Monday, 6 April 2015

House Church 101 – Two kinds of church

This is part 2 in a series on the theology behind house churches. To see the other posts in this series you can find the links at the bottom of this entry. As stated previously, these posts are about the nature and practices of the ekklesia but will almost certainly step on a few toes. These posts are not aimed at individuals and should not be taken personally regardless of how anyone may choose to assemble

One word, two meanings

The word ‘church’ has two very different meanings to people these days. Actually, for the last 1700 years the term has become synonymous with a ‘religious organization’ to the majority of people who use it. The church is associated with a building, the location where God dwells and the people who are responsible for making the wheels turn every week in that place. Even when it is closed and no one is present we still refer to the place as a church. The second meaning for the word church would be ‘a spiritual community’ or an ‘assembly of believers’. This definition is a lot closer to the original meaning of the word even though it is the lesser used of the two. In this post I would like to highlight the differences between these two very different understandings of what this thing called church is.

The church as an organization

When we speak of the church as the building that we attend once or twice a week we are in fact speaking about a religious institution. Essentially, it runs on the same principles as any business would. It has salaried staff as well as volunteers who get appointed to positions within in one of two ways. Either people are appointed by qualifications obtained through studies or they get there by slowly rising through the ranks. For example, in my old church one would first be proven to be a faithful member (tither, part of a cell etc), then they would get promoted to assistant cell leader, then cell leader, then area leader, then shepherd, pastor, elder and finally, if the position were to become available, senior pastor. This runs in contrast to the New Testament church where qualification to service was not determined by ones CV or the people in charge but rather it was the Spirit who gave gifts to each and every member as He willed (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).  

The church, rather than being seen in the relational context of a family, is viewed as a tool to get individuals saved and then to keep them motivated. The success of the church is usually measured in numbers (head counts and bank accounts) as opposed to being measured by its faithfulness to whatever good works were prepared for them by God in Christ (Ephesians 2:10). 

While I believe that the majority of institutional churches have pure intentions and are not be driven by greed or money; the reality is that it relies on money for sustained life. Like any organization, it needs to be profitable to continue existing. It needs to market itself on signs, billboards and in newspapers if it hopes to attract people to sustain it. Part of the pastor’s job is to get bums through the door and into the seats and then to keep them there.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus, (in the many ways that we portray him) is very marketable and profitable. Many Churches and individual Christians sell sermons, CDs, shirts, books, toys, key chains and even sweets for profit in order to keep the doors open. Regardless of how we as individuals feel about this, Christianity is a lucrative and profitable trillion dollar industry. Consider some of these stats:-

The US church gives $50 Billion given in tithes annually.
Every year the church in the US spends $3 Billion on new buildings.
82% of incoming funds goes toward buildings, running expenses and staff salaries.
3% of funds go toward the poor.
2% goes toward reaching the lost.

I don’t feel like I have to say much about those figures, they speak for themselves. Whether we like it or not the church, when viewed as an institution, means that the church (the community of believers) has a sort of divided allegiance in that it has to first serve itself (and mammon) in order to serve Christ and others. 

The church as an organism

Using the second definition of church we come to understand the church as being organic and alive. The bible itself describes the church in a variety of ways; a body, a family, a bride, the one new man, a living temple, a vineyard and so on. These are all natural terms which is why we see people like T Austin Sparks , who is credited with coining the phrase ‘organic church’, making statements like this:-

"In the divine order, life produces its own organism, whether it be a vegetable, animal, human or spiritual. This means that everything comes from the inside. Function, order and fruit issue from this law of life within. It was solely on this principle that what we have in the New Testament came into being. Organized Christianity has entirely reversed this order".

Unlike the institutional form of church which is sustained by tithes and offerings, the organic church (the body of Christ) is sustained by God alone who gives it its life. As T Austin Sparks said, organisms produce life after their own kind. This is why Adam could say regarding Eve, “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) and this is why Paul could say of the church, “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:30-32).

The church is not an institution but the living body of Christ, the very fullness of Him (Ephesians 1:23). To paraphrase Acts 2:42-47, the organic church can be defined as a family, a people of prayer who eat together, love one another, look after one another and live simply. Or to put it as Jim Palmer does:-

"The church is not an institutional organization, nor is it the building used for religious meetings. The church is the collective gathering of Christian people in whom the Spirit of Christ lives. “Called out” to “encourage one another” as they participate together in the organic “Body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). Collectively the saints of the universal church are to express the life and character of the living Lord Jesus".

Deuteronomy 12:1-4 and 13-14 reveal to us that it does indeed matter to God where and how we worship and serve Him and how one views church will play a major role in how one practices this. Jesus once told a Samaritan woman that the true worshipers would worship in spirit and in truth. True worship does not take place on this mountain or that one or even in Jerusalem and its old temple. Neither does it take place in buildings or homes made with hands but in spirit. Rather, God has chosen to dwell in a spiritual temple made of living stones and so desires from us spiritual worship and sacrifice.

You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.- 1 Peter 2:5

Other posts in this series

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