Should House Churches Be Democracies?

The new impetus of house churches is a very encouraging development in the Christian world but poor leadership can lead to problems...

Whilst we can well understand how frustration with the established churches and denominations has led to a huge popularity in self-governing house churches, some within this movement are seeing 'the priesthood of all believers' as a teaching which effectively bars the presence of an elder or a pastor from a house church and means house churches should function, more or less, as democracies! But is this biblical? And can places of Christian teaching and instruction ever succeed when operated as democracies?

First of all, we really need to understand that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). In the first century AD - which should be seen as our model in this area since all the churches which we may read about in The Book of Acts and in the epistles were house churches - the Church needed to have definite leaders not only to evangelise but to feed the flock. The principle of the 'priesthood of all believers' does not mean (and can never mean) that we don’t need any leaders at all - after all, from Genesis to Revelation we see the principle of God working through definite human leaders and a principle of organized leadership wherever He communicates His will to mankind! Yet a few feel that Christian house churches should now operate as democracies, and that the theological opinions of all within the group should hold equal weight. I may say that I spent just a few months attending a home study group which was effectively run as a democracy (even if it did not start out that way) but the strain of coping with the arguments and the chaos meant that it really was only a few months before I concluded my involvement!
We need to ask why Paul told Titus to 'ordain elders in every city' (Titus 1:5)? - the simple reason is that these elders were to be the leaders within the first century house churches, that is, they were literally to assume active leadership:

‘The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.’
(1 Timothy 5:17, NIV throughout).

(The Greek word for 'direct' here is translated 'rule' in the NKJV and comes from the Gk 'proistemi'. Word 4291 in Strongs. Its root meaning is to 'stand before (in rank)', to 'preside' to be 'over' or to 'rule.')

It seems obvious from this that some of these elders were not as scripturally knowledgeable as others and did not actively teach. They were appointed as elders because they were Christians who were the male leaders of a home and were of sound moral character (Titus 1:5-9). Notice how the duty of those elders who were more scripturally able is described,

 'He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach - and that for the sake of dishonest gain.' (Titus 1:9).

This means that the more scripturally able of the elders were especially valuable. These men were to take responsibility for spiritual teaching and to refute those who were deviating from sound doctrine.

A friendly house church

There can be no doubt whatsoever that these elders were to be the leaders of these house groups and were expected to hold things on course - even to rebuke where necessary!
There seems to be an almost unwritten law that within any home-based Bible study group (and I have been involved in quite a few in my 61 years!) it is almost always the least biblically-grounded who will talk (and sometimes shout!) the most; this is why firm, but just, leadership is absolutely vital in house groups! Don’t forget: the whole pattern of the elder is based on the elders of Israel who were to be older, mature, married men; It followed the natural pattern of family life.

In Israel, the elders were the administrators of justice who sat ‘within the gate’; disputes, trials and controversies were settled by the elders. It should be no surprise, then, that what had worked for national Israel would now become something of a pattern for spiritual Israel, and now it would be spiritual matters which the elders would judge. Under all normal circumstances, the Christian housegroups of Paul’s day would have been led by the elder of the home – one man. Carefully read Paul's comments to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and note how Paul assumes that Timothy understands that the office of elder was only available for men who were wise and just - yet strict - leaders within their own families.

The elders then, especially the 'teaching elders,' were to take the leadership in the house churches and to ensure that false and heretical doctrines were kept out! So the system probably worked out in such a way that local Christians would gather in the home of the nearest elder and his family where praises could be sung and prayers offered. Maybe brief inspirational messages were also given but - almost certainly - no doctrinal preaching unless a 'teaching elder' was present and this was his responsibility. Teaching elders undoubtedly developed a circuit of such homes to regularly visit in order to preach the word. One can imagine that there were initially probably few teaching elders and they were hard-pressed to cover the need but by about 150 AD the situation was probably much better. We get the practise of itinerant (travelling) preachers from here. We have to understand that all of these people were subject to serious persecution and so discretion and a low profile were essential; the first Christians were commited to giving the impression that their house churches were just a meeting of friends and family within a home, and of course, they largely were!

On the other hand, in a modern house church democracy in which everybody has a vote of equal value (including the novice who has only just started attending) and in which every biblical opinion is seen as of equal value there is no possibility of keeping heretical teachings at bay.
A man who is far more experienced in the house church movement than I, has insisted to me that - indeed - it was the house churches which misused the concept of the 'priesthood of all believers', very quickly turning it into a licence for democracy which first (and very quickly) went into heresy! This does not surprise me one little bit.

So What is the 'Priesthood of All Believers'?

Okay, so what did Peter mean by his comments in 1 Peter 2:9? What is the 'priesthood of all believers' all about?

'But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.'

We know from Hebrews that the former levitical priesthood is now dissolved - it has gone forever. Those priests ministered in the temple and they had to approach the Lord on behalf of the people, but when the veil barring entrance to the holy place was torn at Christ's death (Matthew 27:50-51), it signified that the way into the presence of God the Father was now open for all through the blood of Christ. The priests no longer needed to regularly offer sacrifices because those sacrifices only looked forward to the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ. So the priesthood no longer had a role; all Christians may now come close to God and to approach Him in praise and adoration through the blood of Christ - we have been reconciled! In this way, we all become part of a spiritual priesthood! (There are simply far too many Scriptures to quote in support of all of this to include them here, I can only recommend a careful reading of Hebrews followed by a reading of Romans and Galatians).

Some add the teaching of the 'royal priesthood' in 1 Peter 2:9 to Paul's comments in Galatians 3:28 and claim that - on the strength of these two Scriptures - either that anybody is now qualified to be an 'elder' (or a congregational leader), or more frequently, that there is no need for elders (or, leaders). But here they are immediately showing the slightly anarchical 'equality is all' liberal and anti-authoritarian influence of modern society rather than coming to a better understanding of Holy Scripture!
Let us check this out :

'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'
(Galatians 3:28).
The problem is that many love to quote this Scripture all on its own whilst ignoring the surrounding Scriptures which clearly show what Paul was talking about! Paul reveals his meaning in the surrounding verses so let me now quote that again, this time with the surrounding verses, thereby putting this verse into context:

'You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.' (Galatians 3:26-29).

Please notice that the very moment that we put this verse into context many of the arguments of those who love to quote Galatians 3:28 somehow fade away! This verse is not saying that elders or leaders are suddenly irrelevant (when Paul plainly says differently elsewhere: 1 Corinthians 12:27-31; Titus 1:4-11; 1 Timothy 3:1-16 etc.,), neither is it saying that a woman has just as much right to lead a congregation as a man (again, Paul very plainly says something different elsewhere: Titus 2:4-6; 1 Timothy 2:11), it is pointing out that Spirit-led Christians are spiritually all one in Christ - there is no difference between us in that sense; whether a slave or free, whether a Greek or a Jew, whether a man or a woman, once we become clothed with Christ we become spiritual sons and daughters of God! We all inherit the promises given to Abraham (which, of course, were ultimately spiritual promises!)
To suggest that Paul is discussing how house church congregations should be run/administered in Galatians 3:28 is plainly an illogical imposition of one's own preferred ideas upon a Scripture. In short, it is what theologians call the practise of 'eisegesis' (putting ones preferred interpretations into the Scriptures), rather than 'exegesis' (the correct practise of drawing out the natural meaning of the Scripture).

An Active Role for Women...

But Paul says enough to show that while women should not assume leadership over men within house churches, they can play an active part in other areas including in prayer and in 'prophesying.' See 1 Corinthians 11:5. As is well-known, the group of Greek words translated as 'prophesying' or to 'utter a prophecy' are very broad and would certainly include 'to give an inspiring reading' or 'an inspiring example' - women would have an important role here with the younger women as they may join the group as well as in Sunday school activities; the more knowledgeable women could also take the lead in women's meetings within a given house church Titus 2:4-6. I have also noticed that women make outstanding church secretaries.

I trust that this article will have given encouragement and inspiration for us all to see that house churches are extremely biblical and yet they function most successfully when they are - in humility - prepared to be led by a Bible-based leader.
Robin A. Brace


We would like to thank Devonport Church-Edge House Church, New Zealand for the use of their photo showing their own house church.

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