Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)
These lines, written in the aftermath of the Great War (1914-1918) could very well have been written as the prologue to the new age in which we live, an age even closer to the Day than any that have passed before. This is probably when the ‘Church Age’ actually ended, though we didn’t notice it at the time. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, living as they always have on the edge of their seats waiting for the Second Coming, declared that it had come, only it was a ‘spiritual’ event in the heavens, whose manifestation would not yet be revealed for some time—so much for false prophecy!
The Church Age has ended?
Well, this is a statement that will have a multitude of meanings for people. What I mean by it is, the age when the Christian Church was at its pinnacle of earthly power and influence, had definitely come to an end. For sure, in many places, down to this very day, the Church Age has not come to an end, though these are local instances of it, some related to sectarian or ethnic bases. In general, however, the Church Age is over. That’s why we can no longer speak of England or America as ‘Christian nations.’ The underlying culture is ‘Christian,’ but what is now built on that foundation is anything but Christian.
Hence, we have churches struggling to find ways to perpetuate themselves as institutions, to regain relevance for their version of Christianity. Some have morphed into reflections of the world with only a thin overlay of selective ‘Christian’ ideology, by this hoping to claim their share of the demographic pie. Others, more at a grass roots level and intending fidelity to what the Bible actually teaches, have snubbed authority structures, denominational labels and history, and organized themselves as house churches. ‘After all, that’s what the early Christians did.’ They do well to fellowship and worship in an environment at once familiar and spiritual. This is, in fact, an appropriate format for the Christian koinonia for an age like ours, but wait—there is more!
The visible Church, “as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters) is the aggregate result of the fundamental reality of the invisible Church, “an ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). What we see and experience when we ‘go to church’ is going to be the net result of what we, and everyone else, have invested of our ‘real’ lives, individually and in our families, in the following of Jesus, and in the worship of our heavenly Father ‘in spirit and in truth.’ The witness and ministry of the Church rests squarely on the foundation of the families and individuals that effectively constitute—the house church.
For that’s the real truth about the ‘house church’: it is the Christian family. Even in the first few generations of believers, though a larger group met together at someone’s house, the family that occupied that house was the house church. Larger and wealthier families had larger houses, and those would later evolve into the building for worship that early began to be called a ‘church.’
If today we see churches in disarray, worship services that are not reverent and focused not on God but on the people, should we be surprised? The Roman Catholics turned the altar away from ‘facing East’ toward the Deity, and towards the people, returning the altar to the dinner table it started out as. The concept isn’t wrong per se, but in so doing that community demonstrated that it too had fallen into confusion about what worship is, what fellowship is, and sacrificed the one for the other. This, however, is not the mind of Christ or of the Church. We meet the Lord in both places, at the altar, and in dining together. Each is distinct and proves that Christ is indeed among us, whenever and wherever we gather (it goes without saying) in His name.
Tampering with communal worship is one of the first signs that the house church isn’t really happening, though the need for it remains. The Christian family, as has been received by Orthodox Christians, is the house church, the basic building block of the temple of the living God. It is within the family that God’s Kingdom is taught and learned to be put first, the Word of God honored and given the highest place, the virtues of order and self-discipline practiced and handed over (with the rest of tradition) from the older to the younger generation, and brotherly love firmly planted in every soul.
If there are no house churches, then a non-liturgical Christian assembly tries to create one in its communal life, but it is out-scaled and the efforts result in useless rounds of novelty that satisfy no one and do not please God, who seeks only the salvation of our souls.
If there are no house churches, then a liturgical Christian community, the Orthodox for example, can devolve from an extended family of house churches that lives, prays, ministers, witnesses and worships in spirit and truth, into a mere mechanical performance of now meaningless and irrelevant rituals, and the need which the house church satisfies remains unfulfilled.
The family as house church thus divides all Christians into the haves and have-nots. “I tell you, to everyone who has will be given more; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:26 Jerusalem Bible). It all comes down to ‘what are you doing at home?’
When my family first came to the Orthodox Church (we had been evangelical Episcopalians), we were presented a copy of the book Making God Real in the Orthodox Christian Home by Fr Anthony Coniaris. We didn’t have to buy a copy. The Church just gave it to us as part of our ‘welcome package,’ because the idea of house church had to be impressed on us, as on any new Orthodox, right from the beginning. It was a priority then. What our new brethren and priests didn’t know about us, was that we were already living that way, even as Episcopalians. Daily prayer and bible reading as a family, daily instruction, observing the fasts, including the children in every spiritual activity according to their age and capacity. The book they gave us merely reinforced what we already were doing—being a house church.
“Staying over at our house,” warned one of my sons to his friends, “is like sleeping in a church.”
Yet, being a house church is not living in a religious and sanctimonious environment. Discipline, due respect and proper ceremony have their places, but being a house church is not the same as the game we used to play when I was a child, or that I even used to play with my sons when they were very small—having processions, practicing liturgical gestures, etc. We always knew we were ‘just pretending,’ but that’s how becoming a real Christian usually starts out. Children play at what they want to be when they grow up, and so we, like children raising other children, played at being followers of Jesus, so that in the end that’s what we would be—all of us.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Matthew 6:33 New King James Version