One Eldership Over Many “House Churches” (1)

By Robert F. Turner

Alvin Jennings’ book, How Christianity Grows in the City, is an expanded and renamed edition of his original 3 R’s of Urban Church Growth. It caused a stir among liberal churches, including a rather “hot” review by G.K. Wallace in the Gospel Advocate (Nov. 19, ’81); and now the book is being sent to conservative brethren. The writer makes a strong and commendable plea for individual involvement, one-on-one teaching the gospel to our neighbors, and home Bible studies. Small group studies seem to get a less prejudicial hearing, and talents for leadership are more easily discovered and developed there. But Jennings’ book goes far beyond home “devotionals” and Bible study. He treats these neighborhood groups as “house churches,” and contends all such groups in a given city should be under one eldership.

Much of the appeal and drive of the book is gained by citing the abuses to be seen in large building-oriented churches, preacher rule, congregational jealousies, infighting, etc. The writer dreams of “unstructured, unpolitical, and unmaterialistic” churches – toward which we all should strive. But “look at all the wrong. . . ” does not prove one’s proposal to be right. He dwells long on the fact that early churches often met in private homes, but this does not argue one group of elders should be over many churches. He challenges a “holy place” for worship -as do all who understand true worship. He cites differences in belief among independent congregations, but those same differences will exist in his “house churches” if brethren are free to study and act out of personal conviction. He decries elders who “lord it” over the church, but all history testifies that one group of elders over all churches in a city is conducive to more, not less lording.

It is not my intention to review this book in detail, but to address two subjects found therein: the structure of first century congregations; and, what determines the scope or boundaries of local church “oversight.” The writer sums his aims by saying, “The church, the treasury and elders will be one in the urban area. Elders will allow and encourage assemblies anywhere and everywhere that men may gather in the name of Jesus. Congregational autonomy will begin to fade within the city, (my emphasis) and individual congregational growth consciousness will give way to the overall growth of the urban church with all its congregations regardless of their place of assembly.” Here is a church, made up of churches, under a single eldership. We shall deal with the “eldership” concept first; then, investigate “the church in – house” and its application to first century congregational structure.

The most obvious text for city-wide elders is Titus 1:5, appoint elders in every city”; and a few seem to think this settles the matter. But we must ask, can we safely assume this verse teaches that God intended each city have only one group of elders, though it may contain many churches? Does this mean the scope of oversight is determined by geographic or civic boundaries? If there were five churches in a city, and Titus appointed elders in each of them (five churches, five groups of elders), would he not have done what Paul commanded? Going further, if one only of the five churches had qualified men, and Titus appointed those men to serve that church, would not this meet the demands of the text? These men could tend the flock which is among them, and before whom they could be “ensamples'”(1 Pet. 5:2-3).

We must also ask if Paul’s practice violated the instructions he gave to Titus. Paul and Barnabas “appointed for them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). It is easy enough to say “These churches were still small enough to meet in one household per city. . . ” but assertion is not proof. Uncertainty is admitted by adding, “or, the writer may have been thinking of the church in each city as being made up of all the household assemblies in that town.” This blandly assumes the point which must be proven. Such assumptions are frequent in the author’s attempts to give scriptural backing for his concept. Note: “We know that in some cities there were a number of house churches. When Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:27, he urged that the letter be read ‘to all the brethren,’ suggesting the existence of more than one assembly in Thessalonica.” Do you see “house churches” in that statement? It is not surprising that those who do, are able to see one group of elders over all of them.

“Elders in every church” makes oversight of the same scope as collective functions. The “church,” not just a plurality of brethren, heard and spoke in matters of discipline (Matt. 18:17). The “church,” consisting of, yet distinct from believers, cared for widows indeed (1 Tim. 5:16). Paul gave orders to the “churches” regarding accumulation of funds peculiarly theirs (1 Cor. 16:1-3), and the “church” at Philippi “communicated” (singular verb) with Paul, in their support of him (Phil. 4:15). These are examples of team work on the part of saints that necessitated examples of team work on the part of saints that necessitated the forming of a common mind, being subject to some kind of direction and guidance. Wherever there is a “church” in this sense, there must be oversight; and the appointment of “elders in every church” is consistent with this principle. There is no authority for enlarging oversight beyond the boundaries of the saints who agree to function as one. This becomes the scope of oversight, not geography or city limits.

We are not saying there is no local church except when the members are literally assembled (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23). Nor are we saying various saints may not meet at different times and places (Acts 12:5,12,17). We do say that when a group of saints are identified as an organized church, the Scriptures indicate this group should be independent and autonomous (self-ruled). Independence and autonomy are God-ordained characteristics for the local church, not subject to alteration by the will of the people. But the writer of the book under consideration says, “Smaller suburban towns could be included in the urban church if they so desire, or they may elect to maintain an autonomous church in their own city. An example would be the harbor city of Cenchrea near Corinth, just seven miles away. There was a church at Cenchrea as well as at Corinth (Rom. 16:1)” (p. 68).

The books begins by offering what was called the divine pattern, elders over one city only. The writer even says, “There was no authority to extend the organization of the church above or beyond the city, so there is no danger of developing an hierarchy or super-organization such as bishop over a plurality of cities” (p. 58). But now, “if they so desire” other cities may join up. With such matters put in the realm of “judgment or opinion” we can not seriously regard this book as a guide to scriptural church organization.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 2, pp. 39, 47
January 19, 1986