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Is It A Radical Restoration Or A Radical Departure? An Examination of the House Church Movement among Churches of Christ Introduction: Paul wrote, “Finally, my brethren rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you” (Philippians 3:1). There has been a disturbing trend among our brethren, as well as the religious world at large that has become quite attractive to many young Christians. It is commonly termed The House Church Movement. This movement has presented unique challenges largely due to its covert, gradual and ambiguous approach. It has gained traction by targeting those young in the faith and those eager to promote the social gospel, as well as those dissatisfied with an appeal for the conservative principles of biblical authority. It is my sincere conviction that the leaders of this movement have such a disdain for faithful local churches that their real plan is to break up local congregations or at the very least weaken them, making them ripe for apostasy and thus preparing them for their agenda. While its proponents characterize their efforts as “A Radical Restoration” it is an outline for a Radical Departure.1 It is important for sake of conceptual clarity to define the phrase “House Church.” I. Defining the “House Church Movement” a. What is not meant: 1 Radical Restoration, A Call For Pure and Simple Christianity, F. Lagard Smith i. We are not using the term to encompass every group of Christians meeting in a house, for that practice is both historic to Christianity and authorized in God’s Word. b. What is Meant: i. To speak of the “House Church Movement” is both accurate and misleading at the same time. ii. While it is true than an identifiable movement exists towards this practice, there are many different forms of this approach. iii. The movement arose in rejection of organized (“institutional”) congregations. c. Characteristics of the Movement: Man Centered i. They believe smaller groups are essential for true worship and fellowship and see this as a fundamental difference between themselves and those they call “institutional churches” (organized congregations with church buildings, full-time preachers etc.) ii. They stress that house churches were the pattern established for the church in the New Testament. iii. They reject any name or description to identify their gatherings. iv. They define the essential size as limited by the number who can eat a common meal together which they see as the true source of “fellowship.” v. They incorporate the “communion” or “Lord’s Supper” as a part of those meals. vi. They tend to accept and welcome a broad range of doctrinal diversity and religious practices among brethren. They say that house churches must be “relational” and “social” rather than “doctrinal” in their thinking and practice. vii. They seek out a casual atmosphere in dress and action. viii. They reject declarative preaching and teaching. ix. They reject having “full-time preachers.” x. They reject any “office” or authority whereby man has a leadership role. xi. They denounce weekly contribution. d. Is it a real problem? i. Ethos House Church, Nashville, Tennessee; Group from Franklin church of Christ; CABG – Bowling Green, KY; Christians in Tampa, Tampa, Florida – churches playing with idea strongly in Arkansas. II. The Methodology of the Movement: a. Unbiblical View of Grace & Unity (Destruction of Doctrinal Distinctiveness). i. While there have been numerous books written advocating this movement2 including John Mark Hicks’ work, “Come to the Table,” and Mike Root in his book “Spilt Grape Juice,” the most influential advocate has been F. Lagard Smith in his work, “Radical Restoration.”3 ii. Smith previously advanced an argument for the acceptance of denominational baptism in “Who Is My Brother, 1997.” iii. Additionally he has argued for the annihilation of the wicked soul, rather than eternal conscious punishment in hell (After Life, 2003). iv. “HCC is non-denominational and an effort is made to accommodate Christians of many backgrounds…Infant baptism was a hot button for the historical Anabaptists and Baptists. It was seen as the very symbol of church-state collaboration, and many of the early confessions anathematize the practice without mincing any words. 2 Come To the Table, Revisioning the Lord’s Supper, John Mark Hicks; Spilt Grape Juice, Mike Root; Radical Restoration, F. Lagard Smith 3 F. Lagard Smith’s father, Frank Smith, served as a faithful preacher for years in the Birmingham, Alabama area. After attending Florida College, Smith went on to receive both his Bachelor’s degree and his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in Oregon. Smith was a professor of law at Pepperdine for twenty-six years before joining the faculty at David Lipscomb University as “Scholar in Residence for Christian Studies.” Modern house church theologians, however, are not nearly as dogmatic on this issue--some are, and some are not...” (HCC). v. Non-institutional Church in Franklin, Tennessee dismissed their preacher over his refusal to preach the truth on instrumental music, the group then divided and the preacher began a House Church Congregation. vi. “Asking questions is a great way to get answers and to feel a part of the group. As a by-product, diverse answers are OK too. Although every church usually has a particular answer for most questions, a good church realizes we are all still growing in knowledge and maturity in God’s Word. A good church recognizes the value in diversity and thrives on it” (www.northsidecoc.com). vii. This mindset often is attractive to those who have erroneous positions ranging from the nature of God to the end of time (Preterism) because their opportunity to infiltrate a group without opposition is easier. viii. Disdain for the confrontation of error and a proclivity to stereotype all brethren who oppose their efforts as formalistic, legalistic, pharisaical, unfeeling, inactive, traditionalistic Christians is common among change agents (Logical fallacy of “name calling”). b. Diluting of Local Church Commitment: i. Amanda Phifer described several characteristics of a San Francisco house church in an article published on two Baptist websites: “It’s a church without a name, without a building… without a program, without even an address… being more like Jesus does not mean being a super- involved church member… ‘If a believer spends two whole days of each week at church, surrounded by other believers, Karen asks, then when does that believer have time to interact with, much less impact, non believers?’ ‘If you go to worship Sunday morning and Sunday night and you spend those times listening, then that means you have to set up another time during the week when you can have some interaction with other believers and really learn and grow. That’s a huge chunk of time. But if you make all your time with other Christians chunky, meaty, the real stuff, then you have that much more time to hang out with non-Christians…” ii. SCOTT THORNHILL EXPLAINING NEW WORK TO START IN BOWLING GREEN, KY (Presented May 3, 2003 at Smith’s Grove, KY Church of Christ, where Scott had preached for several years; explanation of why he was leaving Smith’s Grove to begin the new work)The new work starts May 18, 2003 in Bowling Green, KY. These remarks give “my vision for the new work.” “We’re not going off the deep end.” “We wanted a Smith’s Grove type work in Bowling Green....now what does that mean?” “We’re going to continue what we started doing here but “take it to another step … So, what do I envision? I envision just a simple, Bible-based, informal, spontaneous, relaxed atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable with one another, where we can all gain strength and encouragement from one another and grow in our personal relationship with God....mutual participation, mutual edification, and not just a spectator audience.”“Now, what is an assembly going to look like....I don’t know? I am not too sure. It may be very fluid for the next several months...for the next several years.” We plan to meet Sunday afternoons around three or four. “The reason we chose that is because Sunday mornings you get up–I mean the alarm clock goes off–you are scurrying around the house trying to get breakfast cooked and kids dressed and everybody rushes out to church and Sunday mornings are just so hectic and the two assemblies just do not seem to fit our society at this point....So, we are just going to have a Sunday evening assembly. So that Sunday morning is going to be built around having devotions in our families on a one to one basis. I need time like that.” iii. It is odd that those so concerned about convenience and fitting in with society will then criticize and question the discipleship of brethren who are actively involved in congregational activity and personal devotion. c. Dismantling of the Local Church i. Stereo-typical presentation of all churches of Christ in order to restructure those congregations. 1. It is a classical example of the “Bait and switch” method of deception – We are told we are really a “denomination” when in actuality we are not, while the restructuring plan is termed “non- denominational” but is yet in reality filled with denominational concepts. 2. F. Lagard writes, “Before real progress can be made, we will have to undergo a pivotal paradigm shift in the way we perceive even the notion of “church” itself…Our concept of the church typically tends to suggest organization, complete with hierarchy and dogma. By contrast, the early church…was far closer to being an organism—less dependent upon formal structure and more spontaneous in action” (While it is true the universal church is an organism, the local churches most certainly had structure and unplanned spontaneity in Corinth was not pleasing to God). 3. While some brethren may have denominational concepts of the church of which sound brethren have been critical does not warrant FLS broad brush of misrepresentation of our brethren as a whole. 4. Lagard’s criticism continues: “Our typical pattern for church organization closely follows the blueprint of both Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastical structure” (60). (Assertion without proof). a. Odd language for a man who is arguing that we have “city-wide elderships” along with the possibility of “statewide and nationwide networking” (252) – nothing can be considered more of a “typical pattern for church organization” which “closely follows the blueprint of both Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastical structure.” b. He complains about denominationalism and then sets out to build a denomination of his own. 5. HC Advocates affirm that the binding for local churches is to meet in homes. a. FLS: “Piecing together archaeology and history, it appears the primitive church typically met in a room sufficiently large enough for probably 40- 50 people in the house of a wealthy member” (148). b. His favorite words and phrases are: “apparently, it seems, from all appearances, as I attempt, perhaps, it is possible, assuming, it wouldn’t necessarily mean, fairly compelling, reasonable interpretation, it appears, we are not specifically told, I suppose…” c. The reality is that the N.T. Church met in many different venues: the Temple Porch (Acts 5:12); upper room (Acts 20:8); a room in the temple (Acts 2:46); a house (Acts 28:30); a synagogue (James 2:2; Acts 18:26-27); a school (Acts 19:9). d. It is interesting that with all this talk about “house churches” these groups end up in “union halls,” “school rooms,” “apartment complex club houses – just as long as there is room to eat. ii. Distortion of the Lord’s Supper 1. Radical Restoration of the Corinthian Concept (I Corinthians 11:17-34). a. “The Lord’s Supper gave meaning to their table fellowship and their table fellowship gave meaning to the Lord’s Supper” (133). b. No, the statements “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” as well as “do this in remembrance of me” explains what has true meaning. c. FLS argues that Paul was not condemning having a social meal with the Lord’s Supper, but wanting to come only for a social meal. I honestly do not know what translation these brethren are reading from, because I find nothing close to such a conclusion in the text. d. Scott Thornhill about CABG: “Someone recently gave a good invitation. “Sharing something like that while we are partaking of the emblems together and we may take in greater quantities of that. So, that is the Sunday assembly, with a potluck afterwards, every Sunday.” 2. Does I Corinthians 11 condemn an ordinary meal eaten in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper? a. Required that the Corinthians come together “in the church” (18) and that in “one place” (20). b. Their coming together is not “at home” (33-34). c. Their common meals were termed “his own supper,” in contrast to the “Lord’s Supper” (20- 21). d. It is not the Lord’s Supper because it is not eaten in remembrance of Christ (24-25), rather it is eaten to satisfy physical hunger (21) and shames the poor (22). 3. There are instances in HC of women testifying during the Lord’s Supper to the assembly and is a direct violation of I Corinthians 14:34-35. 4. The corruption of the Lord’s Supper is only the beginning of the plan—for the intention is the demolition of our worship as we see it in scripture: “The question is not so much whether there ought to be a kitchen in the church building, but should the church be in the kitchen.” 5. Let this be a lesson: Present acceptance of unauthorized practices only leads to radically unauthorized practices in the future. iii. Attack on Scriptural Elders 1. “There is nothing to rule out the possibility that the role of elders in the early church might well have encompassed more than one level of involvement— even simultaneously…Perhaps elder oversight may have been exercised through a group of house churches which collectively comprised a larger, recognizable “congregation.” More thought provoking for us, of ocurse is the third possibility—that elders in individual house churches might also have come together as a group of city-wide elders to discuss matters of importance to the entire community of believers….Nothing necessarily precludes “Jerusalem’s elders” from being gathered from among elders in a multiplicity of house churches” (178). 2. Smith’s plan is radical, but not in restoring New Testament Christianity, but the Catholic plan for the organization of the church. 3. N.T. reveals that elders were appointed in every congregation (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23; I Peter 5:2). d. The New Social Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). i. Emotionalism 1. “Wednesday night service is an “informal, spontaneous, very uplifting time. I think all the assemblies ought to be like that. One of the things that is difficult is the way the furniture is arranged....It is hard to share....That may be a step too much, to get folks some chairs out and to be interacting with each other where you could see each other, like a living room setting would be. That may be too much of a step but at least trying to go down toward that more informal sharing assembly on Sunday mornings” (Thornhill, CABG). 2. FLS and HCA desire to turn our worship assembly into a camp-like retreat. 3. This will not produce substantive spirituality, but superficial emotionalism. 4. The HC Movement is promoting divisons in local churches, perverting the Lord’s Supper into a common meal, etc. 5. FLS’s vision is: A nameless church without preaching, but full of eating common meals and informal banter, that discards the bible plan for leadership and acts of worship. ii. Man-Centered rather than Biblically centered. 1. “I would like to meet in a multipurpose building if you can maintain that living room atmosphere....The way the structures are set up, and the pews are set up, that we come, we sit, put on our proper clothes, and that interaction is not as comfortable as it is when you come over to my house....But I do not think you have to meet in houses but I do believe you have to have that kind of atmosphere…I am still the Scott you have known for ten years, not some radical left wing person that is going to start some love feast Pentecostal group…At this point a man got up and gave an extended testimony about how the Lord had helped him through difficulties in starting a new business.” (Scott Thornhill re: start of CABG). 2. The Social Gospel is not merely about the use of the treasury, but it is about the focus of the teaching and preaching as well as an appeal for palatable and comfortable Christianity over and against true reverent worship and discipleship. 3. We need to hear sermons about the family and home (Sunday morning series) however when the motive is to hear those things to the exclusion of distinctive doctrinal sermons so as to be more palatable to the unsaved we have bought fully into the social gospel.4 III. Groundwork for HC Movement among Non- Institutional Brethren. a. Denial of Brethren i. No doubt, some will defend the modified HC by saying it differs from that seen above from denominationalism or even that which is proposed by FLS. ii. But let there be no mistake about it---the similarities will most likely outweigh the differences. The variations will be slight, but the concept will be the same. iii. But why is this movement found attractive by some? b. Conditions that Have Provided Fertile Ground For HCM i. Many brethren have been drinking more at the fountains of denominational thought than from the Word of God (I Timothy 4:15-16). 1. There is too much of Rick Warren, Tim LaHaye, Max Lucado and others of their kind and too little bible study. 4 • Dan Petty wrote: “There is a tendency that is present among churches and Christians today which is quite disturbing. It is an apparent, general dislike of ‘doctrinal’ preaching. Many seem bored with the careful exposition of Scripture. Others have unofficially rebelled against preaching that ‘contends for the faith,’ on the dubious grounds that it is too negative or controversial. As a consequence much preaching has turned to an unbalanced diet of preaching to deal only with matters of a positive, non- controversial nature. Lessons on attitudes and treatment of our fellow man are often perceived to be less offensive. It should be emphasized here that these (‘positive’) kinds of themes do need to preached on and often…Indeed there have been times when perhaps the balance was tipped in the other direction and brethren received more than their fill of controversial preaching…But we must beware of the swing of the pendulum…” a. Case in point: Preacher in NI congregation in central Arkansas preached a sermon on grace and the introductory story/illustration and primary points were nearly verbatim from the book entitled, “In the Grip of His Grace—You Can’t Fall Beyond His Love” by Max Lucado. The book is conceptually wrong and yet chapter one was fundamentally preached.5 2. The effect has been that some brethren have been desensitized to the danger of the encroachment of error. 3. Those who participate in the HCM rarely if ever return to conservative congregations. ii. The desire for a more “social gospel” (John 18:36). 1. Some of our brethren have adopted the definition of “fellowship” as being social interaction common in the religious world. 2. To those who have doubted the clear and present danger associated with wrongly defining and wrongly apply the Bible doctrine of “fellowship,” wake up! 3. Those false concepts are aiding the influence of the HCM. iii. Growing Desire for a Casual Atmosphere in Worship Assembly (Psalm 89:7). 1. The same people who mock appropriate apparel for worship would not dare dress casually on other occasions. 2. I have not seen a congregation yet where casual dress was the norm which was strong. It is not merely the dress, but what it reflects. 3. VBS – teachers set a good example for our children and that is not going to change. 4. To those who adamantly push for casual apparel in 5 www.northsidecoc.com, Living By Grace, April, 2011 worship you may be unknowingly aiding a casual atmosphere characteristic of the HCM. iv. Rising lack of respect and rebellion toward qualified elders. 1. While elders can be wrong and Christians are not to submit to unqualified elders leading a congregation into apostasy – Nor should Biblical elders be disrespected. 2. It is not unusual for those who become dissatisfied when they are not able to have their agenda accomplished to decide that they prefer a House church without real leadership. 3. Those who secretly engender disrespect for faithful elderships often are enamored by the HCM. v. HCM provides the perfect environment for doctrinal deception. vi. Mind-set of those who are dissatisfied with the designation “church of Christ” are enamored by this movement. vii. Lack of balanced contextual preaching – preach on grace viii. Mind-set of those who minimize the value of indepth directive preaching and teaching give a helping hand to this movement. ix. Lack of involvement and activity as a congregation can aid this movement. Conclusion: Let us realize the potential of biblical congregations which are laboring in love!
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