Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Tradition and the House Church Movement
08/06/2009 - James SwanThe interactions with Harold Camping's flee the church reminded me of a recent discussion I had with a person intrigued by the house church movement. He explained there was a grass roots movement of serious Reformed Christians that believed big churches were a leftover from medieval Catholicism. That big building you go to every Sunday wasn't what the Apostles had in mind. When they established churches, they intended them to consist of a small body of serious believers meeting in a house. The Reformers, while attacking many of the non-Biblical traditions of Rome, forgot a few, like the non-biblical big buildings and organized large bodies of believers. If you've ever struggled to find a parking space at church, or had someone almost run you over after the service, the idea of a small fellowship sounds quite appealing. Chances are, in a small fellowship, you'll know whose car you escaped from. Or, do you ever feel lost in the crowd at your big church? Wouldn't a smaller body of believers that could fit in your living room be the perfect solution for fellowship? Do you ever question the building fund at your church? Sometimes you wonder if the money spent on a bigger building could be used more beneficially elsewhere. How many churches have major splits due to a new construction? Recall, the entire Reformation was sparked by problems with a building project.
As my friend continued to explain the benefits of the house church ideal over dinner, in the back of my mind I recalled hearing about this movement before. It was on Chris Arnzen's Iron Sharpens Iron program. I searched the archives, and found an interview Chris conducted with one of the key players, Steve Atkerson. Steve not only champions the house church movement, but has also provided some excellent materials refuting hyper-preterism. Two interviews on the subject can be found here and here.
As I listened again to the interview, one thing immediately jumped out at me, and according to Chris Arnzen, I called him after the interview originally aired and voiced the same concern. It was the use of the word tradition. Here's a 5 minute MP3 clip from the interview. An appeal is made to the word tradition as found in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15. These texts struck me immediately, because they're the same texts used by Roman Catholics to establish their notion of tradition.
Atkerson asserts the home church is a tradition established by the Apostles. He suggests doing a study of the use of word tradition in the New Testament. So I did. The word παράδοσις (paradosis) occurs 13 times in the New Testament. Most of the instances present tradition negatively. There are though three key positive occurrences of the word (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thes. 2:15, 3:6).
I'm always intrigued by what gets put in the tradition set. When Roman Catholics appeal to these verses, they typically do so to establish either doctrines found outside the Bible or a particular interpretation of a passage. For Atkerson, he notes that tradition is plural in 1 Cor. 11:2. He states the chapter is about "church life" and it refers to "all of the traditions regarding the practice of the church." Conspicuously missing though is any reference to the tradition of the congregation size or dwelling of the church in Corinth, and any mandate of inspired instruction to follow on either. In context, Paul instructs on the the roles of men and women in worship, and on the Lord's supper.
He then cites 2 Thessalonians 2:15. He says "there's no doubt about the traditions of the apostles as regards to church life." The question I have for Mr. Atkerson is can he objectively identify the apostolic tradition of instructions as to the size and dwelling of a church? Did the early church fail to pass on these traditions as Paul instructed the Thessalonians? Once persecution lifted, the church abandoned the use of the home as a meeting place. In God's providence, did the Holy Spirit see fit to leave such an important tradition on the church either unwritten or buried implicitly that many of the great minds of the church missed it for centuries?
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul states,
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work. (2 Thes. 2:13-17)
Paul is referring to the basic teachings of the gospel itself, particularly with an oncoming apostasy he cautioned his readers against (2 Thes. 2:1-12). David King has done a masterful job covering the Biblical use of paradosis in his book, Holy Scripture, The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Vol. 1. He points out,
"The 'traditions' of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 are a reference to the same message delivered in two different modes. The coordinating conjunction "whether-or" in 2 Thes. 2:15 signifies the two-fold apostolic method of delivering the same doctrine orally or in writing. There is not the slightest inference from this passage that the apostle's oral proclamation differed in content or substance from that which was delivered by written tradition. It does not follow that any part of apostolic tradition remains unwritten, especially given the fact that no single instance of any so-called, unwritten apostolic tradition has ever been produced" (p.120).
There were a few other things that worried me about the house church movement from the ISI interview. One was the admission that many of the house churches would occasionally meet together for a big meeting. That sounds to me suspiciously like a big organized church meeting in a big building. Is this an apostolic tradition as well, or an exception to the apostolic rule? Why is it legitimate to meet together as a large congregation occasionally?
There was also an admission that current house churches were not necessarily Reformed. I question whether a movement that claims such close fellowship among its members can be unified with other house churches in any meaningful doctrinal way. Steve explained that the same problem can be found with large organized churches as well. However, he appears to have networked the small house churches together, in the same way the denomination I belong to (United Reformed Churches in North America) is likewise networked. We have consistent doctrinal standards that encompass key essentials like soteriology. I question whether an Arminian house church and and Calvinistic house church could partake in the same bonding unity my denomination does.
I don't doubt the sincerity of those involved in the house church movement. If you listen to the entirety of the Iron Sharpens Iron interview, you can't help but see the financial logic of a house church, as well as the bond formed by such close fellowship. On the other hand, it does make me cautious when the same response I would give to a Roman Catholic using the word tradition is the same response I'd give to the house church movement advocates.