The Beauty of House Church: Primitivism
This article is the fourth article in a series on house church. You can find the first article about my journey to house church here. The other articles in the series are about the communal nature of house church and the liturgy of house church.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, believers have often found themselves drawn back to the New Testament Church as depicted in the book of Acts and the epistles. The nature of church history is such that over time, various traditions and rituals accumulate on top of the original practices of the church. Therefore, at certain points in church history, believers will attempt to strip away those accumulated layers and return to the original essence of the church. This phenomenon is known as Christian primitivism, and this desire to return to the ancient ways almost always results in church renewal and revitalization.
Going Back to the Ancient Ways
In Howard A. Snyder’s study of renewal movements, he notes that they typically have a primitivist mindset and self-consciously pattern themselves on the New Testament Church.1 One notable example of this principle is Methodism. Through his encounter with Moravian Christians, John Wesley saw certain elements of the New Testament Church that were later incorporated into the Methodist revival. After Wesley’s heart-warming experience at Aldersgate, he visited Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf and the Christian community at Herrnhut.2 Even though Wesley had reservations about certain aspects of Moravian spirituality, the impact of New Testament ideals can certainly be seen in Wesley’s use of small group structures to promote intentional discipleship and spiritual growth. Combined with Wesley’s own studies of the Greek Scriptures and the Church Fathers, one can clearly see the spirit of Christian primitivism at work in the Methodist revival. One of the most notable theological examples of this principle is Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, which bears a strong similarity to the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis. Furthermore, the semi-monastic practices of the Oxford Holy Club, which later influenced the Methodist class meetings, bear strong similarities to the practices of the original Jerusalem church. Lastly, faithful members of those class meetings were given tickets that allowed them to attend the love feasts, a practice of the early church only briefly mentioned in Jude 1:12.
This primitivist spirit continues to work in various communities today and in many different cultural contexts. Even though renewal movements take different shapes, the inner logic remains the same: a return to the practices and structures of the New Testament Church. In Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways, he describes his own process of re-discovering what he calls the “Apostolic Genius.”3 Part of his re-discovery included the realization that many contemporary bodies of believers continue to practice a form of church very similar to the New Testament. He specifically notes the example of the underground church in China. This re-discovery of the “Apostolic Genius,” which is described in more detail in the book, led Hirsch to new and creative forms of worship, community, and ministry.
Today, Christians of all denominations are rethinking their ecclesiology and are drawing on the rich resources of the New Testament Church. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, a conservative institution not known for radical change, ideas of church are undergoing renewal. Avery Dulles, in the expanded edition of his classic work, Models of the Church, notes that he needed to add an additional model in the wake of Vatican II. Dulles calls this new model of the church the “community of disciples,” a model that draws quite heavily on the ministry of Jesus and the community of the first Christians.4
Meeting From House to House
A core text for Christian primitivism is Acts 2:41-47. This brief passage provides an important window into the life and practices of the original Jerusalem mother church. While there are many different denominations and branches of Christianity today, the Jerusalem church described in Acts 2:41-47 is the root of them all. When reading these verses, Christians today will note many similarities between their churches and the early church. Practices such as baptism, teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer are still universal and common. Of course, debates begin to emerge over the place of “wonders and signs” in today’s church.5 Upon reading further, most folks are struck by the radical generosity of the first Christians who “had all things in common.”6 This level of radical generosity seems much rarer today. Then, in Acts 2:46, readers will note a stark contrast between the structure of the church in the 1st century and the structure of the church in the 21st century. In the earliest days of the faith the first Christians, who were primarily ethnically Jewish, continued to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. At the same time, they also gathered “from house to house” for the purpose of breaking bread together.
In the Scriptures, whenever Christians gather to “break bread,” the implication is that they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper.7 Therefore, Acts 2:46 reveals to us the original context for Christian worship and fellowship– the home. From this perspective, it becomes quite clear that the church (ekklesia) is a community of disciples called out from the world and called into the table fellowship of Jesus. Sadly, the modern English usage of the word “church” conjures up images of buildings, majestic edifices, ornate architecture, and other brick-and-mortar structures. Even a brief and simple reading of the Scriptures, especially the book of Acts, will correct this misconception, though. The church is the family of God, Christian leaders are spiritual parents, Christian worship is table fellowship, and the first context for worship was the home.
House Church: A Place to Begin Again
Worshipping, praying, breaking bread, and fellowshipping in the home is a great way to begin to experience the spirit of the New Testament church. While by no means a magic silver bullet, house church is a great place to begin experiencing God’s renewal. House church creates a context where worship and table fellowship are integrally connected. When needs and concerns are more immediate and known, radical generosity becomes a greater reality. The environment itself naturally attracts Christians who are more intentional about their own faith and growth. Casual observers rarely last long in the house church context unless they become more committed believers. This then creates a situation where most members of the house church are growing as disciples and integrating spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, and Bible reading into their daily lives. At some point, you even begin to get a taste of what Luke means when he says, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”8 This verse seems like a pipedream in the context of the universal church today, but in the context of a house church there can begin to be a deep sense of oneness and unity.
All across the world today, more and more Christians are practicing some form of house church. Some of these churches meet exclusively in homes, while others practice a combination of large church gatherings and smaller house church gatherings. Some of these churches meet in homes out of necessity, while others meet in homes out of choice. Other churches that do not explicitly practice “house church” still strongly advocate small groups, cell groups, Bible studies, and other forms of intimate discipleship.9 In so doing, these widely different churches still tap into that primitive New Testament spirit that is always blowing through the church.
(1) Snyder, Howard A. Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 40-42, 54-55
(2) Ibid., 196-200
(3) Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 18-20
(4) Dulles, Avery Cardinal. Models of the Church: Expanded Edition (New York: Image, 2002), 195-203
(5) Acts 2:43
(6) Acts 2:44
(7) Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:23-24
(8) Acts 4:32
(9) Personally, I’m not legalistic about house church. I mostly just want to see Christians having intimate fellowship in homes and being more intentional about discipleship. You can call it whatever you want to call it.
Image from Steve Collis under Creative Commons use.