COMING HOME: REFLECTIONS ON HOUSE CHURCHES

Do house churches work? Could they be an alternative structure to traditional churches?

Things happened at houses in the early church:

  • Pentecost started in a house. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.       Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1,2).
  • The early church grew—in homes, with larger gatherings at the temple: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). “Day after day in the temple courts and from house to house they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news…” (Acts 5:42).
  • The Spirit fell on Gentiles in a house gathering (Acts 10:25).
  • The Philippian church was likely birthed in Lydia’s house (Acts 16:15; 16:40). Priscilla and Aquila had a church in their house (Ro.16:5; I Cor.16:19). Others had house churches: Nympha (Col.4:15), Archippus (Philemon 2).
  • Paul met with people in homes. His strategy began in the synagogue and moved to homes when a critical mass believed. In his farewell to the Ephesians elders, he said that he taught “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).

House churches have some advantages:

Low cost. Just pay the mortgage.

Fellowship. The sharing of lives in a home atmosphere.

Evangelism. More natural to invite someone to a home.

Discipleship. The structure of the house church makes application of truth a more lively potential, where the fellowship hopefully creates interdependence.

Leadership. There’s a shortage of seminary-trained pastors. House churches look for a mature leader, an elder in the faith. They can also answer to the clergy-laity gap.

New Testament model. Church buildings multiplied when Christianity became a state-recognized religion. Under persecution in the first two centuries, the house church model flourished.

History. The success of house churches in places like China and Africa is compelling. Revival and awakening have often been accompanied by a house church movement. Think Wesleyans, Moravians and Mennonites.

Some liabilities:

  1. We’ve only known the traditional model.       House churches seem cultic to some.       Are they legit?
  2. The transfer from program-based church to a relational-based will take us through withdrawal. Programs may need to be replaced by stronger family ties.
  3. House churches could be another fad, the latest answer to pressing needs.
  4. Conventional churches have an endurance factor that house churches do not have.

How might some transition if convinced this could be positive?

  1. Think about underlying values. Are they worth going after? What are they?
  2. Consider the questions involved: Must it be either-or? Could we take some values from the house church model and apply them to the traditional model? Would we do a house church alongside a traditional church? Could we try it as an evangelistic tool for our neighborhoods? How could oversight be given to house churches to guard against heresy?

The success of the house church movement has brought it into the limelight. It is gathering momentum, and the wind of the Spirit is blowing. We would do well at least to understand it. Could be quite a homecoming!

MY FRIEND HERMEN: Understanding principles of Bible interpretation

I want you to meet Hermen. I don’t know him well, but what I know I appreciate. He’s opinionated, but I respect his wisdom. Since we share an interest in books, I have learned some of Hermen’s ideas on how to read literature, including the Bible. Here are some:

l) Take the simple meaning first. Don’t allegorize unless the author gives you a clue that you are supposed to. Interpret words literally, unless given a reason not to. Don’t look for “hidden truth” until you understand the clear meaning. Words contain a socially acknowledged meaning. It isn’t fair pool to redefine a word to fit one’s private interpretation. Words should normally be understood in the customary way they would at the time written. To find the simple meaning, we try to understand the culture in which the term was used.

2) Let easier passages explain hard ones. Don’t make a case about difficult texts unless the easier passages make the same point. Cults make a big deal about scriptures over which much controversy swirls.

3) Let the author explain himself. Don’t tell him what he meant. If you read enough, he will probably tell you. Scripture explains Scripture more accurately than a commentary can. Inductive study hopefully keeps us from reading something into a passage.

4) Expect a book to agree with itself. Unless an author is losing his marbles, he will not say one thing in one passage that is contradicted in another. Apparent contradictions are probably in the reader’s mind, not the author’s.

5) Context helps with text. Check the environment. Hermen agrees with the axiom, “A text without a context is a pretext.” To discover what an author is saying, find out what he already said or says in the next chapter. It gripes Hermen when people lift a quote out of context and make it say what the writer isn’t.

6) Authors write books to say something. Discovering the main message helps you understand supporting points. The whole should equal the sum of the parts.

7) If you don’t understand chapter one, maybe you will after you read chapter two. The end clarifies the beginning. This is called progressive revelation. Revelation completes the big picture. What happens in the New helps to interpret the Old. For instance, Hebrews helps us understand Leviticus and Revelation, Genesis.

Hermen won’t budge much. If you have occasion to be involved with him, you will get along better if you understand these rules. Hermen’s last name, in case you wish to contact him, is Eutics. His full name, Hermen Eutics, has an interesting origin, coming from a Greek word “hermenea,” meaning “interpretation.” Hermen helps us interpret the Bible, an important skill.

Fishing—Jesus Style

Failure doesn’t feel good—ever. We expected a raise—and we got laid off. We prayed for healing—and we went in for radical surgery. We studied hard—and failed!

Failure is a sometimes a necessary step toward success. Problem—failure takes courage out. That’s why Peter’s fishing incident can en-courage us who feel like failures.

Peter had spent a night fishing—with nothing to show for it. That’s the time not to ask, “How was fishing?” Peter and the others were “washing their nets” (Luke 5:2). From him we learn three truths about reversing defeats.

BE HONEST ABOUT FAILURE.

When Jesus finished teaching, “he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing’” (v.5a). He could have said, “It wasn’t that bad—could have been better.”

Because we’re fragile, we hedge. Peter laid it out straight: “We toiled all night (the reality) and took nothing” (the result). Nothing is not much. The word “nothing” could get stuck in the throat of a veteran fisherman. Nothing like honesty to prepare us for God’s new work. No excuses.

BE OBEDIENT TO THE WORD OF CHRIST.

Peter was remarkable in his honesty—and obedient: “But at your word (remati) I will let down the nets” (v.5b). Jesus had been teaching the crowd the “word of God” (logos, v.1).

Then He decided to teach Peter, so He gave him a specific word. It wasn’t a teaching; it was a word. Peter had to make a decision about obeying. He could have said, “You don’t understand; the best time is at night.” He could have resented Christ, thinking “He should stick with preaching—I’ll stick with fishing.”

No delay—just instant obedience. Fishing was an area of strength for Peter, but he was willing to lay down his area of expertise before the real Master. The nets that had been retired were called into duty.

The experience of yesterday sometimes paralyzes faith today. We have a good memory for failure. Experience can teach us, but it can also terrify us. Then the word of Christ comes to challenge our experience.

We desperately need to hear from Christ. We have too often seen the success of another fisherman and copied it, only to discover that what worked somewhere else didn’t work with us. Why not? Because it wasn’t a word to us. The success of Peter can be attributed to one thing—obedience to Christ’s word. Nor could Peter assume that he could do it again the next time Jesus used his boat.

Peter’s response shows that he knows that he can take no credit for what just happened. He realizes he is dealing with someone who is on an altogether different level than he. He says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (v.8). His words reflect the dreadful awareness that he and Jesus are different.

STICK WITH JESUS.

Other fishermen would not have recommended what Peter did. It didn’t make good sense. God makes obedient children look good. Moving by revelation is safer than moving by reason. Catching the wind of the Spirit beats working for God.

Religion does funny things for people. It makes them strive, struggle, and work for a God who is not easy to please. Jesus is. He said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Stay close.

HOW TO GET GOOD AND ANGRY

I’m told people get angry (or frustrated) an average of eleven times a day. Probably good to deal with it. Here’s what Paul says (Eph. 4:26,27):

1. “BE ANGRY.”

It’s a God-given emotion, and there are some things worth getting angry about. The inability to get angry limits us from responding properly to injustice.

Florence Nightingale was angry for inadequate hospital care. William Carey was angered by the inhumane slave trade in Africa. Positive anger makes civil wrongs into civil rights.

2. “…AND DO NOT SIN.”

Ah—that’s the rub. If God gets angry, it’s godly. Problem—it often leads to sin. Anger is an emotion, a response to a threat to our lives, our character, our opinions, our property. What we do with it determines whether we sin.

Anger turned out leads to aggression, like with Cain. God commanded him to put his desires under control. He chose instead to put his brother out of commission. Anger turned in leads to depression. Jonah was depressed because God didn’t do things his way, the passive-aggressive kind who says, ” I’m not angry, just hurt.” We are warned that “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

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Clench your fist. That is often the posture of angry people. And even if the fist is not clenched, the heart is. James wrote, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness…” (Js. l:l9,2l).

3. “DO NOT LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR ANGER.”

In other words, deal with it. Anger neglected leads to bitterness. One can have anger without sinning but not bitterness, anger gone to seed. We are not responsible for what people do to us—we are responsible for our responses.

One way to deal with our anger is to forgive. Unforgiveness can settle under our skin like a tumor and remain undetected.

Forgiveness does not mean…

.we overlook the offense

.we lift responsibility from the erring party

Forgiveness means that we release the other to the justice and mercy of the Lord. Our option is to hold onto anger—and play God.

4. “AND GIVE NO OPPORTUNITY TO THE DEVIL.”

When my car overheated, I thought I could make it over the top of a hill. $488 later with a blown head gasket said, “Let the engine cool.”

Damage to metal is one thing; damage to people is more costly. Anger not discharged leads to hostility, a fire that burns within. When we say, “That really burns me,” we are close to the truth. Even if anger is justified, it still ruins the engine.

Perhaps this prayer echoes your heart: “Dear Father, I am angry. I need to let it go and forgive. I have closed my heart off to your love. Forgive my wrong responses. Teach me to overcome evil with good. Through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.”

THE BEST ADVICE I EVER HEARD…

came from Jesus. I have tried applying it to my marriage. Fits any relationship: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Jesus.

 

DENY YOURSELF

  • I choose to deny myself instead of thinking I owe it to myself. I’m not a victim, and others don’t owe me anything, but I owe God everything. I will not slip into entitlement as if “I deserve better than this.”
  • I choose to respond rather than react. Reacting gets me into trouble, so I deny myself the right to fight, the right to be right. “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1), and I would rather turn it away than fire it up.
  • I choose to look past my friend’s faults to his/her future. “Love always believes, always hopes, always endures.” I’ll do that for those I love (in my best moments).
  • I choose to take the low road of humility rather than the high road of pride. I will be quick to point out my own faults (God help me!) rather than the faults of my friend. And I will be quick to forgive rather than holding onto unforgiveness until he/she deserves it. Rather than getting one up on her, I want to get one under her.
  • I choose to believe that the Holy Spirit will produce the fruit of joy in my life if I do not make happiness a personal right but a byproduct of obedience.

TAKE UP YOUR CROSS

  • I take up my cross daily. The cross is the price that I pay to obey God. I willingly embrace suffering because it brings healing to others and character to me.
  • I take up my cross by not interpreting pain as the absence of God. I will likely sense His presence more strongly. I will not be surprised when going through trials and testing, as if I expect better.
  • I take up my cross by learning to die daily to my rights and accepting my responsibilities. I die to selfish emotions. When misunderstood or rejected, I will accept it as part of the territory and not complain. Ouch!

FOLLOW JESUS.

  • I follow Jesus by choosing to live for others. I will ask how they are rather than expecting them to ask me, encourage rather than being encouraged, serve rather than being served, think of others instead of expecting them to think about me.
  • I follow Jesus by choosing to overcome evil with good rather than returning evil with evil. I choose to not take up an offense. That’s tricky! I choose to love even when it is not returned and forgive when people are not ready to confess.
  • I follow Jesus by choosing to find my identity in the Father’s love. I do not need the praise or affirmation of others to establish my identity (I need you, Jesus). I am valued because Christ shed His blood for me. If I am devalued by others, I will count on Christ’s evaluation. On the other hand, I will be quick to affirm my spouse and others. But I will accept affirmation graciously if it is given.
  • I follow Jesus by maintaining an attitude of thankfulness in the midst of difficulty. When the going gets tough, the tough get—grateful!

Sounds like a great marriage? It is—when I manage to pull off my part!

DOES SATAN LIKE SEX?

He hates it. Sex is God’s idea. It pictures God’s passionate love for His people and Christ’s affection for His Bride. The Bible tells a love story from cover to cover. It begins with a walk and ends with a wedding. The supper celebration goes on for an eternity. Top that!

Satan is not into pleasure. Hell is a miserable, thankless place. No one ever has a good day. Satan perverts every good gift of God, including sex. God puts joy into sex—the devil extracts it. Why else would we feel fear and guilt when we follow his schemes? He doesn’t want us to enjoy sex or even food (I Tim. 4:3).

He keeps us from true pleasure. He turns intimacy into abuse, perversion, or domination. David knew that “at thy right hand are pleasures forevermore,” not with the enemy.

Sex shows up in the first two chapters of the Bible, for goodness sakes. God tells His creation to “be fruitful and multiply.” I know only one way to fulfill that command. Then Eve shows up without clothes on, God’s gift for Adam. He says, “She is bone of my bone…”, which interpreted means, “Wow!” Physical union results. God has given those made in His image “the urge to merge.”

Satan shows up one chapter later to alienate Adam from Eve and both from God. Pleasure dissolves. Enter manipulation and blame.

Some remain unconvinced. They call desserts devilishly delicious or sinfully satisfying. “Nasty” means “delightful.” Decadent ice cream is supposed to be the best, as if Satan has an edge on ecstasy. He has not experienced pleasure since his fall. Some think that those not encumbered with the restraints experience more joy. Talk to them.

The psalmist struggled: “This is what the wicked are like—always carefree…Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:12,13). He idealized their freedom: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man” (4).

Think about it: fences define the game. Imagine baseball without a foul line. You just destroyed the sport. When everything goes, everything goes, including pleasure. Take away boundaries (we called it “free love” in the 70’s) and we just got lied to—neither freedom nor love.

The psalmist came to a true picture of life without walls: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (16,17). They look happy, but you cannot cope if you have no hope. Try living in their troubled mind. Take away a person’s tomorrow, and you just robbed him of his today.

Say “Satan,” and you just named the most miserable person in the universe. He strategizes to remove the world from every pleasure. What a mission statement! If he convinces you to break God’s moral laws, his sinister delight keeps him pumped enough to do it again. Then he calls you a moron for being so stupid and heaps shame on you. What a destiny!

Young adult: say yes to God. Don’t let Satan turn pleasure into an irresponsible act that depersonalizes women desperate enough to sell their bodies for industry. Ask them about pleasure. Charge the devil with abuse and murder—and don’t play into his hand. Honor God with your body and live free from guilt and shame.

MAKING RESOLUTIONS WORK

Most of us feel a need for some changes. And New Year’s seems like a good time for resolve. We threw away the old calendar. We’d like to toss out some old habits just as easily. Not a bad way to think, and there’s biblical precedent for doing it on New Year’s and on other special times, like…

 

Daily. The day started for the Hebrew the night before: “There was evening and there was morning—the first day” (Genesis 1:5).  I carry in my Bible questions to help review my day. Here are three: Did I live for others today? Did I miss any God-appointed opportunities? Is God pleased with me or do I need to ask forgiveness? Let’s resolve to start the day right—as we hit the sack!

Weekly. Each Sabbath brought a new opportunity for a Hebrew. A day of rest meant time for reflection. Worshipping Christians find an opportunity in Holy Communion: “Let a man examine himself…” (I Cor. 11:28).

Monthly. Hebrews built their calendar around the moon. The new moon brought a fresh month. The thin crescent visible at sunset set the day apart as holy. Time slowed down and work ceased, bringing a chance for rest and review. Some friends take a day a month for reflection.

Yearly.  The Hebrew agrarian society harmonized with nature. Key seasons came at springtime and harvest. Feasts were holy days, marked by worship, celebration, and reflection. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated in the fall. It gave them (and still does) a time of serious introspection, confession, and resolve.

The God who says, “Behold! I make all things new,” gives us the desire to make some changes as well. Businesses take inventories. Not a bad idea for human beings to do the same.

We cannot change. Resolutions will fail if founded upon our ability. Paul had to acknowledge that will power did not get the job done (Romans 7:15,18). Desire alone fails—every time. Resolutions should perhaps start with the confession: “I can’t.”

God changes us through the Holy Spirit.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, not good advice. Jesus came because we couldn’t change. If we could, we would not have needed the cross. God works from the inside out, not by grit but by the Holy Spirit.

You might want to state your resolutions as an invitation rather than as a challenge. Instead of, “I am going to exercise more,” try saying, “God, I am trusting you to work in me self-control.”

If we catch the rhythm of change throughout the year, we don’t have to put all our marbles in the New Year’s basket. Otherwise we cave in by Valentine’s Day. The calendar provides us with a rhythm for resolution.

One final word: who we are determines what we do. Conduct follows creed. Those who only focus on the imperative, “I’ve got to change my eating habis,” don’t usually get the results they want. The indicative leads to the imperative.

The Christian life is more about receiving than doing. If we know that we are princes and princesses, how we live follows from that identity in Christ. When we get the indicative down (who we are), the imperative (how we’re commanded to be) comes more as an invitation than as a difficult standard. Identity drives behavior.

DOES IT ALWAYS GET BETTER FOR A CHRISTIAN?

My children “accuse” me of being an incurable optimist. When I say that 2015 is going to be the best yet, they respond, “You always say that.” And I answer, “I know, and am I right?”

The apostle Paul was on his last lap. He had run a tough race. He worked harder than anyone else, had much prison time, severe flogging, exposure to death, forty lashes minus one five times, three beatings with rods, a stoning, three shipwrecks, and in danger multiple times (2 Cor. 11:23-26).

So did things get better for Paul? That is the only time we hear about his grocery list of suffering. Otherwise, he calls a life of pain “our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17).

2 Timothy 4 is in many ways one of his saddest chapters. Paul sits alone and cold in a dark, damp prison awaiting sure execution. He has been forsaken by a comrade, stripped of his rights as a Roman, abandoned at his trial. And yet he is able to say four incredible things, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness…” (2 Tim. 4:7,8).

We all have to live with ourselves. Fighting is not easy, but Paul called it good. He picked his fights well. And the fight of faith is a good fight. Some cave in and fight lesser battles. For them it does not get better.

He also knows that he has no unfinished business, which is a great way to step out of this life. And the suffering did not cause him to throw in the towel. He endured, knowing that what was coming was wonderful beyond words. Did it get better?  Absolutely.

But not for Demas. Paul says a few verses later to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly. For Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me…” (v. 9, 10). Demas was a working buddy of Paul’s, not a fresh upstart. He had been running a good race. But worldly attraction pulled him out of the contest. And it got worse and worse. Repentance gave way to regret. Suffering for Christ turned to shame. Selfishness overtook self-denial. Demas could not say, “Every day is getting better.”

But you can, if you run your race well. “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that grows brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov. 4:18). “But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord are being changed into that same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

The challenges are increasing, but so are the opportunities. Does it get easier? Sometimes it gets far more difficult. Troubles increased for the Apostle. But so did the fruit of a persevering life. We go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, from victory to victory. Have a great 2015!