(the Bible way)
When the Apostle Paul closed his letter to the Christians living in Rome, he said: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the [ekklēsiai] of the Gentiles; also greet the [ekklēsian] that is in their house” (Romans 16:3-5, NASB). Paul then went on to say, “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus… Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord… Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the [ekklesiai] of Christ greet you” (Romans 16:10-16, NASB). As these beautiful passages–and others like them–indicate, the ekklesia (the “called out” body of Christ) that we read about in the Bible consisted of many “ekklesiai”—congregations, assemblies, communities—of people living in various cities and regions throughout land. Furthermore, as these scriptures reveal, while Paul addressed the book of Romans not to a “church,” but “to all who are beloved of God in Rome” (Romans 1:7, NASB), it appears that the Christians living there typically met together as small groups [ekklesian] in one another’s homes throughout the city or region. As a matter of semantics, it could be argued that, if we’re going to allow the Greek word “ekklesia“–and it’s various forms–to be translated as “church,” then what we see here is “church” existing as small-groups meeting together in homes; or, quite literally, “home-churches,” or “house-churches.”
Meeting together as small-groups or “ekklesian” in our homes means that no child of God remains a mere anonymous attendant at some large, or even not so large, formal religious service. Rather, being a part of a small-group fellowship allows brothers and sisters in Christ to get to know one another at a deeper familial level; a level of intimacy wherein we can really learn about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures, our hopes and dreams. It enables us to get real with the Biblical command to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NASB). In a small-group fellowship we can communicate with one another frequently and “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, NASB). In other words, a small-group fellowship creates the space and affords us the opportunity to become the family to one another that God calls us to be.
Note: When the “ekklesian”–small-group, or house church–grows much beyond 20 or more people, it is recommended that the group “multiply” by “dividing.” In other words, rather than allowing ourselves to stagnate in our comfort zones, for the sake of keeping our fellowship vibrant and responsive to the needs of God’s family, as well as reaching out to a lost and dying world, the one group needs to become two, the two need to become four, and so on and so forth until, by the Lord’s grace, we have ekklēsiai (small-group gatherings) scattered throughout a city or region. However, in order for this to occur, it is essential that every member “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) so that, when a group has grown to the point of needing to multiply, there are several well-equipped servants of the Lord ready to help facilitate both of the new groups. Let’s look at how this can be done in keeping with the Biblical pattern.
It is in keeping with Bible teaching, and important to the systemic growth and health of the ekkelsia in any given region, that each small-group of Christians remain essentially autonomous and independent of the others–subject only to the rule of Christ through their mutual submission to the inspired, written Word of God. Each group is responsible for maintaining its own schedule, planning it own activities, securing meeting venues, and for facilitating and monitoring group relationships. Larger projects that require mutual cooperation with other groups, such as planning a monthly fellowship and praise gathering of all the groups in the area, or facilitating a city-wide mission campaign, or maintaining a community food and clothing pantry, etc… may be orchestrated and facilitated by the publicly designated servants (deacons/deaconness) from various groups working hand-in-hand together in love. And, of course, the shepherds are always available to all groups and individuals within a given geographical area to provide Biblical stewardship, insight, wisdom, and spiritual counseling for all God’s children. While group autonomy is essential, it is equally important that the children of God’s remain close with one another; communicating and cooperating with each another in the work of the Lord. As God’s forever family, we must recognize and seek to avoid two dangerous extremes: disconnected autonomy and centralized authority.