by Joel Comiskey
Picture yourself traveling down a Roman road on your way to attend a first century house church. You finally arrive at the home, which is really an apartment. It’s a residential unit with an adjoining courtyard and you notice several rows of apartments connected to each other. As you enter the home, the rich smell of food fills the air. You notice the food baking outside while you are ushered into the dining area, the largest room in the house.
You count thirteen people at the gathering and all have been invited to share the meal together—in memory of Jesus Christ. The story of Christ’s last supper with his disciples in the upper room makes Christ’s presence seem so real to you. You love the testimonies of changed lives, and people’s love for this risen Jesus. You hear stories about those who actually saw Jesus after his resurrection. And they say that Jesus promised to return quickly. Your experience in the house church that night is emotional and vibrant. You feel God’s joy as you talk with like-minded believers and remember that Jesus is also present in spirit.
The Flame Spreads through Houses
We know that after the Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples formed house churches, modeling the strategy of Jesus when he sent his own into the homes (Luke 9:1-6; Matthew 10:1-16). House-based ministry became so common that throughout the book of Acts, every mention of a local church or of a church meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is a reference to a church meeting in a home.
House churches played an essential role in the rapid growth and ultimate triumph of Christianity, and it would be safe to say that the first three centuries belonged to the house church movement. House-to-house ministry allowed the believers to challenge the social order of the day. They became witnesses—through their words, their lives, and their suffering. Because of the small size of house churches, it was possible to maintain a family-like atmosphere and practice brotherly love in a personal and effective way.
Inside a New Testament House Church
What did they do in those early house churches? The activity was diverse and spontaneous but always centered around belief in the risen Jesus. We know they broke bread together, following their master’s instructions to remember his death and resurrection (e.g., Luke 22:7-38). Everyone brought food and shared it. Did they celebrate the Lord’s Supper every time they met together? We don’t know for certain, but we do know it was a very common practice.
Beyond sharing the Lord’s Supper together, the agenda for house church meetings was flexible. Paul wrote to the house church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Paul wanted the house church believers to encourage one another, share transparently, and to rejoice in God’s goodness. The members enjoyed each other’s presence, laughed together, and drew near to Jesus together. Robert Banks writes, “We find no suggestion that these meetings were conducted with the kind of solemnity and formality that surrounds most weekly Christian gatherings today.”
We know that the early churches prayed together. After Peter was supernaturally released from prison, we read in Acts 12:12 that he went to the house of Mary where many people had gathered and were praying. Besides prayer, most scholars agree that the early house churches emphasized the following elements:
- Practice of the spiritual gifts
- The Lord’s Supper
Communicating information was another essential activity in the early house churches. News from visitors, sending of letters from one city to another (e.g., Paul’s letters, 2 and 3 John), warnings of persecution, and accounts of actual persecutions were all important types of information that passed through the house churches. The house churches also served as centers of social services for those members who were in need. Young widows and the poorer family members looked to the house churches as a means of support. Apparently, there were some attempts by families to avoid their own responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:4, 5, 8, 16).
The Size of the Early House Churches
Church historians agree that these house churches could have rarely been more than fifteen or twenty people. Once a house church grew larger than that, it usually multiplied by simply starting another house church nearby. If not, the growth immediately caused problems.
Normally a house church met in a room, usually the dining room, of a private domestic house that was not changed or altered but was used for Christian purposes. The dining room and courtyard provided space for teaching and preaching ministries, baptismal instruction, and other missional activities. It allowed the early Christians space for prayer meetings and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Many of the early house churches took place in smaller apartments. The vast majority of people, perhaps as many as ninety percent, lived in apartments of one or two rooms crowded above or behind shops.
Although the cities were not as large as cities today, they were often more densely populated. Because the Roman Empire conquered many nations, about two million slaves lived in the region. Slavery in the Mediterranean world was neither race-specific nor racist. Most of the slaves worked as domestic and personal servants. The cities were a melting pot of ethnic diversity. In addition to the physical misery, Greco-Roman cities suffered from social chaos, high mortality rates, and a constant influx of immigrants. The constant arrival of newcomers reflected an extraordinary ethnic diversity.
Privacy was rare in such small houses in a dense area. Life happened in front of the neighbors. In our privatized world, it’s hard to imagine what the early church experienced.
One of the major cultural gaps between then and now is the extended family, or the ancient oikos structure. For example, those who live in the Western, individualistic world have a hard time imagining the New Testament culture in which it was normal to live with parents, relatives, servants, and other workers. We are accustomed to living in nuclear families—father, mother, and children. Yet, the ancient world didn’t even have a way to express what we call the “nuclear family.” We only find the word for extended family or oikos, which means household, house or family.
God used the ancient oikos to extend the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. The early believers modeled transformed lives and distinct values that often ran counter-culture to the rest of society. Yet, in these crowded, urban environments, people were able to see Christianity up close. They heard and saw the testimonies of those transformed by the gospel, and then they desired to experience Christ for themselves. Husbands loved wives, slaves were treated with dignity, married partners submitted to one another, and love reigned supreme. Friends and neighbors were drawn to this new transformed community.
The attractiveness of this new, called out society spread throughout the Mediterranean world. When people noticed how lives were changed and how the believers bonded together, they believed the gospel message. Christians would gather together in homes to instruct one another, study, pray, and use their spiritual gifts. Their pagan neighbors witnessed that Christ had established a new order—one based upon love and caring relationships.
Incubating Leaders In the House Church Structure
The early house churches were the incubators for leadership. Often the person who opened his or her home would assume the leadership role. Many are amazed at how quickly Paul developed leadership in the early church. In Paul’s church plants, we don’t see formal leadership structures. Why? Because Paul used the oikos structure to develop leadership naturally. A leadership structure was already in place from the very beginning, built into the social infrastructure.
Those leaders who emerged from the households were only later given titles. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul says, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” Paul is talking about house church leaders, but he didn’t feel it was worth mentioning their exact title. In other words, they developed organically within the house church structure.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a picture closely resembling any of the fully developed systems of today. It is likely that in those days church government was not very highly developed, indeed, that local congregations were rather loosely knit groups. Church ministry was fluid and dynamic. Members were encouraged to experience their spiritual gifts for the common good of the body, and leaders operated as gifted men and women (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 27-28).
House Church Networks
House churches in the New Testament were not independent of each other. Rather, they were part of a larger unit. The house church and the larger gathering of several house churches existed side by side in early Christianity. In other words, individual believers and house churches considered themselves part of a greater citywide church.
Paul specifically says that he taught publically and from house-to-house (Acts 20:20). In 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul says, “The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.” The larger group gathering is seen in Paul’s greeting from all the churches in Asia, but then he specifically mentions the house church of Aquila and Priscilla and their particular greetings to the churches. In other words, there were Christians in Ephesus who did not meet at Priscilla and Aquila’s home. The evidence points to a plurality of house churches there.
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.
We also see the whole church coming together 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 implies that at other times the Christians in Corinth met separately in smaller house churches. Yet, both were considered the church.
The Western world is so different than the world of the first century church. They typically lived in small houses that were built adjacent to one another. Many today live in private homes with walled security fences. Their lifestyle centered on the home, which included working, eating, and playing. We drive to work, to go out to eat, and to our play. Their time of relaxation was full of food, conversation, and time with family and neighbors. Our time of relaxation is focused on television, the internet, and video games. Yet, certain timeless principles apply directly to us and our small group ministries:
- Foundational rather than optional. Small group ministry needs to be foundational to our own churches today—not a nice add-on. God chose to develop the first disciples through house to house ministry and his purposes in small group ministry remain the same today.
- Life more than curriculum. The early house church agenda was transformational and life-giving, not dependent on curriculum. We need to ask the Spirit of God to guide us and our groups so that life-change would be the norm.
- Changed lives win new people: The early house churches grew and multiplied as the God transformed those present. We need to remember that our best hope of reaching our friends and neighbors is when they see our transformed lives and want to experience that same healing.
- Developing leaders from within. The early house churches developed leadership naturally and internally. We must do the same.
- Connected ministry. The early house churches networked together and were not independent entities. We also need to take advantage of the resources in the larger body, such as preaching, equipping and coaching in order to effectively make disciples who make disciples
God is calling the church today to journey back in time in order to apply the values and ministry practices found in the New Testament. While house to house ministry might look differently today than back then, many of the same principles apply and will help us do a better job of making disciples who make disciples through small group ministry.