I read an article yesterday written by a proponent of the house church movement and it stirred some thoughts I wanted to express. But first I need to clarify, that although my following comments may seem critical of the house church movement, they are not. I currently participate in a house church and find great value and validity for this form of “being the church.” Many of the critiques made by proponents of the house church about the institutional forms of church are valid and need to be addressed. I have experienced them firsthand and bear some scars from those experiences.
What I want to deal with, though, are some underlying assumptions of the what I read in the article and observe in many counter-movements like the house church movement and even in some quarters of the emerging church conversation.
1. There is an over-idealized view of the first-century church. In the article I read, there seems to be the assumption that if we can just get back to the way it was in the first-century, then a lot of our problems can be easily addressed. But when I read the New Testament and some of the original church fathers, the first-century communities seem to face similar problems that we face today — sexual brokenness, racism, greed, pride, lying, gossip, heretical theology, etc.
2. There is a low view of church history. Intimately connected with a hyper-idealized view of the first-century experience is a very low view of church history. I know this is oversimplified, but many modern critiques seem to imply that life in the first-century Christian community was wonderful and that almost immediately following the writing of the New Testament, the Church began a downward plummet. Invariably, the modern church’s problems are traced back to Constantine. To me this implies a couple of things. First, Christ wasn’t acting as the head of his body during large portions of the Church’s history since he obviously didn’t prevent his people from messing things up. Second, it ignores the majority of faithful Christ-followers who lived for Jesus and his mission in the daily details of life throughout the Church’s history.
3. There is a low view of the Bible mistaken as a high regard for the Bible. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this one since this is how I used to study and teach the Bible. When you approach the Bible as a receptacle of “timeless truths” that are to be extracted and applied, you actually undermine its richness and authority. That’s because you end up treating the Bible in a way it was never meant to be treated. The Bible is a grand narrative, not a rule book, an instruction manual or a systematic theology textbook. It is a Story. And we don’t live in the Old Testament parts of the Story. Jesus climaxed and redefined that portion of the Story in a fresh and unique way. And we are living two thousand years beyond where the New Testament portion of the Story ends. So implementing the renewed creation that Jesus inaugurated must be fresh and relevant for our time, our neighborhood, and our culture.
We’re like the trapeze artist who has launched from the trapeze of the written portion of the New Testament and straining for the trapeze of the renewed creation. Carried by the forward momentum of the first trapeze, we’re suspended in the air looking forward, anticipating and moving closer to second trapeze.
Attempting to extract “timeless truths” and blindly adhering to them is a recipe for disaster. It would be like suddenly turning around in mid-air, trying to grab the first trapeze that is swinging away from us only to miss the second trapeze swinging toward us. Likewise, attempting to go back to the first-century house church or to apply first-century principles may not be the best approach in our 21st century world.
The goal contained in the New Testament portion of the Story that catapults Jesus’ followers into the future is to create apprentices of Jesus (again, the climax of all that came before in the Old Testament) through whom God’s loving, caring, transforming re-creating rule is expressed into the world so that God’s creation is finally renewed through his renewed stewards. In the first-century, Paul chose a model that worked to accomplish this greater goal of forming Christ’s apprentices. In the following centuries, others explored different models with varying levels of success. In the 21st century, we must listen and learn from Jesus’ siblings throughout the Church’s history and then improvise not with “timeless truths” but with “timely wisdom” that has been saturated and fully shaped by God’s Story.
I am not saying there are no truths. But those truths are part of the Story, not above the Story. The Story is true. The characters and movements and twists and turns are true. And we apply the truths of the Story by ourselves being immersed and shaped by the Story, fully able to improvise and act out the continuing truth of the Story as empowered by God’s Spirit in our world.