Missional Engagement Part 4: The House Church Book Review and Reflection (Part 2: Criticisms)
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
In the last article, I engaged what I loved most about The House Church Book by Simpson. This part of my review/reflection is going to more critically engage some aspects of Simpson’s book. Part of of the reason I’m giving a whole post with criticisms is because I don’t want people to be tempted throw out the overall premises of the book because of where it lacks nuance.
Here is my list of problems with The House Church Book by Simpson:
Presents house church as the “silver bullet” to all the churches problems:
I say this as someone who condones the house church model. This approach can lead to the house church option being discredited throughout the church because whenever you have people, you have problems, no matter what your organizational structure is.
This doesn’t mean that the structures we use don’t make a difference. It can make a huge difference! For instance, our usual style of learning in the west is in a lecture/monologue setting. One person, or a group of people, have the mike, the stage and the voice for the whole congregation, which can tend to skew the voice of the church as a whole.
The church today ought to be willing to experiment with different structures for church that are less stratified or performance-oriented, and that empower ordinary people. I have personally benefited from the traditional format, just as I’ve benefited from some of the lectures I listened to in college. I really shouldn’t discredit a monologue format entirely since I’m using it right now in writing this blog. However, I see no reason to “baptize” that form of church, as if it’s the only “correct” way of doing church. It has its benefits and its deficiencies. Likewise, I’d be unwilling to baptize house churches as the one or best way to do church; although it might be the best form of church for my context. There are different structures that are useful at different times and in different contexts, so we ought to be willing to experiment.
2. Presents church history as getting it all wrong up to this point and “blueprint theology”:
I’m familiar with this approach as someone from a Restorationist background: Everyone else has gotten it wrong up to this point (except Jesus and the early church) and we’re finally getting it right. Simpson seems to present all of church history as getting it all wrong up to this point where we start doing house churches the right way. There is not enough respect for diversity of Christian expression. This posture is unfortunate because I think this will turn off many who might otherwise have been more open to helpfully experimenting with a house church structure.
Related to this idea is the belief that the New Testament gives the blueprint, or pattern that the church today ought to follow. While Simpson does seem to push back against this idea in a couple places, he does seem to have a “blueprint” perspective on the New Testament. For instance, he argues that we are still following a Catholic church structure: “a blueprint for Christian meetings and worship that was neither expressly revealed, nor ever endorsed by God in New Testament times.” But the question is ought we only do things as a church that are “endorsed” by the New Testament? Rather, the New Testament churches are in a period of transition, and pointing at a few scriptures as providing the one right way to do things seems wrong-headed. There are norms we can observe, but to say there is only one right way to do church is going to far and will likely lead to sectarianism.
3. Scripture is sometimes used irresponsibly
The scriptural backing for the house church structure is sometimes exaggerated, and some of the scriptures mentioned are simply passing comments where houses are mentioned. These scriptures might be worth mentioning but they are often presented to support the idea that house church is the blueprint for church structure for all time.
4. Scholarly support is sometimes not mentioned where it probably should be
Simpson sometimes neglects to give scholarly support for his key ideas. For instance, he says that “the New Testament church was made up of small groups, typically between ten and fifteen people.” (Kindle location 135) Perhaps this is true, but I have no idea where he gets these numbers. There are a number of places where Simpson neglects to give scholarly support where it seems important or necessary.
5. Many statements seem hyperbolic
Jesus used plenty of hyperbole, but I think his Jewish audience usually knew that’s what he was doing. With Simpson, I don’t always know. For just one of many examples that could be cited, Simpson states, “Most churches today are simply too big to provide real fellowship. They have too often become ‘fellowships without fellowship.’” (kindle location 135) Now I’ve grown up in a traditional church setting and I still have felt that I’m able to fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ; it’s just that this fellowship usually does not happen during the church meeting, or is not the point of the church meeting. However, many churches are fully centered around the personality of the pastor and there is little room for discipleship and fellowship.
6. There is a lack of reverence for the inspiration of the Old Testament or for the Jewishness of the New Testament
This is an aspect of the book where I think I cringed the most. Unlike in Neighborhood Mapping where both old and new testaments were used to support the idea of local community engagement, Simpson seems to believe the problem with the church today is that we are following an Old Testament rather than New Testament model. Old Testament practices are typically represented as legalistic and over-stratified. Simpson writes as if the New Testament is all that matters for understanding God’s will for the church and the Old Testament no longer has significance.
Synagogues, as Jewish structurs for a church meeting are in fact very present in the New Testament, and not just in the gospels (see Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5, 14-15, 42; 14:1; 17:2; 18:4; 19:8; 22:19; 26:11). In fact, it seems that for most of Acts that’s where believers met. It’s not until Acts 18 that Paul decides to stop going to the Jews and changes his focus to the gentiles (Acts 18:6). In Acts we see a mix of house churches being used, but also reliance on the institutional structure of the synagogues. When believers underwent more persecution from other Jews and more gentiles were included in the church, they transitioned more and more to a house church setting. Because Simpson believes in the house church structure so strongly, he seems to put all of the biblical canon through a filter that removes any other model of meetings for the people of God.
Clearly, much has changed in the New Testament. However, I think there ought to be more reverence for the Old Testament and what it has to teach us. How that applies to house church I am not sure yet, but simply calling house church a New Testament model and institutional/traditional church the Old Testament model lacks nuance.
7. Simpson has a clear anti-institutional bias
He clearly does not like organizations or institutions, and almost seems to suppose that the church cannot really be the church if it is attached to an institution or denomination. Such a posture could create animosity between house church-based churches and institutional churches.
8. Simpson has an anti-liturgical bias.
He clearly believes low church and the simplest, least organized forms of church are the best. As someone who loves the freedom of the house church structure myself, I also recognize the power and necessity of liturgy. Every culture develops liturgies (whether consciously or not), which are basically habits that form the culture when we meet together. Low church structures normally develop unconscious liturgies and then condemn all churches that practice intentional liturgies. The goal is not to remove all liturgy or forms for church, but to recognize that our liturgies are one expression of Christianity. We can defend our more simple, or less intentional, liturgies without discrediting all others.
9. Church growth is sometimes over-emphasized
Simpson’s presentation of house church seems to give the impression that if you do house church the way he says it should be done it will lead to crazy growth and multiplication of house churches. I feel hesitant about this promise. I want to see church growth as much as (or more than) the next person, but reading Subterranean by Dan White Jr. helped me to ground myself in reality, which may mean being okay with small for a while. Of course, I have no problem with growth and I look forward to it, but sometimes if we become too focused on whether we will grow in some explosive way we can miss God’s kingdom work right under our noses and neglect being with the people God has placed in our lives.
Experiences you’ve had with house church that Simpson does not mention:
House church can be more conducive to people who have severe health and social issues:
I’m a congregational setting, there can sometimes be a vacillating between forgetting individuals on the margins or judging them. People who are stuck in a hospital and can’t attend church can be more easily forgotten about in a congregational setting. People who have seriously debilitating mental disorders or high social anxiety that are triggered by crowds tend to be called less faithful or committed. People who don’t know if they may miss a service because of a severe health issue either must tell everyone in the church their business or risk people assuming that they did not come because they are “struggling.”
Perhaps some of these issues would be solved if people in the church were less judgmental, but it also helps if you are in a small enough group to know everyone there intimately, and are able to trust the heart of a friend who is unable to attend sometimes.
2. Public church could be explored in addition to the house church structure
Since I agree with Simpson’s point that the church is the people of God, not the place where the church meets, I think house church could be expanded to not just being a “house church,” but there is also the possibility of being a “public church.” In other words, groups could experiment with meeting in coffee shops, parks, and other places where they will regularly meet others. Instead of asking people to come to church, the church could be brought in closer proximity to people. Perhaps church could even consist of a group of people who serve the homeless together. My experience with house church so far has shown that while the community definitely improved for a while, the evangelism or presence in the community is still wanting. We’ve noticed that the more we meet in public the more we meet people and build relationships, and thus possibilities to share the gospel.
I don’t think Simpson is necessarily confining church meetings to the home, but he could have presented other possibilities for church meetings, rather than only in homes. In fact, Jesus’ model for mission seems to go into the homes of others (See Matthew 10 and Luke 10), to find people of peace who are open to offering hospitality. This is where Neighborhood Mapping by Fuder has been a great compliment to The House Church Book and hit more on biblical issues of church structure that Simpson doesn’t focus on as much, and vice versa.
If you enjoyed this review or if it was helpful let me know. If it was unhelpful and you want to give a critical review of my review, you can do that as well in the comments below. I love to dialogue and even debate if it will lead to growth and edification.