the weblog of Alan Knox

Autonomous churches…

Posted by on May 30, 2007 in books, community, definition, fellowship | 14 comments

In my last post, “Autonomous individuals…“, I began discussing a book by Abraham J. Malherbe called Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1977), specifically his chapter called “House Churches and Their Problems”. In my last post I discussed how the early Christians saw themselves as part of an extended household – a family. But, how did these early Christian “households” relate to other Christian “households”?

Malherbe continues:

As the church grew in a particular locality, more than one house church would be formed. The scarcity of information on the house churches in the first century precludes our having a clear understanding of their interrelationship. Paul seems to have known of at least three such churches in Rome (Rom. 16:5, 14, 15), and there may have been more than one group in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:17) and also in Laodicea (Col. 4:15). Although they may have formed separate communities, such groups were not viewed as being separate churches. Luke’s description of the church in Jerusalem is not clear on this point, but it does convey the impression that he thought of it as one church despite the smaller groups that composed it. This is supported by his (and the Pastoral Epistles) relating presbyters, or bishops, to cities rather than to individual groups (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5). By that time, however, more than one house church would presumably have existed in most localities with which the literature is concerned. More significant is that Paul and his followers, although they knew of separate groups in an area, wrote one letter to the church in that immediate area, apparently on the assumption that it would suffice for all the groups (e.g., Romans). On this understanding, the individual house churches would together have represented the church in any one area. [70]

Malherbe recognizes, as Scripture indicates, that there were different groups of Christians in a particular area (city). But, these groups did not consider themselves separate or distinct from other groups in the area. Instead, they considered themselves to be part of the same church. Also, Paul and others outside a particular city recognized all of the believers – and all of the groups of believers – in that city to be part of the same church.

As God formed the believers into households, He did not form them into exclusive households. Just as individuals now recognized that they were part of something bigger than themselves, the individual groups of believers also recognized that they were part of something bigger than that group. Thus, it seems from Scripture, that the distinct groups in a location – while recognized by themselves and others as a church – did not see themselves as truly distinct from other groups of believers in that same location. In fact, they also recognized a connection – though perhaps a looser connection – with other groups of believers in more distant locations. For this reason, Paul could label each group of believers meeting in a home as a church, but he could at the same time label all of the believers in a city as a church.

An autonomous church did not exist in the early days of Christianity. In fact, Paul reminds the believers in Corinth of this several times in his first letter to them. In 1 Cor. 1:2, he reminds his readers that they are not alone, but “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. (ESV) Similarly, Paul reminds them that all the churches share common beliefs, activities, and teachings (4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:34; 16:1). The church in Corinth – even the church at the city level – was not an autonomous church, but was to recognize itself as being in relationship with the wider church throughout the world.

Similarly, in Romans 16, Paul expects and encourages the various “home churches” in that area to greet one another, recognizing some level of association between the different groups since the “greeting” was certainly more than a wave or a handshake. Thus, as the believers from different groups encountered one another – either in an intentional or unintentional meeting – they recognized themselves as part of the same church, not as members of distinct churches with little to no relationship between the two groups.

Invariably, when this idea of multiple groups (churches) recognizing themselves as one church is suggested, the question of leadership and control arises. If the different groups are a single church, then who is the leader? Who is in control? Who is responsible for the “meeting”? To me, these questions indicate a lack of understanding of biblical leadership. Biblical leadership is not about control, but about service. The leader is the one who serves. Thus, the true leaders are not concerned with being in control, but with serving others.

Similarly, this idea does not mandate a city-wide hierarchy of leadership. Instead, it mandates humility, gentleness, patience, love – in fact, the whole fruit of the Spirit – in accepting others and treating others as members of the same body – which we are, whether we accept it or not.

The people that meet in the building down the street – those people that we like to make fun of – they are our brothers and sisters. The people that meet across town – those people with the strange practices – they are part of the body of Christ with us. The people that rent the school auditorium – those people who are a little louder/quieter than we like – they are part of our church. We do not do service to the body of Christ by separating ourselves from other brothers and sisters who may be different from us. Instead, we demonstrate our love for one another by reaching out to one another, serving one another, accepting one another, learning from one another, especially when those “one anothers” look or act differently than us.

The autonomous church is not found in Scripture. Instead, the church in the New Testament recognized its mutual relationship with other believers in their area and their mutual need of one another (interdependence), despite their differences. And, where the believers did not think they needed each other, the biblical authors wrote against those practices and teachings.


14 Comments

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  1. 5-31-2007

    Alan,

    Fantastic quote!!!

    This puts into words pretty much everything I have been thinking on this subject.

    Perhaps the “autonomous church” system came as a reaction to the abuse of the Roman Catholic system.

    Also, it seems to me that some more modern-day alternatives to the “autonomous church” system have tended to fall into abusive patterns as well.

    See this, I think many retreat into the “autonomous church” system as a sort of “security device.” I also think that modern democratic government in the secular realm has also had a big influence in this.

    As over against some of the abuses, I myself would opt for the “autonomous church” system anyday. But, at the same time, I can’t help but to hold out believing there may be “a more excellent way” yet.

  2. 5-31-2007

    I can’t believe no one else is commenting on this yet. I think the implications of this are huge.

  3. 5-31-2007

    David, for some reason I simply hadn’t read this post. You are dead on. This is fantastic.

    And, as you know, just because there may be abuse or because it may not make sense to trust God in this, we must absolutely trust His word and His commands, obeying them completely. Kingdom principles, even though they don’t always look rational on the front end, always are the most excellent way. I do think you are on to something when you talk about the reaction against the RCC, but that doesn’t make it right.

    Alan, great post. I’m ready!!! Let me ask this… why do we call some organizations para-churches? I sometimes think those organizations may be operating more like the Church that autonomous churches do…

  4. 5-31-2007

    This is really great, Alan. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I just had the thought that if we believe that there is only one Bride of Christ, why do we act like a bunch of seperate mini-brides?

  5. 5-31-2007

    Alan,

    Great Post!!

    As I imagine living this out I have certain questions?

    Did these house churches ever come together for one meeting? We see that in Jerusalem they all met at Solomon’s porch and there appears to be a reference to this in 1 Corinthians.
    1Co 14:23 Therefore if the whole church has come together…

    Also it appears that the apostles supplied some continuity.
    “Paul reminds them that all the churches share common beliefs, activities, and teachings (4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:34; 16:1)”. In the absence of unity, is it acceptable for a particular house-church within the city-wide church to come together and make decisions concerning their house-church’s functions/activities? Or does this broach on being autonomous?
    I know I want to foster an attitude of interdependence. Thanks

  6. 5-31-2007

    David Rogers,

    I agree that this is a great quote. Much of what we do as Christians we do as reactions, from the councils to the Reformation and beyond. I really appreciate your last comment. I also can understand a desire to have an autonomous church to prevent a hierarchical system. I also agree with you that there may be a better way than either a hierarchical system or many autonomous churches.

    As to the number of comments on this post, I can never judge how people will respond to my posts. Sometimes I think a post will generate many comments, but no one responds. Other times, I think a post will garner no attention, but it receives many comments. I’ve stopped trying to guess.

    Bryan,

    It is difficult to trust God by walking into the unknown when an efficient system lies right before you. But, I do agree that we must look at what God has given us in Scripture and recognize that our efficient system does not match what Scripture shows us. So, what are we going to do? Maintain the status quo? Or seek to walk as God has revealed to us?

    Mary,

    “Mini-brides”… that’s a interesting concept. I don’t think Jesus expects several mini-brides, nor do I think he sees several mini-brides. This is one of the reasons that I think it is possible for us to live as one bride.

    Jason,

    God will direct as he desires. So, he can direct individual believers, small groups of believers, and large groups of believers. I think we also have to recognize that he may direct a small group (or even one or two leaders) within a large group. However, that doesn’t mean that he is directing everyone in that large group in the same direction.

    -Alan

  7. 5-31-2007

    Alot of wisdom in this post, Alan.

    And as you say, this is at heart a thing of the Spirit of God, and not a governmental, administrative thing. Though it would be good if there would be some work to enhance what the Spirit would do.

  8. 5-31-2007

    I don’t think that Jesus sees several mini-brides either. Jesus prayed for us to be one, and that doesn’t apply only within the context of a local church. It’s much bigger than that. If we would only see as Jesus sees!

  9. 6-1-2007

    Alan –

    I sort of found you here by accident as a reader of my own blog pointed me at your post. I think that some of what you say here has value, but there are some important flaws in your post as it stands. Forgive me for making a list, but that’s the easiest way I know to make the points succinctly:

    1. The assumption that these were “household” churches in the sense the author means here is, in the best case, overstated. In the first 200 years of Christianity, those following the Gospel were under persecution — at time, heavy persecution — and weren’t seeking to build temples or meeting halls because those would have been easy targets for those seeking to use force against them.

    2. You reference 1Cor 1 to make an application regarding the use of the word “church”, but I think you miss something more significant in the use of the church at Corinth as an example of the early church. We can learn something about how Paul founded this church by going back to Acts 18 and reading up on the apostle’s work in Corinth, and we find the following facts:
    – Paul began his missionary work in Corinth, as was his practice, by reasoning with both Jew and Greek in the Synagogue [18:4]. Paul didn’t start a network of houses in which he tried to persuade: he went to the existing central meeting place to persuade.
    – Upon being rebuked in the Synangogue, Paul literally moved next door to Titius’ house, which superficially looks like setting up a house church. [18:6-8] The problem is that it is clear that from Titius’ house, Paul was still influencing the synangogue. Paul gained Crispus (ruler of the synangogue) as a disciple, and Crispus’ household. Likewise, there is the example of Sosthenes who is clearly Paul’s companion by the time he writes 1 Cor.

    3. Your citation of 1Cor 1:2 is troubling in its handling of what Paul actually says. In your view, Paul says here that those in Corinth are called to be “church” together with everyone who has faith in Christ — when in fact that is not what he says at all. His letter is to the church at Corinth, and he says they are called to be saints in the same way all believers are called to be saints.

    This distinction may seem semantic, but it is hardly inconsequential. Paul’s letter here is dealing explicitly with what it means to be “saints” (“hagios”). And as Paul spells out in this letter in clear ways, being a saint means belonging to a local body which administers local authority and communal worship. “Church” is distinguished from merely being a “saint” or even “saints” by the degree of unity in purpose.

    For example, Paul does not ask that the man in sin be turned out of one house: he instructs When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”.

    And when he speaks on the problems of abuses in the Eucharist, he says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Plainly, the distinction is between what one does in one’s pricate household and what one ought to do in the public assembly of the church.

    4. There is also the problematic view — reflected here in the comments as well as in your original post — that “church” can only mean -either- “all believers eschatologically” or “a hyper-separatist body with no relationship to other similar organizations”. I think that’s a red herring as the NT uses “church” in at least 3 different ways — as the local body, as the whole headcount of all living believers, and as the eschatological bride of Christ. It would benefit this discussion to recognize those distinctions in whatever text you are thinking about.

    This is an important topic, and I admire you for thinking about it. Please consider the things I here recommend to you as a fellow workman.

  10. 6-1-2007

    Ted,

    I agree that unity is at the heart of God. I wonder if our work in this is to simply walk in the unity that the Spirit has created. I say “simply”, but I don’t think this is necessarily simple.

    Mary,

    Seeing as Jesus sees is important in this and in many other aspects – perhaps every aspect – of life.

    centuri0n,

    Welcome to my blog! I appreciate your comments and welcome further interaction. You said some of what I said here had value, which part? You were specific about your disagreements, but I’d love to hear which parts you agree with.

    1. Scripture tells us that the early believers met in houses. Where does Scripture tell us why they met in houses and why they didn’t build buildings? Your argument from history may be valid, or it may not. We don’t know. Similarly, I do not argue for meeting in houses. It’s fine for a group of believers to meet in a house, or not. My purpose here was to show that there were more than likely many different groups of believers meeting within the same city – much like we have today.

    2. I don’t understand your point 2. I agree with what you say here, so I don’t see the disagreement.

    3. So, how are “saints” different from “the church”? 1 Cor 12 especially seems to connect the two, unless you see the baptism there as water baptism. Where does Paul spell out in 1 Cor that “being a saint means belonging to a local body which administers local authority and communal worship.”

    4. I think as you read more of my blog, you’ll find that I do not disagree with your “three uses” of church. However, I think the biblical authors blurred the distinctions more than we do today. There were not hard and fast distinctions such that we can say at this point only the “local church” is in view, while in this verse only the “universal church” is in view. I was not attempting in this post to point to “church” as only meaning all believers eschatologically.

    Again, thanks for your comment, and I hope you continue to interact here.

    -Alan

  11. 6-1-2007

    Alan, sorry I haven’t been around much lately. The summer theater schedule often causes weeks to go by with little chance to even stay caught up on reading, let alone comment! Having said that, I do want to say that I appreciate your posts always.

    You already addressed Frank’s (centuri0n) comment about the early church not building buildings because of persecution, but I wanted to add my thoughts to yours.

    I have heard this argument presented many times, both about the early church, and about the current church in China. I think you are correct that we cannot know the particular reason, but I think that Paul’s teaching about “temple” in his writings (including 1 Corinthians) can give us some insight.

    If what Paul wrote in his letters is at all indicative about what he was teaching in his missionary efforts, I think there is some reason to believe that believers recognized that a special building was no longer necessary for gathering together. If this was taught, it would be reasonable to think that the Christians would not have pursued building special buildings even without the persecution.

    But Paul was not alone in this regard. Stephen’s speech right before he is stoned shows that (at least part of) the anger against him was due to him proclaiming the truth that God did not dwell in a building made with human hands.

    It is ironic to me that Christians today refer to church buildings as “the house of God” in direct contradiction to Stephen, Paul, etc.

    I don’t think it’s a small point, and I certainly don’t think it’s insignificant in these types of discussions.

    Like you, I don’t argue for meeting in homes specifically (although I think there are tremendous advantages to home-based fellowships), but I do think that there can be a very reasonable case built from Scripture against a necessity for special buildings.

    In that regard, I think that stating that the early Christians didn’t seek to build temples because of persecution is, to use Frank’s own words, “in the best case, overstated”.

  12. 6-1-2007

    | Welcome to my blog! I appreciate
    | your comments and welcome further
    | interaction. You said some of what I
    | said here had value, which part? You
    | were specific about your
    | disagreements, but I’d love to hear
    | which parts you agree with.

    In general terms, I’d say I agree when you say, “Paul and others outside a particular city recognized all of the believers – and all of the groups of believers – in that city to be part of the same church”, but the question is what he meant by “church”. You and I would agree that there wasn’t an AOG contingent and a Baptist contingent and a Presbyterian contingent in (for example) Corinth – what was going on there would probably have caused all of those denominational types to lose it, I am sure.

    You also say, “Similarly, this idea does not mandate a city-wide hierarchy of leadership”, and again I can agree with that in broad terms. The question, however, is how to reconcile that with what was plainly happening and what Paul was exhorting these people to o.

    | 1. Scripture tells us that the early
    | believers met in houses. Where does
    | Scripture tell us why they met in
    | houses and why they didn’t build
    | buildings? Your argument from
    | history may be valid, or it may not.
    | We don’t know.

    I disagree completely. We probably cannot know this in the same way we can know why a particular church today begins a building program, but we can rely on the testimony of the historical evidence to drive us to some kind of likely case.

    Phillip Schaff wrote this on the topic of the earliest church:

    [quote]
    That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question, even on account of their persecution by Jews and Gentiles, to say nothing of their general poverty; and the transition of a whole synagogue to the new faith was no doubt very rare. As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so his apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of their converts. {Schaff, HCC vol 1, section 56}
    [/quote]

    | Similarly, I do not
    | argue for meeting in houses. It’s fine
    | for a group of believers to meet in a
    | house, or not. My purpose here was to
    | show that there were more than likely
    | many different groups of believers
    | meeting within the same city – much
    | like we have today.

    I admit that I have misread you to say something different, and I apologize for that misunderstanding.

    | 2. I don’t understand your point 2. I
    | agree with what you say here, so I
    | don’t see the disagreement.

    Given the misunderstanding, above, the point is moot.

    | 3. So, how are “saints” different from
    | “the church”? 1 Cor 12 especially
    | seems to connect the two, unless you
    | see the baptism there as water
    | baptism. Where does Paul spell out in
    | 1 Cor that “being a saint means
    | belonging to a local body which
    | administers local authority and
    | communal worship.”

    I think the relationship between church and saint is that the saints belong inside the church. That is, “church” is not some kind of merely phenomenological thing – like wherever there happen to be three sheep, that’s called a flock, or when you have more than one fish of the same kind you have a school. Church is the order God ordains for the life of the believer, giving him a community, a context for worship, a means for discipleship, etc. It’s not optional for the believer, but for example if you’re at WAL*MART and you’re standing in line at the register by coincidence with 4 other believers, that’s not a church: that’s a line.

    Where Paul spells this out in 1 Cor is, well, from start to finish. He starts by saying that they should not be trying to figure out who has more prestige based on who taught them what – but then almost immediately he says that their power (their authority) ought to be able to settle differences among them and place judgment on people who are in gross sin. He also exhorts them how to have order in worship, and in the manner he describes the Eucharist he says overtly that there’s a difference between eating a meal at someone’s house and gathering as a church to have the Lord’s Table.

    He doesn’t give a DIY-type list of “this is a church” criteria. He assumes certain facts and uses those assumptions to spell out how things ought to be done.

    | 4. I think as you read more of my
    | blog, you’ll find that I do not disagree
    | with your “three uses” of church.
    | However, I think the biblical authors
    | blurred the distinctions more than we
    | do today. There were not hard and
    | fast distinctions such that we can say
    | at this point only the “local church” is
    | in view, while in this verse only the
    | “universal church” is in view. I was
    | not attempting in this post to point to
    | “church” as only meaning all
    | believers eschatologically.

    I disagree with this as well. Are there occations where the NT writers imply that the local church is amanifestation of something larger they also call the Church? Certainly. But this doesn’t blur the distinction that the local church is where the believer resides and ought to reside. The local church is plainly in view in 1 Cor, both letters to Timothy, and Titus. Paul is instructing believers there locally, specifically, to live in a certain way together and not merely have an eye on the future state of perfect unity.

    I think you agree on this point – I think you’re not an advocate of someone who is a spiritual lone ranger. And I admit that if you are not advocating house churches, then our specific points of disagreement are much smaller than I originally interpreted.

    Thanks for the chat. Please let me know if you have other questions or comments – this topic is very interesting to me, and I’d love to talk about it some more.

  13. 6-1-2007

    Malherbe and I are from the same background and that background does attempt to form autonomous churches for the most part. Not that we don’t recognize other believers but in matters of leadership on the local/congregational level there is autonomy. We don’t see overarching denominational structures in the NT and so we don’t practice that either. Different Christians groups do have so much in common and need to recognize our connection with each other. In that sense there is not individual autonomy. But it seems to me there was autonomy within the early churches to make certain decisions and that is why they appointed elders, so they wouldn’t have to ask Paul or Jerusalem about everything. Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  14. 6-1-2007

    Steve,

    It’s good to see you around my neighborhood again. I hope you make it back to my physical neighborhood agains soon. Remember, we have two Starbucks.

    I also shudder every time I hear someone refer to a building as the church, the house of God, or the temple of God, or when they refer to part of a building as a sanctuary. I don’t think these are biblically correct usages of those terms.

    centuri0n (Frank?),

    Thank you for coming back and answering my reply. I deal with many of these issues from time to time on this blog, so I’m not going to continue to deal with each one of them now. I think we would be close on many issues – especially the most important issue regarding the gospel. I think we would differ in several areas, especially the idea of authoritarian leadership.

    Matt,

    Thank you for sharing more about Malherbe’s background (and your background). I know nothing about him except this one chapter that I read from his book.

    I agree with much of what you said. I do have one question though: Where in Scripture are elders told to “make certain decisions”?

    -Alan