How we build the church is based on how we view the New Testament. Nowhere is this clearer than the realm of elders. Some emphasize Paul’s epistles and get a seasoned, often stationary church. Others emphasize the book of Acts and it’s emphasis on minimalist structure and get a church that disappears quickly under pressure. The truth is neither of these views is correct apart from the other. But often we chose one perspective over the other, instead of seeing how both work together to accomplish what God wants.
Let’s look at some thoughts about elders from the book of Acts:
- Paul would plant churches and leave without appointing elders, but would often times do that later (see Acts 14:23). This is interesting to me, because many today stress the fact that a church without a pastor or elders is not a church at all. But Paul started a number of churches where he either didn’t appoint them on purpose or he got chased out of town before he could. My personal opinion is Paul often wanted to let new believers mature before appointing them as examples for the church to follow. But make no mistake–churches existed where elders didn’t.
- Elders were shepherds (Acts 20:28). Whoever eventually became an elder had the task of feeding and caring for the church the way a shepherd feeds and cares for a flock of sheep. This verse and another like it in 1 Peter 5 are the primary reasons I believe the gifting of shepherds and the role of elders overlap considerably. Often these are the people ingrained in the believing community and caring for those in their relational sphere.
- Elders were given the task of overseeing (Acts 20:28). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has appointed them as “overseers.” An overseer is not a leader, a public speaker, or a visionary person. An overseer literally watches over what is going on in any given circumstance. Note that the overseer is never told to give orders, tell everyone what to do, or to monopolize the teaching or instruction of the church. Their task is to watch over what is being done. One of the great needs of the church in this hour is more overseers who can provide a safe place for new believers to grow and test out their spiritual muscles that are beginning to develop.
Now, let’s look at some thoughts from Paul to Timothy and Titus:
- It’s a noble thing to aspire to be an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1).
Part of the reason for this is that these were the believers first threatened with death when persecution came. This wasn’t a position of privilege that you needed to die to yourself before you decided to take. It could be a death sentence. And while some (especially in the house church movement) believe that it’s not good to be a leader, Paul encourages believers who desire to be godly overseers.
- There is a list of character requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9).
Character was the primary qualifying factor for elders of the New Testament. They couldn’t be a new believer and they had to be able to teach, but the overwhelming majority of qualifications were centered on how much Christ had transformed their character. Central to the idea of elders was that they were a mature follower of Jesus that new believers could look to and pattern their lives after.* **
- Elders were appointed (Titus 1:6). Paul makes it clear these guys were appointed and we saw that both in Acts and in these apostolic instruction manuals for Timothy and Titus. It was an apostolic function to appoint elders. Often they weren’t appointed until after an apostle left, but the church knew who they were because of this appointment. This is different, however, than a hierarchy where believers lord position over other believers.
When we look at the New Testament, there is a distinct pattern that emerges. Churches were spreading rapidly in the book of Acts through the ministry of men like Paul. Young churches would spring up and these churches wouldn’t have mature elders in place initially. Elders weren’t crucial to a church being established, you could have churches without elders.
But elders were necessary for the long term good of the churches that were established. These individuals were examples to the flock through their godly lifestyles but did not control every aspect of church life. They simply oversaw the life of the church and were helpful in the discerning of complicated issues that would arise. As overseers, they were to warn and admonish the body when particularly dangerous individuals were troubling the church.
I see elders as essential to the movement of the Gospel. I consider them localized replicators of the DNA God inserts into his church. Our failure to have them will eventually impair the movement of the Gospel God is raising up. But the elevation of elders to the supreme place of importance, over and above the rest of the saints as the only leaders impairs the movement of the Gospel as well. But when elders can be raised up that function as spiritual parents, allowing their children to grow and mature beyond them, beautiful movments of the Gospel can take place.
And that, my friends, is what we’re hungering for….
* 1 Peter 5:3 emphasizes the role of elders being a godly example. We haven’t looked at 1 Peter 5, but more and more, it is becoming my central text when understanding eldership in organic churches. More on that soon.
** The New Testament has a distinct pattern of calling believers to pattern their lives after other believers who live godly lives, not just Jesus. More on this in another post.
It’s a conversation that happens in house church circles and between those with some experience with house churches and the house church-curious. “What books on house churches would you reccommend?” The conversation then turns to what people have read and what people haven’t, the strengths of one approach over another, etc.
I originally started this post just as a resource to give people a jump start on their understanding of house churches. But as I began writing about the books that have been meaningful to me, I found that the books I was recommending were different than where most people start the conversation. You’ll notice that this is a global list, three of the five authors aren’t Americans and two of the five don’t speak English as their primary language. What I love about that, is while these books are applicable to our context, they allow us to sit at the feet of others who aren’t trapped by our particular world-view. They allow us to look at church and Scripture through a different lens than we do here in America. And I think that that is helpful.
So, submitted for your approval and in no particular order, the five best books on house churches are:
This was the original house church book for me. A leader I respected in the church we were part of said “If you want to understand what God is doing in our midst, you have to read ‘Houses that Change the World.'” I picked it up. I didn’t like it. I wrestled with every idea in the book. Eventually it pinned me. It begins with Wolfgang’s 15 Theses (worth the price of the book, btw) that challenge the state of the current church and then moves to a sweeping vision of why and how we do church in homes. What I love about Houses is that it’s written by a German who saw God raise up a multiplying network of house churches in India. It’s truly a global, apostolic book that challenges “Church As We Know It.” If you check out one book on this list, this is the one I recommend.
Neil Cole, founder of CMA Resources and Awakening Chapel, has written a book about organic churches that is extremely helpful. He tells the stories of his early days starting Awakening Chapel and the journey the Lord has taken him on multiplying disciples and churches throughout the world. Organic Church is extremely helpful because it places a heavy emphasis on the power of Jesus in the life of believers as the driving force in organic house churches. Many of the principles are based on church multiplication principles that originated in other countries like India and China, but are fleshed out in an American context. If you want to know what the multiplication of churches looks like in America, this is a great place to start. (Also, not exactly about house churches, but a great help in understanding context is Ordinary Hero and Church 3.0., also by Neil Cole.)
Viral Jesus by Ross Rodhe
Long-time readers of the blog may recognize Viral Jesus because I reviewed this book several years ago and gave a copy of the book away. This book is an absolutely fantastic invitation into a lifestyle centered around the mission of Jesus, especially how he describes it in Luke 10. Ross shares multiple stories about planting house churches in a Western context. All of these stories have Ross or one of his friends following Luke 10 and sharing the Gospel with men and women of peace. Miracles happen, people come to Jesus, and new organic house churches are started as a result. I highly recommend this book because of its strong emphasis on the church growing through apostolic mission.
The Global House Church Movement by Rad Zdero
This may be the book most unfamiliar to my readers, but it is a gem. Zdero crammed a ton of good theology and practice into a short space, which makes for page after page of profound insights. This book was foundational to me at a time when I was beginning to think about planting my first house church and answers questions with wisdom I haven’t seen anywhere else. The real asset of this book is its global perspective. It’s not limited by our normal western grievances with “Church As We Know It,” but really pulls the reader into an understanding of what God has done and is doing around the world. If you’re looking to plant a Kingdom house church and not just an Americanized-version of house church, this is a great book to pick up.
The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway
Okay, so this one is not technically a house church book, but I included it because it captures the heart of what I believe the house church movement could and should become. It’s the story of Brother Yun, a Chinese leader in the underground house church movement. It’s basically his testimony of following Jesus, preaching the Gospel, starting churches, and enduring persecution. All of this happens in the context of churches that meet in homes and send out others to do the same. The book is simultaneously filled with miracles and heartbreak. You will be inspired by the stories of believers who have sacrificed much to follow Jesus and challenged to see your church embrace many of the realities described here. While this book was the Christian Book of the Year in 2003, many people read it as an inspiring story and not as a life to imitate. Don’t make the same mistake!
You’ll probably realize that I left some notable titles off. Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, and The Rabbit and the Elephant are just a few. Some of these I haven’t read and others are good books, but much of their content will be found in these books as well. No matter what our jumping on point is, moving towards a more organic, missional, apostolic form of church that results in Christ-formed followers is the goal.
Now, what about you? Which books have been helpful in your journey towards an organic, missional, apostolic church?
Note: The links to these books are part of my Amazon Store. While my opinions are mine and offered freely, I do stand to benefit from the purchase of these books through these links.
Recently (okay…about a month ago now) Hugh Halter posted “Five Questions that Only US Church Planters Ask.” I’d encourage you to check out the post. He doesn’t answer any of the questions, but rather spends some time talking about how church without answers to these questions is the beginning of true Kingdom living. For the sake of those of you who didn’t click the link, the five questions are:
1) But what do we do with our kids?
2) But what if my spouse doesn’t like to have people over?
3) What happens when my funding runs out.
4) How can I get Christians from other churches to join my core team?
5) How should I handle church discipline? (always from reformed camps)
So, my goal isn’t to answer any of these questions, either. But I know these questions are on the minds of many church planters, and my question is, why? Why are we consumed with these questions? What’s the motivation behind the questions? You can catch my thought in the order they were asked, below:
1) Kids can simultaneously be our idol and something we consider a distraction. Society pushes us to make our children into the perfect versions of ourselves we always wanted. We want them to have all of our talents but none of our hangups. Yet, in many church environments, the kids aren’t welcomed. They are either trained to sit still and color or shipped off to another environment where they can be as loud and distracting as they want. Our kids become a distraction when we believe they “interrupt what God is doing” instead of being participants in what God is doing. Our response to both of these extremes is repentance. Repentance for believing we can find salvation in our perfect “mini-me’s” and repentance for believing our meetings are more important than our children. Once we repent, the answer to this question is much easier.
2) It’s important to be clear that God values hospitality as a character trait of eldership (1 Timothy 3:2) and that both the husband and his spouse’s character is in question. My hope is those asking these questions are proto-elders, elders in training, or consider themselves elders already. I’m concerned when these sorts of questions come up, though, because it’s clear that one person in the marriage is more committed to the mission (which includes inviting the least of these into our homes) and the other is less committed. A spouse that isn’t given over to hospitality isn’t ready for eldership and a spouse that isn’t ready is a married couple who isn’t ready. Stop. Take the time to get on the same page as your spouse. Don’t let the dream of ministry be the altar you sacrifice your marriage on. Take however long it needs to take for her (or his?) heart to change. Be patient with Jesus and your spouse and let Him bring you both together into mission.
3) My hope when someone asks this is that it’s a sincere question. I’ve seen more churches dissolve because of a lack of funding than I’ve seen dissolve because of a sin issue. In the heart of many Americans, church planting is a route to a job. We must repent of the idea that the church exists to fund us. Period. So if the funding runs out, you need to get a job. Yes, the church will get less of your time. But you’re in this because you wanted to equip God’s people and reach the lost, right? So your funding running out is the perfect time to get a secular job, meet broken people, and equip others to some of the work you’re not able to do. Read BiVo. It will help.
4) At the heart of this question is the idea that church planting means growing a fully functioning church as quickly as possible. This is called transplant growth and it does almost nothing to grow the Kingdom. Why not start with two or three dedicated people and reach out to lost people exclusively? If your answer has something to do with finances, see #3. Turn away people from other churches or better yet help them start doing the same thing you are. They are needed in the harvest as well. And you’re in this to reach the lost, right? [nods head] Good, me too.
5) Ironically, this issue is the one issue Hugh addresses. I think Hugh hits the nail on the head. Many who think this way are afraid of sin in others and want to control it. I just want to add this: Be deeply involved with the people who are part of your church. Don’t just attend a meeting with them. Go to dinner with them. Play a sport with them. Share lives 24/7 with them. You will find all sorts of things wrong with these people. They will do the same with you, most likely. And then when you’ve earned the right to talk about sin with them, tell them about sin and point them toward Jesus with love. Call them higher, like a father. And if you do, 9 times out of 10, you will win your brother (Galatians 6:1-3). Spiritual discipline is so much easier and much more helpful if you do it because you love people and are in the trenches with them.
My point is this: these issues strike at the heart of “the American Gospel Enterprise,” a phenomenon where the church is treated like a business and we try to live off the benefits. Our current system encourages us to create a distraction free bubble where the meetings are entertainment-based and not an invitation into life together. Because people want this, crowds gather for this type of meeting and bring money that can support the people who lead it. But this is not the church as Jesus intended. Where these issues touch your heart (and hurt), repent. Begin to live like Jesus and the apostles and less like the latest church planting book you’ve read. Once you do, these issues will be much, much clearer.
So, there’s my responses to Hugh’s Five Questions. No one asked me. This is in no way endorsed by Hugh nor do I expect a response from him. I would take feedback, however, so if you’re reading this, please leave a comment and let me know if I missed something.