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.
The idea of a distinction between clergy and laity is one of those extrabiblical human inventions that needs to be challenged and possibly even abolished altogether in believing communities. If, as the Apostle Peter claims, Christians are truly a Royal Priesthood then it seems that the very presence of a distinction between professional clergy and believing laity robs the “average” believer of his responsibility and calling to ministry in a local assembly through the use of his or her Spiritual gifts. Now I am aware that history happens and that it would be almost impossible to completely abolish any sort of “priestly” caste throughout the entire church but I am hopeful that communities within the emerging church, house church & organic church “movement” will begin to challenge this paradigm that – in my view – has vested too much power in the so-called clergy, thereby placing the burden of pastoral ministry that should be shared by an entire community on one person or a small group of persons. This over-burdening has two effects: first, it makes effective and relational ministry in churches nearly impossible because one person simply cannot embody every spiritual gift identified by Paul as beneficial and necessary for a functional Christian community. Second, it relieves “ordinary” Christians of the pastoral duties that they are called to embody by encouraging the truthless claim that the role of “pastor” should be embodied only by a formally trained and supposedly more fully gifted group of “called” and “equipped” pastoral elites.
So says my friend and Duke seminarian Andrew Tatum in his blog today. Go here to read his entire thought-provoking post.
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.)
- Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity & Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities by Frank Viola
- Church Outside the Walls by Raj Samuel (on Kindle this week for $2.99!)
- An Army of Ordinary People: Stories of Real-Life Men and Women Simply Being the Church by Felicity Dale
- Christ in Y’all by Neil Carter
- Going to the Root: Nine Proposals for Radical Church Renewal by Christian Smith (now out of print; good luck finding it)
- The Pastor Has No Clothes, What’s With Paul and Women?, & No Will Of My Own: How Patriarchy Smothers Female Dignity & Personhood by Jon Zens
- The House Church Book: Rediscover the Dynamic, Organic, Relational, Viral Community Jesus Started by Wolfgang Simson
- The Community Life of God: Seeing the Godhead As the Model for All Relationships by Milt Rodriguez
- Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, The Church Comes Home, and Going to Church in the First Century by Robert Banks
- Christian Community: Biblical or Optional? by Hal Miller
- The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church & The Fall of Patriarchy: Its Broken Legacy Judged by Jesus & the Apostolic House Church Communities by Del Birkey
This was originally posted on October 16, 2007.
I’m afraid Andrew’s links no longer work (thank God for Archive.org!) He’s blogging here now. I’ll find out if he moved these particular posts.
I once read an entry in a Visitor’s Book in the hallway of a friend’s house: “Pastor David Rhimes” had been to visit. Why not just plain old “David Rhimes” I wondered?
Mr Rhimes obviously thought “Pastor” was his title rather than a function or gift. The words of the Lord Jesus came to mind:
“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.
I’ve changed the name to protect the guilty…
If the church is a community of priests, for whom is it interceding?
What a great story, Gccald!
Response to P.S.
Jesus is the high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, ever living to make intercession for us after the power of an endless life. By that priesthood he holds all things together, and energizes the establishment of the new creation, the kingdom of God on earth, through the transformation he is working by the power of his cross (eternal sacrifice) and the victory of his resurrection.
Our New Testament priesthood is a participation in his eternal priesthood. In short, we are interceding for everything and everyone that exists or could possible exist in his kingdom.
That’s pretty big–and plenty to keep us busy!
Response to Andrew Tatum:
Extremely well said, Andrew!
Your insight into this is very sharp, and accurate.
Here is a current example: I recently went on an Emmaus walk (sponsored by the United Methodist Church) and was greatly blessed by the abundant outpouring of love the whole time, and greatly angered and frustrated by the firmly entrenched distinction (reinforced by concrete and barbed wire, as it were) between “clergy” and “laity” at every turn.
In sharp contrast, I just returned from an impartation session by a modern charismatic apostle, where all the gifts of the Spirit (including tongues, healing, discernment, miracles, wisdom & knowledge) were freely flowing among a group of liberated and empowered saints with no titles or positions. Even the apostle does not have a formal title or paycheck, and the prophets and teachers were free to minister as led by the Spirit wherever their ministry was being received.
What a contrast! What a challenge!
I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide and teach you, and that He will show you in great depth and detail (as you grow) exactly what He wants you to do with the crystal clear insight He has given you by His grace.
Peace in Jesus,
Many greetings in Jesus name, you are doing great efforts for His Kingdom and glory. I am prayer that God give you more power and strength to keep up the great works. I see your website and know about your ability and knowledge, and your love for Jesus. Every line is very important. I impress your knowledge and experience. I want tell you information our mission
Faith. Hope. Ministry- base on Jesus education and spread Jesus message but we use different way.
Basically we are service the Jesus and social actives in backward areas. And struggle to develop thought of the peoples, not only social, economic development but also we change old thought just like magic believe and unnecessary old custom As cruel on women, human violence We give true education of mankind, trust about Jesus and Holy Spirit, we believe one day we will change the backward areas and everyway see peace and love and every one worships and prayers Jesus’
We are believe, love and only hope of Jesus but Jesus open many ways to incitation his mission and establish our courage. Jesus has selected you to proclaiming his name. And help the worries peoples. Please keep touch us in your prayer and helpfulness hand and you encourage to the ministry.
I resonate with house church movements. Some folks put Missio Dei into that camp, and (in a lot of ways) it fits.
But there are a few big reasons why I stopped connecting with that movement:
1) There is a flatlander tendency among house church groups. Instead of seeing everyone as priests with unique and powerful callings, it is easy for everyone to be seen as laity. The exceptions I’ve seen to this have been among predominantly well-educated groups who were often academically formed by the very structures built by the institutional church.
2) Which leads me to number two. One of my friends is a huge proponent of the house church movement. But he’s also a seminary professor. I often find among house church folks an analysis that doesn’t extend beyond the walls of their house church. Which is ironic. If we decry an institutional church and, instead, want an understanding of church that is 24/7, then we have to challenge social hierarchies and priestliness wherever we find it. So, if you’re a house church advocate who is a seminary professor or a best-selling writer and speaker who is fundamentally paid to speak and write, then it is a bit dishonest to make a blanket dismissal of clergy.
3) There’s the language thing. When I’m among house church folks, I hear words like “institutional church” or “IC” thrown out as a blanket dismissal. It becomes assumed that such groups are bad but house churches are good. But that is way too simplistic. And I know there are nuanced house church folks out there, but the dominant rhetoric can be gross.
4) There can sometimes be a lack of organizational vision. I’m not saying that denominations are good things. But, again, if church is a 24/7 endeavor, then we need to start thinking along the lines of Peter Maurin who saw a vision of the Catholic Worker creating a new society in the shell of the old. There is a great deal of movement creativity that draws from democratic struggles that house church folks should learn from. And, for the most part, such wisdom hasn’t really factored in.
5) Discipleship. To me, the thing that denominations like the Mennonite Church USA have going for it is educational options from birth to death. The major thrust of Mennonite institutionalism is tied up in its colleges. And there is a lot of good about that. However, I personally believe that discipleship should be seen more as an apprenticeship. That’s what we’re going for at Missio Dei. And, to be honest, even though we are a live-in intentional community with a very high degree of participation, we haven’t even scratched the surface. House church folks need to grapple with what discipleship looks like if it doesn’t depend upon clerical institutions like seminaries or bible schools. If it does depend on them, then there needs to be some honesty about the arbitrary lines drawn in denouncing the clergy/laity distinction. If it doesn’t, then there needs to be organizational creativity that goes way beyond a weekly bible study.
I realize that my experience doesn’t speak to every iteration of house church. My point isn’t to dismiss the movement(s), but challenge some trends I’ve experienced among the house church advocates I know. And this isn’t to say that I’ve got any of this shit figured out…I don’t.
For those of you who are interested in exploring more of the kinds of questions Mark is raising, check out the discussion on the Christian Anarchists’ Group on Facebook. But once you’ve checked that out, leave your comments here so that everyone can play!
Thanks, Mike, for calling my attention back to what I wrote in 2007. For the record, I have continued to work as a paid staff member in churches since I wrote those words. I still believe much of what I said back then and I now view my primary work to be convincing people that not only are they gifted for ministry but that they can and must use their gifts in order to be fully functional members of the body of Christ. Do I feel any internal conflict over my “elite” role as a paid member of a religious community? Perhaps. But mostly, I hope for a day when people will take up the work that is already theirs. I continue to see a place for paid “professional” ministers — especially those who take up the work of preaching, pastoral counseling, and chaplaincy. But I do always strive to “give away” ministry work that it is assumed that I should take up on my own. I still believe, as I have said before, that pastors ought to be people who constantly search for ways to work themselves out of a job.
Andrew, I must say that I concur with what you have written and especially this portion –
“I do always strive to “give away” ministry work that it is assumed that I should take up on my own. I still believe, as I have said before, that pastors ought to be people who constantly search for ways to work themselves out of a job.”
I’m curious to hear your thoughts about why your house church “began to disintegrate” and what everyone “moved on to”.
Hi John – great question! And I will be blogging on why we began to disintegrate (in my perception at least); as for where we went, the shortest answer to that is that many of us have scattered, geographically (to places as diverse as Portland and Kansas City and Alabama and Chile), and we scattered spiritually as well. Some returned to their Roman Catholic roots, others are house churching in different contexts, still others are agnostic or Buddhist. As for my family, we’re part of a small church called Trinity’s Place, which I think has many ‘organic’ features – open, participatory gatherings, no paid ministry, et al. But we’re also a liturgical and eucharistic community – breaking bread together each gathering is a huge value for us, and we track with the lectionary readings of the week.
Hey Mike, thanks for posting this. You know how much I agree. We have been relational housechurching and planting for 30 years now.
My blog is about Jesus, church and life in general. My current blog addresses Acts Chapter 6 and how the Apostles may have been very wrong by separating themselves from servant ministry.
Christopher “Captain” Kirk
Chris! There you are old friend! Let’s get back in touch!
If the Church (ekklesia) is the family of God, then the church (institution) is a drop-off childcare center for parents who have other priorities.
Paid childcare workers are a poor substitute for real parents.