First Century House Churches

HouseChurch

The Premise

There are no known church buildings prior to the time of Constantine.[1] During the apostolic era and for the next two centuries, the church met primarily in the private homes of its wealthier members.[2] This necessarily meant that the typical congregation was smaller rather than larger.

 

The Purpose

Everything in the New Testament was arguably written to churches that met in private homes. [3] These smaller fellowships foster the intimacy and accountability that characterized the early church. The relationships the New Testament describes work best in congregations where everyone knows each other.

 

The Proof

The word church (ekklésia) in the New Testament never refers to a building. It fundamentally means assembly, gathering, meeting or congregation.[4] It is clear from Scripture that the early church met in the private homes of its more affluent members. For example Philemon, who was wealthy enough to own a slave, also hosted the church in his home (Phlm 2b). Church hostess Lydia was a prosperous businesswoman who sold expensive purple fabric and could afford servants (Ac 16:14). Aquila and Priscilla were tent makers, a lucrative first century trade (Ac 18:1-3). Gaius’ home was big enough to host the whole church (Ro 16:23) and John indicated that Gaius had the means to generously support missionaries (3Jn 1-5). Less well known is the fact that the early church continued this practice of house churches for hundreds of years after the New Testament writings were completed. What are we to do with the fact that the early church met mostly in homes?

 

A Purposeful Pattern

The most common explanation for the existence of early house churches was the pressure of persecution. However, the reality of persecution would not rule out the possibility of a preference by the apostles for smaller, Roman atrium sized congregations. Arguably, the New Testament ideal for church life is best realized in a smaller, family-like context (scores rather than multiple hundreds or even thousands of people).

Might the apostles have laid down a purposeful pattern of relatively small congregations? It is a design axiom that form follows function. The apostles’ belief concerning the function of the church was naturally expressed in the form that the church took on in the first century. Some of the distinct practices of those early house churches are worth considering: A loving, family-like atmosphere is more easily developed. One of the things families do is eat together and celebrating the Lord’s Supper as an actual meal is much more conducive to a smaller setting. Achieving congregational consensus is easier when everyone knows everyone else and open lines of communication genuinely exist. The many “one another” exhortations of Scripture can be much more realistically lived out. Participatory worship is natural to a smaller setting and is more meaningful. Also, freed from the burden of maintaining a dedicated campus, more assets are available for kingdom expansion.

 

Proportions:

Regarding the size of first century homes, it is interesting to observe that the meeting room of the Lullingstone Villa house church in Kent, England (built during the Roman occupation) measured approximately 15’ x 21’.[5] An examination of floor plans in Pompeii shows typical atriums measuring 20’ x 28’.[6] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor measured six homes in Pompeii and found the average atrium to be 797 square feet.[7] A house known to be a Christian meeting place at Dura-Europos (in Syria) could, according to the Yale archaeologists who excavated it, seat 65 to 70 people.[8]  Acts 1:15 records 120 assembled in the upper room.

 

Whereas the modern Western house church consists of a few nuclear families in an intimate setting, the Roman house church was more like a business in both size and public areas. They had different ideas of privacy than we do. The front two rooms along the street were usually stores. Between the stores a hallway led into the home’s atrium. At the far end of the atrium was the business office. Further, the home housed an extended household (multi-generations with servants). It was also built in such a way that a large number of people could be accommodated (in either the atrium or the courtyard). They probably had more of an Asian mindset to crowding than we do now in the West (36″ per person, please!). It was a crowded house. We believe in and promote Roman sized house churches, not the micro house churches often found in the West.

 

The real issue, of course, is not where a church meets, but how it can best do what God requires of it. The problem is that a major reason church buildings have been erected is in order to hold more people than would fit into a typical Roman home’s atrium or courtyard .We wonder at the appropriateness of constructing overly large church edifices since having too many people in attendance can serve to defeat the very purposes for holding a church meeting in the first place. Large crowds are great for special events such as evangelistic crusades or a teaching seminar, but the activities of the weekly church gathering (mutual edification, accountability, encouraging one another, the fellowship of the Holy Meal, strengthening relationship, building consensus, etc.) is better suited to smaller gatherings.

 

Although house churches are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mega-churches, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking too small. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, the size should be just right; not to small and not too big. A major flaw in many Western house churches is they are simply too small, lacking both leadership and a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts.  In working with American house churches for nearly twenty-five years, we have observed that many lack anyone qualified to be an elder. Due to this a malaise often sets in. The church becomes little more than a “bless me” club that gathers for a meal, some singing and a play time for the kids. There is no serious teaching. Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple making occurs. Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. Those of us in the present day West should pray for a dynamic solution to our sub-New Testament housing situation (the Romans also did have to find a place to park all their cars when they arrived for home church).

 

The Proposition

There is nothing wrong in itself with a congregation having a church building. However, we need to remember that structure and systems exist for a purpose; they are not ends in themselves. There is a great necessity for us to have structures and systems that will benefit the effective functioning of the church. Gathering in smaller venues facilitates participation, interaction, discussion and one-another ministry. Using private homes when suitable is a much better use of resources.

 

To function as effectively as the early church functioned, modern church structures, sizes and systems must be carefully considered. The structure should be informal, the size of the community ought to be around a hundred (or so) and the seating arrangement must be flexible. Since every member’s participation and ministry was highly valued and encouraged in the early church, a large home with ample parking is still a good setting wherein every person can comfortably contribute and function for the edification of the whole body of Christ.

 

Regretfully, due to the structure and the order of churches today, we are often missing some very important purposes of church gatherings — fellowship and one another encouragement (Heb 10:25). Church is not about passively attending formal services; neither is it to be a program. It is a people. Worship is not going to a service but doing service to one another. It should be about intimate fellowship with one another and actively encouraging one another. It is about interdependently functioning for the edification of all.

 

We are suggesting that the apostolic church did not erect church buildings in large part because they simply didn’t need them. The letters which were written to the various New Testament churches were mostly written to Roman atrium sized churches. Because they are written to house churches the instructions contained in them are geared to work in a smaller congregation — they were never meant to work in a large group setting. Consequently, they don’t work as well in large congregations. To attempt to apply New Testament church practices to a contemporary large church is just as unnatural as pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17).

 

The Bible never tells us how many people met in the New Testament house churches (except for the 120 in Acts). However many (or few) there were, they were able to make disciples, evangelize, plant churches, have a plurality of elders, support some elders and be receive plenty of good teaching.  Somehow the vast majority of modern Western house churches are not able to do this. Another factor to consider is that a house church is counter-cultural in the West.  Many people (lost and save alike) will consider it a little too weird. Many metropolitan areas in America are now passing zoning ordinances making it illegal to have a church in a home. In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.

 

A reformation is needed to help God’s people function more effectively and biblically. Gathering in houses is not a perfect solution wherein we don’t have any problems at all. It is only perhaps a better and more effective approach (it has more advantages and less disadvantages). Problems will still occur and must be dealt prayerfully and wisely according to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and with the counsel of experienced godly people. May we never forget that any church paradigm is weak and lacks life without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is the life of the church; without Him any church is dead. Let us seek to be clothed with the power from on high as we constantly seek to establish His Kingdom on earth.  May the Lord abundantly pour out His Spirit upon His body, the church!

Steve Atkerson

Revised 04/21/14

 

Special Thanks to Stephen David of Hyderabad, India for significant contributions to this chapter.



[1] Graydon F. Snyder, professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary, observed that “the New Testament Church began as a small group house church (Col. 4:15), and it remained so until the middle or end of the third century. There are no evidences of larger places of meeting before 300.” Graydon F. Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 166.

[2] While we cannot say for sure that every church met in a home, it is a fact that when a meeting place is specified in Scripture, it is in a home. Perhaps some congregations were large and therefore met in big buildings, but this is an argument from silence.

[3] Acts 16:40, 20:20, Romans 16:3-5a, 16:23, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1-2b, James 2:3

[4] Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (University of Chicago Press:  Chicago, 1979), p. 240.

[5] Author’s measurements taken from on-line schematics found at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/k-o/lullingstone-pp.pdf

[6] William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London:  John Murray, 1875), p. 430.

[7] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Saint Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 180.

[8] Graydon Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 70.  The home’s impluvium had been tiled over and benches were added around the walls.  Further, a wall had been removed between adjoining rooms creating a 714 square foot area. A raised area was added at the front (for a podium?).