By Bill Beckham
Bill Beckham, one of the leading figures in the cell church movement, has found various levels of evidence for the large group wing of the church. The following is taken from Beckham’s book Where Are We Now? (Houston, TX: Glocal Publications, 2005), pp. 156 – 169.
Evidence from Scripture
- Acts 1 The whole church waits in one accord to receive God’s promise
- Acts 2 The whole church in evangelism and witness
- Acts 3 The whole church preaching after a healing
- Acts 5 The whole church in great fear because of Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 7 The whole church ministering to the needs of the church
- Acts 7 The whole church solving a problem
- Acts 7 The whole church chooses the Seven
- Acts 11 Peter explains about the conversion of Gentiles
- Acts 11 Barnabas and Saul teach the church at Antioch
- Acts 12 The whole church in prayer for Peter in prison
- Acts 13 The whole church at Antioch selects Barnabas and Saul
- Acts 14 The whole Antioch church hears the first missionary report
Evidence from the New Testament Meetings
The Church at Pentecost expressed itself in several different types and sizes of meetings without special buildings. They met (possibly all within the course of one day) in the Upper Room as a “congregation” local expression, in the Temple courtyard as a “universal” public expression and in the homes of Christians as a small group expression. And Paul spoke to gatherings of many different types and sizes without the benefit of a special church building. However, the absence of church buildings did not hinder the early expansion of the Church because the church did meet in informal large groups along with the small groups. Another practical factor sheds further light upon the early church and it’s meeting places.
Benches, chairs and pews were not used in the early centuries. Therefore, much larger groups could assemble in smaller rooms. Hence, 120 were in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
Evidence from persecution
Most “House Churches” in areas of persecution such as China find a way to function in both a large group and small group expression. In times of persecution the church raises the public large group expression just as high as it will go before the government chops it off. The church then operates in a large group expression up to that level of persecution until the government relaxes or increases the pressure.
It seems that New Testament leadership also demonstrates this continuum.
Leadership in the New Testament operates beyond a strictly small group or house church level. In Paul’s system the leader roles of Elder and Deacon functioned beyond the single cell “house church” level. The mix of Bishops, Elders and Deacons implies that the church also operated in a larger local body configuration. A balanced two-wing approach gives a way for these different types of New Testament leaders to work in a New Testament way.
Even the absence of the large group wing testifies to both wings
The house church expression has periodically surfaced in church history for two reasons. One, when outside political powers has prohibited a large group expression, the church has been forced into a small group expression. The church in China today is an example of this. Two, from time to time radical or revival elements in the church have reacted to large group abuses or weaknesses and have reshaped the church into a small group configuration.
Beckham’s critique of a city-wide concept
Bill Beckham critiques the city-wide church concept of Wolfgang Simson.
The New Testament church functioned in four primary ways:
- The basic cell community unit that Jesus modeled with the twelve.
- A cluster or congregation of basic cell units that Jesus modeled with the seventy and the one hundred twenty.
- A local church referred to in the New Testament as “the whole church.”
- The universal church composed of all of Christ’s local churches at all times of history.
In his house church hybrid model Wolfgang Simson believes in the universal expression of church as the large group expression. In this approach the church continues to be small independent groups of Christians meeting in houses in the classic “house church” expression of the church. The new twist is that the independent house church groups are encouraged to meet together from time to time in a “city church”
This “city church” expression is supposed to take the place of the local large group expression of the church and to allow the local church to live as a simple “organic” house church.
This is a church that is strong in small group ministry and open to broad universal expressions of the church. But, it is weak in the area of a local church expression beyond a small group house church size. I think I understand why this approach has developed and why it has such strong appeal in certain groups within the church. The hybrid house church has a philosophical and maybe a historical connection to parachurch ministries.
The hybrid house church in the west developed as a reaction to two types of traditional churches. The state church in Europe is a dying large group church with little spiritual life. New Testament Christians in Europe have understandably been suspicious of large group expressions of the church. Many of these New Testament Christians have longed for an alternative and have been attracted to parachurch ministries and to small groups that are different from the state church model.
Simson’s city church expression of the large group appeals to these two groups because it is totally different from the traditional local large group expression. This eliminates the need to deal with the large group expression of the church that has so miserably failed.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that Simson’s hybrid house church model has no large group wing at the local church level. And, in its city expression, the large group is so far removed in distance, authority and common purpose that it severely weakens the life of the church at the implementing local church level. It is interesting that the house church movement outside of Europe and the United States generally develops a local large group expression of some sort. Think about China.
The use of a “city celebration” as a substitute for the large group wing is dangerous for house churches developing in both Europe and the United States. The problem with the hybrid house church model is that the large group and small group expressions of the church are not encouraged to come together as one integrated local body that is larger than the number of Christians that can crowd into a house. The option for being church in the hybrid house church teaching of Simson is for a church to operate as a single cell unit in a “house church” expression and from time to time to meet in a large group expression as a “city church.”
This approach distorts the balanced nature of the New Testament church that flies with both a large group and small group wing. This is the only way the church can experience and express the full nature of God as transcendent and immanent. The hybrid house church creates a bird with a strong small group wing. However, the large group wing of the hybrid house church only flaps when it gathers as a flock for “city celebration.”
A local cell church can and should gather together in area “city celebration” with other churches when possible. This is beginning to happen in different cities around the world. “City celebration” is a way for local churches to experience the “universal” nature of the church in a practical venue while on earth. But, cell churches gather for these kinds of universal, city expressions as functioning two-winged churches. They don’t gather as one winged house groups looking for a large group expression so they can flap a large group wing. They do not substitute “city celebration” for local church large group expression.
In a cell church, “city celebration” is an addition to the local large group and it expresses the universal unity of the church in a powerful way. From a cell church perspective a “city celebration” is a group of two winged local churches that are flying in formation, going in the same direction, heading for the same destination and moving toward the same goal. They may get together for “city celebrations” from time to time. But all have fully functioning large and small group wings at the local church level. This city large group wing teaching must not be superimposed upon the other types of house churches such as in China. And, these existing New Testament house church expressions must not be used to prove the validity of this flawed hybrid house church approach. What is happening in the house church movement in places such as China is not an example of the hybrid house church teaching on “city celebrations.”
New Testament house churches will always have some kind of local large group expression. If independent house churches find it difficult to cooperate at a local church level, why do we think they will be effective in cooperating at a “city” church level? House churches need to practice large group life at the local level before expecting large group life to work at the universal city level.
The following is taken from Beckham’s book Where Are We Now? (Houston, TX: Glocal Publications, 2005), pp. 156 – 169.