Great Expectations

Today I visited the first house church I have found in this area. I could not tell you tonight whether it’s the beginning of answered prayer or of great dissappointment.

In this part of the country, everyone knows the whole countryside from their youth, so the concept of road signs is not really understood. There are road signs; some little byways that barely have enough traffic to keep the grass from growing are marked. But sometimes a sign is inexplicably omitted from a main juncture. Today I happened upon a four-way intersection that prominently displayed signs indicating the road to Whereville and Sometown, but no sign whatever indicating the names of the actual roads. So I guessed, and guessed wrong, and wound up on a road clinging to a cliffside. In this area you often wind up on extreme road conditions if you go half a mile off of the main drag. I love those roads and I am a great hazard driving on these cramped roads for gawking at the views.

Once I sorted out my directions and got where I meant to go, I was welcomed into the home, where the meal preparations were underway. We loafed about chatting as we waited for others to arrive. I had thought that it was just one couple and the wife’s parents, but when I arrived there was already an elderly man and woman of no relation to each other or anyone else, and another adult daughter of the previously mentioned parents. There were also some young children, and I admit to being captivated by quiet little knee-highs with wide eyes.

Then the young couple arrived with three more little children, and, after waiting a little longer for some other possible arrivals, we began with some songs accompanied by guitar or CD. Anyone present could nominate a song, including the children, and they ranged from old hymns to to very contemporary compositions. As we were singing another family arrived with their three daughters. When everyone was through singing a recorded sermon from John MacArthur was played, and then we concluded with prayer. Anyone who wished spoke in the prayer. The proceedings were very informal and relaxed throughout; adults sometimes had whispered conversations on the side, and when the children were bored they played in an adjacent room.

Afterward we all sat down to eat, and the meal continued into converation on to about 4:30 in the afternoon. The two older people and the family with three daughters left then, and I was about to; but when I was at the door I asked how it was they felt they could not attend a typical church and yet felt they should feature a typical preacher. The conversation went on from there and I left around seven o’clock.

Three of us were conversing, with three others who gradually joined in, so you can imagine how we went from one subject on to a related topic, and then on to another, and then another, and then back to the first again; and in the manner of conversation some nuances went unexplored, and some clarifications wandered into secondary subjects. It is difficult and even unfair to extract from that theologies and errors and the philosophical underpinnings that shape and drive an association. But, on the caveat that it is the first impression from my limited perceptions and not a verdict from the throne of the Almighty, here’s what I discovered of their thinking:

They first stopped attending traditional churches when it was hard to find one that was doctrinally sound. Gradually they became more convinced that no tradition or particular pastor had a better source of doctrine than they themselves, or any other believer; they realized that God is the authority and he speaks through his spirit, not particularly through ordained experts. Having come to this perspective, it became harder to go along with shallow and arbitrary regulations in traditional churches (such as the one that I have been visiting, which they also formerly attended, which frowns on contemporary music).

The are generally conservative in their doctrine, believing in God’s sovereign election (what is called Calvinism) and six-day creation, and are ardently opposed to abortion. The subject did not come up and I do not know, but if I had to guess, I would suppose that they do not hold to infant baptism or strict Covenantal theology; but they definitely incline toward “God, Family, and Country” principles. The families are all homeschoolers and were vocal McCain supporters.

The way the father (or grandfather, depending on your view) said that they chose not to be politically passive seemed to allow a tolerance for legitimate Christianity that chooses not to be involved in polictics; I avoided the politics and I think that was sensed and respected. Since I did not push the boundaries I do not know exactly where their boundaries lie. Although my sense is that they do not believe that a Christian must vote and must vote Republican, there is certainly room for me to be wrong on this count.

They also believe in a seven-year Tribulation, if the comment of the son-in-law is any indication, and this suggests a general problem with figurative scripture (often those who maintain six-day creation struggle with figurative scripture and especially Revelations).

Further, and possibly the gravest concern of all, it seems to be the women who shape this church. Here I will begin to use names, because the personalities will be pivotal in my further involvement in this fellowship. The family moved out to Montana years ago because Paul wanted to; they moved back to this area because Vickie wanted to. Vickie told me that their original plan was to meet in a home initially and then move into a church building with a pastor. She described to me using the first person singular pronoun (‘I’ for the grammar-challenged) her concerns as they began that process: “How would I know that the pastor had good theology? How would I make sure that he was thoroughly interviewed?” And, if the my recollection and the imprecision of conversation are accurate, she was the one to decide on listening to recorded sermons. She types up chatechisms for their young children. And Paul remarked that, since she is teaching the children, Vickie is usually the one to first read and discover good teaching that is out there in other books, which she then recommends to him. Then their son-in-law Ray chimed in, noting that in both their families their wives were the pioneers of doctrine (my phrase, not his), searching out and brining in the edifying teaching.

I do not believe that women can not and should not ever teach men anything spiritual. Those who believe in such spiritual patriarchy have not learned that in Christ there is neither male nor female; that the same holy spirt indwells both. At the same time, though, in the different earthly temporal roles of the sexes, the overall role of leadership belongs with the men, and when they do not fulfill this there is harm or at least lack, as with any spiritual principle that lies fallow.

When someone is irresponsible with their money, it is much easier to say that they will end in financial ruin than it is to say exactly how they will get there. I could not hazard to predict exactly what sort of harm (or lack) results from men neglecting their leadership duty (rightly understood, and not to the exclusion of the spiritual gifts of the women), but I can still say that it is unbalanced, and, drawing on the sense of something imbalanced, that it could gradually drift off course, or totter ever more precariously, or just be susceptible to sudden toppling.

But they have been meeting for six or nine years, or something on that order if I remember correctly; families have come and gone. In my experience it seems that the worst flaws cause catastrophes in less time than that.

Surely this is no perfect church, without blemish and ready for the marriage supper of the lamb. That does not answer whether it is a profitable fellowship for me at this time in my life, though. We all have shortcomings, not just those random incidents that fundamental Baptists allow but habits, preferences, and fiercely held opinions that are not God-honoring. So the question of fellowship is not “Are they wrong about some things?” but, “Are they as a fellowship committed to something which is not Christ-like and which pertains to the fellowship, so that my joining with them would indicate my acceptance and endorsement of this error?” My answer to that question, according to my Spirit-led understanding, could change in a month, or a year, or ten years. Today, I plan to go back next week.