Housing Faith: Open Gatherings and Life’s Wisdom

From 1998 to 2008, I was heavily involved in intentional house church communities, even moving from Georgia to North Carolina to help ‘seed’ a church plant consisting primarily of a dozen collaborators from my undergrad alma mater, Berry College. (We even had a launch conference at Duke, and everything) Long story short, somewhere around 2008 our church began to disintegrate, and we’ve all moved on. Even so, much of the core DNA of ‘house church’ (also known as ‘organic church’ and ‘simple church’) remain with me. This week, I want to revisit some of this still-central resonance, which I think can be a gift to the larger community of faith as we’re navigating 21st-century changes.

I had a really long comment over at Andrew’s blog this past week, in response to a challenge from a friend of his. I thought might be worth revisiting here. Because I’m a big fan of getting people’s permission before quoting correspondence–even if its on a public blog or forum–I’ve changed her name to “Beth.” Here’s what ‘Beth’ said to Andrew:

Wow. Let me say that is seems you are personally very conflicted about your faith and beliefs. [LOL!! That’s Andrew. Mr. Conflict. : ) ] I am new to your blog, so perhaps you have ‘core’ beliefs that are stated elsewhere, but I didn’t see any mentioned in this post. Anyhow, your post seems to include many different views (of so many different things!), some your own, and others that you have come into contact with. I think you were attempting to be well-rounded and thorough, and yet you honestly missed much.

I feel like, after reading that post, that you’ve always lived on the other side of the earth and feel you’ve a good understanding of the whole earth. Yet I live on the other side and don’t recognize anything you’re talking about. I hope that makes sense. lol

I won’t make a long post in your comments here – this is your blog, but I do want to give you something to think about. Your view of a pastor and church seems very close to dictator (or royalty or czar), as opposed to a democracy. In order to establish this point, go back and re-read your second to last paragraph, with substitutions like this:

Robert Webber, who tirelessly worked to turn the consciousness of the contemporary government back towards the ancient government, brings this to light by point out the compartmentalized nature of elected leadership in the some of the countries where his students worked as public servants: “As the course proceeded, it became clear that…the various ministries of the country – worship, evangelism, discipleship, spiritual formation, and assimilation into the country (INS…lol) – were compartmentalized. In the larger countries each division of government was represented by a different public servant…A common complaint that emerged was that each elected official worked alone without a great deal of his or her division integrated with other government divisions in the country (Ancient-Future Evangelism, 18).” This observation speaks to me in two ways. First, it points out the weakness of a democratic system in which the burden of government is placed on one person or a small group of elected persons rather than shared by the entire country. Second, it illustrates that the current view of the elected official as a “professionally trained leader” has the effect of making what Viola calls “mutual ministry” a virtual impossibility because it assumes that only those who are trained in the latest techniques and theories of democracy should be allowed to serve those roles in any significant way in the country. Of course, these problems can be traced in various ways to the individualistic nature of contemporary North American and much of European culture that sees the individual as the primary unit of existence and is suspicious of community modes of leadership, even within the government”

It sounds silly, and it is. We as a country cannot all do each other’s jobs, and we cannot each do ALL jobs. Just because we have a pastor does not mean we have a dictatorship, but a democracy where we pay someone with special training to devote his time to running the church as an organization and helping us to meet our chosen goals. Just as we don’t let the neighbor kid do the taxes but find a professionally trained accountant. Doesn’t mean the accountant is better than us. LOL!

Ok. Sorry to carry on so long.

And here’s my response:

Hi Beth, I don’t believe we’ve met. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. May I push back on your pushing back? Before I do that, let me say that I love your idea of those set aside for a kind of ministry as wild-eyed and called by Jesus rather than a bunch of clerical bean counters. But then I have to ask…is seminary really the place that’s going to form you in this way? I mean, honestly? I think the kind of formation we receive determines in large part the kinds of people we become.

My second quibble is that I’m not sure that the folks Jesus called during his journeying years became “clergy” really, co-equal with ordinary joes or no. When you look at what they and others did, it seems more like itinerant apostle rather than week-in, week-out fixture. Peter or John or Paul would ride into a city, share Christ, help form Christ in local communities, and then (after a few weeks or months or even three years as in Ephesus) leave the church on its own to function. I don’t see this happening in any of our contemporary denominational churches…it’s just too risky!

Have you ever considered what kinds of communities of faith, hope and love Paul left behind? I know we tend to immediately jump to some “elders” passages in the New Testament and postulate that these folks must have been in charge after these wild itinerants left, but looking at some themes in said extra-locals’ letters to these communities paints a different picture, one of…well, let’s just see. (BTW Beth, I promise I’m not some bible-thumper; I just wrote a paper utilizing these passages so I have ‘em handy)

Be filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:18b-21)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (Colossians 3:16)

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (I Corinthians 14:26)

And it’s not just Paul who seemed to be asserting the competence of the Priesthood of All to be the Church.

As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things…abide in him. (1 John 2:27)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

This dovetails nicely with what Jesus himself seemed to instruct:

You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:13a)

Jesus called them to himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…’ (Matthew 20:25-27a)

To me, Jesus and his first-century apprentices were well-aware of a professionalized religious outlook, and consciously took steps to mitigate against it. Now, I’m no primitivist; I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock and pretend the past 1700 years never happened. There is much to glean from and celebrate about the Church through the ages. But if we can critically reflect on our history, and our “founding intent” as it were, can we not give primacy of place to the peculiar genius of Jesus and his earliest friends? I think they envisioned a sweeping social change, one that took God out of the hands of the experts and back into the hands of the people (“Liturgy,” interestingly enough, means “the work of the people!”). I think the prayers of Mary and Zechariah for social justice (in Luke) at the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ own taking of this mantle in preaching good news to the poor and prisoner, are meant to be realized in a radically egalitarian Church, a community of called-out ones for the blessing of the cosmos. We are to be a decentralized people with Christ as our only center. But how can we stand as a counter-witness to the principalities and powers if we’re structured in essentially the same way–that is, hierarchically, in a “power-over” way?

That’s what I’m pondering these days, and many others are too. I’ve been part of a clergy-less decentralized church movement (more commonly known as “house church”) for the better part of a decade now. And it works! Now, it ain’t all peaches and cream, don’t get me wrong–we have fundamentalists, we have politics and problems, we have to know and put up with each other really well–but I wouldn’t trade these problems for institutional problems, nosiree.

Okay, I feel like that could have come on strong. And you should know, Beth, that Andrew and I are friends and chatted about this alot. And I’ll tell you what I’ve told him: I’m glad you’re at Duke. Heck, I want to go to Duke! You have so many awesome professors; I’d love to learn New Testament from EP Sanders, ethics and subversion from Hauerwas, and many others! It could enhance me as a human being, friend of Jesus, and indeed, someone who’s given his life to the Church. But I carry no title, nor do I want to. If indeed such an education would give me “a greater responsibility to share your knowledge with others who do not possess the resources,” so be it. But I wouldn’t push it on my sisters and brothers, as though such specialized expertise were synonymous with spiritual “capital;” its but one form of intelligence (and hopefully wisdom) among many.

Pax Christi!

This was originally posted on October 19, 2007. 

Recommended House Church Reading:
(Even for those in more bricks-and-mortar and institutional settings, there are spiritual, relational/organizational, and theological treasures to be mined from a house church critique of organized religion and its proposed alternative. One need not be a fundamentalist or a primitivist to appreciate these insights. Here are some of the best works available.)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Housing Faith: Open Gatherings and Life’s Wisdom

  1. I think you, and Andrew, make some valid points. I think perhaps, however, you may be looking at this from the back end. While I acknowledge that there are pastors who do act as though they had some sort of ‘spiritual “capital,”‘ I see that as a fault of the individual, not the institution of priesthood. Yes, we are all called to priesthood in Christ, but with that comes individual responsibility. And that responsibility has changed a great deal since the days of the early church. For the modern listener/reader to truly understand what would have been more intuitive in the years of the early church requires study, or theology, which requires teachers. What is the role of a pastor, if not to be a rabbi, or teacher? Looking back at the Barth quote your friend Andrew posted, theology becomes something that is not the “private affair for pastors,” but instead something that pastors share with the rest of the community. The Apostles themselves filled this role of teaching. The fact that they did not stay in the communities they founded does not suggest that those communities did not need leadership. Indeed, they kept close tabs on the communities and corresponded with them. But the early Apostles also had the responsibility of spreading the word of God across the globe (something some modern pastors do as well!). I apologize for this being so long, but I would like to add one last point. In terms of theological training, you say in your last paragraph, ‘But I wouldn’t push it on my sisters and brothers, as though such specialized expertise were synonymous with spiritual “capital;”’ It’s important to remember that the teachings of a good pastor are not “pushed” on the congregation; congregations seek out the teachings of good pastors.