Mailbag #49: Home Groups Over Church; Pastoring an Unmarried Woman Who Wants to Adopt

Mailbag
01.20.2017

Is it permissible for Christians to opt out of attending church in favor of home groups? »
If an unmarried member of your church sought to adopt a foster child, what would you say? »

Dear 9Marks,

Due to the rise in doctrinally unsound churches and the difficulty finding a doctrinally sound church, some Christians seem to be “opting out” of established churches in favor of home groups. Often, these are gatherings of friends who may pray and sing together, watching a sermon on-line with no pastor or other structure of biblical leadership. I understand an arrangement like this may be necessary in extremely isolated areas or in areas where every available church is apostate. But is opting out of church in favor of home groups a good idea if there is an established, relatively biblically healthy church available to attend?

—Moira

Dear Moira,

Some church matters in the Bible are absolute “musts.” If you don’t do them, you are sinning. We must be baptized (Matt. 28:19). We must regularly assemble and participate in the Lord’s Supper (Heb. 10:25; 1 Cor. 10:15-17; 11). Assuming their uprightness, we must submit to our leaders (1 Thes. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:7,17). To fail in these kinds of requirements is sin.

Some church matters are “shoulds.” A church should do these things, but there might be situations where a church simply cannot. For instance, churches should have elders, even multiple elders, since that’s the uniform practice of the New Testament. Still, there are churches in the New Testament with no elders (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Paul, Barnabus, and Titus worked to supply them with elders because these assemblies would be weak and “disorderly” without elders (“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town…”). But these assemblies were still churches, and I don’t think we can say the members were in a state of sin without elders. The “shoulds” give us the biblical patterns or directions our churches should walk in. They involve questions of judgment, at least as regards timing. But ignoring those patterns entirely is typically sin—and it’s certainly foolish.

Some church matters are “cans.” A church can use a Sunday School program, or not. A church can meet in a house, or it can meet in a building expressly built for church gatherings. Christians can choose between one church or another. The “cans” are always a matter of judgment or wisdom.

Finally, some church matters are “must nots,” but I’m not going to pick any fights right now by saying what I’d put in this bucket and further distract us from your question.

These are not perfect, hermetically-sealed categories, but they provide a workable starting point. Your question mostly falls into the landscape of the “shoulds” and “cans.”

Can Christians conduct their regular gathering in a house? Yes. It might be foolish to forsake other, more organized local assemblies. But they can do it, and, as you suggest, if my only choice is between a prosperity gospel church and a home assembly, I’ll gladly choose the home assembly. After all, this pushes us into the category of “musts.” We must have sound doctrine.

Should they do so with no concern for the oversight of elders? No, that’s deeply unwise and probably sinful. Should they do so with little concern for practicing the ordinances and their mutual accountability? No, again, that’s deeply unwise and probably sinful.

Bottom line: I’d want to know more about this group of friends who gather weekly for their podcast preacher. Is it just a way of avoiding all accountability and maintaining personal independence? Then talk to me in ten years (or two) and I expect we’ll find that the majority of this group will not be attending any regular gathering, and that their lives will look otherwise indistinguishable from the world. Or: is it effectively a church plant, where they plan to practice the ordinances, open themselves up to anyone who attends, and eventually affirm elders? Then that’s an acceptable possibility and entirely a matter of judgment and wisdom.

I hope this both answers your question and gives you a few tools besides.

Dear 9Marks,

My neighbor is a school teacher and is currently fostering an 18-month-old boy. She is single and working toward adopting the child. She said God was leading her toward adoption. I have not offered criticism or support. If a young woman in your church approached the elders and asked for guidance, would you represent a neutral position or gentle pressure for or against fostering to adopt?

—Jacob

Dear Jacob,

I cannot speak for my fellow elders or my church. Only myself. But let’s see if we can break down the different pieces of the dilemma here. On the one hand, Scripture and nature both teach the good of having a mother and a father. Genesis 1’s dominion mandate clearly establishes the pattern and God’s good purposes in a mother and a father for every child. The wisdom literature pictures both mothers and fathers participating—presumably uniquely—in the nurturing and raising of a child. And even a cursory glance at the work of reliable social scientists affirms the good of having both a mom and a dad (e.g. see here).

On the other hand, Scripture affirms the good of single parents caring for their children (think of the widows and sons Elijah and Elisha rescued). And praise God for the wonderful single parents who dutifully and self-sacrificially care for their children, in some instances better than two parents. Also, Scripture does not forbid the possibility of a single adult adopting an unwanted child. We know that in a fallen, war-torn, abuse-ridden world, people of good will must sometimes “adopt” less than ideal circumstances in order to prevent other injustices or to accomplish some other good. Imagine an adult refugee fleeing a war-torn county finding herself walking on a desert road alongside a three-year-old with two dead parents. Oh, please, grab that child and never let go.

A third factor here is your neighbor’s claim that God is leading her. Honestly, I tend to ignore these kinds of claims. Maybe he’s leading her. Maybe not. I have no idea. I do know people often talk themselves into believing God is leading them in order to give their desires a sacred veneer. “How dare you contradict God!” It might be sincere, but it might manipulative. Again, I don’t know, so I ignore it. If God is leading, he’ll get it done.

The reason you find yourself stuck in the middle, I expect, is that you feel the tension between these two hands I mentioned above. So would I adopt a “neutral” position? Formally, yes. I wouldn’t prescribe one path as the path of sin and the other as the path of righteousness. That’s the lesson of “the second hand” above: Scripture doesn’t say. This is what I call a “wisdom matter,” which means, even if you think one path is wiser than another (and one path may be wiser), you need to be careful not to bind the conscience and push too hard.

However, you want to pastor her through the decision in light of “the first hand” above. Is she willing to acknowledge that children benefit from having fathers and not just mothers? How will she be able to care well for the child as a single-working mom? If she chooses not to adopt, what’s the likelihood the child will end up in a healthy, two-parent home? Does she have family (parents, siblings, etc.) who will be able to help her? When people come to us as pastors for counsel, one of our jobs is to help them count the costs and consider the disadvantages of what their hearts are tugging them toward. That’s not to say their hearts are always pulling in the wrong direction, but we love them by asking them to consider all the factors involved.

Also, you need to make your own assessment about her. Is she emotionally stable? A responsible person? Financially secure? Extended family? These kinds of assessments should factor into how you pastor, and the kinds of questions you ask.

Bottom line: Help her grapple with the challenges. Help her consider the needs of the child before her own desires. Unless she’s a fairly irresponsible person, I would personally hold back from saying “You should…” either way. But once she makes the decision, I would support her.

Brother, I could be wrong. But that’s my judgment on this one.

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