This may be an unusual type of blog post for me, but it may have a lot of applicability for the future of Christians/believers.
In the story from Fox News, it is reported that a man in Phoenix faces a jail sentence for hosting a home bible study on his private home lot. At first glance, this seems to be a blatantly unconstitutional effort on the part of the city of Phoenix to deny this man his Constitutional rights to the free expression of his Christian faith. The fact that the city imposed requirements upon him applicable only to commercially-zoned businesses (such as having handicapped-only parking spaces and handicapped ramps make this sound like a vendetta by the city. One particularly bizarre aspect of the story is that the city of Phoenix forbid the man in question to have bible studies in his own living room!
I do wonder: Did the city of Phoenix also forbid people to hold Tupperware or home improvement and decor parties in home living rooms? A Bible Study is a religious activity protected by the US Constitution, and municipalities have no power to override Constitutional protections; whereas, a Tupperware party enjoys no such strong Constitutional protections. If this is a case of unconstitutional religious persecution of Christians by a city, the ACLJ or some other Christian advocacy group ought to be all over this case to protect Christian rights. However…as Paul Harvey used to say, there is always “the rest of the story.” There is more to this case than meets the eye, and all Christians hosting (or considering) home bible studies or hosting home churches need to consider some biblical principles when doing so to ensure the experience is trouble-free.
When you read the entire FOX News story, one does get the sense that whatever the initial disagreement was, a running feud of some kind developed between the man in question and the city of Phoenix. For example, the man hosting the bible studies didn’t merely hold them in his house, he built a 2000 square foot building in his backyard to host them and the article reports that the building permit for this extra structure didn’t specify the real purpose of the building. The building in his back yard was built as a church with a pulpit, cross and seating for 40 people. That structure goes way beyond the typical understanding definition of a home “Bible Study.”
Having served in municipal/metropolitan governmental bodies for about a decade in my younger days, I can see that there are two sides to this story. All cities have various zoning regulations which are intended for the public good. For example, you wouldn’t want a convenience store being built in your residential neighborhood with the all-night lighting, noise and traffic that would cause. That is why businesses are limited to areas zoned for commercial purposes and residences are zoned residential usage to allow people to enjoy peace and quiet. Special construction codes are also necessary to insure proper fire department and first responder access to all city structures as well.
Let’s apply this case to modern Christians who host home bible studies or small church fellowship groups. When/if the USA experiences a major fiscal/monetary crisis (predicted by very responsible former high-office holders in addition to people in the financial media and websites), it is very possible that many Christian churches will be unable to finance or afford their church buildings and campuses and may have to subdivide into house churches. Many of the original congregations in the Apostolic era were house churches (Romans 16:5, I Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15) so this would hardly be unprecedented. There are some things to keep in mind if you host or attend a house church in the future. Romans 12:18 tells us to “live peaceably with all men,” and I Peter 2:13 tells us to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…” Of course, that injunction has to be balanced by Acts 5:29’s instruction that “we ought to obey God rather than men” when there is a direct contradiction between the two. However, such conflicts will be few in normal American society. It is also true that the federal, state and local governments are responsible to govern within the limitations of the US Constitution (and State Constitutions). When Paul wrote Acts 5:29, he was writing during the reign of the dictatorial Roman Caesars, some of which were quite mad. There was no higher “Constitution” that the Caesars had to obey. Modern western democracies, thankfully, enjoy Constitutional protections that vary from nation to nation.
If you are going to host or attend a home church, be sure that you obey applicable parking, traffic and noise regulations. For example, you cannot have a mob of cars descend on your home and have them block your neighbors’ driveways or block postal access to post office delivery boxes. Nor can they park within a certain distance of fire hydrants. I suspect that in the home churches to which Paul wrote, all the attendees walked to that home. I doubt that there was a mass of private chariots parked all over the neighborhood to obstruct streets or access to other residences.
Any singing of hymns in a home church ought to be sufficiently subdued so that no noise ordinance is violated. You do want “your light to shine” before other men. If you have a raucous church service every week, you will offend some neighbors and can justifiably expect problems as your neighbors have the right to enjoy the quiet of their own backyards. Many homes will host occasional activities which involve a temporary overflow of people and cars in a neighborhood. Such events include graduation parties, rummage sales, Super-Bowl parties, etc. These are all temporary events and most neighbors will tolerate them with reasonableness. It is when an event goes on week after week with associated disagreeable spill-over problems into neighboring properties that problems will inevitably result in the authorities being called. Simple common sense will result in a lot of problems being avoided if you ever host or attend a home church.
The Practitioners of non-Christian religions have responsibilities as well. If a non-Christian gathering wanted to slaughter sheep or animals as part of a religious observance, you can be sure that the police would likely be called to such an observance as the blood and howling noise of the sacrificed animals would surely be, at the very least, a “disturbance of the peace.”
The Bible actually has a lot to say about the civic responsibilities which should be observed by Christians/believers. For a detailed examination of these biblical teachings on the subject, I suggest you read my free article, Christian Rights [and Citizenship Responsibilities]. In the future, being mindful of and applying these biblical teachings may save you a lot of trouble.