Church as Meetinghouse
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men (Acts 7:48).
The modern house church movement is not a new fad. It had its genesis in the New Testament period, when believers gathered in homes for Christian meetings. The house church emerged as a companion of the Jewish synagogue. A follower of Jesus would open his or her home for teaching, fellowship, and prayer – much after the pattern of the synagogue. As time passed, however, church buildings were erected, and these became more elaborate with each succeeding period. These structures soon came to be called “the Lord’s houses,” and church buildings became more and more like temples than simple places of gathering.
There is a great deal of diversity today in the way Christians view “church,” but it is probably true to say that most see church as something they go to rather than something they are. This is why it is overwhelmingly important to recover the New Testament perspective. As Stephen reminded his Jewish audience (Acts 7:48), the God of Jesus’ followers does not live in houses made with human hands. Of course, this unpopular message got the messenger killed!
The root problem, as I see it, is not a physical structure. It is this: We are in danger of exalting a building to such a position that it dominates the life of the church. The church is people, not an edifice. Whatever physical plants we utilize are to be mobilized to assist believers to be successful in two simple agendas: to minister, and to multiply. God’s desire for His church is to have His people equipped and living out their Christianity in such a way that they can make His love and grace known to a broken and hurting world.
It is this confusion about function, then, that I think could use a healthy corrective. I am thankful for the Reformers’ recovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Jesus alone, but I wish they had taken their reforms further ecclesiologically. For example, by and large the Reformers simply “took over” Catholic church buildings and used them without further ado. It was left to the Anabaptists to return to the idea of a simple home for their meetings. They were, in fact, prepared to make a radical break with traditional ecclesiology. When eventually they grew to the point of erecting their own buildings, their simple meetinghouses reflected a theological perspective disavowing any concept of the buildings being “dwelling places of God.” This was indeed a radical way of seeing “church.” It is neither a building nor an institution, they said. Rather, the church is a community of disciple-making disciples.
This idea was not lost when Christianity came to the New World. The cornerstone of the first Baptist church on American soil, in Providence, Rhode Island, bears the word “Meetinghouse.” George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, popularized the term based on his understanding of the New Testament. In his journal he wrote:
At another time it was opened in me that God, who made the world, did not dwell in temples made with hands. This, at first, seemed a strange word, because both priests and people used to call their temples or churches dreadful places, holy ground, and the temples of God. But the Lord shewed me, so that I did see clearly, that He did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people’s hearts: for both Stephen and the apostle Paul bore testimony, that He did not dwell in temples made with hands, not even in that which He had once commanded to be built, since He put an end to it; but that His people were His temple, and He dwelt in them (The Journal of George Fox [London: Dent & Sons, 1924] p. 7).
For George Fox and others like him today, the central problem with church buildings is the lingering doctrine of “the Lord’s House.” 1 Cor. 6:19 reminds us that the only temple God knows today is His people. Why, then, should a church commit one-third of its income toward amortization? Why should a church set up a fountain on its lawn to bubble water around? Why should a “sanctuary” be too “sacred” to use for a fellowship meal? Our meetinghouses should be utilitarian, not ostentatious. They should be servants, not shrines; ministers, not masters. Ecclesia is the people of God.
Perhaps the most famous quotation in Baptist history is William Carey’s unforgettable statement: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Those words, uttered in 1792, were used by God to launch the modern missionary movement. As Christians who are carrying on the task of world evangelism, let us remind ourselves that the Body of Christ is essentially a living organism that exists in concrete and visible community, not in concrete and mortar. As an organism it is alive – pulsating with life, vital, active, warm. It is nothing less than the person of Christ Himself in the life of the Christian community.
Is your church and mine such a church as this?
February 25, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.