Letter to Oglethorpe

In Defence of Biblical Churches: a Response to the Critics!

This article is based on actual correspondence with someone who had raised serious questions concerning the whole concept of biblical church life such as I understand it. The name of the recipient has been changed in order to honour their privacy, and I have made a few other minor alterations purely for the sake of readability.

Essex, England (Summer 2000)

My Dear Oglethorpe,

Good to hear from you old boy! And so soon after you received my letter too! How is your lovely Martha? In jolly good health I trust! I’ve always said what a trooper of a wife you have there. What a blessing she has been to you through the years. I say old chap, what a lucky fellow you are! And still neither one of you seems old enough to be great-grandparents. I only hope I fare as well when as many years have crept up on me. “Lots of cricket and cups of tea!” as you always say, “That’s the ticket!”

I can see that, “All this dashed silly house church stuff”, as you call it, seems to be really getting you going. I must say your letter raised some things to which I really must respond, and at some length too. So brace yourself my old Baptist friend and cover your wicket; I’ve got some tough bowling for you to face.

Let me start with your assertion that it is not necessary for churches to meet in people’s houses in order to be in alignment with God’s Word. Now you know full well that the New Testament churches, as set up by the apostles, were based in people’s houses and no one, Bible scholar or otherwise, doubts that this is the case. But the question is whether or not we ought to be continuing such practice. And of course the answer to that is tied up with what the believers in the New Testament did when they gathered together on Sundays. And what they did was twofold.

Firstly, and in keeping with apostolic teaching as revealed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and in particular chapter fourteen and verse twenty-six, they had a time of completely participatory worship and sharing together in which all were free to partake, and which was not led from the front by anyone. And of course this is as far away from having a church service, any type of church service, as you can get. The format they adhered to meant they could simply be led, freely and spontaneously, by the Holy Spirit, with no-one officiating in any way from the front. Indeed, and precisely because they were meeting in people’s lounges, there was no front for anyone to lead from. Then, secondly, they ate a meal together, this being the way in which they shared the Lord’s Supper – referred to more usually, and quite erroneously, as Communion. And of course the point is that given the nature of their activity when they came together their gathering could only work properly if, by definition, numbers weren’t too large.

So we therefore see in the New Testament that churches never moved out of houses into larger public buildings precisely because they just never needed the extra space. And when you understand that the nature of a church anyway is a little extended family of God – and I don’t think anyone would seriously challenge that as a pretty good and complete biblical definition – then it raises the question as to why anyone would want a church to get so large that those who comprise it are no longer able to function in the way the Bible shows us they did. It is simply a fact that, at the time of the apostles, far from there being large churches around there was rather a multiplicity of small ones, yet tied-in together as brothers and sisters through mutual relationships. What we seem to have long forgotten is that Jesus is not only the Head of the Church Universal (as the theologians like to put it – or the Church Throughout Space and Time, as I prefer to say), He is also meant to be the Head of each individual and particular church, leading each assembly directly and personally as the Chief Shepherd. And of course given that in the New Testament the word shepherd (or pastor) is synonymous with both elder and bishop (or overseer), then the simple fact is that Jesus is Himself the senior elder of any church that is set up biblically.

I am not therefore, “…just arguing houses for houses sake.” as you put it! That isn’t the point at all! Indeed, as I emphasised in my letter, I don’t actually like the phrase house church very much at all, and much prefer to speak in terms of planting and establishing biblical churches. After all, a group of believers could meet regularly as a church in various houses on Sundays and yet still be completely unbiblical in virtually every other respect. No! I am far from arguing ‘houses for houses sake’! I am rather making a plea for the complete package of what I refer to as biblical church; and meeting in a house is but one aspect of the scriptural blueprint.

The real point I am trying to make here is that, as believers, we ought to be doing things as comprehensively revealed in the Bible. In the New Testament we are presented with the simple fact, whether one likes it or not, that the apostles set churches up in a definite, specific, singular and particular way. And although I know such an assertion is not very popular I must nevertheless stick by it if only for the simple reason that it just happens to be true. Biblical truth, like any other truth, is indeed a stubborn thing, and it never ultimately goes away or can be credibly gainsaid. I therefore challenge the monolithic thinking amongst Christians concerning this subject which doesn’t appear to want to let the Bible stand in the way of what are considered to be good ideas about what churches ought to be like. I cannot for the life of me see any basis or authority for the virtually unquestioned belief that it’s all right for us to do things differently from the teachings of the apostles. It ultimately comes down to the simple fact that if churches are to function in the way the New Testament shows us that they did whilst the teaching of the apostles, and not someone else, prevailed, then being house based is, quite inescapably, the optimum and absolute ideal. It is simply what we find New Testament churches doing in every instance of individual and specific ones being actually located.

I think it is worth noting too, and this is an historical point, that, at the time of Jesus, people’s religious lives were universally centred round specially consecrated buildings. This was true of both Jews and Gentiles. And it is fascinating to then discover that an exception to this rule came on the scene in the shape of Christian believers, those strange people who followed a carpenter Who claimed that He was God become man. They alone, of all the spiritual persuasions of the day touting for people’s religious allegiance, had no public buildings in which to meet for their gatherings. There was not one good reason in the entire world why they shouldn’t have had temples, or sanctuaries, or shrines like everybody else – but they didn’t! Persecution was, for the most part, sporadic, and they had every opportunity to do what was, for everyone else – and for them too before becoming believers – the most natural thing in the world: that is, setting aside specially consecrated buildings, however simple and humble, for their corporate gatherings and worship.

But they didn’t! Why not? Because they had been taught by the apostles that meeting in each others homes was actually what Jesus wanted them to do. Far from this being merely out of some kind of necessity until some later time when changes could be made, it was the actual Divine intention all along. Indeed, history tells us that they were thought by some to be atheists precisely for the reason that they had no special buildings in which their god lived.

So we see that the apostles established churches to be quite specifically located in people’s houses. And far from being merely some accident of history this was actually a part of the apostolic (and therefore biblical) blueprint. Paul emphasises in his writings that apostolic tradition, as passed on to the churches by them, was from Jesus Himself and therefore binding as the command of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14v36-38) So why, therefore, would anyone want to do things differently? Yet sadly, and as early as the first century too, church leaders came on the scene who for whatever reason did want to do things differently to the apostles; and to this day the Church of Jesus Christ still hasn’t corrected their mistakes.

And this, of course, is the real problem! When the vast majority of churches come together on Sundays they are fashioning themselves and functioning, albeit with an almost infinite number of variations, according to the teachings of those pesky old ‘Early Church Father’ fellows (the ones who were responsible for making the changes) and not according to the New Testament at all. And the contrast is nothing short of amazing. Existing churches aren’t just different from the New Testament ones, they are virtually the opposite. Think about it! The Bible shows us believers coming together as churches in people’s houses on the Lord’s Day for open and spontaneous worship and sharing together. This involved all present being free to bring teachings, and prayers, and worship songs and revelations and the like (1 Corinthians 14v26, 31) without any need whatever for someone to lead proceedings from the front. (Remember, when a church meets in someone’s lounge there isn’t even a front to lead from. Further, they ate a meal together! Indeed, the very Lord’s Meal! And that, as you know full well, is what the Greek in the passage about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 literally refers to, the main meal of the day towards evening!)

So what do churches do instead? They meet on Sundays (at least we’re still getting something right!!!) with those present sitting in rows, attending a service, in a public building (whether ‘sacred’ or not), led from the front by someone who is paid to do it as their job. Further, contrast a leadership of plural, co-equal and locally grown raised up recognised elders, such as we universally see in the New Testament churches with an imported, professional, ‘one man pastor, or priest’ type leadership, and one begins to see, should one be sufficiently prepared to be honest about it, just how contradictory to the Bible’s teachings our churches and church practices actually are. In such a setting the notion of a shared main meal, to say nothing of each person being free to participate with no need of anyone presiding from the front, becomes little more than nonsensical. Indeed, we here have the reason why the Lord’s Supper was eventually jettisoned by the Fathers’ in favour of ritualistic bread and wine services: because it just didn’t fit in any more with the hierarchical priestly leadership and worship services which they introduced into the life of the Christian churches.

So we see in the New Testament that churches were house based precisely because of what was supposed to happen when those believers who comprised them came together. After all, what better setting could there possibly be for a gathering of people who are engaged in open and participatory sharing and worship and the eating of a meal together? And of course no-one who really knows their biblical stuff would even dream of challenging me that such was indeed the blueprint upon which churches were shaped and formed in accordance with the teaching and practical care of the apostles in New Testament times. As you are perfectly aware, I could quote volumes from the very best evangelical biblical scholars of our time, all confirming everything I am saying concerning what churches were like as planted by both the apostles and those who adhered to their teaching and practices. This is no mere slant or subjective personal biblical interpretation on my part. It is, as anyone researching the biblical scholars and historians will have confirmed to them, simply what New Testament churches were like. So how then, my old and good friend, can you possibly go on to liken what I teach and practise in this regard as, “…the virus of legalism creeping it’s way into the bloodstream of even undoubtedly godly communities of Christians”? How on earth do you conclude that my contention that we ought to establish churches today in the same way the apostles did in New Testament times is “…a legalistic bondage.”? On what possible basis do you consider that this must therefore be, “…the pride of self-assertiveness hidden behind supposed concerns for the truth.”?

My own understanding of the error of legalism, and do correct me if I am wrong, is that it is the imposition of teachings and practises on believers that cannot be established from the Word of God. If the equal and opposite error of licence can be said to be the enforcing of too little of what scripture does teach, then legalism would, contrariwise, be the enforcing of that which it doesn’t – and in what possible way am I doing that? Biblical scholars of all shades are in agreement that the New Testament churches did indeed meet in the way I am describing it. (It is, after all, a simple matter of the narrative history of certain biblical passages.) And all I am advocating is that we do things in accordance with the teaching and practice as handed down from Jesus and the apostles, rather than going along with what the Early Church Fathers later replaced it all with. And whereas I fully understand that any one of us can assert what is actually biblical and true in a proud and sinful manner (and may God forgive me if that is what I am doing), is it not also the case that it must, by very definition, be both prideful and arrogant for believers to assume that they can better the Lord’s ideas and teachings by doing things other than scripture teaches? Come now, my dear friend, be honest! Just who is being proud here? Is it those who submit to the scriptures, or those who think they have a better alternative way of doing things?

Let me put this question to you (and I give you fair warning that I’m going to bowl you a real bouncer here, so get ready to duck!): Why do you believe in, and practice, believers baptism in water, as opposed to baptism for just anyone, whether believers or not – and even babies – by, let’s say, sprinkling them with a nice (though well cooled) cup of tea? And your answer would, of course, be that it is because baptism of believers in water is what we unfailingly see in the pages of the New Testament! What’s more, there is not one single chapter and verse command that such is the only way to do it. There is chapter and verse command to actually do it, but there is no command whatever regarding the use of water for doing it. Further, there is no verse which commands that babies must not be baptised – but could that fact persuade you as to the efficacy of infant baptism? And the answer is no, of course not! It is simply that believers being baptised by water is what see happen in the pages of scripture every time it does happen, and there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the Lord planned to make changes to concerning it at some later date. Now I obviously don’t expect to ever come across people who change the water bit and use cups of tea instead, but traditionally millions of believers have, and still do, change just about everything else about it. But you are a Baptist, and I know you take the Bible more seriously than to subscribe to such things as the baptism of infants or of unregenerate ‘church members’. So here comes my challenge old boy, and I absolutely insist that you think it through carefully, and that you be very careful to answer honestly and dispassionately.

Why don’t you start going along with the practice of infant baptism and start agreeing with, and supporting, those who do it? Is it not right and good that some people baptise babies? What is the problem with them so doing? Who are you to say it isn’t what the Lord wants? Are you not being legalistic and putting people into bondage by insisting that there is one way, and one way only, for baptism to be done? Could not your settled conviction that we should only baptise in the way in which we see the New Testament believers doing be “…the virus of legalism finding its way into the bloodstream of even undoubtedly godly communities of Christians.”? On what basis can you assure me that your belief and practise in this regard isn’t merely, “…the pride of self-assertiveness hidden behind supposed concerns for the truth.”?

Now I am fully aware that your response to this onslaught from me would simply be by asserting that the New Testament shows us clearly how the early church baptised, and that we ought therefore to do it the way the apostles taught and not according to any other teaching – including that of the Early Church Fathers! (After all, where on earth do people think infant baptism came from in the first place? From those pesky old Early Church Father fellows again, that’s where!) And of course I would agree with you one hundred per cent because such is as correct an assertion as there could possibly be! So how is what I’m saying about church life and practice any different from the baptism scenario?

As a Baptist you are fully aware that the biblical practice of baptism was not merely changed by the Early Church Fathers, it was completely perverted, and I know that you would vigorously stand for, and defend, biblical baptism – as well you should! Yet in exactly the same way that infant baptism is a complete misunderstanding, to say nothing of a complete mockery, of true and genuine baptism as taught in the New Testament, then so too is the way churches are set up and function. The church structures, setups and practices I am challenging are as unbiblical as infant baptism, whilst the way I advocate that church ought to be done is, conversely, as biblical as believers’ baptism. And in exactly the same way that you might call upon someone who believes in infant baptism to justify what he believes about it, I challenge you to do likewise concerning how churches ought to be set up and function.

Well, I’m just about done now, but before I finish let me reassure you concerning the very last point you made in your letter. I know you were horrified to discover that there are believers in America who are also doing what I have been banging on about concerning church life, but I don’t see how that can, in itself, be, “…the final proof that all this house church stuff is some kind of satanic deception.”, as you put it. As you well know, I was teaching and practicing all this long before I became aware that others were doing the same thing across the Atlantic, and you know too that I came to believe what I do about all this simply from my own reading of the Bible and not from anyone else. And you know I really do think that this phobia of yours concerning all things American really does go too far sometimes. I am, of course, perfectly aware, as an Englishman, that the very worst of most things do tend to originate there, including a lot of supposedly Christian things too; but a country that gave the world ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘Star Trek’ can’t be all bad now, can it? And having spent quite a bit of time now amongst biblical churches all over the US I can personally witness as to just what a fine bunch of Christian folk they actually are. You’re going to just have to stop moping over the fact that they won their War of Independence and that they aren’t our colonies any more and that we’re never going to get those taxes! And yes, I know they came into World War II a bit late as well, but do just try and put it all behind you. Remember, they still make the best milkshakes in the world, and that goes a very long way with me!

Well, it’s time for me to go my old friend! I look forward to hearing back from you and will be expecting to face some tough bowling myself in your reply. Do send my love to dear Martha and don’t overdo things in the garden like you did last year. I must say that your roses are as beautiful as ever, so don’t risk spoiling it all by doing your back in again and ending up in bed for a week.

Take care and God bless,

in Him,