I have to say that the case of Arizona pastor Michael Salman who is currently in jail for running a Bible study in his home astonishes me.
For all my life I have been involved with churches that also meet in homes for Bible Studies midweek. It seems that according to the state of Arizona that should be illegal. I suppose it is possible that part of the situation here is to do with the size of this person’s Bible study. Clearly there has to be a line drawn somewhere, if I invited a thousand people to join me for a Bible Study in my home, I do think the council would have a right to have something to say about it! But, unless I am missing something in this case we are not talking about a large number of people. Why would a US city jail a man for having some friends into his house to worship? Some some people do think this is more about him refusing to comply with building regs and was told he could not have more than twelve people in his home at a time. Reading this and some more the details of the case from court documents it appears that he has about 40 people who attend his Bible Studies, and that he was asked to treat an extra building on his property as a church. (HT: here). I am not clear from my brief read of this whether if he had simply made adaptions to his room the authorities would have left him alone. Certainly, from the actual judgement, it seems he could have done much more to attempt to obey the ruling authorities and follow building regulations.
If this case sets a precedent that gets applied elsewhere it is very possible that Michael Salman could have done more for the cause of religious freedom by simply making the building improvements the authorities requested. I do hope that one man’s resistance to these rules does not lead to an emboldening of others to try and ban house churches elsewhere. It is of course difficult to put a precise level on what should be an acceptable number of people to have in your home for a church meeting. I wonder if this man really did as best he could to be very careful about what the law says and abide by it to our best. The law courts love using precedents and will stretch a decision like this (which perhaps is harder than it first seems for us to challenge) and apply it elsewhere. For example, imagine how it would be if a future court decided that any religious gathering of more than 12 people in total had to take place in a public building (the arbitrary number quoted in one of the court papers and according to one of my correspondents this number is actually the legal limit on a small group according to the zoning law of Phoenix). If they impose that, church as the Bible knows it couldn’t occur in the USA.
All over the world for two thousand years churches have met in homes. It is part of the very nature of our faith that we are meant to gather publicly – in Jerusalem they met in their multiple thousands all together in Solomon’s Portico– and in their homes. I would argue that the model of meeting in homes is such an integral part of the biblical model for the church, that to ban us from practicing our faith in our living rooms is nothing less than to ban us living as christians whatsoever.
Many modern churches begin in houses. I am glad to be part of a moment that back in the seventies was called “The House Church Movement” now, many of those early churches have grown to be warehouse churches, but they all have small group bible studies meeting in homes as well.
I never believed I would live to see the day when practicing my faith would be banned. It really does look like this is where we are heading. I am sure that the militant secularists with their desire to build an atheocracy are delighted.