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House Churches, Cell Groups. What's wrong?

27th February 2007

Hi Guys,

A summary of Frank Viola's article on House Churches by Gary Amirault.  Excellent insight. ---T

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Tentmaker Reconciliation List Message: Local Fellowshipping

(Feel free to pass this onto other lists. Gary Amirault)

 Ever since becoming a Christian over twenty years ago, the subject of Christians coming together to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth and to become the light of the world has been a central issue for me and a most frustrating one. I have a burning desire to see local expressions of Christ’s body in the earth that have real impact in their community. I’ve been in hundreds of different churches, assemblies, home groups, cell groups, etc. and have not really found what I truly believe can be available to those who have been brought into the kingdom of God. Our Video “Christ’s Body Assembled in the New Day” expresses some of my hopes for local assemblies:
There are many obstacles which prevent a pure local expression from coming forth. Frank Viola in his book “So You Want to Start a House Church ” lists some of them. Below is an excerpt from the book. While I believe Frank is wrong in some of his thinking, he still has some valuable things to contribute. I’ll make a comment about that at the end of Frank’s summary on House Churches.

Frank Viola on House Churches:
Some Sub-Cultures of House Church
Most of the groups that fly under the flag of "house church" or "NT church" fit neatly into one of the following categories:

* The Glorified Bible Study. This brand of house church is typically chaired by an ex-clergyman or aspiring Bible teacher. This person usually facilitates a round-table discussion of the Scriptures. Meetings are dominated by Bible expositions which often descend into fruitless debates. In the glorified Bible study, those members who are not theologically inclined have a rather thin participation. Whether he recognizes it or not, the person facilitating the Bible study is in charge of the church.

* The Special Interest Group. These home groups make their focal point for assembling a common interest like home school, home birth, the keeping of Jewish feasts, a particular eschatological view, a pro forma pattern of church service, organic farming, personal prophecy, "Holy Ghost laughter," social justice, or some other issue, fad, or thing—even "house church" itself!

* The Personality Cult. Members of these groups center their universe around a gifted man or woman. It may be a dead apostle whose writings act as the exclusive medium for the group’s identity, beliefs, and practices. More often, the object of attention is a Christian leader who founds the church and perpetually stays resident within it. While the gifted personality often has a genuine desire to see the Body build itself up, his mere presence obstructs this spiritual dynamic. He is typically blind to the fact that he has unwittingly fostered an unhealthy dependence upon himself. Therefore, he is the son of the modern pastor.

* The Bless-Me-Club. At bottom, this is a narcissistic community—a spiritual ghetto. The meetings are insular and highly charismatic. The group functions as a spiritual fueling station for burned out Christians in need of an emotional fix. Churches of this ilk are dominated by navel-gazing individualists. Thus its members typically bail-out whenever the group faces a rough thicket. So when conflict or dry spells occur, those who were most zealous about "house church" end up being lured back to the polish and flair of the program-driven religious system.

* The Socially Amorphous Party. These home groups are typically comprised of four to eight people who nebulously meet in a living room to chat over tea and cookies. They rarely attain critical mass due to a lack of vision and purpose. They like to speak bulbously about Jesus being present whenever "two or three are gathered together." However, they usually fold before they even begin to understand why they exist. If they do not fold, their meetings become progressively sterile as the years roll by.

* The Disgruntled Malcontent Society. Comprised of ex-church derelicts and recycled Christians, these groups happily assemble to lick their wounds and slam the "spiritually abusive" institutional church. Their meetings are permeated with an atmosphere of pessimism, cynicism, and veiled bitterness. Tragically, after the members tire of attacking the organized church, they begin to chew one another up. Thus they find themselves taken by the same spirit they set out to oppose. This form of house church attracts Christians who are deeply wounded and have never learned to trust others.

* The Unwritten Liturgy Driven Church. These groups clearly stand outside the stream of institutional Christianity. But they often do not meet in a home. Many gather in a rented building or a "meeting hall." The dominating weakness of their gatherings is the lurking presence of an unwritten liturgy. The ironclad liturgy, which is practiced perfunctorily every week, is never questioned or changed. In fact, if the order of worship is broken in any way, the leadership of the church will call the violators on the carpet to reprove them for their irreverence!

All of the aforementioned groups happily sail under the banner of "house church" or "NT church." Yet they all fall short of the Scriptural idea of church. By NT standards, a church is a group of Christians that gathers unto, by, and for the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is an assembly of believers who are fiercely committed to Christ’s full expression in their community. Jesus Christ is the life-blood of the church. He is the Center. He is the Circumference. He is the Content. He is the Focus. He is the sole gathering point of the church.

The saints who gather as a church are consumed with Jesus Christ and nothing else. Their goal is to make Him visible in their community. Their hallmark is their growing knowledge of the Lord. And their testimony is an unmistakable love for one another. House churches that are not characterized by these spiritual features not only miss a step, but they dance the wrong dance.

A genuine church is neither issue-centered, person-centered, nor doctrine-centered. It is Christ-centered! The church exists for one purpose and one purpose alone: The unveiling of the centrality and supremacy of her Lord! In fact, in God’s view the church is a Person, not a structure. It is Jesus Christ in corporate human expression (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 9:4; 11:24; 1 Cor. 12:12).

...In short, when Jesus Christ is not the center of a house church, the only fuel that can drive it is a fascinating issue, a charismatic personality, or a nifty doctrine. But all of these fuels yield low mileage. And when they run dry, the group collapses.

A fellowship of believers can only be held together in any beneficial way when a continual encounter with the Lord Jesus becomes the dominating element. At bottom, if Christ is not the glue of a non-institutional church, its meetings will become shallow, colorless, and eventually unsustainable.

The Psalmist once uttered, "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalms. 11:3). Why have so many house churches bitten the dust? Most often it is because they were not founded upon a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, they were founded upon something less.

There are a raft of things today that Christians assemble around—even noble things that have something to do with Christ. The following "things" have taken center stage in most modern house churches in the West:

Calvinism ("the doctrines of grace").
Some end-time theology (usually preterism, post-millenialism, or pre-tribulationalism).
Spiritual gifts.
"Holy Ghost laughter" and being "slain in the Spirit."
Personal prophecy.
Faith Healing.
Home Schooling.
Home Birthing.
Some political viewpoint.
Social justice and helping the poor.
Any-man’s doctrine (meaning, the group exists to debate various doctrines from the Bible).
House churching.
Social fellowship ("hanging out").
The doctrine of ultimate reconciliation or universalism (even the devil gets saved in the end).
Eternal security.
An academic Bible study.
Evangelism.
Personal holiness.
Spiritual warfare.
Health and nutrition.

All of these "things" are the glue that holds such groups together. But there is a colossal difference between meeting around some "thing" about the Lord and meeting around the Lord Himself! There is a vast ocean between meeting around an "it" and meeting around "Him"!

If you were to read your NT with an eye for discovering how the early churches were formed, you would find that they were solidly built upon the unshakable revelation of Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16-18). All the churches that Paul planted were built upon this revelation (1 Cor. 3:11). And out of this mighty unveiling of Christ, churches spontaneously issued forth. (Note that the apostolic declaration of Jesus Christ has community forming properties.)

Because the church is founded upon the Lord Jesus Christ, it can survive under the most intense pressure and testing (1 Cor. 3:6-15). The winds may blow brutally and the floods fall fiercely, but the house will stand because it is founded upon a Rock (Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-48). Put another way, Jesus Christ is the only unmovable foundation upon which God’s people may rightfully gather.

Those Christians who are seeking to serve God without the sturdy props of human hierarchy must build their community life upon Jesus Christ. If they do not, their chances of surviving are close to nil. (End of Summary)

I (Gary Amirault) believe Frank Viola hit the nail on the head on a lot of points.

However, a fellowship built around Frank’s ideas expressed in his article can still end up in idolatry. Frank points out (and rightfully so) that many house fellowship are built around a favorite doctrine. And he points out that there are some who meet around the doctrine of Universal Salvation (a doctrine which I believe Frank does not embrace, at least publicly.) The Father seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. I don’t believe that is possible without the Truth. Yes, Jesus is the Truth. But equally true is the fact that this truth needs to be expressed in sound teaching. I don’t believe people who are worshipping an image of a God who ends up failing for most of mankind (those who believe in a Hell of everlasting punishment) are worshipping the true image of God. Anything less is idolatry. True, the doctrine of Universal Salvation CAN and often is an idol in one’s heart.  It is true that the teaching of Universal Salvation, Grace, Sovereignty, Dispensationalism, Preterism, etc. can and often are distractions from true worship, nevertheless, sound teaching is vital in local bodies. Any fellowship that centers around a Savior who tried to save the world but missed, is a fellowship doomed to the same failure as their failed savior. However, a fellowship built around the “doctrine” of universal salvation is equally doomed to fail in expressing Christ.

We have another email distribution list entitled “Local Fellowships” to which we have not sent too many mailings. (As a matter of fact, we haven’t sent much to any of our distribution lists due to lack of time.) We are going to try to make a concerted effort to do more towards promoting local fellowships incorporating some of the ideas in our video “Christ’s Body Assembled in the New Day,” Frank’s summary above as well as other resources. We offer two books in our Tentmaker Resources that are excellent reference works on the church and assembling: “The Way Church Ought To Be” by Robert Lund and “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola . Please bookmark the page:
(If you have problems reaching this page, please email me at gary@tentmaker.org .Thanks.)

If you have a deep desire to gather with those who love Jesus Christ and His Father, please email me. Send me your name, address, phone numbers. We are going to put more effort in helping people come together to “worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth” and to be the “light of the world.” Email me. And please lift this desire on our part and yours before our Maker in prayer.

John 17:19-26  19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.  20 "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:  23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  24 "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.  25 "Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.  26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."

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