We have a bumpy start to our little house fellowship. We grew from 7 to 3 in four meetings. One brother has been working and I do not know if he will join us when his plant outage is over. One couple who started with us and enthusiastically cheered the effort discovered that being malcontented and domineering is not getting them what they wanted and they have quietly found other entertainments. Still another couple is so wrapped up in certain teaching that we just would not come around to that they have politely checked out too.
Meanwhile, we keep praying, preparing, cooking, making ready and inviting. An elder brother has now been with us for four of five meetings and last week it was only him, my wife and me. It was rich. Yesterday, the two couples mentioned earlier begged off and my wife and I looked to each other and said....go to the highways and hedges and compel them to come. So, I called a couple who, in my mind as we started all this, were the prototype of the people God had placed in our hearts. Relieved, really, that the four folks who were not to come did not. The husband answered the phone, a tortured soul with many mental health and emotional issues. Before we finished talking, I had prayed for a sudden medical problem of his that ....wisely....prevented his attendance. Five minutes later his wife called and said " I will be there." She came.
So, my wife, me, the elder brother and my friend (minus her husband) sat for two hours, shared a meal, shared all sorts of Scripture, encouraged one another, encouraged the absent husband, prayed for each other ....even the friend, whose life in Christ is nascent and raw but He is clearly working in her.... and we shared communion.
It was everything and more that we have sought God for and what we have obeyed Him to do and be.
I had prepared what follows below two weeks ago to address the tone that had developed so soon among us. As it seems for now, the need for it has subsided. But, we have committed to this which God has called us to be and do, and we do not intend to rest short of His accomplishment of what He has put in our hearts.
My point in sharing this is that we cannot afford to sling arrows at whoever is not our enemy. Soon enough, some of those whom we find distastefully and even repugnantly worldly within the "organized church" will be our partners and co laborers.
This earliest description of the meeting of the Holy Spirit filled followers of Jesus has historically served as the aspiration of the church when it is gathered together. Whether in large buildings, caves, huts, houses or storefronts, the church of Jesus meets wherever two or three are gathered in His Name with the joint purposes of fellowship, discipleship, and discerning truth. Matthew 18:20. Throughout the early ages, the most common expression of New Testament meetings was the small fellowship.
Teaching was a vital part of the fellowship/discipleship/discernment of truth in the initial church. It took on different forms. Certainly, there is no evidence of one person in front of an audience who singularly speaks for a long period followed by an altar call or call to action or other admonishment, then dismissal. The evidence is that more than one person taught, that the whole body assembled together for fellowship/discipleship/discernment of truth were encouraged and expected to – one person at a time – spontaneously but in order speak as the Holy Spirit spoke to them. The hearers would discern the truth and wisdom of the speech by prayer, searching Scriptures for support and application, and by discussion (and even debate) in love. But, teaching was indispensible.
The subject of the teaching was the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, we have so boiled down and distilled the gospel to a “plan of salvation” with cherry-picked verses designed to lead someone to a decision about whether to pray to be saved that we have omitted from “gospel” teaching the full weight of everything in the New Testament. It is true that salvation in Christ is “simple” – thankfully so! – but it is also true that the whole counsel of the whole word of God is necessary to mature believers and to most fully equip them for dynamic life in the Body of Christ. This requires teaching and – dare we say – preaching. The apostle Paul made no bones about the importance of it. Romans 10:14-15. See, also, Acts 20:7-12.
Households have been the front lines of the ever raging spiritual battle that is the kingdom of God. See, Matthew 11:12. Jesus would often shock people with miracles and teaching, not only in synagogues and in outdoor venues, but also in household contexts. Luke 14; Luke 7:36-50; Luke 10:38-42, for example. You will notice that Luke describes several of these household incidents and that he wrote Acts as well, with particular attention to the detail of God’s work through and in households.
When Jesus sent the twelve disciples out, He gave them specific instructions to approach houses. Matthew 10, Luke 9. In Luke 10, He re-commissioned a group of 70 (or 72, depending on the translation) and, again, sent them to houses.
It is not a coincidence that we see Jesus personally initiating the practice of His disciples, His sent laborers, entering households. When Jesus did so with the 12 and then the 70, He aimed at the “lost house of Israel”. In Acts 10, at the conversion of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit personally orchestrated that the gospel should first reach the Gentiles at the hands of Israel inside a Gentile household. In Acts 16, after the Holy Spirit called Paul and his companions into Macedonia (the first recorded mission into Europe), the first conversion Luke notes is of the woman who sold purple goods, Lydia “and her household”. Likewise, the Philippian jailer was converted in Acts 16, with his household, at the teaching of Paul to the jailer’s household following the miraculous release from chains again orchestrated by God.
The thrust of apostolic ministry in households in the New Testament was not only for fellowship, discipleship and discernment of truth, but momentously included evangelism and conversion. This instructs us about how the Holy Spirit is deliberate in using households as the front lines of expansion of the kingdom of God in the hearts of people.
We do not shrink from the public or household declaration of the Word of God. It is not necessary to abandon or even criticize the large, programmatic church gathering. So much of house meeting can be overtaken by unjust distinction between the house meeting and the large, programmed meeting. The New Testament church, as it reached deeply into households, is not seen criticizing the form of synagogue proclamation or study. Paul took advantage of it, as a matter of fact. This tells us that the larger forms of gathering are not the enemy of the gospel.
But, the fact is, most people who are now not “regular attenders” of the larger meetings in church buildings are simply not going to start going to them. The statement is made that if church-goers would only invite non-church-goers, more non-church-goers would go to church. That is undeniable. Any event is more likely to be better attended as people are personally invited to attend by folks they know. However, for all of the innovation that church-building operators have introduced, church attendance nationwide continues to decline as a percentage of the population. Innovative forms of meeting, like “praise and worship” bands, casual dress, theatrical lighting and production, and the ever-present power point displays in lieu of hymnals and bibles, are generally successful only in luring large numbers of people from more traditional forms of meeting places and are not particularly more successful in converting the lost or in maturing believers in the Way of Jesus. So, “church building” based meetings are not the enemy of the gospel, but they do not have a particularly biblical impact on the lost or on the saved as opposed to any other form of meeting.
The temptation is to indict the church as an organized, large, centralized yet ineffective entity. If the indictment were even true, the believers who are not married to that form have no cause to issue the accusation. Jesus said of one who would decline or delay following Him in truth in order to bury a dead loved one, “Let the dead bury their dead.” The explicit teaching of Jesus here is to follow Him, period. Spending any effort, time, energy, emotion or anything else in critique of the larger “church building” form or format is a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal and is not part of the voice of the church that is clearly calling Christians to spiritual battle. In short, criticizing the “come and see” model of the larger church-building based gathering is wasteful of the time we have, it can needlessly harm people we love and share the kingdom with, and it is disobedient to the singleness of vision that the Holy Spirit is calling His people to have in these days. No part of the body of Christ should have anything to prove to any other part in this regard. Just as the larger gatherings can be said to produce artificial unity, household gatherers can be baited into artificial holiness that is mere sanctimony. The fact is that God is still God, and He sets the members in the body as it pleases Him, and to argue against the larger gatherings or against household gatherings is to argue against God.
Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15.
The apostolic expectation and norm was household gatherings. The household gathering is full of vitality and life. There is warmth, there is acceptance, there is hospitality. Note the greetings in these verses. Note, again, the emphasis Paul places on biblical leadership of these gatherings as requiring “givenness to hospitality and aptness to teach.” 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8. Peter echoes this need of hospitality as an apostolic expectation. 1 Peter 4:8-10. Hospitality in households would be the only way that the writer of Hebrews could urge people NOT to neglect meeting. Hebrews 10:25.
This warm, intimate, gathering of people of God was prophetically announced in Malachi 3:16. It is stamped with the approval of God. Yet, it isn’t approved just because of its form. It is approved because the form enables the substance of what God is doing to actually happen in real time in the real world.
2 Tim. 2:24-26 is exemplary here. [Be kind to everyone; preparing and practicing on each other the sharing of this Word of life; putting up with each other’s shortcomings but building up each other where we are weak; freely opening our own selves up to repent, moving toward Him and away from ourselves, growing in knowledge of Him; freeing one another from the things that have snared us]. As the believers gather in joyful warmth and intimacy, in an environment of safety and welcome, we are expected to equip ourselves and each other for this kind of helpful accountability and up-building of one another. Real lives are being lost to Satan, and real body life in the church of Jesus includes all of us as being prepared for this kind of work.
What must we expect to find in the local household gathering of the body of Christ, then? Accountability to one another and to the Lord. Dynamic, not static, submission and leadership. Purpose and direction. Giftedness. Certainly other factors as well.
In China, for example, one brother notes that the gifts of the Spirit are and have been for years widely accepted and practiced, but there is no emphasis on particular gifts like tongues or prophesying. The mark is that the Holy Spirit is manifestly at work in an orderly way among them.
When the early church assembled – and when small gatherings like this one meet around the world – there was and is an expectation that Jesus would be present as Pastor/Shepherd and Teacher/Counselor and as Spirit-filler/Sender. That must be our expectation, our dependence. And, as we walk in the truth while separated from one another, proving the good and acceptable will of God by living in a process of being changed into the image of Jesus, whenever we meet in anticipation of Jesus with us, He does the works of God through us and with us.
We are familiar with 1 Cor. 12 and the gifts. But, this continued after the NT period. In the early second century AD, the writing “Shepherd of Hermas” says, “when the man who has the divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men, who have faith in the divine Spirit, and intercession is made to God by the gathering, then the messenger of the prophetic spirit, who attaches to one, fills the man, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude according to the Lord wills.” Irenaeus said about 80 years later, that people were being delivered from demon possession, saved and joining fellowships, others were gifted with foreknowledge prophecy, visions and prophetic utterances, healing by laying on of hands, and dead people actually being raised and living for many years. “It is impossible” he said “ to enumerate the gifts which throughout the world the church has received from God and in the name of Jesus Christ crucified ... every day puts to effectual use for the benefit of the heathen...”. Others, he wrote elsewhere, “many brethren ... possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men and declare the mysteries of God.” In the 4th and 5th centuries, Augustine of Hippo wrote “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ”. He wrote of personally seeing a man in Milan being healed of blindness.
Francis Chan alludes to this himself. He left his pastorate of a mega church and moved ultimately to SF and meets in a small gathering, goes out and witnesses to people in the Tenderloin district, and they train to reproduce these gatherings in the homes of people who are saved, and then they go out and win others, --- lather, rinse, repeat. He testifies that he prays for people and miraculous things happen to them and people are healed, people are miraculously saved. That’s in 21st century SF.
Jesus is here. Jesus is now. The church is the only body He has called to do His work in the world. The church is His all time plan, His end time plan. And, this is it.
This is what Jesus has called us to do, to be. This is why we meet. This is a small town in a rural place. There’s no urban swell here. But, there is a heavy lid of self- righteousness smothering the light of Jesus to the poor and unsaved. God has called my wife and me to these people who would never darken the doorstep of a church. It will require a gathering with Jesus to propel the gospel to these lost people. You live where you live. I can’t speak for what God is doing in you. But, I can tell you emphatically what He is doing in the world, and the burden is on any of us to say why He isn’t doing it where we live or why we ought not to walk this way. He is calling people to gather like this, to expect Him to be present, to build up, edify, exhort, empower, teach, account for each other and to equip each other and to send each other to the lost and repeat this process in the lives others until Jesus comes. He is working miraculously, and He is giving us the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that He may accomplish His will through us.
I’m urging us to come together with this in mind, with this expectation, with this hope and awareness and mission.