Doctrinal Development in House Church Networks

By David S. Lim, Ph.D. (first published 2010)

The global house church movement takes doctrinal integrity very seriously.  Developing a sound biblical theology is important. Knowing about the truth rationally (theology) is an important element in “loving God” – with all our mind (Mt. 22:37-39). But it has to be differentiated from knowing the embodied Truth personally revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, which involves “loving God” with all our being. Only the latter leads to eternal life. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-3).

To those who accuse house-churches of being doctrinally superficial or inadequate, there are three sets of responses.

First, do these detractors really believe in the “Perspecuity of Scripture,” the Reformation doctrine that the Bible is 100% clear in all that it teaches about God’s plan of redemption? If an illiterate tribal woman hears the Bible read (from Genesis to Revelation) in her dialect, how many percent can she understand? The correct reply must be 100% of the plan of salvation and 98% of other major doctrines. The 2% (referred to partly in 2 Pet. 3:16) can never be fully understood or systematized even with the help of Bible dictionaries and commentaries! In fact, those who go to seminaries would come out almost always with the biblical interpretations and systematic theologies of their favorite theological professors and/or authors!

God intends His will to be known and understood by all peoples, so He had it revealed through ordinary people using ordinary language for ordinary people! Simple reflection on Scriptures by any believer with the humble attitude to believe its truths and promises and to obey its commandments (1 Cor. 7:18-20) is enough to help them grow into full maturity in faith, hope and love. Simple faith in Jesus and his teachings is more than adequate for Christian growth and church ministry!

Thus quality disciple-making seeks to equip and empower each believer to self-feed and self-theologize, thereby developing their own personalized and contextualized doctrines – direct from Scripture, not from someone else’s fallible devotional guide or theological book. Though getting help from other Christians is helpful, this has often become a habit that disempowers (making simple believers feel inadequate) and develops complacency (making them dependent if not lazy to read the word for themselves)! In short, can’t we trust the Holy Spirit to guide all who simply read the word prayerfully and expectantly into all truth (Jn. 16:13-15)? The only authoritative corrective for anyone who may go astray is the mutual accountability that they exercise whenever they meet together in small groups (= house churches), for where two or three are gathered worshipfully, the full presence of Jesus is with them (Mt. 18:18-20). Here is the practice of “the priesthood of all believers” at its finest!

Mark in a houses church meeting he pioneered
Mutual accountability through meeting in small groups

Secondly, the accusation is framed from a Western (= Greek) understanding of faith – mainly Platonic where idea/reason prevails over character & action/behavior. Faith seeks understanding indeed.  But whose understanding and whose theology? Doctrinal debates have kept the church divided for centuries. The existence of one denomination accuses the others of inadequate if not inaccurate doctrines! Did Jesus or Paul give us a systematic theology? What were their views on tongues & supernatural gifts, leadership & role of women, creation & evolution, and worst in ecclesiology: how does God want His people to worship him – with holy men (clergy) in holy buildings (sanctuary), using holy rituals (liturgy) at holy times?  How will God judge us for eternal life – by our faith defined as doctrines or as works (Matt.25:31-46; Js.2:14-26)? Imagine how many Christians will be able to enter heaven if they have to pass a theological (or even simply a Christological) exam before being allowed in. Thank God we are saved by grace through faith (that works through love, Gal.5:6), not through orthodoxy (= right doctrines) – the sheep/righteous didn’t know nor believed that Jesus identifies himself with the poor (Matt.25:37-40)!

Thirdly, by raising doctrinal purity as a concern, Christians are being diverted from Christ’s priority and are tempted to complicate the simple plan of Jesus to make disciples (not religious proselytes nor theologians) across all nations and peoples. We just need to disciple people to walk humbly with God – doing justice and loving mercy (Micah 6:8; cf. vv. 6-8; Amos 5:21-24; Isa. 58:1-12).  They just need to be trained to do lectio divina (godly reading or devotional use of Scriptures), and model and pass this on to their family & friends! This is how simple Christianity should be, for it to multiply fast (esp. in oral and illiterate cultures) yet with quality discipleship.

Each Christian just needs to learn to live out a Christ-like character of agape-love in whatever status and vocation they are called to, and try to reach out and touch those around them. This kind of simple obedience to the Great Commandment and Great Commission does not require theological education. Historically focusing on theologizing has often diverted the global church from doing evangelism and missions. And worse, doctrinal conflicts have kept churches divided, and hence diluted the witness of the church. Didn’t our Lord pray, “Let them be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn.17:21-23)? As they say, “In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, diversity; In all things, charity”!

a women's discipleship group meeting, Metro Manila

2 Timothy 2:2 refers to the skills of disciple-making learned in small groups, so we should focus on equipping our new disciples in counseling, evangelism and leadership – how to love, serve and work with people. Life is relationships; all the rest are details. In short, we just need to disciple people to be human, as God originally created us to be – sharing in love and caring for one another. Loving is Christ’s New (Testament) Commandment for the world to know that we are truly his followers (Jn.13:34-35) – not through mastery of doctrinal knowledge even of biblical theology! Perhaps house-church theology (not just ecclesiology) and spirituality are more biblical than the dominant theologies and spiritualities in today’s Christendom(s)?

The early believers’ example in loving and caring for one another. Illustration courtesy of Aya & NicoleVelasquez via FreeBibleimages.

Therefore, let’s just keep it simple, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide his people into all truth as they meditate on his word! Let’s just emphasize friendship evangelism, because that’s the weakest link among Christians today. We make so many programs, including discipleship classes and training seminars, which really take our disciples’ time from touching the lives of nonbelievers! Most recent statistics show that 86% of today’s non-Christians do not know any Christian at all! Let’s just simply focus on making disciples who can make disciples wherever they live and work!

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