My "favorite" argument against the house church movement popped up (again) in an article in The Washington Post, where a seminary professor suggested that house churches are more vulnerable to heresy because they lack the accountability of established churches and denominations. I'm not sure what's weirder about this argument—that it is made by Americans, that it is made by Protestants or that it is made by people clearly aware of the current religious milieu.
Why? Well, let's start with the "America" issue. This nation was founded on a belief in the superiority of limited government, on the contention that "we the people" must keep government accountable through the democratic process. Although far from being a "biblical form of government," democracy reflects the biblical principle that a lot of power in the hands of a few sinners can lead nowhere good. This same egalitarian notion is at the heart of the house-church movement. It's the conviction that doctrine (like political power) should not be preserved by an ecclesiastical elite. It must be articulated, taught, transmitted and understood by the laity.
Next, we are Protestants, aren't we? The Reformation was a movement of doctrinal purification that emerged from the decay of institutional heresy. Apparently the strong "leadership" of generations of popes, bishops and priests was inadequate to protect the church from doctrines and practices so bizarre they would be considered downright cultish by today's standards. An indulgence anyone?
In fact, as many would argue, the leaders were the ones who concocted these aberrations to begin with! It was when the exclusive right to interpret the Word of God was pried from the grasp of clergy that the laity discovered that they had been duped. Then, like now, the church is not in need of more leaders, it's in need of more readers—believers who will embrace the responsibility of their own spiritual health and stop subcontracting it to paid clergy.
However flawed, the house church movement is one attempt to correct this imbalance.
Finally, even a cursory observation of our largest religious institutions would indicate that size and structure have no bearing on orthodoxy. Some of our largest denominations are still making up their minds about whether they should ordain gays. The pastors of some of our largest churches don't even crack open the Bible when they preach. And yet some of us are worried about the theological pitfalls faced by devout believers exploring the Scriptures and worshipping in the privacy of their own homes?
No, house churches are the least likely seedbeds of heresy. In fact, they are the natural offspring of the Reformation's cry: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda ("The church reformed and always to be reformed").
As with any renewal movement, there will be pockets of excess and room for correction. For instance, in the coming years, the house church movement will have to tackle challenges of elitism, leadership, accountability and—of course—heresy. But like the rest of the Body, they won't be facing these alone (see Matt. 18:20).
Matt Green is a former editor of Ministry Today who now works with Pioneers, a missions organization based in Orlando.