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What Is the Non-Institutional Church?

Montgomery Paul Webb
What model of structure for the church is found in the New Testament? Does the congregation form the basic unit of the Christian community and determine overall church design and practice?

House Church/Whole Church

Actually, the modern congregational model of the church cannot be derived from Scripture. Local churches are not represented in the New Testament as being led by one holy man, who communes with God and then instructs a group of followers. Weekly meetings centered around a sermon based on formal principles of public speaking are not found. Choirs are completely missing, robed in long gowns, and situated on a raised platform at the end of the congregation. There are no examples of altar calls as the climax of a service, or even of the presence of such a structure at any Christian gathering. In fact, directives are not even set out for constructing buildings for worship services.

The New Testament indicates the first Christians practiced a house church/whole church structure. Basic cell units of believers met together in houses on a weekly basis, with the entire community at different locations coming together for special occasions at various times in the year.

Note the epistle of Romans is addressed to the entire church in Rome — 1:6,7: Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. And, who are these people? Quite a number of them are mentioned in chapter 16, with three different groups noted in particular at verses 3–5a, 14,15. [a] Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house… [b] Salute Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren which are with them. [c] Salute Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints which are with them. (Citations KJV unless indicated)

However, these groups do not include other referenced individuals, who apparently associated with different cell units. Note verses 5b–13: Salute my well beloved Epaenetus…Greet Mary…Salute Andronicus and Junia…Greet Amplias…Salute Urbane…and Stachys…salute them which are of Aristobulus’ household. Salute Herodion my kinsman. Greet them that be of the household of Narcissus….

A similar church structure is found at Laodacia. Note Colossians 4:15,16: Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea; cf. I Corinthians 16:19.

Scripture also indicates that the saints at Corinth were organized according to a house church/whole church structure. From Corinth the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans at verse 16:23 of the epistle: Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you. Note that the whole church of Corinth is referenced, rather than the Church of Corinth, and compare from I Corinthians the following verses. 1:10–13: Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? 14:23: If therefore the whole church be come together into one place….

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The New Testament refers to the church with the Greek term ekklesia, literally meaning called out from, and idiomatically referring to a called out group, i.e. an assembly, gathering, fellowship, crowd. In the Greek Old Testament relied on by the first Christians, the Septuagint from the third century B.C., ekklesia translates the Hebrew qahal, which refers to all of Israel as the people of God. Coming out of Egypt, the entire Hebrew community assembled at the base of Mount Sinai to form a covenant with God. Note Deuteronomy 9:10: …according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly, cf. Exodus 19; Acts 7:37,38. Note also Judges 20:1,2: Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was gathered together as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, unto the LORD in Mizpeh. And the chief of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword.

In the New Testament also, the assembly refers to the people of God. Ekklesia is used for designating the universal, regional, local, or house church. I Corinthians 12:28: And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly…. Ephesians 1:22: and gave him to be the head over all things to the church. Acts 9:31: Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria…. Galatians 1:2: And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia. Acts 13:1: Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers…. I Thessalonians 1:1:…unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ…. Romans 16:5: Likewise greet the church that is in their house…. Colossians 4:15: Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.

The church is not represented as a physical building or temple but the people of God, employing images such as the body of Christ, the brotherhood, the household of God. The people themselves are the temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:19–22: Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. Hebrews 3:1: Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus. Colossians 2:19: And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.

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Christian Unity

In the New Testament, both Jesus and the apostle Paul call for a spirit of unity within the church, but never for an organizational oneness. There are no scriptural directives for a central institution with a main headquarters, acting as the primary authority for church matters. All believers should experience a sense of spiritual unity based on common core beliefs, fellowship, and following the way of Christ. However, throughout Christian history the promotion of a centralized religious authority or organization has served not to create unity, but power struggles, contention, strife, and disharmony.

Christians must live a unity of spirit, which is not designated in Scripture as membership in a centralized organization. Note the emphasis on the spiritual nature of all believers being one people from key biblical passages identifying the Christian community. John 10:16: And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. John 17:11,20–23: …Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are…Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Romans 12:5: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. I Corinthians 1:10: Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. I Corinthians 12:12–14,27: For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many…Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. Ephesians 4:2–5: With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism….

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Early House Churches

The house is foundational to the New Testament representation of the church. The first Christian worship service was in a house, Matthew 2:11; as well as the first communion service, Matthew 26:18; the first new covenant outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:1,2; the first preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles, Acts chp. 10. Jesus preached and healed from houses, Matthew 8:14–16; Mark 2:1,2. The first disciples proclaimed the Gospel and ministered in houses, Matthew 10:1; Luke 10:5,7; Acts 2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 16:40; 20:20; 28:30,31.

All early instances of church building began as enhancing private dwellings, as demonstrated by Jack Finegan in Light From The Ancient Past: The Archeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion, Vol. II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, 1959) pp. 492–551. He notes the archeological record as consistent not only with the historical tradition of Scripture, but the second and fourth century writings Martyrdom of Justin Martyr and Recognitions of Clement, which also indicate the work of the church was accomplished through the use of private houses.

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The Cell-Unit in Church History

However, when Constantine reunited the Roman Empire through military conquest under the banner of Christianity and became the sole head of state, he went on to establish an institutional form of the church. Suddenly, by government authority a uniform system of liturgy and theology was defined. The basilica was adopted as the design for church buildings; standard dress forms and holidays were implemented; and the overall church came to be structured on the basis of the political organization of the Empire.

However, the administration, theology, and practices developed often were based on the weight of the example and needs of the Roman Empire rather than Scripture. Martyrs were made saints as a substitute for polytheistic worship, and a theology of giving reverence to relics ensued. Pagan holidays were adapted to Christian themes. The main rituals were designated by the term sacrament, the name of the Roman soldier’s pledge of allegiance to the Empire. At first, Constantine maintained the title Pontificus Maximus, used historically by emperors in being upheld as the high priest of all deities, but later this designation even transferred to the Pope.

In institutionalizing the church, man-made traditions became the standard of practice, rather than Scriptural directives and the experience of the body of Christ with the Holy Spirit. Yet, even many centuries before the Reformation, some believers tried to return to the biblical view of the body of Christ, rejecting the church as a human institution, and focusing on the cell-unit as establishing the patterns for structure and practice.

Believing that the Bible was the sole rule of faith, in the 12th century, the society of the Waldenses came into sharp disagreement with the policies of Rome. Beginning in northern Italy, they spread through Europe, practicing a cell-unit church structure, that overcame militant persecution, and that survives to this day. Waldensian dependence on Scripture as the true authority for the body of Christ spurred the Roman church to decree that the Bible could not be in the possession of the laity or even translated.

During the Reformation, many Protestant societies had to depend on a cell-unit church structure to overcome persecution. And, in general, the issue of correct church structure came to the forefront of Protestant review, alongside other concerns, such as the true nature of the canon or salvation theology. However, Protestants found that giving up many church traditions that were not supported by Scripture, but that had been established throughout the centuries, seemed not only difficult, but also frightening. These traditions had become a part of reality and even the basis of European culture.

Although the Protestants believed the episcopal system of government led to the abuse of authority, many aspects of the institutional church seemed to be an inherent part of relating to God, such as having a building, a formally defined clergy, a reverence for invented rituals, or a specifically defined order of service. Consequently, the Protestant church organizations which developed were not based on a complete return to abiding by the principle of Sola Scriptura. The congregational model of church structure was established, centered around a building, and institutionalizing specific behaviors, customs, ecclesiastical norms and laws. The authority for this new system of doing church often was not based on Scripture, but the institution alone — Sola Scriptura, but at times Solum Institutum.

This difficulty in breaking from historical traditions in establishing new formats regarding the church community and procedures are reflected in Martin Luther’s The German Mass And The Divine Service, written in 1526. Luther sets forth directives for three types of services, with the first two being a public mass in Latin, and another in German. He emphasizes these should not become compulsory law, while noting the services function for the sake of attracting people to Christ, and for helping new Christians become stronger in their faith, who need formal rituals and a greater foundation in the Word of God. Then, he upholds that Christians in earnest should embrace the true order of service, a third type which is not public, but which consists of a registered group of people assembling in some house for prayer, reading the Bible, baptism, receiving the sacraments, and practicing other Christian works. However, he notes that at the time of his writing, he did not have enough people with sufficient interest for such a service, and he was reserving its promotion for the future.

Eventually, Lutheranism became a religion of fixed dogma and sacraments. At services, church members passively listened to sermons, agreed to doctrine, sang a few hymns, and took communion. However, in 1666, a pastor in Frankfort, Phillip Jakob Spencer, gathered in his home a group of people to study the Bible, pray, and have discussion for the purpose of deepening individual spiritual life. He then proposed the formation of such circles within congregations in general, referred to as ecclesiolae in ecclesia, to develop the Christian life into something more than intellectual knowledge. These circles came to be known as the collegia pietatis, from which the movement was named Pietism, eventually spreading throughout Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, despite government opposition.

Spencer encouraged a new kind of preaching, with a goal toward spiritual transformation in the lives of believers, a conscious new birth, and Pietism became known as the heart-religion. Pietists emphasized Scripture rather than creed, greater Bible study, and moderation in food, drink, dress, and entertainment. Their devotion led to establishing a bible institute for the circulation of Scripture in an inexpensive format, and to sending many missionaries to foreign countries.

At this same time, religious life in England also had become rational and lethargic, and in the late 17th century small group meetings, known as religious societies, began to appear and spread throughout the country. They focused on prayer, Bible reading, charity, and encouragement of the spiritual life. However, the established church viewed them as being too emotional and even fanatical.

In the early 18th century, one of these societies was founded by John and Charles Wesley, which became known as Methodism. John Wesley was influenced by the Moravian Church in Germany, which was a form of Pietism, also relying to some extent on a cell-unit structure, and having a zeal for missionary work. The Methodists began utilizing outdoor preaching, and the movement spread throughout England rapidly. Soon the society was organized into groups of twelve with a lay leader, later assisted by traveling preachers. By the time of John Wesley’s death, the Methodists had nearly one million members. However, by the 19th century, the society succumbed to pressure to become an institutional form of a congregational church, which soon became the largest Protestant church in the world, but which eventually fell into demise.

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Non-Institutional Church Defined

In review, the non-institutional church may be defined as a Christian community structured on cell-unit groups of members, according to the New Testament model of the body of Christ, as represented by the societies of believers in the first centuries, as well as other organized movements throughout history, and in contrast to formal organizations based on religious behaviors, customs, and laws established through human tradition.

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The Cell-Unit in Contrast

In the cell-unit model of the church, weekly meetings are tailored to fit the members, focusing on where they are at in their relationship to God at the time, and helping them to find how Scripture relates specifically to their situation. The members are not observers but a true part of the service. The focus is not on a preacher, but the Holy Spirit is discerned as operating through all who are present.

The cell-unit is based on the biblical model of believers meeting for fellowship, breaking bread, prayers, teaching, and proclaiming the Gospel: Acts 1:12–14; 2:1,2,42–47; 5:42; 8:1–3; 9:11; 16:40; 20:20; 21:8–14; 28:16–24; cf. Matthew 8:14–16; 18:19,20; 26:18. The church structure is not inherently subjected to financial pressure, and the success of the church is judged by the transformation of individual lives.

In contrast, the church as a human institution is devoted to more than the worship of God according to Scripture, but also to the organization itself. The building, a clergy defined by convention, the structured rituals and rigid norms do not just help people find and relate to God, but they establish the special significance of the institution and its leadership. And then, the confirmation of the institution becomes paramount to every aspect of practicing religion and worshipping God.

Only those religious practices and interpretations of Scripture designated by the institution are held up as indicating real Christians and true Christianity. The spiritual nature of a relationship to God is assessed primarily by church involvement. The institutional building represents the church more than the membership, the body of Christ. The members take on a more passive role, focusing on a leader, who must always appear charismatic and authoritative. The worship service centers on a sermon, to which the members must adapt the specifics of their own lives, but the preacher is always under pressure to come up with, even invent, new insights from the Bible, which affirms his anointing. Entertainment becomes a main feature of the service, with the quality of music usually having more importance than the meaning of its expression.

Money takes on increasing significance in the institutional church in order to pay for the church building, and often its grandeur, and to grant to the clergy comfortable salaries, offices, and cars. The church is judged often by its financial success or the number of members, rather than spiritual accomplishments. And, contributors of substantial sums of money have more importance in church functions, to a large extent irrespective of their relationship with God, while more spiritually devoted members observe what is going on from the fringe.

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The Contrast of Preaching

The main features of institutional church practice are not based on Scripture. For instance, preaching is not represented at all in the New Testament as being the focus of a worship service. Although I Corinthians reviews guidelines on church practice extensively, chapter 12 does not even list preaching or preacher as a gift or office for the building up of the church. Chapter 11 provides precise guidelines for services for whole church meetings but makes no reference to a sermon. References to being a preacher as a gift are made at I Timothy 2:7; II Timothy 1:11; I Peter 4:10,11, but examples of preaching from the New Testament are primarily in evangelistic and special occasion circumstances, Acts chp. 7; 10:32–48; 20:6,7. However, elevating the focus and significance of preaching as a church office enhances the authority of the leadership and special teachings of the institution.

This focus of the institutional church on a sermon for a worship service was actually adopted from Greek Rhetoric. In ancient times, exercises designed for training in pleading cases of law developed into a study of logic, speech, and dramatic effects, which led to discourses on fictitious and historical matters with a moral and theological basis. The rhetoric became known as Sophistic, at first not regarded with contempt, and the sophist became a new class of public speaker, some itinerant, some local, using private homes, or lecture rooms, or theaters. At times the sophists wore a pulpit gown and sat in a professional chair. Commonly, their discourses were interrupted by applause. They earned money and reputation and became a thriving trade, but eventually their arguments became based more on the value of the fine phrase than truth, and their popularity waned. However, by the fourth century, church preachers were trained in Greek schools of rhetoric, which emphasized the structure and style of discourse, which then even was called by the Greek term homily, carried over to this day in seminaries. (See — Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church. Peabody: Hendrickson Publisher, 1895, pp. 86–115).

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The Contrast of The Lord’s Supper

As another example, the Lord’s Supper is not represented in Scripture as a ritual aspect of a formal worship service. Note at Matthew 26, the first Lord’s Supper as initiated by Jesus was actually a common meal among his disciples in a room in someone’s home. When the apostle Paul reviews proper procedures for the Supper at I Corinthians 11:17–34, again he is addressing a situation with the Lord’s Supper being a common meal in a home. Yet, at verses 21,22,34, he seems to be calling for a more formal structure, but still a meal.

Verse 20 indicates the dinner in someone’s home was actually a whole church meeting. In ancient times large dinners often had a stated purpose to make a public announcement or to honor a deity. However, different food was served to guests according to class, a practice the apostle Paul holds as unworthy of the church, verses 18,21,27–29, and it appears Paul is calling for an ordered meal.

When Christ initiated the Lord’s Supper, he actually was observing Passover, a yearly festival, and an event his crucifixion fulfilled, Matthew 26:17–19. This holiday was celebrated by the Jews with an ordered dinner, a liturgical practice called a Seder in Hebrew. During the course of the meal, a leader and participants followed a ritual format, reciting a narration of the Exodus story, known as The Passover Haggadah. Note how the words of Jesus compare to a modern translation of this ritual still used by Jews on Passover.

The Schocken Passover Haggadah:
(Nahum N. Glatzer, ed., Schocken Books Inc., New York, 1981, p. 25).

This is the bread of poverty which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry enter and eat; let all who are needy come to our Passover feast. This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free men.

Matthew 26:26–30:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.
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Statistical studies indicate that in the United States the number of Christians who have conservative theological beliefs but no affiliation with a church has been increasing significantly for more than a decade. Indeed, as much as 59% of all conservative Christians now may be unchurched, and of those maintaining membership, as many as half are indicating a lack of satisfaction, merely going through the motions of participation as a matter of conformity. It would seem that the human traditions which serve as the actual basis for the episcopal and congregational models of the church have reached a peak of irrelevance to the body of Christ in our country. How can the church experience become relevant once again to believers, in order to make the Christian community a dynamic organism? The time is now to finish the Reformation and return to the biblical model of church structure — the cell unit/whole church organization.

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1. Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World: The Return of the House Churches — Emmelsbull: C & P Publishing, 1999.
2. Robert Fitts, The Church in the House: A Return to Simplicity — Salem: Preparing The Way Publishers, 2001.
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What Is the Non-Institutional Church? constitutes a chapter from Church Essentials: Relevant Issues for a Spiritual Community. Copyright 2004 by Montgomery Paul Webb. All rights reserved. However, permission is granted solely to private individuals to make ten copies of any disc containing this book, to include whatever other publications are available therein from the Church of the Love of Christ, for distribution to friends and acquaintances, on the conditions — 1. that the entirety of the contents of the disc is copied;— 2. and that absolutely no change, addition, or omission is made.

From printed material, photocopies only of any chapter can be made privately by individuals for distribution to friends and acquaintances, on the conditions — 1. that the entirety of the chapter is copied and distributed, including the pages of the chapter rendering the name The Church of the Love of Christ, the author’s name, and the copyright notice; — 2. and that absolutely no change, addition, or omission is made.

Chapters include — Introduction | What Is the Non-Institutional Church? | What Is Love? | Seeking Christian Humility | The Image of Woman in Scripture | Corinthians Un-Compromised | A Brief Synopsis of Jonathan Edwards’ RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS. | Charles Finney on Evangelism: Brief Synopses of REVIVAL FIRE and POWER FROM GOD.

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