The nature of the church is serious business. What you believe about the churchwho it is and how it liveswill affect profoundly the way you understand and live the Christian life. Its no wonder then so many books have been written recently about what God intends the church to be. A fair number of those books call for a radical re-tooling of the churchs structuresnew wineskins for a new generation. On one level, theres no problem with that at all. Many people through Christian history have called for awakening in a cold, dead, institutionalized church. Im all for that, and I think it is sorely needed in many corners of the church today. Where I begin to get skeptical, however, is when someone claims to have found a simple yet revolutionary and sure-fire answer to all the churchs problems. Sadly, thats where most modern books on the church fall. It is certainly where Wolfgang Simsons Houses That Change the World (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003) falls.
Like so many before and beside him, Simson believes we need a major reformulation of the churchs life and structure. Speaking that broadly, Id probably agree with him. But Simson is convinced he has the answer to the churchs ills: we should abandon our church buildings and start meeting in houses. The book doesnt lend itself well to quick summary; the organization isnt straightforward. The overarching thesis of the book is the superiority of meeting in houses, and how that concept would change the nature and spirit of church as we all know it. Within that concept, some of the major themes are the leadership structures of house churches (five-fold ministry from Ephesians 4:11-13), the difference between house churches and cell churches, the blessing of persecution, multiplication, and change. I dont want to try to trace and discuss all these themes; to do so would require more than a review and would probably be more distracting than helpful anyway. Instead, I want to point out what I consider to be some of the most serious flaws in Simsons book: his thesis itself, and his use of the Bible to prove it.
Before we begin, let me mention a few less-important problems with the book. First, heres how Simson ends his preface:
Millions of Christians around the world are aware of an imminent reformation of global proportions. They are saying, in effect, Church as we know it is preventing Church as God wants it. Amazingly, many are hearing God say the very same thing to them. There is a new collective awareness of an age-old revelation, a corporate spiritual echo. . . I am convinced that it reflects a part of what the Spirit of God is saying to the church today. (xiii-xvi)
Those words are nothing but a pep-talk. There is no room here for careful, prayerful thinking through the issues. Simson presents his ideas as some massive tidal wave of spiritual excitementled by the Holy Spirit Himself, no lessthat the reader is in danger of missing entirely if he doesnt jump on board. But who exactly are the millions? Who are the many Christians hearing this message from God? Does Simson mean a majority of Christians around the world? A simple plurality? Just Simson and a few of his closest friends? He doesnt tell us, which leads me to believe all this is more rhetoric than fact. On top of that, the book is too long; it repeats itself too much. If every point were made just once, and every cliché used just once, the books 300 pages could easily be brought down to fewer than 100.
But enough of that. There are some serious problems with Simsons ideas which I believe deserve serious consideration. First, the very thesis of his book is misguided. Simson is convinced the churchs problem stems from its forsaking the New Testament model of meeting in houses. Simson does write about the nature and spirit of the church as well, but he is convinced that spirit will result from meeting in houses as opposed to traditional church buildings. He makes the point in several different places. One of the chapters, in fact, is subtitled Thirteen reasons why house churches are the natural solution. But why does Simson put so much emphasis on where the church meets? As I read the New Testament, I dont see much ink at all spilt about the location; on the contrary, I see the apostles exhorting the churches about how they live and worship, not where. Consider this paragraph from page 81:
The house church reflects Gods qualities and character. This community lifestyle is molded in the spirit of love, truth, forgiveness, faith, and grace. House churches are the way we love each other, forgive each other, mourn with those who mourn and laugh with those who laugh, extend and receive grace and constantly remain in touch with Gods truth and forgiveness. It is a place where all masks can fall, and we can be open to each other and still keep loving each other.
Now read that paragraph again, but leave out the word house. What youll see, I think, is a good description of what the Lord calls his churches to be, no matter where they meet. Its not the house that brings out such qualities. It is the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the regenerate. As for his reasons why a house-church set-up is better than any other, I cant see how most of them have anything at all to do with meeting in a house (wed stop doing church and start being church, for example; wed have better leaders, better conversions, better missions, pp.197-205). In fact, the only advantage he points out that really makes sense is that house churches would cost less (36).
Simson tries to make a biblical case for house churches. It is more biblical, he says (36). His case is not impressive. On pages 92-94, Simson prints a long list of biblical passages about houses, which he admits is not an extensive exegetical study of house churches in the Bible. Most of his citations have nothing at all to do with a church meeting in a house, but are more along the lines of Jesus telling his disciples to stay in a house during their travels, or Cornelius inviting Peter into his house to preach the gospel. He even cites Acts 2:2 as evidence, saying Pentecost happened in a house. It is difficult to see why thats important. The point of that story is what they were doing in the housepraying (1:14).
To clinch his case (171), Simson cites Stephens Acts 7 speech. Stephen made it through his address, Simson says, without rankling the Pharisees at all, until he reached one single topic . . . which was the King of all Taboos. And what was it? Stephen had said: The Most High does not live in temples made by men. Stephen had questioned the core of their belief, the temple, the religious building. And the Pharisees, furious that Stephen would dare question their edifice, killed him. But is that really why the Pharisees finally stoned him? After all, Stephens line wasnt anything new; what Pharisee wouldnt have been familiar with 1 Kings 8:27, for example? The Pharisees werent angry because Stephen stepped on the sacred toes of their religious building. They were angry because five verses later (just before they actually call for his death), Stephen accuses them of murdering the Messiah! The building is the not the big issue here; the Messiah is.
There are other Scriptural missteps, too. One of the worstand least obviousis on pages 84-85, where Simson says New Testament teaching was more a conversation than modern-day preaching. He writes:
The Greek word often translated preaching in the New Testament is dialogizomai, which means to have a dialogue between people. When Paul preached for a long time in Ephesus (Acts 20:7) . . . Paul did not preach at all in the sense of having an endless monologue; he was having a dialogue, a time of questions and answers.
There are several problems here. First of all, Acts 20:7 does not use dialogizomai at all; it uses dialegomai, which can have the meaning, to exhort or to address. (See especially Hebrews 12:5). Even if we look at Simsons word dialogizomai, however, we find it is used only 16 times in the New Testament, and not one of those refers to anything close to the preaching of the gospel. Most have to do, in fact, with the Pharisees dialogizomai-ing in their hearts against Jesus. The most common verb for proclaim, exhort is kerysso, a word Simson does not mention but which is used 61 times in the New Testament. The preaching of the gospel then is not a conversation; it is the proclamation of Gods grace in redemption, an exhortation to sinful people to repent and believe.
All in all, this book will probably inject more confusion than clarity into the discussion of what the church ought to be. It is simply too sold on the notion that moving into houses will stir up all the right fruits of the spirit. The vision laid out is admittedly exciting, and its not surprising many people believe house or cell churches are the key to international missions. After all, who wouldnt like to think that 12 people meeting in a house church could multiply their number to nearly 2 million in just 20 years (107)? But I wonder why we should assume that will happen; or better, why we should assume it will only happen if we meet in houses. If Christians were fervent in prayer, passionate in holiness, and scrappy in their evangelism, why couldnt the same multiplication happen in a church of 200?
I dont have anything against a church meeting in a house. Sometimes thats a simple necessity, and besides, the building isnt the important thing anyway. So go ahead and meet in a house if you wantjust dont fool yourself into thinking that will change the world. The only thing that will change the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ lived out by loving, passionate, Spirit-filled churchesno matter where they meet.