THE APOSTOLIC MULTIPLICATION OF HOUSE CHURCHES
A. The most striking aspect of the New Testament church is its dramatic growth (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 8:12; 9:31-42; etc.). British missionary Roland Allen spoke of this as the “spontaneous expansion of the church.” Because of the reality of the good news of the kingdom and resurrection, confirmed by the recent resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the speed with which the word of the Lord spread was staggering.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (ESV Acts 6:7)
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (ESV Acts 9:31)
The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied. (NASB Acts 12:24)
This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (ESV Acts 19:10)
B. The healthy reproduction of spiritual families in home-based fellowships was the primary mechanism by which this “spontaneous expansion” happened. However, this reproduction was limited and localized to the peoples and places where the seed of the word had been planted. To reach across cultural and geographic lines, God raised up and sent out “apostolic bands.”
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers… 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (NIV Acts 13:1-3)
From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. (NIV Acts 14:26-28)
1. When these teams went out it is assumed that they planted the same type of house churches that were exemplified in Jerusalem. There is no reason to believe that the churches in Acts 8-28 functioned any differently than those of Acts 1-7.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… 3 Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (NIV Acts 8:1-4)
You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia… 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. (NIV Acts 20:18-20)
For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. (NIV 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
2. When the apostolic teams planted new churches, it was assumed that those churches would likewise mature and begin reproducing. In this way the reproduction of house churches locally could be seen as “growth by addition”, while the sending out of apostolic bands to establish house churches in new areas could be seen as “growth by multiplication.” The spontaneous expansion of the church requires both.
3. Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the multiplication of the church ought to be a natural function within the Body of Christ. As there was no specialized “evangelism program” within the early church for localized growth, so was there no specialized “missions program” for cross-cultural and cross-geographic work.
Since the church was the mission, it did not send out special ‘missionaries’ as such: it literally sent out itself, in the form of multipliable units, embryonic units of two and three from the local church, which carried within themselves the vision and virus of church, ready to infect whatever they touched.
C. Thus, the essential mechanism of the spontaneous multiplication of the church is “familial maturation.” Planting and raising new spiritual families is analogous to starting and raising human families. This can generally be seen in four phases:
1. Infancy – Absolute Dependence
2. Childhood – Heavy Guidance
3. Adolescence – Intentional Empowerment
4. Adulthood – Mutual Cooperation
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (ESV 1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
- Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. (NIV Colossians 3:1-6)
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened… (ESV Hebrews 5:12-6:3)
D. This maturation goal was reached by a simple model of discipleship. New believers were established in their faith in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, incorporated into the life of the community, and lovingly discipled in light of the age to come.
Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV Matthew 28:18-20)
1. It is the growth of the Church in simple, loving obedience to Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit—as summed up in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7; Lk. 6) and exemplified in the post-Pentecost Church (Acts 2:37-47)—that is the only formula for the consistent growth and multiplication.
a) Repent and believe (Acts 2:36-38; Mt. 5:3-10)
b) Be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 41; Mt. 28:18-20)
c) Celebrate communion, worship and pray (Acts 2:42, 46; Lk. 22:17-20)
d) Love God and others through service (Acts 2:45; Mt. 7:24-27; 22:37-40)
e) Pray, fast and give (Acts 2:42-44; Mt. 6:1-18)
f) Baptize and disciple others (Acts 2:47; Mt. 5:13-20; 28:18-20)
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ESV Acts 2:37-47)
2. Overly complex models of discipleship based on a convoluted gospel create passive and confused believers that eventually give up in their attempts to be an effective witness of Christ.
E. The maturation of new spiritual families happened in conjunction with the development of leadership, which was raised up in a participatory manner. The five-fold ministry personally invested in and raised up other leaders in the midst of ministry and church planting. Thus, new leaders were not separated from their communities and relationships for training as is common today.
Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (NIV Acts 14:21-23)
To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. 5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless… 7 Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless… (NIV Titus 1:4-7)
1. In this “on-the-field training”, leadership was trained in context to personal mentoring in a way of life that modeled the righteousness of the coming age (cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:9; 2 Tim. 3:10; Heb. 6:12; 13:7; 1 Pe. 5:3).
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (ESV 1 Corinthians 4:15-17)
I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 11:1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (ESV 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:2)
2. Not only was leadership trained in a lifestyle, but it was also trained on-the-field in solid doctrine and teaching (cf. Acts 18:24-28; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:14; Tit. 1:9).
I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. 13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (ESV 2 Timothy 1:12-14)
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (ESV 2 Timothy 2:1-2)
3. The extraction of leaders for specialized training is catastrophic to the health of the church. Likewise, the creation of a professionalized paid staff inherently stagnates a movement. A lay-based movement, though highly offensive to modern ecclesiastical structures on many levels, is the only effective means to the apostolic multiplication of the church.
4. The use of tithes to support leaders within the church must be done locally and reasonably, in light of the ability of the church and the fear of the Day of the Lord. A local house church ought to easily be able to take care of the poor and needy in its midst, support a few elders, and consistently send out apostolic teams.
a) Poor and Needy
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had… 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (NIV Acts 4:32-35)
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (NIV Acts 6:1-2)
Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need… 9 No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10 and is well known for her good deeds… 16 If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need. (NIV 1 Timothy 5:3-16)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. 2:1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in… (NIV James 1:27-2:1)
And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints… 13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15 as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” (NIV 2 Corinthians 8:1-15)
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (NIV 1 Timothy 5:17-18)
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers– not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (NIV 1 Peter 5:1-3)
- But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you… 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. (NIV 2 Peter 2:1-3)
- For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain… 10 For there are many who are insubordinate… 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. (ESV Titus 1:7-11)
- On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed– God is our witness. (NIV 1 Thessalonians 2:4-9)
c) Apostolic Teams
For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? … 13 Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 15 But I have not used any of these rights. (NIV 1 Corinthians 9:9-14)
Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. (NIV 2 Corinthians 11:7-9)
Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (NIV Philippians 4:14-18)
F. The primary failure of the missions movement historically has been its simple lack of ability to let go of control of indigenous churches and leaders. Foreign missionaries become perpetually paternalistic, refusing to allow indigenous leadership to function in their God given abilities.
1. This refusal to father new churches is generally the result of: 1) lack of faith in the real leadership of the Holy Spirit, and/or 2) pride, greed and selfish ambition, which result in various forms of domination and paternalism.
2. For the church to grow by addition and multiplication, the five-fold ministry must walk in faith, trusting the Holy Spirit, and it must release control of the ministry to new believers. As parents must “let go” of their children, so must missionaries let go of their churches, trusting that God will guide and lead them.
3. As the health of children is largely dependent upon the provision of a “learning environment,” so also are new churches. If new leaders do not feel that they are able to make mistakes, it shuts down their faith and ability to take risks under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Children must be encouraged to learn from their mistakes.
 See Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes That Hinder It (World Dominion Press, 1927).
 “In little more than ten years St Paul established the Church in four provinces of the Empire, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Before AD 47 there were no churches in these provinces; in AD 57 St Paul could speak as if his work there was done, and could plan extensive tours into the far west without anxiety lest the churches which he had founded might perish in his absence for want of his guidance and support.” [Rolland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 1962), 3.]
 Missiologists refer to this distinction using the “P-scale” and “E-scale”…
 Diagram taken from Patterson, “The Spontaneous Multiplication of Churches,” 604.
 This may seem unrealistic, but as Allen keenly articulates, “I know not how it may appear to others, but to me this unexhorted, unorganized, spontaneous expansion has a charm far beyond that of our modern highly organized missions. I delight to think that a Christian traveling on his business, or fleeing from persecution, could preach Christ, and a church spring up as the result of his preaching, without his work being advertised through the streets of Antioch or Alexandria as the heading of an appeal to Christian men to subscribe funds to establish a school, or as the text of an exhortation to the church of his native city to send a mission, without which new converts deprived of guidance must inevitably lapse. I suspect, however, that I am not alone in this strange preference, and that many others read their Bibles and find there with relief a welcome escape from our material appeals for funds, and from our methods of moving heaven and earth to make a proselyte. But men say that such relief can only be for dreamers, that the age of that simple expansion has gone by, that we must live in our own age, and that in our age such spontaneous expansion is not to be expected; that an elaborate and highly organized society must employ elaborate and highly organized methods, and that it is vain now to sigh for a simplicity which while it existed had many faults and infirmities, and, however attractive, can never be ours. I must, of course, admit that, if that saying is true, if it is really better that paid missionaries should be sent out by an elaborately organized office, and be supported by a department, and directed by a headquarters staff, if it is really true that our elaborate machinery is a great improvement on ancient practice, and that to carry the knowledge of Christ throughout the world it is in fact far more efficient than the simpler methods of the apostolic age, then indeed I must acknowledge that to sigh after an inefficient simplicity is vain, and worse than vain. But if we, toiling under the burden of our organizations, sigh for that spontaneous freedom of expanding life, it is because we see in it something divine, something in its very nature profoundly efficient, something which we would gladly recover, something which the elaboration of our modern machinery obscures and deadens and kills.” (Allen, Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, 8.)
 Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World (Waynesboro: Authentic, 2001), 45.
 This slightly altered list and the following diagram are from Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men, Three Eras, Two Transitions: Modern Missions,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 3rd. ed., Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 256.
 This list is slightly altered from Patterson, “The Spontaneous Multiplication of Churches,” 601.
 “The spontaneous expansion of the church hinges on unpaid disciples being empowered and equipped to multiply themselves under the leadership of the Holy Spirit from the beginning of their conversion. As a movement grows, new leaders for the next wave of church multiplication constantly need to be identified, equipped, and empowered. It is a telling truth that the empowerment of unpaid, nonprofessional lay leaders is a vital factor in every known church planting movement today. If you want a movement to flourish, empower local lay leaders. If you want to castrate a movement, extract and professionalize its leaders. In the Western world today, we tend to define qualifications for church leadership primarily in terms of education and degrees, and therefore usually appoint leaders who have met certain educational requirements. Paul, in contrast, defined leadership qualifications primarily in terms of character (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1), and viewed prayer and fasting (Ac. 14:23) as the context within which the Holy Spirit himself (Ac. 20:28) highlights the leaders whom he is raising up. Paul also saw the competency of the Spirit’s leadership, not more degrees and conferences, as the primary key to the continued growth and strengthening of local leaders (Ac. 14:23). Furthermore, by appointing multiple leaders in the churches he planted, he instilled a measure of accountability and checks-and-balances in leadership.” [Timothy Miller, Poised for Harvest, Braced for Backlash (Xulon Press, 2009), 250; see also the discussion in Garrison, Church Planting Movements, 192-3.]
 Note Allen’s personal testimony: “Many years ago my experience in China taught me that if our object was to establish in that country a church which might spread over the six provinces which then formed the diocese of North China, that object could only be attained if the first Christians who were converted by our labors understood clearly that they could by themselves, without any further assistance from us, not only convert their neighbors, but establish churches. That meant that the very first groups of converts must be so fully equipped with all spiritual authority that they could multiply themselves without any necessary reference to us: that, though, while we were there, they might regard us as helpful advisors, yet our removal should not at all mutilate the completeness of the church, or deprive it of anything necessary for its unlimited expansion. Only in such a way did it seem to me to be possible for churches to grow rapidly and securely over wide areas; for I saw that a single foreign bishop could not establish the church throughout the six provinces, over which he was nominally set, by founding mission stations governed by superintending missionaries, even if he had an unlimited supply of men and money at his command. The restraint of ordination to a few natives specially trained by us, and dependent for their own maintenance and the maintenance of their families upon salaries provided either by us or by the small native Christian community, and the absolute denial of any native episcopate at the beginning, seemed to me to render any wide expansion of the church impossible, and to suggest at the very beginning that there was something essentially foreign about the church which demanded the direction of a foreign governor.” (Allen, Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, 1.)