What is a church? | Frequently asked questions

3. What about the dangers of small groups? Don't we need the safety of larger numbers? Surely big churches with their properly trained leaders are less likely to become deceived or authoritarian than small house churches.


Hmmmm!!! Of all the questions that get put to us I think this is possibly the most bizarre. After all, when one looks back over 2000 years of church history one can’t exactly fail to notice that virtually everything that has happened at which we would now hang our heads in shame occurred precisely at the hands of churches with both large numbers and properly trained leaders (whatever that means!). The Inquisition, the Crusades, the persecution of dissenters and the Anabaptists by the Reformers, the divisiveness and competetiveness of today’s several thousands different denominations, pastors getting rich by milking people of their money through the deception of the so-called prosperity gospel, sexual scandals galore amongst so-called Ministers, the perverse and ridiculous excesses of charismania (Toronto blessing, Pensacola et al!), the authoritarianism and spiritual abuses of the so-called shepherding movement! This is not a history of which Christians ought to be proud (and I have merely scraped the surface in the examples I have given), yet it all came about from within churches set up on the basis of having both large numbers and properly trained leaders. Further, would anyone seriously challenge the simple and self-evident fact that the Christian scene today is positively littered with deception, authoritarianism, manipulation and control, sexual and financial scandals, and all amongst believers who are part of churches which have both large numbers and properly trained leaders? Indeed, it is not merely a question of such a state of affairs just being amongst believers who are part of such churches; it is that the whole mess stems largely from the activities of these so-called properly trained leaders themselves. Lastly, a quick glance at the plethora of cults and sects around today (be it Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or the Moonies) reveals that the vast majority of them are set up much like the traditional historic Christian churches; that is, congregations comprising large numbers of adherents who consider themselves to be under the spiritual authority of their properly trained leaders.

So it always strikes me as being a bit rich when believers in churches with large numbers and properly trained leaders start sounding off about the dangers of small groups whilst conveniently forgetting the quite monstrous record their own preferred way of doing church has. Two millennia of Christian history stand as eloquent and damning testimony as to the dangers of precisely having large churches with properly trained leaders.

However, with that said we must nevertheless still answer the question, for there are indeed dangers inherent in small groups just as there are dangers, as I have already shown, inherent in large groups. After all, life is dangerous, and in a fallen world deception and peril wait around every corner. Authoritarian characters who like to be in charge, and who get a buzz out of controlling others, pose a threat to numerically small house based churches just as they do when they become the properly trained Priests, Ministers and Pastors of numerically large traditional ones.

And of course this is where we must remind ourselves that part of the New Testament blueprint for biblical churches is precisely that they don’t have any hierarchy, and that inherent plurality of leadership and consensual decision making by the whole church (and not just elders), is the order of the day. This at least, as an intrinsic factor in their design and set up, minimizes the chances of control and manipulation occurring and comprises a much less risky approach! Indeed, herein is safety! Remember too that we are not advocating merely that churches should be small and meet in peoples’ homes, but rather an entire biblical package which, if followed in its entirety, greatly minimizes the risk of potential dangers arising. If a church such as we are describing stays close to what scripture teaches in these regards then it will, to that same extent, be protected from the twin dangers of authoritarianism and manipulation which are ever ready to encroach upon it.

I like to think of it in terms of the safety features you get on cars (automobiles, or vehicles, to my American readers). The great danger with driving is, of course, an impact of some kind, and there are varying degrees of protection to be had. Some cars (usually older or cheaper ones) have virtually no safety features at all, and the dangers of driving are thereby increased all the more. Get into an impact in one of these examples and it is very bad news indeed. However, other newer and more expensive models have all manner of safety features built into them; seat belts, anti-skid brakes, computer controlled traction devices, multiple airbags, crumple-zones and even automatic deceleration override when too close to the vehicle in front and various other such innovations. I know what sort of car I would choose to drive if I could afford it - a nice big expensive and high-mass new one!

And it seems to me that the main danger inherent in being part of a church, that is, the ecclesiological equivalent of an impending car wreck, is primarily that of deception and/or manipulation and control brought about by any form of authoritarianism and invalid incursions by others into believer’s private lives. It is, in fact, the primary danger of too much power residing amongst too few people; or even worse, with just one person; that is, the Priest, Pastor, Minister or Senior Elder! (Or whatever you choose to choose to call him.) So in scripture we see appropriate safety features built in accordingly: no church hierarchy of any kind, plurality of leadership, consensual decision making by the whole church and the complete independence and autonomy of each church before the Lord - thus preventing multiple churches being ‘controlled’ by an hierarchy over them: or, to put it another way, thus preventing the rise of any form of denominationalism! It’s perfect! And of course what it really boils down to is that the danger is always the emergence of what I call big cheeses, people who end up over lots of others, thereby almost inevitably succumbing to the very corruption of arrogance and pride which the biblical structure of churches is meant to protect everyone from.

In summing up then I would want say that any group of believers who comprise a small church that meets in homes is vulnerable to such dangers as authoritarian leadership, insularity, spiritual navel-gazing, exclusivism, and a whole host of other pretty rotten things too. But then a group of believers who comprise a large church that meets in a public building are open to precisely the same dangers, and church history bears eloquent testimony to the simple fact that it is not exactly rare for such to occur. It is simply the case that, whichever way you do church, you are open to similar dangers. So why not just do what scripture teaches? Why not just be a part of a smaller church that meets in someone’s home? I must say that I personally feel much happier, confident and secure facing the difficulties and dangers that come as a result of doing what the Lord wants rather than facing those which precisely result from in any way going against what He has revealed and sanctioned in His Word. Give me a ride in a nice safe Toyota or BMW any day as opposed to some beaten up 25 year old Chevy which doesn’t even have seatbelts or functioning brakes.

Oh yes, I’d better say something now about biblically based house churches not having properly trained leaders. And I am going to start by stating that rarely does the arrogance of all too many leaders of unbiblical churches, along with the ignorance of all too many of those who sit passively in their pews, reveal itself more clearly than when questions like this come up. After all, surely the only safe basis for future leadership being properly trained is the way in which the New Testament reveals that the early church, who I think no one would question did better than we are doing, went about it. And from the pages of holy writ it appears that they had precious little need for things like Theological Seminaries and Bible Colleges and the like. In fact, the whole emphasis in the New Testament was that leadership emerged from within the same churches those brothers ended up being elders in, and were consequently known thoroughly by the people who comprised them. Those in the church knew these men had the necessary qualifications for leadership as they had had proved themselves and their testimony amongst them over many years. (And of course according to Paul the emphasis is that the qualifications for eldership are predominantly to do with character and family life and not with learning or ministerial or leadership performance. Elders must be able to teach, of course, but that is not the main thrust of what scripture teaches. Rather it is the evidence over years of a holy, mature and stable Christian life.) Apostles, prophets and teachers and the like who come in from the outside may well play a part in this training and instruction, but it is all done on-site in the same local situation in which these leaders are going to function.

How different this is to the system which unbiblical churches adhere to whereby potential leaders are creamed-off from the churches of which they are a part, and from the other mere rank-and-file saints, trained in an environment totally alien to, and outside of, church life, then turned into the future properly trained professional experts, and then, finally, put in a totally unbiblical hierarchical leadership position as either Priest, Minister or Pastor - or whatever - over a church in which the people basically don’t know them from Adam. I have to tell you that if that is your idea of properly trained leaders then by golly gosh, you are welcome to them; but it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything seen in scripture.

Let me say as well that some of the most mature, biblically learned and able teachers I have ever met are themselves part of churches such as I am here describing and advocating and anyone who thinks that this house church stuff is merely for those who reject, or feel they have little need of, either biblical knowledge or spiritual maturity, is extremely wide of the mark in their thinking. Obviously there are house churches that reject any solid biblical base, just as many unbiblical and traditional ones do, but equally there are many biblical churches in existence today precisely because those believers who comprise them take scripture so seriously and both know and understood it so well. I would further point out here that my own personal preference is to use the terminology of biblical church as opposed to merely house church. As I state again and again, a biblical church will, necessarily, be a house church, but you can nevertheless have house churches that aren’t biblical in any other way. Indeed, for us here at the Chigwell Christian Fellowship the only reason we are as we are as a church, and therefore do as we do as one, is precisely because of what we see in scripture and because we take it so very, very seriously.

A last word! Please don’t anyone think that I am saying that all leaders in unbiblical churches are ungodly self-seeking and self-serving scallywags. Nothing could be further from the truth and there are many leaders of such churches who are wonderful men of God. I am merely saying that even good drivers are at greater risk of danger in unsafe cars. That there are also complete nutcases who drive like maniacs in safer cars goes without saying too; but hey….just supposing we could get more and more safe drivers into more and more safer cars. Now wouldn’t that be something…….

 

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