Over the past sixty years, the Protestant church in China has grown exponentially. Most of this increase in numbers has taken place in what are often called house churches, which take their name from the practice of meeting in believers’ homes. Even today, when many of these congregations meet in large buildings, they are often called house churches.
Increasingly, these house churches are holding their meetings in large buildings dedicated to church activities and capable of holding several hundred people at one time. Therefore, there is a debate going on about whether it is better to meet in smaller groups in the homes of believers, or to join together as a large group in a larger venue.
There is also debate about whether individual home-based congregations should join together in larger networks; if so, how should these networks be governed? In the past, the rural churches have been noted for huge networks, claiming hundreds of congregations and thousands of members, with one personusually a manat the top as leader.
In this article we shall examine the question of the proper place for Christians to meet together for their main gathering, which is usually on the Lord’s Day, and also how churches should be organized. We shall base our study as much as possible on the Bible, though we shall also consider other factors.
Biblical Basis for House Churches
The word “church”
When we turn to the New Testament, this word refers either to that so-called universal church—that is, the Body of Christ, composed of all believers, living or departed—or to the local assembly of believers in a particular place, or to all the believers of a city. It does not refer to a building, as “church” can in English, and as it is often used in Chinese.
At any rate, we do know that ekklesia does refer to all who have put their faith in Christ; have been born again; have received the Holy Spirit; and have been made members of the Body of Christ. It also refers to the assembly of such people in any locality; and it may refer to this group seen as an organization.
For New Testament background of the concept, or even the reality, of church, we must look to Jesus’ calling of the original disciples, whom he named apostles. In particular, we should note what has been called “The Great Commission,” which, in various forms, commands believers to “Go” into all the world. Interestingly, he did not command them to “Stay” and erect a permanent structure!
Since the ascension of Jesus, the preaching and writing of the apostles, as well as some of their experience during Jesus’ time on earth, have been considered normative for all Christian believers. Their community life, to some extent at least, forms a pattern for the life of the church today.
The church in Acts
In the book of Acts, almost all passages dealing with Christians meeting together specify that they gathered in the homes of believers. There are a few exceptions: during the early days of the movement, Christians gathered in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem for prayer and preaching; and Paul the apostle taught in a lecture hall owned, and perhaps rented from, Tyrannus in Ephesus.
Otherwise, Acts stresses that believers in Jerusalem usually gathered in homes for regular meetings in which the usual church functions and activities took place. Likewise, throughout the rest of the book, we find Christians gathering in homes. Some believe that all the disciples gathered together in Antioch to receive teaching from Barnabas and Paul, but does the singular use of church mean that all the believers in Antioch gathered in one place weekly to hear apostolic instruction? Or does it mean that Paul and Barnabas made the rounds of house churches belonging to the church in Antioch, as the original apostles did in Jerusalem, where there is also said to have been only one church, even though we know they met in individual homes?
Paul’s epistles, regularly and without exception, speak of Christians gathering only in homes, where they broke bread together, prayed together and met together for teaching (Acts 20:20). The apostle mentions several churches that are meeting in the homes of individual believers. Nowhere does he speak of a church that holds worship or fellowship meetings in a public place, much less a building purchased or erected for that purpose. Equally telling is the absence of any instruction to acquire or use such a property, though Paul does write a great deal, in some detail, about church organization, what to do when they get together and how to resolve problems. If the apostle believed that having a building specifically dedicated to church functions was essential or even desirable, would he not have made that plain?
When we come to Paul’s instructions about what we might call church meetings, one feature must strike us powerfully: they all assume a group small enough for a lot of interaction (see 1 Corinthians 12-14, especially 14:26-40). Paul presupposes a small, intimate assembly, where prophecies can be uttered and then evaluated, questions asked and answered and other dialogue take place.
Most scholars believe that what we call the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or the Eucharist) was observed at each gathering of the church, and that a fellowship meal (agape feast) was also enjoyed, perhaps before the Lord’s Supper, perhaps afterwards.
How different from our formal worship services! How unsuited are our church buildings for such a meeting—but how natural would all of this seem in someone’s home!
Organizationally, these churches were led by elders and deacons. In every city, there would have been several of themperhaps what might be called a presbytery today (e.g. Titus 1:5). Each house church had more than one elder, for Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in every church.” There is the possibility, however, that each house church was led, at least administratively, by the owner of the house.
In passing, we should note that if modern scholarship has demonstrated anything beyond a doubt, it is that elder is the equivalent of pastor and of overseer (bishop). In other words, leadership of the church in every place was plural, not singular. The monarchical bishop, who was roughly equivalent to our senior pastor (at least in large congregations) or district superintendent or bishop, was a later development with little or no biblical warrant. The only single man with authority to dictate to a church seems to have been the Apostle Paul, as he makes clear to the Corinthians. Even then, he does all he can to issue exhortations, not commands.
On the congregational level, it would seem that there could have easily have been two, three or four elders in each house church, along with a similar number of deacons. At any rate, they are always spoken of in the plural, which means that, whatever their jurisdictiona single house church, or a group of them in a placethey exercised their rule as a group; no one man stood at the top as head.
Until very recently, scholars were agreed that elders and deacons were always men and did not include women. This is a highly-debated question today, but the traditional view still has a great deal of merit.
Other epistles paint, though with less detail, a similar picture.
In short: 1.) The only sort of building used for church meetings in the New Testament is the home of a believer. 2.) The church was led by a group of men, not by one man. 3.) Except for the apostles, jurisdiction for authority extended only to the “city.” The two largest cities were Ephesus, with a population of 250,000, and Rome, with about one million. In today’s terms, therefore, a “city” in a place like Shanghai might be equivalent to a district with one to two hundred thousand residents. These elders should have authority only over their own house church, not over a whole group or “network” of them, for which there is no evidence in the New Testament.
Application to Urban Chinese Churches
If we take the Bible as our sole authority, we shall come to the following conclusions. Churches should gather in the homes of believers for the regular Lord’s Day meeting. Each congregation—or, at least, each group of congregations—should be led by several elders, assisted by several deacons. The leaders of these groups or “networks” should not extend their authority beyond the bounds of an area inhabited by one or two hundred thousand people. In addition, if the traditional view is correct, they should be men.
To expand their limited resources, individual congregations could join with others in their immediate region to sponsor leadership training, itinerant evangelists, Christian education, counseling and mercy ministries.
To avoid becoming narrow-minded, isolated, or even heretical, home churches should ensure that large portions of the Bible are read at every gathering; that the creeds and confessions of the universal church be recited and taught regularly; and that news from other branches of the church around the world be shared. Books by orthodox teachers, along with approved web sites and other resources, would further enrich the life of the church, as would occasional gatherings with other congregations in their locality.
Advantages of this model include the following:
- High involvement by individual believers.
- No need for “superstars” to preach to large groups.
- Rapid development of new leaders.
- Less stress on pastors who are now burdened with caring for too many people.
- Great pressure for leaders and others to conform to biblical standards of conduct (1Timothy 3; Titus 1: etc.). For example, they would have to learn how to love their wives and discipline their children!
- Reduced temptation for leaders to grasp for money, power or prestige.
- Flexibility to adapt to circumstances.
- Low cost. Funds would be released for ministering to the needy in the congregation and cooperative projects.
- Intimacy of fellowship.
- A focus on the family; integration of the whole family in church life.
- Particularly in China, such limited groups of small home-based churches might arouse less government opposition.
Some advocates of church buildings claim that only by holding property can a church have a public presence. In response, I would say that 1.) the New Testament concept of public presence focuses on (a) the “salt and light” effect of individual believers in their daily life; (b) the mutual love which characterizes Christian families and home churches; (c) occasional larger gatherings of several congregations. 2.) The history of Christianity indicates that when “public presence” is identified with church buildings, disaster results (if it has not already taken place).
Image credit: Shanghai – Work In Progress by Steve Bailey, on Flickr
G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute (www.reachingchineseworldwide.org) and Global China Center (www.globalchinacenter.org), the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (www.bdcconline.net), and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide, by G. Wright Doyle.View Full Bio