I have come to a cross roads of sorts when I come to the “rapid multiplication of house churches and house church networks.” I am not only cynical, but I do not believe that this can be done rapidly and last. Relationships take time, and foundations must be laid. That being said, we can at once say that once a believer has been discipled (in northern India it is usually a three month period of discipleship and then the disciple becomes engaged in evangelism and church planting), then the disciple will carry on in advancing the Kingdom of God in a functional and missional manner.
I was part of this “house church movement” that embraced this form of church life as the best and fastest way to expand the Kingdom of God. Now I still believe it is more New Testament than traditional forms of church, but to do so in such a quick manner is a time reference that God has not placed on it, but it has been placed by church growth experts who are driven by their understanding of the “great commission” and their various views on eschatology and the finalization of things. I am not bound by their understanding and personally find it flawed biblically, historically and logically. This became all the more clear to me as I read a blog post today on the CO2 phenomena, that seeks to combine the elements that Neil Cole emphasizes in his accountability groups, and combines them with Mark Virkler. It is the convenient marriage between discipleship accountability groups, or as Neil Cole calls them, Life Transformation Groups (LTG), with Virkler’s teaching on “hearing God.” These CO2 groups are groups where two people connect relationally and hear each others journey with God this week, and then they listen and hear God together. But here is the clincher, they have the audacity to call this “church”!
Before I go any further here, I want to be sure that people understand that this is a “critique” and I am not being critical of the men and women who embrace the CO2, the Life Transformation Groups, or the House Church Movement. I am declaring here that I have been very blessed through the writings, teachings, and attending and participating in workshops led by men such as Neil Cole, Mark Virkler, John White, Wolfgang Simson, Tony and Felicity Dale. I consider them friends and allies in the Kingdom of God. I am in no way criticizing these brothers and sisters, but I am biblically critiquing how they understand and view the church, and how their views are largely clouded by church growth vision, definitions and terminology as well as their eschatology, which do a disservice to the true definition and nature of New Testament ekklesia. We ought to be able to critique biblically each others’ views and convictions in love and in faith building dialogue that seeks biblical truth and not our opinions to rise to the forefront. Debate is good, but tearing down people is neither good nor biblical. That being said, let us press on.
For the time being I want to address the movement where it has embraced the “lowest common denominator” possible as to what they believe constitutes “church”, the gatherings of two or three people as mentioned in Matthew 18:20.
I have to confess here that I was once “one of those people” that bought into the line that “where two or three are gathered in Jesus name” that is the most basic expression of what we call “church”. Nothing could be further from the truth! Exegetically speaking, the very context of this verse in Matthew 18:20 is about discipline, and not church life! The NIV states it this way, with a subtitle of “A Brother Who Sins Against You”. This hardly seems to convey anything about the basic definition of church and church life, which is what we are addressing here. Within the very context of the flow of the verses we read the following:
A Brother Who Sins Against You
15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
What do we find in the context of this passage?
- Verse 15 states emphatically “If a brother sins against you…” The issue, the very context is sin between individual believers. Notice “individual” and not communal. Church, or ekklesia is a communal assembly of “called out ones” who gather around Jesus. “Two or three” does not constitute an ekklesia.
- Verse 15 states a procedure to follow when a brother sins. It is to confront the issue at hand, one on one. Again this is a relational approach to dealing with issues, and does not constitute what it means to be the ekklesia.
- Verse 16 states if the brother does not listen, you are to go to another brother and confront the issue again, this time with support from another person that you are in relationship with, “…take on or two others along so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses”. Again this is a relational confrontation on issues of sin, not Christian community around the person of Christ.
- Verse 17 is the clincher of it all. It settles the context completely! “If he refuses to listen to them, then tell it to the church; and if then he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” This is the context for discipline, not the ekklesia gathered around Christ. What you see here is the process of confrontation of sin within an ekklesia, and how members of the body ought to conduct themselves in seeking to have relationships restored over sin issues between brothers in the faith. This is not the basic church unit, but simply how individual believers ought to conduct themselves in confronting sin issues between believers who are part of the same ekklesia.
- Verses 18-20 are simply the declaration and the confirmation of the authority placed in the church, not the “two or three” apart from the church. Where two or three are part of the ekklesia, the context is as part of that Kingdom community, whatever the two or three agree together on, on the matter of church discipline, then the binding and loosing that is done, that is decreed, is done so in agreement with heaven and the gathered ekklesia. That is a huge distinction.
So here we are with this new novel take off on Neal Cole’s accountability relationships which Neal has promoted over the past decade, where these relational groups that meet one on one, and no more than three people, in order to assist each person in the LTG, in accountability and in living the Christian life.
Neal himself states in his book Organic Church, “The basic unit of Kingdom life is a follower of Christ in relationship with another follower of Christ. The micro form of church life is a unit of two or three believers in relationship. This is where we must begin to see the multiplication occur. Let’s face it: if we can’t multiply a group of two or three, then we should forget multiplying a group of fifteen or twenty.”
Read that definition again, slowly.
“The basic unit of Kingdom life is a follower of Christ in relationship with another follower of Christ. The micro form of church life is a unit of two or three believers in relationship. This is where we must begin to see the multiplication occur. Let’s face it: if we can’t multiply a group of two or three, then we should forget multiplying a group of fifteen or twenty.”
Let’s take it apart for a few moments and follow the logic sequentially.
- “The basic unit of Kingdom life is a follower of Christ in relationship with another follower of Christ.
This basic unit is a relationship between Christ and another disciple of Christ. This is just that, a discipleship and mentoring, iron sharpening iron relationship, where each believer is “part” of the ekklesia, but itself is not the ekklesia.
- The micro form of church life is a unit of two or three believers in relationship.
This is a misleading statement, and context brings about definition. Two people relating together as Christians are no more the church in micro form, than two Christians shooting pool in the pool parlour are “being church” together! It is no more being church, than two women having tea together as Christians and sharing their lives together, even praying for each other, and their kids and their husbands. That is not “church”, but simply two Christian women growing in relationship together.
I have gathered for years with men, regularly during the week, one on one, and at times three or four of us together. That was never the “church” or even truly a “micro form of church life”. What it was and is, is a group of Christian men who gather regularly for accountability relationship and deepening and strengthening friendship. It is nothing more and nothing less, and it certainly is not the ekklesia, the assembly of called out ones who gather as relational missional Kingdom community!
- This is where we must begin to see the multiplication occur.
OK, listen to those words. It becomes an issue of discipleship and personal growth, within a context of the individual Christian life. This is not the “church”, but rather how Christians should look to grow, by being in relationships with other Christians. We cannot be the “church” without being part of something bigger than ourselves, both in quantity and in quality. There has to be more than “two or three” people to truly constitute a biblical New Testament ekklesia.
- Let’s face it: if we can’t multiply a group of two or three, then we should forget multiplying a group of fifteen or twenty.”
Here we have the rabbit out of the hat. Discipleship and mentoring language being applied as a church growth strategy. The truth is out. Right here in front of us.
First we distort what the true New Testament definition of “church” is by a reductionist approach that applies the language of discipleship and mentoring to being the “micro form of church life” when in fact it is nothing of the kind.
Second, we rip the whole Matthew 18 passage from it’s exegetical context and frame work, which has to do with sins done against another brother, and the reconciliation process a person ought to pursue in order to truly restore the relationship.
Third, the only time the reference is made to “church” is when a brother who sins refuses to deal with the issues involved after two attempts, an individual one on one between the two parties, and when that does not work, the grieved party going with two or three other people to confront the sin issue and hear both sides of the issues and bear witness to the testimony. After, these two do not work, then, the grieved party is to go to the church, who will then confront the brother, and if he does not repent, they will discipline the brother and put him out of the assembly (ekklesia – the church).
The question is, how can “two or three” be the “church” when in fact, the two or three are to go to the church when reconciliation fails? They both cannot be the “church”. Therefore, while the two or three constitute members of a church assembly, apart from their being within the larger assembly, they are nothing more than two or three Christians gathered in relationship, and that is not New Testament ekklesia.
Those within the CO2 movement plainly state, “The church of two” is a basic building block for all larger expressions of church”. That may be true, but only in the sense outlined above, where two or three people are part of a larger fellowship gathered around the person of Christ in relational, missional Kingdom community. It does a disservice to the Kingdom of God and to the true nature of what is ekklesia when the New Testament definition of “church” is diluted from it’s true sense and meaning. CO2 is nothing more than another discipleship mentoring approach to personal discipleship, and nothing more. It is in no way, shape or form a “church”!
The Lord is building His church, and they are not discipleship groups of two or three.