Many believe that we should follow the NT teaching about how the church is to be structured in a highly literalistic sense. It is not any wonder that many Pre-Millennial advocates are trending towards this direction. The often highly-literalistic sense with which the scripture is read is consistent with their methodology. These proponents believe that a more “organic” church model is what is best (good luck trying to understand “organic”) and that churches should be highly localized cell-groups (a.k.a., the Home Church). They argue this based upon the fact that this was the model of the early church.
A presupposition of this mindset is an idealization of the “Early Church”. That is to say, that if things are brought back to the “Early Church” model then church has a higher probability of functioning healthier. Never mind that this is a “model”, which might very well be the latest spinoff of the well known and loathed “business-as-church” approach. Methodology has been the central components of what drive these movements, not necessity (I will explain what I mean by “necessity” in a moment). What may very well be driving this movement is the very same thing that drove the previous movements: success – though, albeit, in a healthier model. What seems to be motivating much of the current discussion around the Cell-Group model is its affinity with the Early Church. The Early Church functioned as an efficient mode of worship, evangelism, teaching, preaching, encouragement, exhortation, need-meeting, etc., and is what is understood to be used in the NT. But I believe there is something that can very easily undercut any notion that this should be “The Model” to be used for church.
The very fact that we have New Testament Epistles should argue and show that even this Cell-Group model has its pitfalls and dangers. In fact, the Cell-Group model itself could not prevent any of the disasters that plagued the Church in its infancy and we should not expect the Cell-Group model to prevent any of these disasters today. 1 Corinthians and the Epistles contained within Revelation (i.e., the letters to the 7 churches) should demonstrate that church government/structure has about as much efficacy in preventing false-teaching, apostasy and sin from entering the church as setting up a chain-link fence around a military base in enemy territory. Not to downplay the strengths of such an approach to church structuring. But I do believe we mustn’t be naive about how we approach church, thinking that, “Well that’s how they did it in the bible, so that’s how we should do it.”
Behind every church structuring and ordering their lies people. The problem that has plagued our generation in church governing is not its structure. The problem that has plagued our generation is those who have been appointed. If there is a weak church, I dare suspect that it is not due to an insufficiency in programs or structuring (though I mustn’t commit the same fallacy in the opposite direction, of saying structure is irrelevant). The majority of the time (not always) poor church praxis is often attributable to those who rule in the church. Poor leadership in the Pastoral, Elder, Clergy or any other type for that matter will inevitably result in an unhealthy church dynamic. Poor leadership will often result in many of the dilemmas that the modern church faces.
Early I stated that what drives much of the movements we see is methodology, not necessity. The mentality is that if something fails, then what needs change is the method in which things are done. People aren’t being reached? New method. Needs aren’t being met? New method. Poor teaching? New method. Lack of involvement in church? New method. How this methodology/necessity contrast plays out is that what must be seen is that the environments in the NT for church, i.e., Home Churches, were created out of necessity. It was not after long, deep reflection on the failure of the Sanhedrin and Temple to facilitate and meet the needs of the people that the Christian church reacted and the “Home Church Movement” grew. I believe this is a failure to understand the context and situation of what was really occurring in the conception of the church.
There are 3 primary factors that I believe led to the Home Church “model” (if that’s what you would like to call it). I have not done sustained reflection on this in the NT, so these may very well be naive as well, but I believe there is some validity to the arguments.
1) Rapid Growth: one of the primary markers of the early Christian church is its explosion onto the scene. Within a matter of decades, Christianity became one of the dominate and influential religions in the Roman Empire. From a miniscule origin in the corner of one of the greatest world-superpowers that have ever existed, the Christian faith spread from Jerusalem to Rome in a matter of 3 decades. This is unheard of in history. Never at such a pace has any ideology taken root and influenced such a vast area, especially given the hostility towards its advancement (see point 3). Christianity explosion can be see in that it began affecting entire economies within its second decade (see Acts 19:23ff). Because of this rapid growth, there had to be some way of meeting together and facilitating what was occurring. This growth was occurring across national, cultural, economic, and social boundaries. In order to best facilitate this growth, cell-groups (home churches) were the best mode of managing this growth. A home church could be multiplied at unhindered rates, expanding into other homes in the nearby area, not limited by static buildings which could be outgrown within a few years. The difficulty posed by obtaining a static building was apparent in the persecution (point 3) and also in that such an action would be difficult in itself to accomplish in the Roman world (point 2). Having church at a house was a necessary move, not a “strategic” or “methodological” move.
2) Location: What one must consider is that the environment of the 1st century church was not the same of the 21st century. Many do not consider that during this time, the ability to obtain a meeting location such as a building solely dedicated to a church was not as simple as it is today. This is, I believe, a common oversight in our modern situation. We fail to consider that many, if not all, of 1st century Christians were converts. That is to say, they had a previous location of worship, often in a pagan temple, but now they were left without a “place” to worship, or at least a central location. If there was no place built for people to go worship, then they naturally would have to meet in homes. Building a church building was not as simple as raising funds and hiring a contractor. Nor was it as simple as renting out a school or hotel building. Either you worshipped in the fields or you went to someone’s house, often one of the wealthier converts (cf. Lydia or Aquila and Priscilla). Location of church establishments in homes was done out of necessity, not because it was necessarily the best way to meet peoples spiritual and physical needs. People needed a place to meet and since they couldn’t meet in public places (because there were none) they met in homes. Again, having churches in homes was done out of necessity, not a “strategic” or “methodological” move.
3) Persecution: I do not need to give examples of this from scripture. Just read the NT and you will see that the early church, from the moment of conception, was persecuted. Because of this persecution, public meeting was dangerous and even deadly. Christianity was often perceived and condemned for being anti-Caesar/Rome and even atheistic (because they did not acknowledge the Roman gods or other gods). Public meeting, at least in a fashion similar to what may be done at a pagan temple, could be considered as a subversion of Roman authority, since Christianity proclaims a different King than Caesar, a different Kingdom than Rome, and even a different Law. Meeting in homes was a necessary move in order to minimize persecution. Open and public meeting often led to scattering and dissemination of the church, so Home Churches were established out of necessity. This was not always the case and not every location was hostile to Christianity, but by and large, this is what I believe to be the primary reason that Home Churches were established.
These are just a few reasons of the necessity for the early church meeting in home churches. There is no evidence for long reflection on Church methodology (insofar as we may attribute modern structuring methodology). Instead, we see basic elements of structuring and organization in the NT, but little, if any beyond that. The discussion upon whether Acts is normative or not misses the point. To read Acts as a model for doing church misreads Acts. If we are to look for church-structuring, we are better off reading Paul who outlines and discusses church matters in much more detail.
There are other things that are frequently neglected as well when considering the early church. Not all of the meetings were Home Churches. In fact, one may argue that the church in Jerusalem was much more like a 3rd or 4th century “high-church” structure, based upon scriptural evidence, than a home church. The Home-Church structure was not the only model in existence at the time of the writing of the NT. This is an often overlooked fact.
A second consideration is one much more inconspicuous. It has to do with fundamental dynamics of human relationships. Society and human interaction is often structured and organized hierarchically. This is due in part from the fall. Unless there is a clear structure of organization and authority, sin is able to run unabated. Clear (though not necessarily complex) structure, organization and authority is part of how God has designed the world and is stamped upon not only how natural creation has been made, but also is central to human interaction. Government is not simply a product of the fall, but is part of human nature. The fact that there will be a City in the end should argue that, even in heaven, there will be clear delegation of authority and structure.