Saturday, March 14, 2009

Matt. 18:20 & House Churches


I have a dear friend who leads a group of house churches here on the west-side of the Portland metro area. He is a good man, for whom I care deeply. 

I have expressed my reservations about house churches before. But an article written by my friend has me continuing to process.  Process with me….

In a local Christian newspaper (Christian News Northwest) my friend has an editorial advocating/ defending house churches in the wealthy suburbs of an American city.  And in the process, he uses the scripture most of us know: Matt 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The question was prompted by another brother who read the article and asked if the author was using the verse out of context.  The context surrounding v. 20 is not talking about what constitutes a church. In fact, in this context the 2-3 are differentiated from “the church.”  The context is confronting a brother/sister who has sinned.  If, when you confront a fellow believer who is in sin, in v. 16 Jesus says: But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If the believer STILL does not listen, then the 2-3 are to take it to the entire church body and the person is to be treated as a Gentile or taxcollector.  (I’ll leave how we are to treat those people for another day).  But Jesus follows this with:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  (vv. 18-20)

The text then immediately turns to Peter asking Jesus about forgiveness:  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v. 21) to which Jesus responds with the parable of the unforgiving servant. 

OK….my point is this.  In this clear context of church conflict, can we use that text as one to define the church?  (For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”)  I have my doubts.  This verse is not intended to describe what a manifestation of the church looks like. In fact, the two or three are CONTRASTED with the church.  (“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

The Lord IS WITH these 2-3 as they confront the erring brother, but they are not “the church.”  The church is the larger community of which they are a part.

I am NOT saying that “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am NOT with them!”  If we truly believe that Christ dwells in us, then where ONE is gathered, the Spirit of Christ is present!  It is just whether using this as a text to justify pulling away from the organized church and creating one’s own little group, in any way honors Christ or can be justified biblically. 

I have served in eastern Europe during the communist years.  And in a village, there may have only been 2-3 believers (or even 1) in a community.  And I have no problem saying that when they gathered, the church was gathered.  It was a legitimate manifestation of the church. That was the Christian community that they had.

There are other problems with the editorial (using Bill Hybels’ REACH study to justify house churches. I don’t hear Hybels redefining church, but changing approaches for how he grows disciples, but still within the context of a large (maybe huge) church community.)  But my main issue is in using this verse to define church.  I think that it is inappropriate.



(This post has been edited from its original format.)


Bill Thornton said...

While I see your point about using Matthew 18:20 as a proof text for house churches, my experience with such groups has been quite positive. In fact, rather than meeting in the suburbs, the groups I'm acquainted with are located in the urban core of our city. In addition, rather than being self-absorbed, the people I have encountered that are disillusioned with the institutional church are so because they sense a preoccupation with buildings, programs and funding the ministry.

On Sunday nights I've been meeting with such a group, and have found the experience quite refreshing. While I'm not ready to give up on the institutional church, I am learning some important things that our friends in the house churches have to teach us.

Charles said...

It does seem to be a bit of a stretch to use Matt 18:20 as a proof text to support house churches.

Concerning the house church issue you might want to see this post by Ben Witherington.

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