In Bible college, my homiletics’ professor instructed us to wind down our sermons after twenty-five minutes because most congregations couldn’t handle more than a thirty minute message. I readily agreed because I wasn’t sure if I could find enough material to go longer than thirty minutes.
Yet, as I look back, I don’t remember talking about how long the apostles took in their sermons or whether or not they even stood behind a pulpit. And did they deliver sermons? I just assumed that a twenty-five minute sermon was biblical. I made similar assumptions about songs on Sunday, announcements, greetings, and church programs.
Perhaps I didn’t ask enough questions. Maybe my professors didn’t really know. Maybe it didn’t matter because Sunday protocol was already well established in the Protestant church, and if it was good enough for other denominations, then we needed to follow.
As we go back to the primitive church and ask what they actually did in those celebration gatherings, we can only find principles and patterns, rather than dogmatic answers. We also need to be open to allow the New Testament to critique our own patterns today.
Finding clear answers about the celebration gatherings in the early church isn’t so simple because of the relationships between individual house churches and city churches varied. We do find evidence, however, that house churches enjoyed relationship with one another and even met together periodically as a gathered church.
The Connection between House Churches
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he addresses the individual ecclesia that met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19), but he also greets the ecclesia as a whole (1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1). Wayne Meeks writes, “Paul imagined a connection between converts within a city, region, and province. . . . Paul wrote only one letter to a city or area, assuming it would suffice for all groups.”
The house churches that Paul planted, in other words, were part of a larger unit. Gehring writes, “Many NT scholars believe that both forms—small house churches and the whole church as a unit at that location—existed side by side in early Christianity.” Gehring goes on to say,
The proof of a plurality of house churches alongside the whole church at one location would shed light on the controversial issue regarding the clarification of the relationship between the individual churches and the whole local church, and between the local church and the universal church.
In other words, individual believers and house churches considered themselves part of a greater citywide church.
We also notice the existence of both public preaching as well as house-to-house ministry. For example, at times the whole church gathered in unidentified places for public ministry. In Acts 15:4, Luke writes, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.”
Later on in Acts 15:22 we read, “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” The individual house churches were linked by leadership that occasionally gathered the house churches together.
Paul’s own leadership, for example, was crucial in linking house churches together. We see Paul and Silas in Acts 16:4 traveling from town to town, delivering the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. We’re not sure exactly where they had those discussions, but we do see the leadership connection within the house church network. Ken Giles, writing about this leadership link, says,
It is often assumed that in the New Testament age there were no institutional structures linking individual congregations or local churches to the wider Christian community, but this is not true. The institutional forms that were needed and were appropriate for this period began to appear very early. In the Book of Acts, Luke maintains that a group of elders with general oversight of the Christian community in Jerusalem was in place by the time the church at Antioch was established.
I’ve mentioned the Acts 15 passage earlier as an example of this leadership link, but Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.”
In the Jerusalem church, those leadership associations were especially clear because we read, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42). In the Jerusalem church, the apostolic leadership gathered together the various house churches.
These gatherings of the whole church can also be seen in Acts 21:5. Paul is making his way back to the Jerusalem church after his mission trip to the Gentiles, and the Scripture says, “But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.”
Because the early church had no permanent buildings or specific meeting places, they used a variety of meeting places for the larger gatherings, and on this particular occasion, they gathered on the beach. We don’t have specific knowledge of all the early public places, but we do know that public gatherings existed (Acts 20:20).
Throughout this book, we’ve learned that the primary meeting venue was the house. The public gatherings, therefore, seem to be the gathering of the various house churches together in whatever meeting places were available. We do know of a few of these public places.
Paul used the lecture hall of Tyrannus in Corinth where Scripture says, “He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily” (Acts 19:9). At times the whole church met in larger homes, like in the case of the upper room where the disciples met in preparation for the Spirit’s descent (Acts 1:12; 2:1).
In Rome, Paul sends greetings from the “whole church” who he had gathered together. Romans 16:23 says, “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.” Paul refers here to the whole church meeting together in one large home, but the point is that the various house churches did come together to celebrate.
Gathered House Churches In a Larger Meeting
We don’t have a lot of information about the larger celebration gatherings in all parts of the Mediterranean region. However, we do know that the individual house churches celebrated together in Jerusalem and Corinth.
In Jerusalem, the early church met in houses to participate in the Lord’s Supper and fellowship, but then those same house churches gathered together in the temple to hear the apostles teaching. Acts 2:46-47 says, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” We see here both the house church meetings as well as those house churches coming together to hear the apostles teaching. Gehring writes,
It can be inferred from our text that the primitive church gathered for two different types of worship services, which can be distinguished from one another on the basis not only of their locality but of their organizational arrangement as well. The main emphasis in the house was on bread breaking. The first Christians likely took part in the temple prayers held in the temple courts, and from there they went into the hall of Solomon for a gathering of the whole congregation, with the emphasis on missionary proclamation and biblical instruction.
The community life of the Jerusalem church was enhanced by both the small group as well as the large group experience. They enjoyed the intimate community of the Lord’s Supper in homes, but received solid teaching in the larger gathering.
Writing about the Jerusalem church, Gerhard Lohfink says,
The believers are a single assembly even though the place of their assembly changes. They meet in the Temple to praise God publicly. This shows their claim to be the eschatological Israel. But they also met in private houses to celebrate the Lord’s supper. Again the unanimity of their assembly is emphasized.
David Shenk and Irvin Stutzman break down the early church activity further,
The first congregations were house churches which met in small clusters throughout the Jerusalem metropolitan area. Since most of the homes in the Jerusalem area were small, we may assume that from ten to twenty people gathered in each of these cell group fellowships. Probably 100-200 of these small congregations, meeting in living rooms throughout the Jerusalem area, were formed within days of Pentecost. Yet they never functioned independently of each other. These home cell groups formed the clusters comprising the church in Jerusalem, a congregation who for some time met around the temple area for celebration events.
As we’ve already seen, the house sizes differed, and we really don’t know how many house churches existed in the Jerusalem area. We only know that they came together under the leadership of the apostles to hear the apostles’ teaching and to celebrate the resurrected Christ, just like Acts 5:42 says.
Similarly, in Acts 5:12, we notice that, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.” Solomon’s Colonnade was basically a publicly accessible porch or veranda outside the East Gate of Jerusalem’s Temple site that could accommodate a huge group of people.
The second clear example is in Corinth. Paul says, “ So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23). Paul speaking about the whole church coming together implies that at other times the Christians in Corinth met separately in smaller house churches. Yet, both were considered the church. Arthur G. Patzia writes,
All this illustrates that “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2) and the “whole church” (holes tes ekklesias) mentioned in Romans 16:23 consisted of several local house churches, each one somewhat different in its ethnic, social and economic mix of people. Paul’s reference to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2) and to the believers coming together “as a church” (1 Corinthians 11:18), along with the implication that Gaius was hosting the entire (holes) church (Romans 16:23), suggest that there were occasions in Corinth when all the believers assembled. In time, these letters were shared with other churches in the city and read at their worship services before a redactor collected and edited them into their current format as 1 and 2 Corinthians.
Gehring envisions the small groups meeting separately to focus on the Lord’s Supper and then at other times assembling together to hear the preaching of the word, much like what happened in the Jerusalem church. In his book, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James Dunn notes the large church/small church emphasis in Corinth when he writes,
blockquote Paul could speak both of the whole congregation in a place as “church” and also of individual house groups within that congregation as “church” (1 Cor. 1:1; 16:19). The one was not seen as detracting from the status of the other. Wherever believers met together, they were “the church of God.” The implication of 1 Cor. 16:19 set alongside 14:23 (referring to the whole church meeting together) is probably that church gatherings consisted of more regular small house groups interspersed with less frequent (weekly, monthly?) gatherings of the “the whole church.”
Dunn speculates about more regular house church meetings interspersed with less frequent celebration gatherings. This seems like a logical conclusion because the smaller house meetings would have been more feasible and practical. Gathering in larger groups in public places would have been more difficult logistically—and at times dangerous.
Even though the early church in Jerusalem met daily in public gatherings, at least for awhile, it’s unlikely that this practice continued. All we can say with accuracy is that the small and large group format existed both in Jerusalem and Corinth.
What about the house churches in other parts of the Mediterranean world? How often did they meet in house meetings and combined gatherings? We’ve already seen Paul’s greeting to the whole church in Rome. Most likely Paul gathered the entire church in a larger house church setting periodically because in Romans 16:23 he uses the same terminology he used in Corinth, “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.”
In Ephesus, we see Paul’s pattern of teaching publically and from house-to-house (Acts 20:20). The larger group gathering can also be seen in Paul’s greeting from all the churches in Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19). As part of Paul’s general greeting to the churches in Asia, he then specifically mentions the house church of Aquila and Priscilla and their particular greetings to the churches. Paul seems to imply that there were other Christians in Ephesus who did not meet at Aquila’s home. This, along with the relatively large size of the church in Ephesus, suggests a plurality of house churches there.
F.F. Bruce comments, “Such house churches appear to have been smaller circles of fellowship within the larger fellowship of the city ecclesia.” Paul would gather this larger ecclesia to preach and teach publicly but would also minister from house-to-house.
The same can be said about the church in Thessalonica. Paul writes to the entire church in his introduction, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). Like in the case of the church in Rome and Ephesus, we can assume that the church in Thessalonica was broken down into house churches. Most likely the house groups gathered for special celebration events, as when Paul sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and joined other believers at Troas (Acts 20:6).
If there were five hundred thousand believers by the end of the first century as Robert T. Glover suggests, there must have been countless house churches. Most likely those house churches gathered for occasional worship as we saw in the Jerusalem and Corinth examples.
Paul’s Different Usages of “Church”
Even though Christians in the New Testament used ecclesia to refer to the church, the normal secular use of the word simply referred to a gathering of people. For example, the word ecclesia is used of a secular gathering in Acts 19:21-41 when the silversmiths gathered together to conspire against Paul and the preaching of the gospel, “The assembly [ecclesia] was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”
Whenever a gathering or assembly took place in the Greek culture, it was called ecclesia. Christians, of course, gave that gathering special significance, but the root meaning is simply a “gathered group of people.” The early church used it to refer to those united together by their common bond with Christ. The word became an affirmation of the church’s special corporate identity. Gerhard Lohfink gives added insight, “The real origin of ecclesia of God is the Old Testament and the Jewish traditions of speech that derived from it. Ultimately ecclesia points to the people of God gathered at Sinai.”
The New Testament writers use ecclesia to refer to the church in a local area or in a broader geographical area. Both the local, singular form (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 14:27; 15:3; 18:22; 20:17) and plural form of the word (Acts 15:41; 16:5) are used for the church.
In other words, ecclesia encompassed all believers living in a large city (Acts 11:22; 13:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2) as well as the ecclesia in the home. Alan Richardson writes, “The technical meaning of ecclesia can be summed up without reference to size, location, or official organization: “ecclesia calls us to see believers-in-community.”
Let’s look at the three uses of the term a little deeper.
All Christians on Earth
Paul uses ecclesia to refer to all believers, or the universal church. This is implied when Paul says, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). The same can be said of 1 Corinthians 12:28 where Paul addresses the entire church, “And in the church [ecclesia] God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.”
All Christians In One Location
At times Paul addresses the entire church in the city (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1 and Romans 16:1). In other places, Paul uses ecclesia to refer to a larger geographical district, such as Asia or Galatia (1 Corinthians 16:1, 19). For example, “the churches in the province of Asia” (1 Corinthians 16:19) is a broad statement about believers in a major district. The “Macedonian churches” (2 Corinthians 8:1) were the Christian communities within the region of Macedonia.
When Paul uses the expression church of God he usually has in mind the gathering of Christians who lived at a specific location. In 1 Corinthians 1:1-2 Paul speaks to the Corinthian church as the “church of God in Corinth.”
A Small Christian Group Who Regularly Met In a Home
Paul also used the word ecclesia to refer to the church in private homes. We’ve repeatedly mentioned examples of this throughout the book in places like:
Romans 16:3-5: Greet Priscilla and Aquila. . . . Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Philemon 2: Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.
This is the sense that Paul uses most of the time when using the word ecclesia. Paul does not indicate that there is any fundamental difference between the smallest house church and the whole church of God. God is equally present in his fullness in both scenarios. Bill Beckham writes, “To be consistent with New Testament usage, ecclesia cannot be called church in one place (the large group expression) and not called church in another (the small group expression).”
Some today look at the Sunday celebration as the true church, but small groups as less than the real church. Others tend to prioritize house churches as opposed to the gathered church. From this brief review of Paul’s use of the word ecclesia, we see both views of the church as being important and even vital.
Publicly and from House-to-house
In the New Testament, the house church setting was the main focus of growth and discipleship for the early believers. Yet, God blessed the gathering of those house churches together to make them more effective. He developed gifted leaders to serve the individual house churches and to instruct them publically.
At certain time periods, the house churches gathered frequently into a larger celebration service. Yet it appears that most of the time the house churches only occasionally met together for combined worship and teaching. Whether gathered or scattered, the primitive churches were not separate, independent entities. They were connected to a greater apostolic leadership vision. Each type of gathering was fully considered the ecclesia.