THE HOUSE CHURCH MOVEMENT
by Bob Wheeler
Biblical Church: A Challenge to Unscriptural Traditions
Bethany Publishing, 2007
279 pp., pb.
I had the privilege of meeting Beresford Job at a conference in New York State in 2013 – my copy of the book is autographed by the author! Beresford Job is an elder in a well-established house church in England, and his book is exactly what the subtitle says it is – a challenge to unscriptural traditions and practice. The main argument of the book is that most modern churches have departed from the practice of the apostolic church, and are spiritually impaired as a result. In order for the church to function as it was meant to, it must return to the apostolic example.
The book’s thesis
What we think of today as the traditional church, Beresford says, arose during the post-apostolic era. It concentrates ministry in the hands of a professional clergy, and features formal “worship services” in large public buildings specifically designed for the purpose. The congregants sit passively in pews while a sermon is delivered from a pulpit.
All of this, Beresford argues, is a departure from apostolic practice. The earliest Christians met informally in private homes where everyone contributed to the meeting, and the Lord’s Table was a part of a regular meal. The elders were simply spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation, not paid professionals brought in from the outside.
It is hard to argue with the main contention of the book. The highly institutionalized Christianity we know and accept today is utterly foreign to the New Testament. Yet at points I feel that Beresford is guilty of overstating his case, in some ways giving us a one-sided picture of what 1st Century church life was like, and downplaying passages that seem to run counter to his thesis.
House gatherings only?
For one thing, while it is certainly true that the early Christians met in private homes, and did not own church buildings per se, it is also true that there was a larger, more public aspect to church life as well. Of the church at Jerusalem, for example, it was said that they were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV). The entire church at Jerusalem numbered at least 3,000 souls (v. 41), and it was this larger church that “continued with one accord in the temple.” At the same time there were smaller groups that were “breaking bread from house to house.” On the one hand it was possible to speak of a church as embracing the entire Christian community in a given city – the church at Ephesus or the church at Corinth, for example; and at the same time to speak of the church that is in Priscilla and Aquila’s house (e.g., Rom. 16:3-5).
This may help explain the seeming contradiction between I Cor. 11:5, where Paul allows women to pray and prophesy, albeit with their heads covered, and I Cor. 14:34,35, where he does not permit them to speak at all. What Paul may have had in mind in Chapter 11 were the small house gatherings in the which the Lord’s Table was observed, while in Chapter 14 he may be discussing the larger public meetings when “the whole church comes together in one place” and unbelievers might come in (14:23). In that context not all of the participants may know each other personally, and appearances and gestures take on greater significance. Thus what might be appropriate in a smaller, intimate gathering might not be appropriate in a larger, more public one. Hence the restrictions on what women were permitted to do in Chapter 14. Ironically, Beresford takes Chapter 14 as the blueprint for how small home gatherings are to be conducted.
Prescriptive v. descriptive?
One of the problems with Beresford’s handling of the subject is that he does not distinguish between passages that are prescriptive and ones that are merely descriptive. He concludes for example, that because the early Christians met in private homes that modern churches must do so as well, and that therefore their size must necessarily be kept small, and no one should lead the meeting standing from the front. Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that I Corinthians 14 does indeed describe what went on in a typical house church on Sunday morning in which everyone is sharing, he then tries to argue that there should be no formal teaching time on such occasions. None of this, however, is explicitly required by any text of Scripture.
On the other hand it is certainly true that form follows function, and that what we are told in Scripture by way of precept is that spiritual gifts are distributed throughout the body, and that “the whole body . . . causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16), and to that end we should be “filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18,19). This would almost certainly require some form of small group interaction, and it is an undeniable fact that the way most traditional churches are structured stifles that kind of interaction.
Another problem area in Beresford’s book is his handling of the eldership. Beresford is perfectly willing to concede that a biblical church has elders – he recognized as one himself – but he insists that “any idea that elders are in charge, or hold a position of executive authority over the church, is alien to the pages of scripture” (p. 134). “The main default of biblical leadership . . . is that of invisibility as opposed to any kind of profile; and visitors to such a church would have no way of knowing who were and who were not elders” (p. 140). He then goes on to discuss a number of passages that seem to describe elders as ruling and people as submitting to their authority. He carefully analyzes the Greek verbs used and argues that they do not imply any kind of hierarchical authority.
His linguistic analysis is mainly correct. But when the passages he discusses are taken in their context a different picture emerges. The elders “labor among you” and “admonish you” (I Thess. 5:12). They “speak the word of God to you” (Heb. 13:7), and “watch out for your souls” (Heb. 13:17). Therefore we are to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thess. 5:13) and “counted worthy of double honor” (I Tim. 5:17). This hardly amounts to a “default position” of “invisibility”!
The fact of the matter is that one of the key tasks of the church is that of making disciples, and that involves older, more mature Christians taking less mature Christians under their wings, as it were, and instructing them. Therefore Paul could tell Timothy, “the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). While it is true that decision making in the church is by common consensus and church discipline is to be exercised by the entire congregation (Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:4,5), that does not mean that a church is free to do whatever it pleases. Its decision must conform to the will of God (as even the subtitle of Beresford’s book suggests!) and to that end spiritually mature and well-taught brethren who are recognized as elders play a key role.
The Lord’s Table
Another problem area in Beresford’s book is his treatment of the Lord’s Table. He criticizes traditional churches for making the Lord’s Table “merely a ritual with bread and wine” (p. 186). He points out, quite correctly, that the Greek word translated “supper” (deipnon) literally means exactly that – a supper, the main meal of the day (I Cor. 11:20,21), and concludes from this that the Lord’s Table should be observed as a part of full meal. He tells us that in the house church of which he is a member the fellowship meal is served buffet style, and that the broken bread and grape juice are simply laid out on the serving table with the rest of the food. But Beresford misses the main thrust of the passage. Paul’s whole concern in bringing up the subject is to correct certain abuses that had grown up around the meal, and he issues a stern warning against those who partake “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27), “not discerning the Lord’s body” (v. 29). Such a person, he says, “will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). Is it any wonder, then, that churches have this part of the Supper into what Beresford calls “a ritual performed in isolationist solemnity with closed eyes” (pp. 188-189)?
If the bread and the wine are to represent the body and blood of Christ, something must be said verbally to draw the connection between the sign or symbol and the thing signified. This is why it is important, when observing the Lord’s Table, to repeat the words of institution (“This is My body,” etc. . . ). Otherwise we run the risk of trivializing the ceremony.
Despite all of its flaws Beresford’s book is well worth reading. The fact that the book raises the question at all of how a church is supposed to function makes it worthy of our consideration. While Beresford challenges tradition (perhaps a reflection of his background in a country dominated by the Church of England) we have our share of problems over here on our side of the Atlantic as well, where good ole American pragmatism is the rule, and most Christians would never think to consult either Scripture or tradition – we are used to basing our practice on sheer expediency. We need to have our thinking challenged, and Beresford’s book does exactly that. It is a thunderbolt from across the sea.