II. The One Family of God (Continued)

A. The One Family of God in Shaping Convicditons

Paul's solution to the breakdown among the churches of Rome was to call both the Gentile and Jewish elements into a single, one family of God. This is not to say, as does Alan Segal, that he was trying to force them into a single community. Nor is it to say, with Wiefel, that he was attempting to have them join a single congregation. Aageson is probably closer, saying that Paul was trying to "inspire an attitude." But it is even better to say that Paul was attempting to shape the convictions of his listeners--that it is absolutely essential for the right functioning of the churches of Rome that they have a basis of convictions that are rooted in their adoption into the one family of God. A church comprised of members who share convictions is a church of committed believers--a "believers'," or house, church.

As James McClendon points out, convictions are not mere opinions. They are not easily acquired, and are not readily removed. Unlike opinions, convictions are associated with commitment. They tend to be closely tied with the way one approaches and lives one's life, and thus gradually result from what may start as mere opinion but grow to become convictions only after the trial and error of experience has given them some validation. For this reason McClendon prefers to use the word "shape" to describe the formation of a conviction. As a person's convictions are shaped, that person's life is shaped as well.

One can rightly ask how the reading of one letter, no matter how brilliantly composed, can thus shape the convictions--the lives--of its recipients. Perhaps the letter can induce discussion, validate some experiences and opinions, invalidate other experiences and opinions--perhaps not. Maybe that is why Paul "longed" to make a personal visit and to "share a spiritual gift" (Rom. 1:11). We can't know, of course, whether the letter actually had a significant effect on shaping the convictions of the saints in Rome, but we can know this: the fact that circumstances caused Paul to respond to the problem with a the letter--the Book of Romans--has helped shape the convictions of many legions of Christians over the centuries.

The present writer has said that Paul intended to shape a conviction on the meaning and importance of the one family of God. The one family of God is not to be understood as a gathering of a large number of believers into a single fellowship--something that clearly became impossible even when the church came into existence in Acts 2, where we are told that the number of believers suddenly grew by 3000. According to Lyle Schaller, churches larger than about 40 simply can't function with the necessary intimacy to embody the two greatest commandments: loving the Lord and one another. The idea of a large church, together with a hierarchical structure that made it an "institution," came in with Constantine and still affects our thinking today.Paul did not know the church as an institution; the church he knew was a cluster of small fellowships.

In his book The House Church, historian Del Birkey makes it clear that the house church was absolutely normative in the worship of early Christians. He documents the presence of these fellowships in Jerusalem, Phillipi, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Colossae, Laodicea, and Troas. Nowhere in Romans can one find Paul attacking the house church system--that is not the target of his quest for Jewish/Gentile unity; Romans 16 simply recognizes the clustered groups of believers and addresses the letter accordingly. That it does this actually puts it apart from other letters, where Paul tends to use the singular "church" to refer to the clustered fellowships in the city to which his letter is addressed.

Every believer in each fellowship was a part of a large structure only in the sense that all believers are members of the one family of God. As in any other family, that family is to be comprised of right relationships. Roman churches were certainly practicing baptism, for example--but were they practicing it with a true appreciation of its prophetic importance? Paul needed to shape the convictions of his listeners; to mold them into proper participants in their various house churches.

The theological work associated with believers' church is generally understood as having started during the era of the Protestant Reformation. Periodic expressions of believers' church thinking may have punctuated Christian history somewhat earlier, but the modern rebirth of the small fellowship is traceable to that turbulent time of history marked by the influence of Luther and Zwingli.

Comprised of small fellowships entirely made up of confessing believers covenanting together in mutual accountability and in a common desire to follow Christ, George H. Williams regarded the believers‘ church as one of the products of what hecalled the "Radical Reformation." Durnbaugh suggests that one of the clearest (1526) articulations of a believers' (house) church may be found in an unexpected place--the writings of Martin Luther:

The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul's example, II Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set out a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love....

While Luther appreciated the value of house church ecclesiology, the above description betrays a characteristic of Luther's concept that shows that he had not thought the matter through to its logical conclusion. He speaks of such a model only for "people who want to be Christians in earnest." One might speculate that this came from the Roman tradition in which he had spent many years, but Luther does not seem to be distinguishing "Christians" from "Christians in earnest" on the basis of their membership in any kind of priesthood and one would hardly expect Luther to admit in sixteenth century Europe that there were any non-Christians among those who had been baptized as infants and who populated the magisterial church of his day. But no matter what Luther had in mind when he made this distinction, the notion of two "classes" of Christians would never be acceptable to a modern advocate of believers' church ecclesiology. It is an idea that can have no place in the one family of God that dominates Romans. Just as Constantinian Christianity had eclipsed the house churches of the fourth century Roman Empire, Luther later concluded that his vision of churches comprised entirely of believers "was an impractical dream, and that to be realistic, given the mixed multitude, he would have to turn to the prince in order to get on with the task of securing the Radical Reformation." Nevertheless, after the carnage of Anabaptist persecutions had passed, the believers' church had secured many footholds in church history and had managed to leave a palpable trail through its confessions of faith, many of which are cited in the present work.

In the modern era, the believers' (house) church has advocates among a multitude of modern denominations, including Baptists James Wm. McClendon and Stanley A. Nelson, Methodists Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon,and Mennonites John Howard Yoder and Donald F. Durnbaugh. These modern writers have produced a corpus of writings that reveal a theology centered on the doctrine of church. They do not all use the same terminology--McClendon, for example, prefers "community," but the idea is the same. The house church, above all else, is rooted in the corporate nature of the cluster of believers--the local, house church. It is dependent on the idea of "binding and loosing" in Mt. 18:18-20, a passage which Birkey sees as being rooted in the Old Testament.While Jesus' words here actually deal with church discipline, the binding and loosing also refers to "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" in Mt. 16:19 and are broadened to "anything you ask" in Mt. 18:19. Included in the concept of "binding and loosing" is the whole concept of discernment,a requirement of an obedient Christian in which a corporate context is vital. Just as all believers are to be a one family of God, these passages in Matthew demonstrate that God wants his children to learn to practice corporate, relational Christianity in the very manner of their worship and mission. This is the stuff of ecclesiology, and the reason that the doctrine of church is so fundamental to the believers' church.

That one finds the charter of house church eccesliology in Matthew, and can even see it at work in such places as the proceedings of Acts 15, does not automatically make it a doctrine embraced by Paul and certainly does not make the book of Romans a "House Church Manifesto." But the notion that Paul might be calling the Roman house churches into that which is now called "house (believers') church ecclesiology" in order to repair the present problem and to equip them to withstand new problems in the face of a changing culture is the task that the remainder of this paper will attempt to accomplish.