Our house churches are often comprised of people from various backgrounds, and questions of doctrine will undoubtedly emerge. How can we stay united in Christ and avoid destructive debates?
One strategy is to ignore the problem. Like a dysfunctional family, no one talks about ‘Dad and his drinking’. We pretend everything is normal while we walk on eggshells. There is little spontaneous love or creativity. It will not take much for this family [or house church] to unravel. Obviously, this is not a good solution.
Another option, common in denominations, is to develop a statement of essential beliefs, get people to sign it, and then control deviations from it. The problem, however, is which beliefs should go on the list? We may have good doctrines in our tradition that we hold dear, but are they all essential for salvation according to Scripture? If not, then which ones are?
Looking at the problem another way, we might ask: Is Christianity primarily about accepting a list of ‘correct’ beliefs? Historically, it is the influence of Greek thinking that led to the field of Systematic Theology and the obsession with “getting doctrine right”. For Israelites, true worship was more about relationship and covenant. They worshipped the one God Yahweh. They were in relationship with him and served him. Their goal was to please him by living their life according to his commands. The early Jewish Christians knew this, but now Jesus, the revelation of Yahweh, was the one they followed and imitated. That is why early Christianity was known as “The Way” (Acts 9:2). It was a way of life, a way of being in Christ, and through him, being in relationship with Yahweh the Creator God.
Therefore, relationship with God through Christ is all-important for the Christian. Does this mean we can dispense with doctrine? Not at all! Scripture abounds with true teachings that we should accept. At the same time we are encouraged to be tolerant of different views (cf. Rom. 14). Perhaps the place to start is to ask: What does Scripture say is essential to believe?
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1Cor 3:11)
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:36-39)
Philip…declared to him the good news about Jesus…and he baptized him. (Acts 8:34-39)
“To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness, that everyone putting faith in him gets forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)
“Sirs, what must I do to get saved?” They said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will get saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30, 31)
“For if you publicly declare that ‘word in your own mouth,’ that Jesus is Lord, and exercise faith in your heart that God raised him up from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)
Scripture shows that converts to Christianity heard and believed the good news, repented, accepted Jesus as Lord, and were baptized. They then joined the early Christian community. Of course as time went on, they would learn many more good things about God’s purposes and ways, but they did not become more “saved” than they already were. The situation should be the same in our house churches. By keeping essential doctrine to that which is specified in Scripture as essential, and allowing freedom in important but non-essential teachings, we greatly increase the possibility of unity.
What about the Kingdom of God? It was central to the teaching of Jesus. His disciples continued to preach it after his death and resurrection and so should we (Acts 8:12, 19:8, 28:31). But what is the kingdom? In a nutshell, it is the promised restorative rule of God through his Messiah. It brings blessings to Christians now (Rom. 14:17; Col. 1:12-13), and later, when Jesus returns, unimaginable blessings and healing to the entire world (Rev. 21:1-5).
There are many other good teachings in our tradition that we very much appreciate, but balance may be in order. If some of these beliefs are based mainly on future fulfillment of prophecy, would it not be prudent to hold these positions more tentatively? Isaac Newton, the great scientist and Bible scholar, said that prophecy was not for men to predict the future, but for men to look back [after fulfillment] and know that God is in control of history. A wise insight indeed!
Are there times when fellowship cannot be maintained? The Bible does speak of such situations, but these are generally reserved for cases of persistent and unrepentant immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-3). The apostle John does warn against those who would “…deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3)--probably a warning against Gnosticism--so we need to be aware that similar deceptions are being taught by others today, such as in the New Age Movement. Paul talks about those who had fallen away, teaching that the resurrection had already occurred (2 Tim 2:17-19), yet his reference to “quarreling about words” (v14) and “wickedness” (v19) implies there were other factors besides doctrine. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that some in the church did not believe in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12), but he does not condemn them--he patiently reasons with them. And in Rom. 14, Paul recommends tolerance where nonessential beliefs differ.
For doctrine in our house churches then, the principal should be, in [Biblical] essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, and in all things love. John Locke, in The Reasonableness of Christianity, provides an excellent summary:
“But considering the frailty of man, apt to run into corruption and misery, he [God] promised a deliverer, whom in his good time he sent, and then declared to all mankind, that whoever would believe him to be the Savior promised and take him (now raised from the dead and constituted the Lord and Judge of all men) to be their King and Ruler, should be saved. This is a plain, intelligible proposition, and the all-merciful God seems herein to have consulted the poor of this world and the bulk of mankind.”