Some Christians put entirely too much emphasis on church buildings. Objecting to this false veneration of buildings, Bernard of Clairvaux is reported to have written, “I will not dwell upon the vast height of their churches, their unconscionable length, their preposterous breadth, their richly polished paneling. . .Your candlesticks as tall as trees, great masses of bronze of exquisite workmanship, dazzling with their precious stones . . . what, think you, is the purpose of all this? O vanity of vanities — no, insanity rather than vanities!”[1]

We should question when inordinate amounts of revenue go into purchasing and maintaining church buildings, revenue that could be better spent on missions at home and abroad. It is interesting that there is an absence of any instruction in the New Testament regarding the construction of special buildings for worship. This is in contrast to Old Covenant Mosaic legislation, which contained very specific blueprints regarding the tabernacle.  When the New Covenant writers did touch upon this subject, they pointed out that believers themselves are the temple of the Holy Spirit, living stones that come together to make up a spiritual house with Jesus Christ as the chief corner stone (1Pe 2:4-5,  Ep 2:19-22, 1Co 3:16, 6:19).

Churches met in private Roman villas until around the time Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313. After that the construction of large church buildings began in earnest. Pagan temples became huge Christian places of worship (such as happened with the Pantheon in Rome). Worst yet, Christians began to treat their new church buildings with the same reverence that the Hebrews had treated the Jerusalem tabernacle. For example, there were no toilets in early church buildings. The thought seems to have been that such facilities were incompatible with the holy nature of the building.[2]

Charles Spurgeon asked, “Does God need a house? He who made the heavens and the earth, does he dwell in temples made with hands? What crass ignorance this is! No house beneath the sky is more holy than the place where a Christian lives, and eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and praises the Lord in all that he does, and there is no worship more heavenly than that which is presented by holy families, devoted to the fear of the Lord.”[3] The real issue is thus not where a church meets, but where and how it can best do what God requires of it.

Many forward thinkers suspect the church in the West is headed for a relation to civil government similar to that existing today in China or Iran where the church has largely been driven underground. As liberal, secularized, progressive Democrat administrations continue to get elected, church teachings against homosexuality will be increasingly portrayed as intolerant hate speech.  Christians will be painted by the godless media and atheist government as backwards, close minded, right wing bigots. The tax exempt status of many churches and Christian schools will likely be revoked as government legislation prioritizes sexual freedom over religious rights.  It is proverbial that the power to tax is the power to destroy. In times of persecution, meeting in private homes becomes an increasingly attractive option.

Vernon McGee predicted, “As the church started in the home, it is going to come back to the home.”[4] Given the right circumstances, a private home can still be the ideal setting for a church meeting. The smaller, homey setting fosters the genuine friendships. The Lord’s Supper celebrated as a holy meal in this relaxed, unhurried, comfortable setting helps build unity and love. Since a home is not big enough to accommodate a huge number of people, participatory worship wherein each person contributes according to his spiritual gift is much more intimate and meaningful. Using suitable private dwellings where possible is a good use of scarce financial resources. Since every member’s participation and ministry was highly valued and encouraged in the early church, a large home is still a good setting wherein every person can comfortably contribute and function for the edification of the whole body of Christ. House churches can be simple, wonderful, down-to-earth (yet touching heaven) expressions of new covenant church life.

The problem is that many modern homes are simply too small to hold enough believers to have the strength of a New Testament house church. Thus in modern Western house churches there often is no one qualified to serve as elder and no one gifted to teach. Lacking leadership, the house church becomes more of a “bless me” club. The fellowship is fantastic, the worship is wonderful and the kids have a good time playing together, but no significant discipleship takes place. Outreach is minimal. The congregation is so small there is no way a pastor or missionary could be supported. Even if a home is big enough to host a fair number of people, the Romans did not have to worry about where to park all the cars of the believers who arrived for church. Your neighbors will not be pleased if, every Lord’s Day, the streets around your house are choked with cars.[5] Many counties have passed zoning ordinances against churches in homes.

In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent).[6] Therefore the real emphasis should be on New Testament church practice in general, not simply meeting in homes. To function as effectively as the early church functioned, a church building’s size and layout should be carefully considered. Ideally it should have a homey feel, be designed to house a relatively small congregation and its seating arrangement flexible. Since eating together was a big part of early gatherings, it should have a food preparation area (sink, long counter top, refrigerator, etc.) and dining area. To help families with small children it should have a nursery and quality indoor and outdoor play areas. There should be plenty of parking for cars.

Houston Baptist University professor Peter Davids along with German Baptist pastor Siegfried Grossman, wrote, “The witness of the New Testament is clear: the living space of the church was the house. We judge the church-historical development to be a step backward from relationship to religion. Today a new desire for a face-to-face fellowship has broken out. For too long we have exclusively seen the formal church services as the center of the church and neglected our concrete life together in houses. We cannot slavishly imitate what took place earlier, but we should be challenged anew by this foundational structure of the church as a network of house churches. We see the following concrete challenges:

The church needs face to face fellowship.

The church dare not bracket out daily life from the life of the church.

The church needs structures through which the reality of concrete life can be encouraged.

The church must keep in balance the handing out of the word and the handing out of life.”[7]

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[1] David Calhoun, Church History Course, Covenant Theological Seminary.

[2] Davids & Grossman, paper, “The Church in the House”, footnote 22.

[3] Charles Spurgeon, sermon, “Building The Church,” April 5, 1874.

[4] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible: Philippians and Colossians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), p.190.

[5] An ideal home has inconspicuous and ample off-street parking or is located across from a school parking lot or closed business.

[6] Such as a restaurant, community room, apartment club house, small church building, etc.

[7] Peter Davids and Siegfried Grossmann, “The Church in the House,” paper, 1982.

 

Revised 10/24/2016