House Churches and Leadership
One of the most common arguments I hear from traditional (or institutional) churches is that house churches are opposed to leadership. One blogger put it this way, “House churches want to play church instead of being the church.” Traditional churches pride themselves on their clergy-laity division, that they have leaders in place whereas it is assumed that house churches oppose any thought of a leader telling them what to do.
Well this is partly true. First of all we hold that Jesus is the head of His Church. As did the New Testament. As do all evangelical churches. Colossians 1:18 says, “He is also the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (NASB). Ephesians 1:22 echoes the same thought. Jesus is the head of His Church. Not a pastor. Not a pope. Not a priest. Not any flesh but only Jesus is Lord over His Church. Therefore it is true that we in the house church movement oppose someone telling disciples what to do or think since Jesus is the Lord of His Church. We need to heed the words of Christ as found in the Scriptures above the creeds and confessions of human beings. We believe that leaders in the church are not to lord it over others faith but be examples of true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-5).
The ironic thing about reading the New Testament is that you find not a lot of information about leaders in the church. Only one letter in the New Testament even addresses the leaders from the outset and that is Philippians (1:1). All of the New Testament letters are addressed to the saints when it would be assumed by modern traditional churches that leaders would first be addressed since the professional clergy set the tone for the local church. The clergy set the agenda, the vision, the purpose, etc. for the local church. This is not the case with the New Testament.
Leadership is addressed in the New Testament. Jesus spoke about leadership in Matthew 20:20-28 but He contrasts the worldly leadership that the Jews had seen with true servant leadership that He called for and demonstrated with His life and death (Mark 10:45). Leadership is addressed in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. Ephesians 4:11 speaks of gifted people who God gives the Church but for a reason: to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (vv. 12-16) and not to pay someone else to do the work of the ministry. Leaders are mentioned in Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 1 Peter 5:1-4. Elders are mentioned in James 5:14. You’ll notice how important elders were to the New Testament Church. What you will not find is the idea of one professional pastor serving over a church with a deacon board or a group of elders helping the pastor lead the church. The word pastor appears only in our English Bibles in Ephesians 4:11 and the ESV correctly translates it “shepherds.” Jesus is the true shepherd of the flock of God (John 10:1-16; 1 Peter 2:25; Hebrews 13:20).
So what does leadership look like in a house church then? First of all, we have elders. A biblical house church should have a plurality of elders (Titus 1:5) who lead the house church. Their purpose is not to be over the people of God but among the people of God (1 Peter 5:2). The elders are to fit the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. The elders are not professional Christians although they could receive some money as a gift from time to time (1 Timothy 5:17-18). No where does the New Testament call elders to abandon the “secular” for the “ministry.” Elders are to lead by example and not as professionals who dominate the local church life (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
Secondly, leadership in the local house church is often consensus based. In Acts 13:1-3 we see the Holy Spirit leading the church in Antioch and He does so through the people of God. Notice that the people of God were seeking the Lord for Himself (v. 2) and it was during this time that the Spirit called Barnabas and Saul for a specific work (in this case to be apostles or sent ones; see verse 4). The church didn’t quickly say okay but again they fasted and prayed to come to a consensus about this call.
In Acts 15 we find another example of consensus. Here the church meets to debate the relationship between the Law of Moses and the grace of Christ. The church comes to a consensus after much debate (Acts 15:22).
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is another example. Here Paul is addressing an issue among the Corinthians about head coverings. His point throughout these verses is that the church needs to come to consensus over this issue as he states in verse 16.
What this looks like on a practical level is that house churches often move slowly. Unlike the traditional churches who vote on issues all the time and are building buildings and doing this or that, house churches are slow to act and instead seek God for His wisdom, to study Scripture, and to come to a consensus over issues. Some issues are quickly solved while others must be handled with much prayer and wisdom from the Lord. Keep this in mind, however, that Jesus is the Lord of His Church and He is faithful to His Church. We need only to wait on Him and obey all that He has taught us (Matthew 28:20). No matter the issue, Jesus should be the main focus and His glory is to our aim.
Lastly, the priesthood of the believers is vital to the local house church. Each person can study the Scriptures and can speak for God (1 Peter 4:10-11). All of us are called by God to glorify His name and to proclaim Him. All of us can hear from God in His Word (John 8:47). All of us have the Spirit of God living within us (Romans 8:9) and all of us can be led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14) and He is able to speak through us. We should be open to all disciples of Jesus sharing from the Scriptures or giving a teaching since we are all priests unto the Lord (1 Peter 2:4-11) and all of us can give input into the kingdom of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:26). Elders are not to be the only ones teaching the Bible. Elders certainly are to keep the house church sound doctrinally (Titus 1:9; 2:1) but elders are not to dominate the house church meetings.
Leadership in the house church is important and should not be rejected. God raises up elders to glorify His name through their passion and examples. Elders are not to dominate the people of God nor are elders to be professional Christians but they are to serve as servant leaders of God’s saints. We need godly leadership in the local church but what we don’t need is more of the CEO-type leadership that we find in the traditional churches. Only Jesus is truly head of His Church. Let us exalt Him for His leaders while He Himself is our true leader.