The apostle Paul was generous when it came to people he might have considered rivals. He wrote, ‘Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice’ (Philippians 1:15-18).
Paul was in a prison, unable to continue the ministry to which Jesus had appointed him. Others were taking advantage of the situation, no doubt adopting churches he had started and preaching where he himself would have wished to reap. Frustrating indeed!
Worse still, some were motivated by envy and rivalry – deliberately seeking to ‘afflict’ him. However, while Paul does not approve their motives, he does not condemn them either. He is single minded in his concern that the gospel should be preached.
I wonder how I would have reacted in Paul’s place. Would I have been able to avoid bitterness and rejoice that Christ was being preached? (We have to be careful here. Those who preached Christ out of envy or rivalry were apparently orthodox theologically. Had it been otherwise, Paul would have called their message ‘a different gospel’; see Galatians 1:6-9).
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described how some Christians, mostly young, are meeting in small groups and assuming all the essential functions of a church. They preach the gospel, teach the Scripture, observe the ordinances, and worship and praise our Lord Jesus Christ – even though they sometimes number less than a dozen.
Detractors, of course, point out the dangers of such house churches – such as an inward focus and a lack of mature leadership. There is always something wrong from someone’s point of view – we Christians have an almost palpable critical streak!
But house churches are nothing new. The early Christians, once they were excluded from the synagogues, had no formal meeting places but gathered wherever they could. Paul refers to one such church in Romans 16:5.
In the Jesus Movement, of which I was a part, ‘street Christians’ (as we called ourselves) met in homes because we had nowhere else to meet. Some established churches accepted and even welcomed us, but many did not. At one point, almost forty years ago, we had so many house churches that I found it necessary to write a small pamphlet on how to establish and care for these groups.
Ignorant of church history
At that time we thought we were experiencing a new phenomenon, a new work of the Holy Spirit. We had little knowledge of the history of the church nor did we understand that house churches were common in communist countries like China and the Soviet Union. Reading the book of Acts and the letters of Paul we thought house churches were merely a return to the way church was done in the apostolic era – and that was what we wanted.
After the Jesus Movement died down, many of us who had idealised the house church format ended up either forming or identifying with established churches.
Miller Avenue Baptist Church in Mill Valley, California, of which I am pastor, is a traditional church – meeting in a purpose-built building and carrying out the general functions of a traditional church. It is not a house church.
But what if house churches began to form in Mill Valley, like the ones described by the Los Angeles Times? What if they attracted some of the folks from my own church? If it were not for Philippians 1:15-18, and the testimony of the apostle, I might be tempted to condemn them.
But following Paul’s single-mindedness and generosity, I would not do so. If fellow Christians established house churches in our area, I would not oppose those brothers and sisters, or speak ill of them – as long as they are proclaiming the Christ of ‘all the Scriptures’.