility to mass emotions. We should not use mass manipulations in our evangelizing, as it is seen in great religious campaigns. Rather, we should let the Holy Spirit work in a personal way.
In any case, an established pattern and practice of gatherings in large assemblies have a great tendency to be impersonalized fellowships, with no experience that we are family in the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the congregational form of the church is often accompanied by some conceptions of the leadership in the church, which are of centralistic nature. An extreme form is the Roman Catholic system. Other Protestant Churches have inherited some Roman elements, (as infant baptism, ritualistic manner in the ministry, etc), that also pertains to the conception of leadership and authority.
There is only one head of the Church, namely Jesus Christ. We are all members of His body. No man has an apostolic authority in the church (e.g. the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church) and only the Bible is our Supreme Authority. We are all priests unto God, (cf. Rev 1:6 and 5:10) and we have different talents and ministries. Some are good in evangelizations, some in mission, some as teachers, some as counselors, etc. Some are bishops. Some bishops are good teachers, but some are good counselors.
We recognize many talents and functions of each member in the Church. However, there are two important functions pertaining to the leadership in the Church. There are bishops and missionaries. A bishop or pastor is an overseer of a local house church, (there can be more than one bishop overseeing a local house church; there can be bishops without a house church). The function of the ministry of a bishop should not be mixed with worldly connotations. He is spiritually serving a home where the Worship occurs. Usually, it is by natural and practical circumstances that someone becomes a bishop. If someone regularly held church meetings in his home then naturally we would regard him to be a bishop.
There can be many bishops in the same town. They are not missionaries. However, if there are many local house churches in the town, then all these churches are the Church of the city. If the Church of the city is strong and big enough then it can send missionaries to other cities. Local house churches would and should economically support these missionaries. Bishops should otherwise be economically independent persons, who have some income from a secular profession. However, the local church would decide this autonomously. If the local church wants to support economically their bishop, they are free to do so.
We make distinctions between missioners and bishops. A missionary builds new churches but does not belong locally to them, since a missionary travels. A missionary let people in the town, who have believed in his message, have the responsibility for the further development of the Church in the city. A bishop is not a traveling missionary. He is an overseer for the Christians belonging to his local church. Both bishops and missionaries have the same authority. Bishops are not authoritatively more privileged than missionaries and vice versa. The only exception of this rule was in the apostolic period. Apostles in those days were also missionaries, but a special kind of missionaries. An apostle of Christ was a Prime Witness of Jesus' Resurrection. The necessary condition for a person to be an apostle of Jesus was that the person had seen the Bodily Resurrected Jesus, and as such, he was qualified to give the Prime Testimony for the truthfulness of our fundamental Christian belief. They were also a special kind of messengers who were sent and appointed by Jesus Himself. The apostle had the authority of the one who sent him. Please read more about this in the section about the Apostles in the article "The End of the Charismatic Gifts." Only this kind of missionaries had the highest authority in the Church. Nowadays we do not have such kind of missionaries.
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IV. The Autonomy of a Local House Church
To repeat one of our observations: There could be more than 5000 followers of Christ in a city. Recall that on the day of the Pentecost, 3000 souls believed in Peter's preaching and became Christians. In spite of the large number of Christians in a city, they were gathered in many small houses. Now with this perspective of house churches, we get a clear picture of the one Church that was a great body spread in many small house churches like members of the body, united through the living Spirit by holding to the true doctrine and growing in brotherly love to each other.
Every local house church is united with other churches like members are united in one body. There is no elected centralistic governing body of the Church, elected by men, so every church is autonomous as a member of a body is independent of another member with regard to its role in the body. The birth of a new local church does not need to be developed by some another (older) local church. It does not need to have some "mother church" from which it is developed. A new local church can be independently born in a city by people who are led solely by the Holy Spirit, people who understand the important truth about House Churches. Reading the Bible and Gospels alone can save people. It is possible that people who are saved in such a way, independently of being in contact with other Christians, independently also can come to an understanding that Churches of Christ are House Churches by reading the New Testament.
The autonomy of the local church is not absolute because members of the body are also interdependent among each other in that they need to belong to the body. This interconnectedness is so natural in the True Church that it is not necessary to develop some hierarchical and centralized organization that will resemble an organism. Members of the True Church know the voice of their Lord, they can recognize the soundness of the doctrine by reading and studying the Bible, our only Supreme Authority. Only Jesus is our way, truth and life - only by Him alone we can come to our Father, by respecting His words which are written in the Bible. A person who does not follow Christ is not one of us. Our aim is to win such a person in love so that they can recognize the Truth. Unfortunately, many Christians are speaking about love with no care for the Truth. This characterless love is not agape. We should rather love in truth. Therefore, our concluding words of this section will be words of the Apostle John, "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth." (1 John 3:18)
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We have established during our exposition that the New Testament only gives us examples of house churches, and does not speak of large public buildings as churches. Nevertheless, why should these examples be a compelling paradigm for our local gatherings? Is it not the matter of local churches to decide how they wish to gather? Are we not free to gather in public buildings where we can worship the Lord? For the following reasons we are not free to do so.
Our insistence on gathering only in house churches stems from a more general principle, namely the Principle of Following Biblical Examples. The principle is explained in the article "The Scriptural Law of Worship." The article shows that biblical examples serve as an important guide to avoid an introduction of new elements in the Worship that might be alien to God's will. For instance, by observing how Christians in the first century were gathered, I can be assured that God approved their practice of house meetings, and thus not worry whether house meetings are according to God's will.
Furthermore, we have also considered historical reasons for avoiding Christian meetings in public buildings. We have seen the historic origin of meetings in public buildings and concluded that such a form of public meetings is highly suspect in the light of how it was introduced among Christians. It was introduced as a design for strengthening the union of "the Church" and the State during the reign of Constantine.
Given the above historic perspective coupled with the lack of biblical evidence for public "church" buildings, we should maintain the practice of house churches. The above reasons can be more generalized by another principle known as the Scriptural Law of Worship. The principle says:
The Holy Scripture prescribes the whole content of worship. By this is meant that all elements or parts of worship are prescribed by God Himself in His word.
An implication of the Scriptural Law of Worship is the Regulative Principle of Worship, which says that only what God has explicitly commanded in the Bible should be allowed in the Worship. Alternatively formulated, we are not allowed to introduce new practices of Worship if the Bible is silent about the practice in question.
Applying the above principle to the question of house churches, we should only maintain the practice of house churches, given the fact that the New Testament does not instruct us that we should gather in public buildings. The article "The Scriptural Law of Worship," as the title suggests, deals with the meaning and implications of the principle.
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