[Editor’s Note: This article is part of five of a five part series addressing the nature apostolic Christianity. You can read the earlier articles starting here.]
Christianity in the West is in transition. I’ve argued in a previous post that instead of the church moving right, left, or beyond, the way forward is to go back. We need to embrace a model of Christianity that, if seen by the apostle Paul or Peter, would be recognizable to them.
I could make a list of areas the church looking to embrace a more apostolic nature should pursue. (I have, here.) But whenever a return to apostolic Christianity is contemplated the element that regularly gets overlooked is the idea of structure. It’s almost as if the way in which the church lives its life together, strengthens itself, and reproduces itself doesn’t matter. This is the farthest reality from the truth. How the church lives life together ultimately either strengthens and enhances the “apostolic lifestyle” that we’ve been talking about or it wears on it and slows us down on our journey toward it.
There is a design to the way God builds his church. To the degree that we deviate in practice from what Scripture describes of the church, to that degree we work against ourselves in our aim for true, apostolic Christianity. A mere push for the Lordship of Jesus, the power of the Spirit, the evangelistic heart for the lost, a commitment to continue in the face of suffering, and a view of Jesus’ return without a change in church structure that will sustain that lifestyle will find the people inside it frustrated. New wine in an old wineskin is a disaster waiting to happen (Luke 5:36-39).
The particular wineskin I’m advocating for in this space is what is traditionally known in the west as a house church. In the New Testament it was known as “the church that meets at so-and-so’s house.” This particular way of gathering together is important because it was the context that apostolic Christianity was birthed out of in the New Testament. It was the soil that the first century church sprouted out of and it empowered the church to grow both deep and wide across the Roman Empire and beyond.
Much has been written about house churches and why they are important. Book after book tells you what they are and how to start them. Instead of retreading old ground, I want to look at why the house church model is apostolic in its nature. There was a reason why the apostles traveled around starting churches that met in homes. Many assume it was because they were persecuted and unable to meet openly. But in reality, there was a design to the church that sustained a certain type of life and it’s this type of life that we desire.
To be as clear as possible, there’s nothing magical about house churches. They will never replace submission to Jesus or the power of the Spirit. But because they are the way Jesus founded His church, they are an outgrowth of Jesus’ Lordship that our response to can either hurt or hinder our journey towards apostolic Christianity. Apostolic Christianity grows better in the soil of house churches because they are apostolic in nature. And it’s this apostolic nature of house churches I want to explore.
What would cause Jesus, the apostles, and the apostolic church of the first and second centuries to start fellowships in the homes of believers? The easy answer is persecution. And yes, persecution played a part in that decision. But if you look deeper, there were spiritual realities that these small gatherings empowered that were in their very nature apostolic. The apostolic church of the first and second centuries planted churches because they were simple to establish and replicate, they allowed for the Gospel to spread quickly, and they enabled the church to minister and care for itself.
It takes very little to start a house church. Two or three believers that gather together to eat, read God’s word, pray, and encourage each other are the beginning of a church. They can meet anywhere at any time. They don’t need trained seminarians to lead them or any kind of org chart. They exist without much structure in order for the life of Jesus to be the focus.
This isn’t to say that house churches are simplistic. They will still have problems and struggle. But I can talk new believers through how to start house churches over the course of a day or two. These new believers will need a Bible and some encouragement along the way. They might even need someone to bounce things off of from time to time. But they can be a legitimate church with some basic instruction and a true commitment to Jesus. It’s why Paul could plant a church after only being in a place for a short time.* This is possible because it’s the believers’ connection to Jesus that support the church, not the worker.
I believe the simplicity of the early church was intentional. It allowed the church to be lead by “ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures” who may not have been “wise in the world’s eyes.” As the architects of the church, the apostles knew that a simple structure would allow it to function properly among the people it was intended to reach.
The Gospel Spreads
It was this simplicity of structure that allowed for the unprecedented spread of the Gospel. Churches could be planted as quickly as people came to Christ. When a new group of people would come to Christ in another relational network, another part of town, or even another city, they would be the beginning of a new church. They wouldn’t even need elders to be considered legitimate. Frequently elders would be raised up from within a church as those with wisdom and character were identified by apostolic workers (Acts 14, 1 Timothy 1).
With this simple method of producing churches, Gospel outposts cropped up, first in the major cities of the Roman Empire and then moved out into the towns and villages. Unburdened from unbiblical, complex systems, the church spreads. Tony and Felicity Dale share this simple analogy: If you put two elephants in a room together and close the door, in 22 months you may get one baby elephant. But two rabbits together for the same amount of time will result in thousands of baby rabbits! The difference lies in how complex of an organism is being made. Simplicity of structure allows for churches to rapidly reproduce through the spread of the Gospel.
This was crucial to the early apostolic church. Filled with restless gospel exporters, the early church planted house churches that allowed the Gospel to move as quickly as possible through a region. Quickly apostles (especially Paul) would consider a region “reached” if they started one or more house churches there (see Romans 15:19). They knew that the seed of one house church would eventually grow, multiply, and cover a region.
Ministry and Care for Itself
Once established, apostolic church planters would leave to spread the Gospel to another region. But their nature as spiritual parents and architects of the church caused them to care about what happened to the churches they started when they left. They weren’t abandoning their spiritual children, but moving on to another place to raise more. It became important for the church to be able to nurture and take care of itself in the absence of these workers.
Because the churches they started were organic in nature, they were built around the presence and person of Jesus, not around programs or meetings. This allowed even the newest believer to participate in the life of the church. Paul describes this dynamic in 1 Corinthians 14:26. As believers looked to Christ to lead their gatherings, the Holy Spirit would give members of the church different gifts, all for the building up of the body. This is why Paul says in Ephesians that “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love,” (Ephesians 4:16).
This dynamic would allow the apostolic worker to continue to move, entrusting the fledgling church to Jesus (Acts 14:23), knowing the church would continue to spontaneously build itself up as it met together in the overflow of His power. The apostles continually encouraged the churches to practice “one anothers,” means of taking care of each other and showing love that lead to the body being strengthened. This enabled the priesthood of believers to be lived out (not just believed) among the early churches.
It’s my belief that the apostles learned how to live in missional community from Jesus. As an apostolic band, He taught them how to relate to the Father, love one another, and declare the Gospel of the Kingdom. He didn’t just show them the way, He was the Way. And it was this “Way” that the apostles used to start churches first in Jersualem, then in Samaria, and then in places like Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome.
The apostles didn’t start churches in the same way that church is traditionally practiced in the West. They started simple churches that met in homes. This wasn’t simply a response to persecution. It was a conviction that the church be simple, help spread the Gospel, focused on Jesus, and would take care of each other. The result was an apostolic movement made up of house churches.
House churches are apostolic if we let them be. I’ve seen some very non-apostolic house churches. But rightly oriented, house churches serve not just as an alternative to churches that meet in buildings, but as a means of strengthening the apostolic objectives of the church.
The church in the West is at a crossroads. It’s not enough for us to go left, right, or even beyond. We have to go back to Christianity as it was taught and practiced by the apostles who learned from Jesus. This will require not just a return to biblical principles of meeting, but to the truth of Christ and His Kingdom as we’ve been discussing in other posts. But Christ calls us to put new wine into a new wineskin. Living out apostolic Christianity will need to take place in an apostolic structure, both of which the apostles learned from Jesus.
If we return to apostolic Christianity in both it’s content and it’s practice, we will begin to get to a place where the wine and the wineskin work together. The form of the church supports the church growing in the message of Jesus and spreading the Gospel of the Kingdom. And the result of this will be something the world has seen only a very few times in history.
Will you join me on this journey?
*Paul stayed in Thessalonica for roughly 3 weeks according to Acts 17:1-10. We can’t say how long he stayed in Berea, but it seems it was only as long as the antagonists from Thessalonica didn’t know about him being there. Many places don’t tell us how long Paul stayed in a place, but his longest stay was two years and three months in Ephesus. And while persecution was obviously a factor, Paul was incessantly nomadic because he was determined to keep pressing into areas where the Gospel had never been (Romans 15:20-24). Regardless of Paul’s length of stay, it’s obvious Paul spent much less time starting churches than most people in traditional church planting do. The simplicity of house churches aids this considerably.
Over the last sixteen years or so, I’ve been on a journey to understand how Jesus builds His church.
If this feels like a strange pursuit, understand that I believe Jesus builds His church in a much different way than we think. Church As We Know It (CAWKI) is much different than Church As God Wants It (CAGWI). There is a difference between the church that exists and the church operating as God designed it. As I’ve pursued an understanding of how Jesus builds His Church it’s become incredibly clear that the gift of apostleship* is a crucial element in the process.
Very few know and understand what it looks like for an apostle to operate in the body of Christ. For us to recognize and accept apostles in the church, it’s important to know how that gift functions. I see many people struggling to embrace the gift that God gives first to His church because they don’t understand how it operates.
Why this ministry is so vitally important and seemingly irreplaceable is best answered by describing the apostle as the custodian of Apostolic Genius and of the gospel itself. All subsequent apostolic ministry models itself on the archetypal ministry of the original, and authoritative, apostles. This is to say that he/she is the person who embeds mDNA**. And once the mDNA is embedded in local communities, apostolic ministry works to ensure that the resultant churches remain true to it and that they do not mutate into something other than what God intended them to be. As well as pioneering new churches, the apostolic ministry lays foundations in those that have none. The circuit riders of the American West were classic examples of this. They rode out to small towns and small population zones, preached the gospel, brought people to Christ, established churches, and then went on to the next town, only to return the following year on their circuit. The apostles of the Chinese church operated in precisely the same way.
-Alan Hirch, The Forgotten Ways, pages 153-154
Crucial to the founding and health of the church is this unique individual called the apostle. What drives them? What do they do? Why do they do it? We can see from the lives of the 12 apostles, Paul, and the other apostles mentioned in the New Testament an outline of what drove these believers:
They Were Restless Gospel Exporters- The very word apostle means “sent one” and implies travel. In Romans 15:20-24 Paul articulates a desire to plant where no one has heard the gospel. That apostolic impulse will take him first to Rome (to encourage the church) and then on to Spain. He never stayed in a place for long and always desired to be sharing the gospel and starting churches wherever the church wasn’t. You could say the apostle doesn’t see where the church is but where the church isn’t. Paul received this impulse from Jesus Himself (Mark 1:38). Jesus commanded his original apostles (and the whole church) to be focused on the Great Commission moving outward in the Earth (Acts 1:6-8, Matthew 28:18-20). Look for apostles to constantly be mobilizing the church to reach beyond its circle and touch people who are far from God. Don’t expect them to be tied to one place over long periods of time.
They Were Architects- In 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, Paul refers to himself as a master builder and one who laid a foundation for the house God was building. We see in this in the ministry of the apostle Paul or the original apostles whose teaching was the cornerstone of the church of Jerusalem (Acts 2:42). In many ways, this meant that apostles were the initial leader in an area, bringing people to the gospel and discipling them. Christ as the only foundation is a central theme in Paul’s letters and it is apostolic in nature to bring the church’s attention back to Christ alone.
This architectural function also extended beyond just the preaching of the gospel to helping the church find healthy rhythms of life that enabled the life of the church to function and flourish. As one apostolic leader shared, “the goal is to love as many people as well as possible.” This occurs through a strategic mixture of teaching and modeling.
They Were Spiritual Parents- Far from the CEO model of much of modern Christianity, the apostles were spiritual parents to those they led to Christ. This wasn’t a statement of relational superiority, but a genuine description of how apostles related to the church. Hear the words of Paul: “For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father, (1 Corinthians 4:15)” and “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives, (Galatians 4:19)” and “As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).”
Apostles functioned in the love of parents for the new believers they discipled and formed into churches. This motivated apostles to care for the churches in a sacrificial way. They were concerned with the church functioning as a family and organized the church as a family where all belong and are accepted, rather than a meeting where one person functions in their gifting.
These were the motivations that drove apostles to function and operate in a way that strengthened the entire church of the first century. Because apostles moved from place to place, preaching the Gospel, establishing churches, loving and raising to maturity individuals and the churches they started, the church in the New Testament grew at an exponential rate. When the church welcomes and accepts the role of apostle within the body again, we will see a return to this kind of exponential growth.
Obviously not everyone is an apostle or should try to function like one. But for the body of Christ to reach maturity, the gift of apostleship is important. When we welcome the service of apostles, along with prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, we will see the body begin to “come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ, (Ephesians 4:11-13).” I would invite you to ask God how you can learn from and relate to all of these giftings so that you and your church can grow up into the mature stature Christ has called us to.
*Whenever I speak of apostles or prophets, people are often concerned I’m speaking of people with the authority add to the cannon of Scripture. My view of apostles and prophets does not include any role of adding to Scripture.
**Hirsch uses the phrase mDNA to describe missional DNA. According to Hirsch, “what DNA does for biological systems, mDNA does for ecclesial [church] ones. DNA in biological life is found in all living cells, codes genetic information for the transmission of inherited traits beyond that of the initiating organism, is self replicating, and carries vital information for healthy reproduction, (The Forgotten Ways, page 283).”
One of the key misunderstandings I think most people will have with the term “apostolic Christianity” is that their mind will immediately jump to those people who consider themselves apostles. Now, I not only believe this gift operates in the body of Christ, I have a high value for people who are legitimate apostles. They are a necessary part of seeing apostolic Christianity lived out on the planet. But when I describe apostolic Christianity, instead of describing one segment of the body of Christ’s gifting, I’m actually describing something I believe God will allow the whole church to walk in.
At this point, if you’re following along closely, you’re probably ready to accuse me of forcing a specific gifting on the wider body of Christ. But my goal is not to make everyone in the church an apostle, but for us to embody the same spirit of surrender to Christ’s leading that the early church experienced. The bishops of the church in the third century expressed it this way: “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
You see, the whole church (that’s what that whole catholic thing means, universal) was meant to live together in a way that was handed down from the apostles themselves. Why the apostles? They were the ones Jesus himself charged with taking the Gospel all over the Earth. They were believed to have the most accurate testimony of His life and the most capable of understanding His Kingdom. And these guys gave their lives for the message of the Kingdom in the same way that Jesus had. They were good examples to follow.
So what does it mean for the whole church (not just those gifted as apostles) to embrace the lifestyle of apostolic Christianity? I’m so glad you asked! Let me give you a couple of high-level benchmarks of apostolic Christianity, fleshed out in the life of the church:
- Jesus is Lord: This could easily be described as the Church’s earliest doctrinal statement, but it is so much more than a mere doctrine. For those who are living out apostolic Christianity, this is a way of life. This starts at a very personalized, individual level. We all have to come to value Jesus as the pearl of great price, worth losing our lives over. This reality changes everything about us and we begin to live a new life, the life of Jesus. The realities of the Sermon on the Mount become the code of ethic for the individual. As we come to this recognition individually, it changes how we relate to one another. Jesus becomes what brings us together and we as a family respond to His leadership. (Romans 10:9)
- The Power of the Lord is Manifested: The constant dependence on Jesus showing up and healing, leading through dreams and visions, and casting out of demons was the norm for the early church, beyond the completion of the New Testament. It’s also a common sign whenever the true apostolic church begins to emerge through various renewal movements. More and more churches are shifting and becoming more open to the power of the Holy Spirit, but more so in theory than in actual practice. They believe Jesus does miraculous things today through people, but they don’t seek to move in the spiritual gifts. Paul strongly encouraged believers to seek these gifts out, especially prophesy, because he knew it was essential to living out the lordship of Jesus. The church that is living out apostolic Christianity not only seeks the miraculous power of Jesus, but sees it happen in its midst. (1 Corinthians 14)
- The Harvest is Plentiful: Jesus clearly intended us to believe there was an abundant harvest waiting for the church. He taught that the harvest was so abundant that it’s only limiting factor was the number of workers. Paul actually believed Jesus in this regard and was constantly moving from one place to the next, training up workers who would train other workers. Wherever we see apostolic Christianity emerging, we see the church focused on reaching this plentiful harvest. It causes the church to move out of buildings (and even homes!) into the streets. The Gospel begins to touch people who have never heard it or those who have been apathetic to it in the past. When the church embraces this apostolic lifestyle, the whole church engages with Christ’s mission to reach a vast harvest field and how they spend their time and energy reflect these commitments. (Matthew 9:37-38)
- The Oppression is Real: Jesus was clear, if they hate me, they are going to hate you. Wherever the church is truly operating as an apostolic reality following the ways of Jesus, it will be persecuted. The level of persecution will vary from culture to culture, from threat of physical death like we see in China and Middle Eastern nations to mild ridicule like we’ve seen in more open Western countries. Society doesn’t like change, no matter how much they use it as a slogan. Living out “Jesus as lord” threatens the grip of governors and makes us people who “turn the whole world upside down.” This will cause everyone from governments to social groups to feel threatened and persecute us in some way. But this will cause ample opportunity for the Gospel to go forth. In places like the first century church and China, it has amplified the church’s message, not drowned it out. This will only increase as the return of the Lord draws nearer. (Acts 17:2-8, 1 Peter 4:12-14)
- The Church is simple: Because the harvest is great, because the workers are few, because oppression is real, and because Jesus is Lord, the church typically becomes simpler and less programed. Regardless of what you believe about church structure, you are hard-pressed to find highly organized structures in the book of Acts. Simpler churches allowed the early church to start churches wherever the harvest was being gathered. I’ll say more on this in my next post “Why House Churches are Apostolic.” But for now, let me just mention that when Paul spoke of the church, he spoke of a church that was relational, connected, met primarily in homes, enabled every believer present to function in their gifts, and was able to effectively care for one another. In my view, this required simpler, more reproducible forms of organizing themselves. (Ephesians 4:11-16, Romans 16:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14)
- The Return of the Lord is Clear: Followers of Jesus function best when they believe that Jesus is coming back soon. Now, we’ve all met the guy that lives in a bunker and is storing food and guns away to resist the Anti-Christ. But this is not the kind of end-time view I’m advocating. The church that Jesus started believed He was coming back quickly. It didn’t cause them to hoard stuff, it caused them to give themselves to spreading the gospel to the darkest places on the planet. When we believe that Jesus is returning and that return will have real and irreversible consequences for the planet, we live differently. We actually begin to live in the way Jesus intended: with urgency. (Acts 1:6-11, Revelation 22:12)
Friends, if these things are true, they have tremendous implications for what we’re doing now. Business as usual has to change if we want to embrace the kind of life described here. If you are already doing this, awesome! Pray for us and pray that we all can go deeper in the grace you’re touching. If this isn’t you, then let’s together contend for God to release this type of Christianity in the Earth. I believe He will and it will change everything.