From House to House: The Role of House Churches in Stories of Persecution

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By Dr. Rex Butler

This is the third in a series of articles written to examine early Christian martyr stories and to compare them with contemporary accounts of persecution according to content, themes, players, and actions. Widespread global persecution in the past one hundred years is the continuation of persecution that began during the early centuries of the church.

Among the very earliest accounts of persecution against the church, Luke reports that Paul went “from house to house” in Jerusalem arresting men and women and dragging them off to prison (Acts 8:1-3 NIV). Throughout the rest of the New Testament and many early Christian writings, house churches play prominent roles in the accounts of Christian life and persecution.

One prominent example is found in The Acts of Justin and His Companions. Justin Martyr came to the attention of the imperial authorities because he had angered the intellectual elites, such as Crescens, a Cynic philosopher who had the ear of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. These plotters brought Justin and six of his companions before another Roman prefect, Junius Rusticus. During the trial record, which was preserved, Justin revealed first, that he presided over a congregation that met in his apartment above a bathhouse and second, that there were a number of meeting places throughout the city because Christians were too numerous to gather in a single location.

A common feature of stories of persecution not only in the early church but also in the contemporary world is the house church. Globally, house churches facilitate both the numbers of Christians and, more importantly, secrecy.

Perhaps the most famous house church movement is the one in China. In the aftermath of the Communist revolution, churches were divided between those that were loyal to the state and others that insisted that the union of church and state hindered the Gospel message and mission. The “Dean of the House Churches,” Wang Mingdao, resisted the state-sponsored, state-controlled church and was ostracized, arrested, and imprisoned for twenty years. As one biographer, Thomas Alan Harvey, expressed it: “His life, resistance, suffering, and perseverance bear the marks of the Chinese church. Even as his arrest and imprisonment marked the end of public defiance of the government, how much more did his reemergence from the Chinese gulag twenty years later embody a Christian faith that has not only survived but grown stronger in spite of its official banishment” (Thomas Alan Harvey, Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China).

The house church movement in China is known also as the underground church, so, by its very nature, its numbers are impossible to gauge. Estimates of the total number of Christians in China range from 2.3 million to 200 million. According to the Lausanne Global Analysis, perhaps a reasonable estimate is closer to 100 million, a number which includes Protestant and Catholic, registered and unregistered churches (Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians). As John Allen points out, “Protestantism took off after the expulsion of foreign missionaries, so most of this expansion has been home-grown” (John Allen, The Global War on Christians). Furthermore, according to Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, “Most of the explosive increase of Christians in China has taken place in house churches (or underground churches), which are usually evangelical in theology and practice. In the last thirty years, these church networks have experienced the largest pattern of church growth in world history. In no other country, at no other time, have tens of millions of people come into the Christian faith at such a pace” (Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted).

Because of the sheer numbers of house churches, the Communist authorities have been challenged to regulate them and to force them to register. The pastors of underground churches, however, resist registration because, as one Baptist pastor explained, provincial governors can censor the sermons preached in churches under his control. In September 2013, I had the opportunity to teach pastors of unregistered churches in China, and I asked one of them why he chose not to register with the government. He explained that subjects such as the Holy Spirit and the Second Coming of Christ seem threatening to a regime that fears direction of its subjects from a divine source and the idea that the Communist kingdom will not endure forever. As a rule, however, authorities will not interfere with house churches if they follow three guidelines: 1) they must not be subversive to the government; 2) they must not develop networks with other churches; and 3) they must not receive support from foreign entities. Because of this last guideline, a group of pastors “smuggled” me into a church in order to teach Christian doctrines.

In spite of these seemingly lenient guidelines, there are numerous instances of persecution against house churches and their pastors. Mark Shan of China Aid reports: “House Church always face persecution, especially church leaders are facing danger of even being sent to prison, though different regions in different times have different degree of persecutions” (cited by Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted). Shan goes on to give several examples, including Shouwang Church of Beijing, which has received attention in the American press. This Protestant house church goes against the norm by including more than a thousand members, drawn from the upper and middle classes. In 2011, when the church was denied permission by the government to purchase or rent facilities, the congregation decided to meet in the open. Security forces were waiting for them and arrested hundreds of congregants and four pastors. The church continued to meet outdoors weekly, facing harassment, arrests, and imprisonment.

Wherever the church is persecuted, house church movements will grow. One other notable site is Iran, where house churches are among the very few options for Muslim-background believers to worship. Established churches, such as the Assyrian Church of the East and Armenian Orthodox Church, are prohibited from allowing Muslim-background believers to participate. The numbers are much smaller than they are in China, but still they are encouraging: estimates suggest that there are 100,000 Iranian believers meeting in house churches in their country. One former pastor, Ali Akbar, worked with thirty-five house churches in a dozen different locations before multiple arrests forced him to leave his country (David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam).

House church movements, such as the ancient one described by Justin Martyr, continue to provide opportunities for worship, evangelism, and discipleship around the world today. In many cases, house churches also can enable believers to gather in secret, but, as has been seen all too often, persecuting authorities can penetrate the defenses and impose various levels of suffering on the underground believers.

Please pray for persecuted believers in our contemporary world (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2). To stay informed about our persecuted brothers and sisters, see www.persecution.com, a web site sponsored by Voice of the Martyrs. Visit the site, and do a search for “house churches” to read specifically about house church movements in persecuted nations. “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).

Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.