The following article was adapted from The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church, and published by the American Society of Missiology in its quarterly, Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XIX. No. 1, January 1991.
Cover of Missiology Review
Del Birkey has ministered in evangelism and pastoral teaching since age nineteen. He has worked within the house church structure and authored The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church. He received his D. Min. from Bethany Theological Seminary, Oakbrook, Illinois, and has been a visiting seminary professor in the United States and the Third World.
This article focuses on the house churches of the New Testament and their unique socio‑physical structure. Since all the churches of the New Testament were communities small enough to meet in somebody’s private home, certain theological and sociological ramifications arise out of this stark reality. From this data we can observe a “missionary model” which has relevancy for contemporary mission and church planting. Examples of effective church decentralization in the Two Thirds World further support this thesis.
Five decades ago Floyd Filson called attention to the failure of contemporary scholarship to grapple with the household concept of New Testament times. In his seminal article, “The Significance of the Early House Churches,” he affirmed that the New Testament church would be better understood if more attention were paid to the actual physical conditions under which the first Christians met and lived. In particular, the importance and function of the house church should be carefully considered. (1939:105‑106)
The past several decades have witnessed a resurgent interest in and development of house churches scattered across the world. If futurologists are on target, house‑church networks will greatly accelerate by the year 2000. The church at large, however, remains unenlightened regarding contemporary house churches as well as early church structure, highlighting an urgent need for an evangelical house‑church theology.
Actually, in any important city of the first‑century world, if a person had asked somebody for directions to a church, he or she would have been directed to someone’s private home. The actual socio‑physical conditions of the New Testament church contain theological implications that may inform renewal and mission strategies more thoroughly than we are usually willing to affirm.
The term “house church” needs clarification. On the contemporary scene, as many as five types of home‑based groups have been identified (Hadaway, Wright, and DuBose 1987). The fundamental distinction is that house churches are small congregations in their own right, whereas home cell groups are sub‑units of a congregation. In this paper, therefore, “house church” refers to an indigenous and self‑functioning church small enough to gather together in a home or similar surroundings. This, in essence is also a description of the first‑century churches of the New Testament.
The New Testament House Church
Consider some of the theological and sociological attributes of those New Testament house churches that elicit missiological ramifications.
The “household of God” image contributed excellently to the theological and experiential understanding of the church’s essence.
The fundamental emphasis in the New Testament on the church as the family of God and the household of faith is exactly what we should expect (Romans 8:15‑16;Galatians 4:5‑7, 6:10; Ephesians 2:19, 3:14‑15, 5:1, 6:23). There the church is consistently a house church, explicitly or implicitly is this essential reality which most fully informs the structure of the church as found in the New Testament documents, and provided Paul the paramount sociological model whose ramifications are seen everywhere (Tidball 1984:86). The family‑household as an experiential reality no doubt had overwhelming effect on the early believers’ ability to understand and practice the doctrine of the church. Furthermore, “the church that meets in tt house” intensified the emphasis on interpersonal family life, and reflects a Hebrew model of Christian education where parents are the primary influencers (Birkey 1984). Since household and family are universal norms in cultures everywhere, missionaries who maximize a “family of God” household consciousness in planting church structures are most congruent with the apostolic missional ideal.
The house church nurtured a healthy social integration of Christianity.
The apostolic church was evidently a healthy cross section of society reflecting a broad social mixture, from wealthy land‑home owner to common slave. The assumption that early Christians came primarily from the disinherited lower classes cannot be defended. For example, E. A. Judge (1960) and others show that the early Christians represented all social classes found in the wider society. Social mixture would be found in any hot church community. For example, racial diversity, social oneness, and sex equality are vividly portrayed in the decentralized house churches of Rome (Romans 16). Evidently a “homogeneous unit principle” did not take root and grow in these amalgamated house fellowships. Rather, a “heterogeneous unit principle” which transcended all outward distinctions was work mightily among them. Not only was heterogeneity inherent in the gospel proclamation, but it became the existential reality of the Jew‑Gentile converts in the house fellowships (cf. Padilla 1982:29). Perhaps the house church informs the “homogeneous principle” debate by providing a small group structure wherein diverse social and racial groups can more easily experience the “unity of the Spirit.”
The house churches provided a fertile seedbed for the most revolutionary equalization of racial, class, and sexual distinctions brought about by the Christ event
The most revolutionary change the New Testament house churches enjoyed was the radical equalization of the sexes in the community of faith. Although the cross eradicated racial and class distinctions of “Jew and Gentile, slave and free,” it triumphed most critically in the “male nor female” demolition in Christ, where it reached the depths of the human dilemma (Galatians 3:28). The liberating edict for the new community in Christ eliminated all sinful and debilitating social categories. No longer, said Paul, can categories remain in Christ. Not only must the Jew forthrightly stop considering the Gentile a second‑class citizen, and not only must the master step down to the same level as the slave, but most radically of all, the male must now realize that there is no distinction based on gender. The texts of that revolutionary gospel and the co‑ministry and role of women in the New Testament house churches can be summarized around nine theses (Birkey 1988:91‑103):
- Women, alongside men, were full membered participants in the house churched Christian communities.
- Women, side by side with men, were partners in leadership and ministry in the early house churches.
- Women, along with men, led in public prayer.
- Women, alongside men, prophesied in church.
- Women, with and in the presence of men, had authority in the church body.
- Women, in particular, were encouraged to learn the Scriptures.
- Women, even as men, had gifts for edifying the body.
- Wives, as well as their husbands, were partners in mutual submission, arising out of their mutual love.
- Women’s sexual roles were not dichotomized or considered at variance with men’s roles in Christ.
Over the centuries the church at large has routinely restricted the role of women to secondary positions in ministry, both at home and in mission abroad. This reality causes Virginia Patterson (1989:62) to ask, “Is fulfillment of the Great Commission hindered because women are not equal co‑workers in all levels of decision‑making and mission activity?” Her answer is unequivocally “yes” for historical, theological, and psycho‑social reasons.
In their extensive treatment of ministering women, Tucker and Liefeld show that history has demonstrated the powerful force women are in world evangelism. They warn, however, that, “the future growth of the Christianity in the Third World depends to a large extent on how women are incorporated into the total life and ministry of the church” (1987:358). Furthermore, because women have suffered a formidable neglect in mission histories, Frances Hiebert asserts that Western mission agencies need “to repent and look for some ashcloth if they are not going to lose their credibility vis‑a‑vis the church in the Two Thirds World” (Hiebert 1982:455).
Cultural ambivalence among Third World Christian women will no doubt increase as they become acquainted with current biblical studies on the role and ministry of women. Women in the church there will long remain an untapped resource, however, as research on the relation between Third World women and churches gradually increases (Webster and Webster 1985). African seminary women portrayed sharp cultural ambivalence in a recent course I taught relating womanhood and culture to biblical data. Having been systematically bombarded both from a patriarchical society and from Western missionary preaching on sexual hierarchicalism, they experienced a kind of therapeutic catharsis when continually confronted with the liberating Word. Their most recurring emotional amazement was to learn that their inner longings to be co‑participants in ministry were God‑given desires as persons co‑equal in God’s image and calling, rather than guilt with which they must constantly struggle.
The house church was a culturally relevant model.
Small group gatherings were a generally accepted phenomenon in the context of the ancient world. The Pauline ideal encompassed all three human quests then current in small group movements. The church as household fulfilled the longing for personal identity and intimacy. The church as a voluntary small‑group association fulfilled the aspiration for a kind of universal fraternity. The church as a spiritual community was invested with a supra‑national and temporal significance that instilled authentic supernatural certainty (Banks 1980:17, 49).
Home‑church gatherings, therefore, were not at odds with contemporary appreciations in Paul’s day, nor in ours. House churches provide a decentralized missional freedom for creative expression within cultural diversity. Since the church is the proper sociological package in which the content of the gospel is wrapped for communication cross‑culturally (Filbeck 1985: 168), it should be a kind of “dynamic equivalence” church which looks “in its culture as a good Bible translation looks in its language” (Willowbank Report 1980:330).
The church in the home provided the most dynamic setting for the distinctively unique Christian fellowship and its worship.
From the earliest times, the household structure provided a natural setting that enabled Christians to gather together without dependence on temple or synogogue styles. They were free to develop patterns that authenticated their own beliefs and needs. Neither were they dependent upon building their own special buildings before regarding themselves as the true church. They did not struggle under the false notion of church as physical sanctuary. Donald McGavran notes that the first common obstacle multiplying churches never appeared in the early church, i.e., the cost building buildings. House churches overcame the obstacle of introversion by exposing a new section of society in each new house church. McGavran (1970:192‑193) asserts, “the physical fact of the house church should be taken into consideration in any assessment of the causes of the growth of the early church.”
The importance of special buildings was incongruously overemphasized from the third century onward, and its legacy has become “a gross liability to subsequent generations and a millstone which has hampered effective mission since…” (Tidball 1984:82).
Tidball goes on to note:
Limitations to mission arise because (1) much energy, time, finance and personnel is invested in keeping a building in good repair; (2) public buildings are inflexible in their use and location; (3) they are impersonal especially when compared with homes and (4) they emphasize the need for people to come to a strange place in order to receive the gospel thus making an additional barrier between the hearer and the good news. (1984:147)
The house church positively influenced the development of the church’s leaders.
The house church imparted rather than inherited leadership which, inn turn, influenced the particular contours of church life. The host of a house church provided natural leadership (cf. I Corinthians 16:15‑16). Filson (1939:112) notes that Gentile church hosts were often “God‑fearers,” suggesting that they were persons of sufficient education and practical administrative ability.
Furthermore, women not only played a major role in the founding of house churches, but were given leadership functions as well (cf Acts 16:14‑15, 40; Romans 16:1‑2, 3‑4; 1 Corinthians 1: 11, 16:19; Colossians 4:15; 2 John). Here is another reminder that the church everywhere will come to its leadership potential only when “the other one‑half of the church” is granted equal freedom for its leadership gifts in all areas of church and mission. Clearly, the early church missionary model is in sharp contrast with today’s male leadership dominance in both the church and in the history of modern missions (cf. Beaver 1968).
The house church strengthened the concept of corporate solidarity in Christian conversion.
In the early church communities, household conversions were common (Acts 10: 1‑2, 16:13‑15, 31‑34,18:1. The house church as a structure obviously undergirded this socio‑cultural phenomenon. The household conversions recorded in the New Testament should temper our individualistic convictions about conversion and alert us to the doctrine of conversion as a complex experience. Conversion is not only a distinct moment and continual process, but a missional commitment as well. It is a socio‑ecclesial reality. It does not take place in a vacuum, but rather within particular social contexts (Costas 1980:183‑187). When mission strategy focuses on parents as the influencers of households, the basic biblical unit of household is strengthened.
The house churches were the embodiment of biblical and Christian hospitality.
One wonders if the first churches would have succeeded without the lavish attitude of hospitality among their comrades. A. J. Malherbe (1977:67) speaks to this issue by charging that the theological implications of hospitality as practiced by the early church still await our attention. He goes on to point out that hospitality was regarded as a virtue since classical times by pagans as well as Jews. Its high priority in the New Testament house churches serves to show how the first Christians believed they should excel in this virtue to the degree of transforming it into a distinctly Christian principle of ministry.
In “Early Christian Hospitality: A Factor in the Gospel Transmission,” D. W. Riddle points to early Christian hospitality as one of the most charming features of the earliest church. Referring to patristic sources, he writes:
These examples of hospitality suggest that the custom may account for a notable phenomenon of those days: the acceptance of the traveling preacher’s message by entire households… that the primitive churches were house churches is a detail of this, and an aspect of early Christian hospitality… This brings the student directly to the social processes in Christianity’s expansion. One of them was early Christian hospitality. In it one sees an ultimate medium of Christianity’s growth. (1938:152‑154)
The household as church afforded the basic solution to the problem of early missionary strategy.
Paul’s missionary strategy, simply put, was a strategy of households. As he traveled to new environs, he needed a meeting place for a center of operation. Likewise, as new believers began to multiply, a place was needed for the gathered church. The two needs were met in one place. It is reasonable to assume that when Paul began missionary work in a city, his primary objective was first to win a household. The household not only provided a solid group of converts, but was well suited to serve as a center for evangelism to other households and the surrounding neighborhood.
Biblical and missiological studies cannot ignore the fact that the movement which conquered the Roman empire was in reality a movement of small house churches. Furthermore, over the centuries much of the renewal and outreach of the church has come through small communities and house churches, movements in which persons were organically linked to one another in a common purpose (Sine 1981:159‑160).
Summarily, “a small group of eight to twelve people meeting together informally in homes is the most effective structure for the communication of the gospel in modem secular‑urban society. Such groups are better suited to the mission of the church in today’s urban world than are traditional church services, institutional church programs, or the mass communication media.” (Snyder 1975:139)
The House Church and Mission Today
As house‑church networks gain in viability, how is the home‑fellowship missionary model” strengthening the gospel’s advance in Two‑Thirds World environments? Some contemporary illustrations offer insight:
China’s Charismatic House Churches
Dramatic stamina is portrayed in the house churches of China. As the church in that gargantuan land flourished “from house to house,” it strikingly resembled the diffuse New Testament church in its surviving and thriving in a vacillating and volatile political climate. Data gathered over the past ten years from more than 500 believers document their intense persecution. In response, the Lord is moving mightily through miracles of divine protection, visions, healings, and angelic appearances. An outpouring of signs and wonders is challenging unbelievers to turn to Christ (Chao 1989:5‑11).
Chinese believers have had to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials, being forced to the essential nature of the church by having all unnecessary, external nonessentials taken away. They have perhaps learned better than any other contemporaries what it means to be the household of faith. Their home fellowships are a needed reminder that the church is essentially spiritual in its nature, and that although organizational structures and buildings may facilitate growth, they can also become hindrances.
The house churches of China are also a rebuke to our male‑dominated hierarchies. Leadership has become strong among the so‑called “laity,” and women in particular have been the dominant leaders. Arthur Glasser emphasizes how the modeling by missionary women played a significant part in the survival of Christianity under communism, and asserts that 85 percent of the pastoral leaders of China’s house churches are women (Hiebert 1982:459‑460).
The Base Ecclesial Communities of Latin America
Some Third World theologians believe a true “ecclesiogenesis” is at work in the world, particularly in the small “base” church communities of South America. In that context, “base” means more than merely basic. It refers to the sociological base the poor and marginalized who are at the bottom of the sociological pyramid, including nearly 80 percent of the population of Latin America (Cook 1984:98, 101). The base church agenda generally centers on community life in small groups, ministry to the poor, and the prophetic mission of the church to society. The movement attempts the serious practice of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Latin evangelical leaders believe the predominantly Catholic grass‑roots ecclesiology has become the most powerful challenge to Protestant Christians in that region of the world and may well become the most powerful challenge to the church everywhere else in the years ahead.
The “New Testament” Church of Nepal
Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world, and it is also one of the least developed countries. Nicanor Tamang explains that the church in Nepal is referred to as New Testament Christians–they do not want to be known as Protestants or the like. Tamang 1 tells American Christians that “to be a church you don’t need much–just a Bible and a Christian friend or two to worship God together. You don’t need a million dollar building. In Nepal the church is very simple‑but is a force to be reckoned with.”
Even though it is illegal to baptize converts in this captivating mountainous land, Christian leaders are nevertheless reaping a harvest of baptized believers. When in Nepal several years ago, I visited one “house church” which meets in a large room built onto the pastor’s house. Several hundred baptized believers sat together on the floor for teaching and worship. Like the church in Islamic North Africa, bathtub baptisms are a fascinating necessity in difficult circumstances.
Burmese Believers and a Dispersed Church
Baptist believers in the isolated Buddhist land of Burma (now Myanmar) feel that their extreme condition of isolation is both a bane and blessing. Although it has restricted Western missionary assistance in leadership input and financial aid, nevertheless, young people have been motivated to evangelize everywhere in the Spirit’s power. Some have ventured into China and are not allowed to return home. One Burmese church had 1,000 regular attendees, filling the building to capacity. When the government outlawed their gathering and closed the church building, the members dispersed into private homes. Now they total 12,000 people! (Moore 1989:2).
We Do Not Need Our Church Buildings Anymore in Vietnam
The communist government closed 200 Vietnamese churches in 1975. A Vietnamese pastor recently reported that the government offered to reopen the churches in an attempt to regain control of the Christians. The believers’ response, however, has shocked government officials. They did not want the buildings back; they are not needed anymore! The Vietnamese believers have experienced being the church outside physical sanctuaries, and now they do not want tot be limited by the buildings (Hunt 1989:3).
A Small Beginning in Sri Lanka
During a visit to Sri Lanka I learned of a wonderful dilemma encountered by a para‑church evangelism organization. Successful evangelistic mission to rural areas was resulting in small cluster of new believers. A young national Christian leader expressed incisive concern about how to establish churches similar to the house churches of the New Testament. So he organized a support group to aid in the founding and nurturing of churches that meet in homes. “Kithu Sevena” (meaning “Christ’s shadow”) is an indigenous movement including social programs in which the churches give community aid. These small‑group home churches intend to remain true to their cultural worship style, influenced by an oriental Buddhist environment. The church‑planting mission will provide leadership for the new churches while fostering the development of capable elder leadership from among the people. The new fellowship has already witnessed the birth of ten house churches during the first year.
A Mombasa Model
Just a few years ago, in Kenya’s oldest and largest coastal city, Mombasa, the nearly half dozen local (Southern) Baptist churches had a combined membership of less than 400. Since then, however, they have baptized 14,000 converts to Christianity! During the past few years these new believers have established nearly 100 new churches in East Africa. Ushindi Baptist Church is one of the largest with two to three thousand members. When approaching its meeting place, one is struck with the simplicity. It is a large, tin‑roofed area supported by hundreds of wooden poles. There are no walls, just open air. As a kind of gargantuan house church, Ushindi (“victory”) church has sent out fifty missionaries to other parts of Kenya; they in turn have founded over two dozen churches. Some have built small meeting places, while others are house‑type churches, whether meeting in a home or in a huge shipping container with an awning. Although they remain independent as Baptist churches, there is an interdependent unity among them.
The Mombasa model was conceived by missionary, Ralph Bethea 2, when he made a fresh study of Acts to search out ways the early church ministered. He was intrigued with cultural similarities between Mombasa’s Muslim culture and that of the early Christians. Noting that the first believers went to the temple for prayers, he and other believers went to the local mosque for Friday prayers. They established rapport with the imams, prayed for each other, and dialogued together. This initial bridge for presenting Christ did not remain an option, however. They cannot pray there now, since too many former Muslims are now in Christian churches!
These small churches tend to spread according to networks of relationships rather than simply by geographic growth. The result is cross‑tribal communities with strong emphasis on social unity. Bethea 2 told of the only woman director of a large Kenyan bank who worships with simple folk, sitting together on the ground under a tree. Her outstanding example is a counter‑criticism that house‑church types reach only the poor.
A Spanish 10,000 by 2000 Vision
Mexico City, the world’s largest urban center, will total 30 million inhabitants by the end of the century. Within its boundaries are over 1500 “colonias” (neighborhoods) without an evangelical church. Acquiring land and building sanctuary‑type churches is a near impossibility for the poorer multitudes of Mexico City. Galo Vasquez, director of Vision Evangelizadora Latino Americana (VELA), has instigated an impelling strategy for developing church life in these unevangelized neighborhoods. His is the extraordinary goal to establish 10,000 self‑functioning house churches by the year 2000.
Summary and Conclusion
Summary implications for mission strategy emerge from our overview of New Testament and contemporary house churches:
First, the house‑church structure was de facto the working model during the first few centuries of the church’s missionary advance. This fact and its implications are generally downplayed. Nevertheless, house churches are again becoming a recognized force at the end of the twentieth century. Several decades ago Billy Graham noticed that “emphasis is increasing toward the ‘house church’ in many parts of the world. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is getting the church ready for trials such as the world has never known” (MacPherson 1971:30). Do these observations contain practical and eschatological relevance for the church’s mandate in the face of mounting worldwide hostility (Barrett 1988:12) and the impending return of our Lord?
Second, simple structures generally work better than complex ones, and are thus preferred, insists Professor of Management Reed E. Nelson. He observes, “the importance of this has recently dawned on American business corporations…but many mission organizations are still mired unnecessary complexity.” He goes on to propose that (1) “it is better not set up a new structure if an existing one can be used,” and (2) it is best to seek for correspondence “between local societal patterns and ecclesiastical patterns,” and (3) “rationality should not exclude spontaneity”; therefore, and minimalist structure will help “avoid stifling creativity, spontaneity, and celebration that are the hallmark of successful movements” (Nelson 1989:51). What revitalization would occur, we wonder, if Western churches were ready to rethink structures and willing to move quite literally to the simpler church life and structure of a far earlier period? How much more effective would missionary church planting become if intentional, small‑group “missionary model” churches were established‑instead of exporting large, Western-style sanctuary models”?
Third, the church in difficult places of our world is a lesson to the affluent church in the easy places. It shows that the easily corrupted “Great Congregation” of Western progress is not necessarily everywhere desired nor even possible. The simple but dynamic small‑group “missionary model remains the basic working prototype for outreach and sustaining power, and possesses an inherent ability for discipline and self‑correction (cf. Matthew 18:15‑20). Perhaps Jesus meant for his disciples then and now to take “two or three” more seriously than we usually do.
In conclusion, the child who thought that real churches have buildings and graveyards made a telling observation, albeit humorously. More likely, a balanced understanding of what constitutes a real church is embedded in a viable house‑church theology and experience. House churches cannot do everything sanctuary churches can, but they can do what is essential more excellently. They may not have graveyards, but, as someone observed, small congregations major on the resurrection of persons. As family remains the universal cultural norm, gathering with Jesus in a domestic experience of fellowship will also remain the most effective model of church life for resurrected people all over the world.
1. Comments given at Wheaton, IL, 1988.
2. Interview, 1988. Mombasa, Kenya.
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