New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church
Part 2: Understanding Early Church Practices
Chapter 5: Ecclesial Practice: The House In The New Testament Church
When we hear the word church today, it sparks a wide array of images in our minds. For instance, I live in sunny southern California, and I can drive by churches like the Saddleback Church, Calvary Chapel, or the Crystal Cathedral. While you might not have such massive church images in your mind, most people do think in terms of church buildings, church meetings, and specific church days. Today when we read the New Testament, it’s almost impossible to avoid these modern day images and experiences of church.
The fact is that the early Christians met primarily in the homes of individual members over a period of nearly three hundred years—until the fourth century, when Constantine began building the first basilicas throughout the Roman Empire.
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. Men and women, ablaze with the Spirit of God, began to spread the gospel message from house-to-house (Acts 20:20). 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.
The Flame Spreads through Houses
At Pentecost, God baptized a new people with the Spirit of God, and these believers spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world, using the house church setting to expand (Acts 1:13ff, 12:12). Scripture says, “And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerely of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46; Acts 5:42).
Making its way through the Roman Empire, Christianity left house churches in its wake. When Peter was released from prison in Acts 12, he went to a house church in the home of Mary. Scripture says, “He went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying” (Acts 12:12).
In Acts 3, John and Peter appear together. They traveled from village to village, which implies from house-to-house, just as Jesus instructed them in Luke 9:4-6 and 10:1-3. Peter also stayed on in the house of Simon the tanner. We don’t know how Simon came to faith, but we do know that he extended hospitality to Peter and in doing so supported Peter’s outreach in the area.
Then we see Peter following the example of Jesus to go house-to-house when he enters the house of Cornelius. Through the proclamation of the gospel, Cornelius and his entire household came to faith in Christ. Speaking about the conversion of Cornelius, Gehring writes,
Through the peace greeting and the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the peace of God rests on the son of peace and his household (Luke 10:5-7; Matt 10:12-13). After this Peter is invited to stay a few days (compare Acts 10:48 with Luke 10:7). Many exegetes view Acts 10:1-48, among other things, as the story of the establishment of a house church and thus the history of the founding of the church in Caesarea (note 1).
As the church moved out from Jerusalem, the gospel flame continued to spread through houses. The jailer’s house at Philippi was an evangelistic center after his conversion (Acts 16:16-40). Jason’s house at Thessalonica was used for evangelism (Acts 17:5).
After God opened up the heart of Lydia and her entire household was baptized, she invited missionaries into her home and offered them her hospitality for an undetermined period of time (Acts 16:14-15). Her house became a place where fellowship was enjoyed, a meeting place for worship, and a base of operations for Paul’s mission (note 2).
In Acts 18:7-8, we read that Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord, and another house church was born.
Philip welcomed visitors like Paul and his company to his house in Caesarea, as well as other Christians such as Agabus. In Acts 21:8-9, we learn that Philip was a homeowner in Caesarea. It was probably there that he earned the title evangelist (21:8). Philip ministered from Caesarea and targeted the surrounding area. Apart from being a mission headquarters, his house was possibly the meeting place for a house church.
Paul baptized Stephanas’ household and apparently used their home “for the service of the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:15). Paul asks that greetings be given to “the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house” (Colossians 4:15). Aquila and Priscilla maintained a church in their home wherever they lived, whether in Corinth or Rome (Acts 18:2ff, 26; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19).
In Corinth, Aquila worked as a tentmaker or leather craftsman and opened a shop there. Paul took advantage of this setting to develop evangelistic contacts. The citywide outreach spread out from this central point, and led to the formation of a house church with Paul and this couple as its nucleus.
Speaking of Aquila’s house church, Gehring writes, “In such a room or in the shop itself about twenty believers could have assembled for a house church meeting” (note 3). One can imagine that some of the guests would have sat on tent canvases during house meetings. This couple offered themselves and their quarters for the Pauline mission outreach.
Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth assumes a small group setting where “each one” is participating. “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
In Acts 18:7, we read that Paul moved into the house of Titius Justus, located next to the synagogue. Most likely this man was a God-fearer and wealthy. He was probably a strong leader in the early church because he owned a house that was large enough to provide Paul a venue for his evangelistic preaching ministry.
Many more house churches are assumed in Scripture. For example, it appears that traces of two additional house churches can be observed in Romans 16:14-15, “Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them,” and “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.” These names represent the members of two house churches, to which an undetermined number of additional Christians belonged, some relatives, others slaves or emancipated slaves (note 4).
Paul writes to a house church in his epistle to Philemon (verse 2). In Laodicea in Colossians 4:15, we see an example of a woman householder who was making her home available to the church (Laodicea was about nine miles from Colossae). She might have also been an overseer of this church. This was just one of the house churches of the local church in that area.
House-to-house ministry allowed the believers to challenge the social order of the day (1 Corinthians 7:20-24). 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.
The early church followed the example of Jesus by establishing home churches throughout the Roman Empire. We’ve noticed this from households in Galilee, Jerusalem, and Jericho to those of Damascus (Acts 9:10-19), Joppa (Acts 9:43; 10:6, 17-18, 32), Caesarea (Acts 10:1-11:18; 21:18), Tyre (Acts 21:3-6), Philippi (Acts 16:15, 34, 40), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-7), Ephesus (Acts 20:20), Troas (Acts 20:7-12), Corinth (Acts 18:3, 7-8), and Rome (Acts 28:16, 23, 30-31).
The Size of the Early House Churches
Church historians agree that these house churches could have rarely been more than fifteen or twenty people (note 5). 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 (note 6). In other words, these houses were simply normal sized house structures. They weren’t anything out of the ordinary (note 7).
Since the houses of that time period differed from place to place, we can’t be overly dogmatic about the size, shape, and pattern of each house. Gehring writes,
From an architectural point of view, the house offered certain strengths by providing space used in a variety of ways for missional outreach. To begin with, it should be pointed out that houses differ architecturally from one another. For the time period of the early Christian mission, Palestinian, Greek, and Roman types of private houses come into question. They were easily adapted, and they provided Christians with a low-cost venue for assembly. With relatively little effort it was possible to establish a Christian presence in the everyday life of the ancient cities (note 8).
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, often in conjunction with the 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.
Osiek and Balch write, “Comparing archaeological digs of houses at that time, a typical house might have fit comfortably between 6 and 15 people. If the crowd spilled over into the gardens, more could have gathered” (note 9). Dining in Roman domestic life could last from the afternoon to late at night. Typically, nine to twenty guests were invited, arranged in a prescribed seating order (note 10).
In the earliest years, perhaps for the first century and a half, there were probably no structural adaptations for Christian worship, but rather, believers adapted to the available structures. The size of the meeting space in the largest house available would limit the size of a worship group. When the group became too large, another home was founded in another location (note 11).
Excavations near Corinth uncovered an atrium house which contained a series of rooms surrounding a courtyard. It accommodated nine people on the couches placed along the walls, and in the courtyard there would have been room for several more. If all of the couches were removed, there would have been room for about twenty people (note 12). Gehring says, “Because of the physical limitations of the triclinium [dining room] . . . these first Christian communities were small, family-like groups in which individual pastoral care, intimate personal relationships, and accountability to each other were possible” (note 13).
Although there is no archaeological evidence for Christian house churches in apartments of that early time period (called insula), it’s probable that the earliest Christian meetings also took place in these rooms or apartments. “Those with Chloe” (1 Corinthians 1:11) may be an example. Paul’s late night discourse in the third-story room at Troas (Acts 20:7-12) is probably another (note 14). Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch conclude from their study of early house churches that, “Some Christian groups must certainly have met in more modest accommodations, even in some of the grimier apartment houses (insulae)” (note 15).
A very limited number of wealthy homes could fit up to one hundred twenty people (the upper room), but this was the exception rather than the rule. Banks writes,
The entertaining room in a moderately well-to-do household could hold around thirty people comfortably—perhaps half as many again in an emergency. The larger meeting in Troas, for example, was so large that Eutychus had to use the windowsill for a seat (Acts 20:9). A meeting of the “whole church” may have reached forty to forty-five people—if the meeting spilled over into the atrium then the number could have been greater, though no more than double that size—but many meetings may well have been smaller (note 16).
The house churches were personal, friendly, and attractive to outsiders. Klauck writes, “One reason for the house church’s powerful impact on its environment is found in the fact that it was not possible to grow beyond the parameters of a small group due to lack of space” (note 17).
What Did They Do In the House Gatherings?
We read in the Gospel accounts that Jesus gathered his disciples in a house where he broke bread and shared wine to prepare the disciples for his death (e.g., Luke 22:7-38). The early church followed the example of Christ by breaking bread together. They shared a full meal while celebrating his death and resurrection (Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 11:20-26). William Barclay writes, “The Lord’s supper began as a family meal or a meal of friends in a private house . . . It was there that the Lord’s supper was born in the church. It was like the Jewish Passover which is a family festival at which the father and the head of the household is the celebrant” (note 18).
Everyone brought food, whether it was little or much, and shared it. They remembered that Christ’s death on the cross brought salvation, and they looked forward to his second coming when they would enjoy the marriage feast of the Lamb (note 19). Did they celebrate the Lord’s Supper every time they met together? We don’t know for certain, but apparently it was a frequent practice.
Beyond sharing the Lord’s Supper together, the house church meetings were quite 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”(3:16). Paul wanted the house church believers to freely share, to encourage one another, and to rejoice in God’s goodness. We don’t see a rigid agenda. Rather, the meeting was a time to minister to one another and meet needs.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts the house church members to do something similar, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25). The Holy Spirit used each member as an instrument of edification.
The members enjoyed each other’s presence, laughed together, and experienced rich fellowship. 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” (note 20).
The early church saw itself as God’s new family. Many of the house church meetings were also hosted and led by the same family. The intense love of these early Christ-followers permeated the meeting. They saw themselves as brothers and sisters and wanted to serve one another as Jesus served his own disciples. As mentioned earlier, the phrase one another appears more than fifty times in the New Testament. These phrases instructed the early believers on how to cultivate relationships among themselves.
Paul taught the early house churches that each member had an essential part according to his or her giftedness (1 Corinthians 12-14; Romans 12; Ephesians 4). He placed a high emphasis on participation because each person had a contribution to make. Paul addressed his letters to everyone in the house church because they were all ministers.
When writing to the Corinthian house church, Paul says, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26). Paul assumed that they would energetically minister to each other. His concern was that “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Ritva Williams writes, “The central activity of the ekklesia seems to have been a meal—the Lord’s supper—followed by acts of prophecy, teaching, healing, and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 11-14)” (note 21).
We know that the early churches prayed together. After Peter was supernaturally released from prison, we read in Acts 12:12, “He went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” They specifically were praying for Peter to be released from prison, but we can assume that prayer characterized the house church meetings.
Most scholars agree that the early house churches emphasized the following elements (note 22):
- Practice of the spiritual gifts
- The Lord’s Supper
Luke describes homes being used for prayer meetings (Acts 12:12); for an evening of Christian fellowship (Acts 21:7); for holy communion services (Acts 2:46); for a whole night of prayer, worship, and instruction (Acts 20:7); for impromptu evangelistic gatherings (Acts 16:32); for planned meetings to hear the gospel (Acts 10:22); for following up (Acts 18:26); and for organized instruction (Acts 5:42) (note 23).
Announcements and communication were also important activities 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 (note 24).
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) (note 25).
God chose a particular setting to share kingdom values. While the church exists apart from the structure it embodies, the home draws out the triune values of love, community, and family transformation. The early house church practices were linked and even determined by the venue—the what was determined by the where. Ralph Neighbour writes,
There is a very important reason for the early church to be shaped in homes. It is in this location that values are shared. It may be possible to transmit information in a neutral building, but few values are implanted there. Value systems are ingrained through living together in a household. Something stirs deep within when life is shared between the young and old, the strong and the weak, the wise and the foolish. In the house groups, all participated and all were impacted by the values of the others as Christ lived within them (note 26).
God crafted a reproducible strategy that depended on the believer’s home property for the early meetings. Only those transformed by the gospel’s message would risk opening their homes. Yet, all those who opened their homes exemplified God’s love and power for their neighbors and friends to see and experience. In the process, many more were converted, and the early church continued to spread from house-to-house.
- Gehring, p. 108.
- Ibid., p.131.
- Gehring, p. 136.
- Ibid., p. 145.
- I recognize that some promote that the early house churches were not actually small groups but mid-sized groups of twenty-five to sixty. After researching this issue, my own conclusion is that few house churches were large enough to support a regular crowd of this many people. Granted, some house churches, like the upper room of Acts 2, had this capacity, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.
- Wolfgang Simson, Houses That Changed the World (Cornwall, UK: Authentic, 1998), pp. 40-41.
- Ralph Neighbour says, “Excavations in Jerusalem reflect that only the wealthy had homes with second-floor ‘Upper Rooms.’ For the rest, residences would usually not accommodate more than ten to twelve persons,” in Where Do We Go from Here? A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 2000), Kindle locations 578-579.
- Gehring, pp. 289-290.
- Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 30
- Wikipedia, accessed on Thursday, December 29, 2011 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triclinium
- Osiek and Balch, p. 33.
- Gehring, p. 141.
- Ibid., p. 290.
- Osiek and Balch, p. 34.
- Osiek,MacDonald, Tulloch, Kindle edition, p. 9.
- Banks, pp. 35-36.
- Klauck, Hausgemeinde, as quoted in Roger W. Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), p. 290.
- William Barclay, The Lord’s supper (SCM: London, 1967), p. 101 as quoted in Robert and Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home: A New Base for Community and Mission (Australia: Albatross Books, 1986), p. 59.
- Lohfink, pp. 147-148.
- Robert and Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home: A New Base for Community and Mission (Australia: Albatross Books, 1986), p. 39.
- Williams, p. 17.
- Gehring, p. 27.
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eermans, 2003), Kindle locations 3776-3778.
- Osiek, MacDonald, Tulloch, p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Neighbour, Where Do We Go from Here, Kindle locations 584-585.