Category: house church

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.

I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.

The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.

I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well.  So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.

I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.

Authority in science and religion, with short reflections on climate change, creation science and house church

The popular challenge to climate change science raises interesting questions about authority, expertise and the gap between popular opinion and the ‘experts’.

For many scientists, academics and politicians, there isn’t a debate about the science – or there shouldn’t be. In The Australian a few months ago, at the time Ian Plimer’s climate change scepticism book came out, an opinion piece (a rare voice from the left) said that the public needs to just believe the experts when it comes to climate change science. We aren’t scientists, we can’t just step in with our own opinions and trample over years of careful research.

But everyone likes to have an opinion, and the prominent public voices expressing scepticism about climate change give people the sense that there is a real debate, and they’ll be in good company remaining sceptical.

It reminds me of the creation-evolution ‘debate’. (Interestingly, Ian Plimer wrote an angry and thorough refutation of the creation scientists in Telling Lies For God; now he’s on the other side of consensus.) For most biological scientists there is no debate between an 8000 year old world and a much older one. But for fundamentalist Christians, a well produced DVD/book/magazine from Answers in Genesis convinces them that not only is there a debate, but that debate is over whether the Bible is true or not and the creation scientists have reason on their side over against the conspiracy of the atheistic evolutionists.

(I was brought up a creation scientist, and I have no wish to revisit arguments for special creation and young Earth. I am interested in hearing from people who have a well thought out theistic evolution they have managed to integrate with their faith.)

Just as we’ve always had folk religion, maybe we have folk science these days. Everything is just a matter of opinion. You show me your scientific consensus on climate change, I’ll show you my sceptics with PhDs in geology or whatever who mount a contrary argument and get as much air time in the media.

I’m not convinced that scepticism toward the experts and a conviction that one can hold one’s own opinion on any subject is a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon. Look at the superstitions which dominate nineteenth century village life in Thomas Hardy novels. Look through the Bible how the general public is always prepared to go off in a different direction than the mandated one. People have always insisted on their right to have a contrary, illogical, irrational view of reality and manage to live by it. Perhaps more individualistically so these days.

(Am I saying I want strict controls? No. I’m just observing. I don’t think there’s easy answers to these questions.)

This all gets me thinking of the phenomenon of house church. I have been quite turned off house church the last few years. Not the ecclesial concept of a gathering of Christians meeting in a household context, but more the house church movement, which is full of people with their own opinions on everything, and not always very well thought out ones. There are crazy people in every church, I suspect, but in a house church their opinion becomes as valid as everyone else’s. Should we go on with the status quo, then, and deny most of the congregation a voice? No, I don’t think that’s good either. I think it’s a dilemma that needs much attention by any church.

I have real problems with the amount of authority invested in the priest/pastor/minister of traditional churches.  I don’t think it’s what Jesus or Paul envisage in the New Testament, not at all. I agree with Yoder that the Bible has a trajectory moving away from religious specialisation.

But simply rejecting the authority of the (trained and accredited) pastor is not the answer.  We shouldn’t pretend that church is really very simple and it’s just a matter of clearing away the complexities those power-hungry establishments have created.

No answers, just some dilemmas, some frustrations with our ‘I reckon’ world.

My big brown Strong’s Exhaustative Concordance, or how I think the Bible is being read badly

(I’m going to sound grumpy, but I’m not, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the use of the Bible.)

It concerns me how badly the Bible is used by most evangelicals.  Much of it stems from a failure to understand what sort of book(s) the Bible is.

When I was nine, an elder in my Baptist church gave me the tool I needed to become a preacher: a big brown leather copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. For those who don’t know it, it lists every occurrence of every word used in the King James Version.

The method of preaching I learned from listening to a lot of sermons as a kid was to get Strong’s out, look up the key word in question and find every occurrence of it – ‘hope’, for example. Once you’ve read all these verses – each verse being a unit of truth, a proposition about the topic – you would have gained a ‘biblical’ picture of the topic at hand.

If you wanted to be particularly clever, you threw in the ‘real meaning’ of the Greek or Hebrew word in question.

Billy Graham lends his approval to this form of Bible study in his book Billy Graham Talks To Teenagers; he urges them all to get a Naves Topical Bible; it’s much more convenient – it arranges the Bible by topic, instead of that pesky book by book arrangement that God saw fit to saddle us with.  ‘The object of this book is to bring together in cyclopedic form and under familiar headings all that the Bible teaches on particular subjects.’ (p. 23)

The way I hear the Bible used often by evangelicals today isn’t too different from this in its assumptions. The basic failure is a failure to even attempt to understand context. (The main difference from when I was kid is that amongst non-fundamentalists and non-Sydney Anglicans, you don’t have to worry about being particuarly ‘biblical’; a few verses thrown in are often enough.)

First of all there’s the belief that each verse is a unit of truth. Each verse is read as if it can be plucked out of its context in a particular book, in a particular story or in a particular letter, addressed to a particular place and time, and read as if it is a timeless truth for today.

Alas not many verses work like this, so evangelicals keep going back to their favourite verses – Romans 8:28; John 3:16 – the ones that can be understood to work in this way.

Secondly, preachers too often move between the Old Testament and the New Testament, plucking out verses without putting those passages into the overall framework of God’s narrative of salvation. (The Bible is treated as a flat book, equally ‘inspired’; a verse from the Old Testament is just as valuable as a verse from the New Testament and is speaking in the same way to us.)

Thirdly, there is rarely any attempt to understand the social and historical context of passages.  Looking at the work on Paul being done by the New Perspective scholars, including Reta Finger, I am more and more believing that without a good understanding of these contexts, readers will get the Bible terribly wrong despite the best of intentions.

Which brings me to one of my concerns with the house church movement, a movement I am associated with. In the push toward small, simple church, there is often an even greater disparaging of scholarship and of theology. In reacting against the travesty of the passive laity, the mistake is being made that anyone can do this, that we don’t need people who have studied theology to inform our learning. The result is shared ignorance, a failure to get past the misreadings of the Bible people already have, or the risk – present in every church – of going down a leader’s crazy path.

I don’t have an answer to some of the dilemmas posed here. If I’m sounding elitist, I guess I  am. I long for the fruits of careful and sometimes brilliant scholarship to affect our church. But the timelag is long and sometimes the interface just isn’t there.

I’d really like it if an emphasis on reading the Bible contextually wasn’t confined to the Sydney Anglicans.

Roman House Churches for Today

I’ve only just come across this book.  It was published last year and is written by Reta Finger, a Mennonite theologian who also wrote a significant book on common meals in the early church. I’m looking forward to reading this; here’s the publisher’s description as found on Koorong’s site:

Placing the biblical book of Romans in its historical and cultural context, Reta Halteman Finger here creates a simulation of the Roman house churches that first heard Paul’s Romans letter and its call for inclusiveness among the people of God.

Finger guides readers in small groups to re-create house churches as in first-century Rome. Based on the text of Romans, participants play various roles and converse, even debate, with other characters from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. This experiential approach makes Romans come alive in new, concrete ways and applies Romans theology to current issues that often still divide groups of Christians.

Roman House Churches for Today includes aids and suggestions for simulation leaders, sample character sketches, and website links with resources for further, deeper study. Not only small groups but also individuals will profit from this unique Bible study.

Discouraged by a man who hears from God

I spent yesterday at a day long seminar which was meant to be about house church but wasn’t really. I came away with a heavy heart. The speaker was an American with an international ministry, but focused on India. He starts a lot of house churches, mainly by discipling people.

His big focus seemed to me to be listening for the voice of God and then obeying it. If you do this, you’ll see thousands of conversions like he has and miracles, from the raising of the dead to words of knowledge about people which provides an opportunity to evangelise them.

I agreed with some of the things he had to say:

  • He emphasised empowering every member of the body, which is great. You don’t have to go study for years to become a disciple or to do God’s work.
  • He talked about discipleship as going far beyond conversion. (Yet he emphasised all the conversions that he’d seen happening.)
  • He traces a lot of what went wrong with the church back to Constantine. (And yet strangely, he seemed to suggest later that his aim was to make India a Christian nation – and every nation a Christian nation. He made me realise that just because you think the Constantine shift was bad, it doesn’t make you a Yoder-ite who thinks that the faithful minority is the pattern for being God’s people.)
  • He was humble and sincere.

But all through the day, I felt bad. I think I felt bad because if he was right, I’m wrong and so is every other Christian I know.

Early on, he had me interjecting like I was the conservative evangelical in the room, a position I haven’t held in the last nine years. He told us that when he first converts and disciples people in India, he doesn’t teach them the Bible but to start listening for God’s voice. I objected that we need to know the Bible so we can judge whether we’re actually hearing from God or not. He responded that we’re called to test the spirits, but not God’s voice. (He seems to be referring to 1 John 4:1; if only I was quicker at drawing my Bible evangelical style and I could have pulled out 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – ‘test everything’.) I definitely disagree at this point. It’s essential that new converts be grounded in the story of God’s people, that they know the teachings of Jesus and his life story, and of the way Paul instructed the early church.

The speaker said several times that everyone hears God’s voice, and it’s just a matter of recognising it and obeying it. I think it’s impossible to generalise about people’s experience of God like that. God doesn’t promise to speak to everyone. For a lot of people, their experience of God is his silence. Even Mother Theresa. YWAMers hear God all the time, and so do a lot of Pentecostals; what’s wrong with the rest of us?

I think we should always be listening, and my experience is of occasional gentle promptings which might be from God. I try to obey these when I hear them. I’m open to God speaking clearly to me; I’d love that. But being a disciple doesn’t depend on it.

House church is a broad church and I’m realising that I’m coming from a very different angle to a lot of people within it. I’m worried that house churches attract a lot of people with outlandish ideas. I’m sure plenty of people would put me in that category. Maybe I should just be able to live with other people’s craziness and hope they can live with mine – but I don’t want to engage with craziness at the moment; my faith is too fragile. The idea that church should be small and simple might not be enough common ground to create a movement.


The failure to be friendly

I think committed Christian communities – new monastics, house churches, emerging churches and other variations – are the most exciting thing happening for the kingdom of God at the moment. But today I was struck afresh by our main failing: unfriendliness.  I’m not talking about something new, but it needs thinking about.

There’s this balancing act between openness to others and maintaining the body life that is so central to committed Christian community.  I think it’s fine to have a ‘high bar’ to get in. That is, it’s good for membership to mean something, for the path to be as narrow as the kingdom path should be.

But I’m talking about a love of the other, and of a sensitivity to people outside the group. Friendliness, basically. The lesson I’m learning is: don’t get so caught up with yourselves that you stop looking outward. You can have high expectations of members and still be friendly.

Part of what I’m talking about is the sense that in so many committed Christian communities, our door doesn’t seem very open. Not even to people who feel similarly and would like to join or find out more. As we go deeper into community, we mustn’t leave out people who could be members or friends.  (Part of the struggle for those of us in these communities is we’re so used to being rejected or treated with disinterest by others that we stop being open.)

It’s not a problem restricted to small committed Christian communities, of course. In so many different contexts I see this failure to seek out the people on the outer in social situations. And I don’t just mean the people obvious to radical Christianity – I don’t just mean immigrants or Aboriginal Australians or disabled people. I mean just as much the shy or lonely white middle class people who don’t have much radical glamour. 

I suspect that part of what the church needs to recover is the gift of hospitality. I want to do some more reading on this, but I believe hospitality is crucial to healthy Christian community. I know one couple who’s table fellowship touched many people’s lives and was at the centre of what was, for at time, a wonderful house church.


Book review – Evaluating the church growth movement : 5 views

This is an important book for me to have read. Throughout the book, several references are made to common misunderstandings of the church growth movement. The problem is that people like me associate it with megachurches and seeker-sensitive services and don’t know the historical roots.

This book starts with a good historical sketch to correct such misunderstandings. The movement has its roots, as you may know, in the missiology of Donald McGavran (1897-1990), a Disciples of Christ missionary in India. (I’m surprised to learn that the founder was a Restorationist when the result today is nothing like the primitive church!)

He seemed to be reacting against the social gospel priority and believed that the main business of mission was to ‘save the lost’. (Helping them in their poverty and suffering etc was something of a second priority, which is one of many problems I think I have with McGavran.)

To maximise conversions, he investigated which churches grew and why. He then stated principles from these of how to reach people in a particular culture.

For him, discipleship meant simply conversion; ‘perfecting’ had the sense of growing in Christ and it was another second priority for him – and another point on which I strongly disagree with him. It’s interesting to note that his sense of the word ‘discipleship’ is opposite to the way it’s used in Anabaptist circles, where it is code for much more than conversion – the whole life process of bringing everything under Christ.

After the historical sketch, this book brings together five different perspectives on church growth – two of them very sympathetic, one of them ‘reformist’ and two of them critical. I have a lot in common with the two critics – Howard Snyder, from a ‘renewal’ perspective (I think his ecclesiology is excellent) and Craig Van Gelder using Lesslie Newbigin’s work for a ‘gospel and culture’ perspective.

But what I am shocked to realise is that some of the other movements that I sympathise with actually have roots or alliances in the church growth movement.

1. Vineyard movement – John Wimber came out of these circles and his friend Peter Wagner was McGavran’s successor as spokesman for the movement.

2. New house church movement – the saturation church planting and similar stuff in the ministry of Wolfgang Simson and Tony and Felicity Dale seems to use some of the same language and theology of the movement, even if it is mostly a reaction against the dominant ecclesiology of the megachurch side of it. They may be just as much in the McGavran tradition as the megachurches.

3. Emerging missional church – for example, as represented by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in Australia. I’ve just picked up my copy of Shaping of Things To Come, and there’s a quote on the back from Eddie Gibbs – Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth. And then there’s the section on the homogeneous unit principle p. 52, taken straight from McGavran. Target a people group, you could put it as. (Reading back over it – and remembering how disappointed I was when I first read it – I am pleasantly surprised to see that they do regard heterogenous churches that bring together Jew and Greek so to speak, are the ultimate aim. HUP is just a missional strategy. So maybe emerging missional church has taken the best part of the church growth movement.)

The sort of criticisms that emerge of the movement are expected ones that I agree with. Most importantly, is an emphasis on numbers when numbers in the New Testament are a side effect of faithfulness and power in the Holy Spirit.

Significant also is the pragmatism that looks to ‘what works’ and then tries to justify it with Scripture.

I think I’m going to come away from this book with a better understanding of what’s going on in evangelicalism today.