First Century House Churches

by Steve Atkerson

 

 

The Premise

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

 

The Purpose

        Everything in the New Testament was written to churches that met in private homes. The relationships the New Testament describes work best in situations where everyone knows each other. These smaller settings foster the intimacy and accountability that characterized the New Testament church. A loving, family-like atmosphere is more easily developed. 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. Church discipline takes on real significance. Participatory worship is natural to a smaller setting and is more meaningful.

  

The Professors

        According to Anglican evangelist David Watson, “For the first two centuries, the church met in small groups in the homes of its members, apart from special gatherings in public lecture halls or market places, where people could come together in much larger numbers. Significantly these two centuries mark the most powerful and vigorous advance of the church, which perhaps has never seen been equaled. The lack of church buildings was no hindrance to the rapid expansion of the church; instead . . . it seemed a positive help.”[1]       

        A Yale University archaeology pamphlet stated, “The first Christian congregations worshipped in private houses, meeting at the homes of wealthier members on a rotating basis . . . Worship was generally conducted in (either) the atrium, or central courtyard of the house.”[2]

       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.”[3] Again quoting Snyder, “there is no literary evidence nor archaeological indication that any such home was converted into an extant church building.  Nor is there any extant church that certainly was built prior to Constantine.”[4] 

        The ESV Study Bible notes that “Early Christian churches, since they were small and not recognized as a legitimate (or legal) religion, met in homes . . . There is extensive archaeological evidence from many cites showing that some homes were structurally modified to hold such churches.”[5]

        Martin Selman, lecturer in Old Testament at Spurgeon’s College in London, wrote that “The theme of the ‘household of God’ undoubtedly owed much to the function of the house in early Christianity as a place of meeting and fellowship (e.g. 2 Tim. 4:19; Phm. 2; 2 Jn. 10).”[6]

        Reformed scholar William Hendriksen, said “since in the first and second centuries church buildings in the sense in which we think of them today were not yet in existence, families would hold services in their own homes . . . The early church numbered many hospitable members, ready and eager to offer their facilities for religious use: meetings, services, etc.”[7]

        According to Anglican commentator W.H. Griffith Thomas, “For two or three centuries Christians met in private houses . . . There seems little doubt that these informal gatherings of small groups of believers had great influence in preserving the simplicity and purity of early Christianity”.[8]

        In his monumental work New Testament Theology, Donald Guthrie (lecturer on New Testament at the London Bible College) wrote that “the expression ‘in church’ (en ekklésia) . . . refers to an assembly of believers. There is no suggestion of a special building.  Indeed, the idea of a church as representing a building is totally alien to the NT.”[9]

        Ronald Sider, in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, made a good point. He said, “The early church was able to defy the decadent values of Roman civilization precisely because it experienced the reality of Christian fellowship in a mighty way . . . Christian fellowship meant unconditional availability to and unlimited liability for the other sisters and brothers — emotionally, financially and spiritually. When one member suffered, they all suffered. When one rejoiced, they all rejoiced (1 Cor. 12:26). When a person or church experienced economic trouble, the others shared without reservation. And when a brother or sister fell into sin, the others gently restored the straying person (Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; Gal. 6:1-3). The sisters and brothers were available to each other, liable for each other and accountable to each other. The early church, of course, did not always fully live out the New Testament vision of the body of Christ. There were tragic lapses. But the network of tiny house churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire did experience their oneness in Christ so vividly that they were able to defy and eventually conquer a powerful, pagan civilization. The overwhelming majority of churches today, however, do not provide the context in which brothers and sisters can encourage, admonish and disciple each other. We desperately need new settings and structures for watching over one another in love.”[10]

 

The Proof

        The word church (ekklésia) in the New Testament never refers to a building. It fundamentally means assembly, gathering, meeting or congregation.[11] It is clear from Scripture that the early church met in the private homes of its more affluent members.[12] 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). A church met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla who engaged in the lucrative first century trade of tent making (Ac 18:1-3). Gaius, a man with the means to generously support missionaries (3Jn 1-5), had a home big enough to host the whole church (Ro 16:23). 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, similar to the situation that exists today in China or Iran. Suppose there had been no first century persecution. Are we to assume that church buildings would automatically have been constructed to allow individual congregations could swell to enormous size, limited only by the dimensions of the largest building affordable? Persecution or not, might the apostles have laid down a purposeful pattern of smaller congregations? It is a design axiom that form follows function. Meeting in a smaller setting would have a practical effect on one’s church life. 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:

 

1. The Church as Family: One over arching significance of the New Testament church lies in its theology of community. The church was depicted by apostolic writers in terms which describe a family. Believers are children of God (1Jn 3:1) who have been born into his family (Jn 1:12-13). God’s people are thus seen as part of God’s household (Ep 2:19, Ga 6:10).  They are called brothers and sisters (Phm 2, Ro 16:2). Consequently, Christians are to relate to each other as members of a family (1Ti 5:1-2; Ro 16:13).  Out of this theological point that God’s children are family arises many church practice issues, such as the size congregation that best facilities our functioning as God’s family. (More on this below).

2. The Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper was originally celebrated weekly as a full, fellowship meal (the Agapé Feast). Early church meetings, centered around the Lord’s Table, were tremendous times of fellowship, community and encouragement). Rather than a funeral-like atmosphere, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in anticipation of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. Each local church is to be like a family; one of the most common things families do is to eat together. The larger the congregation, the less family-like and the more impersonal the Lord’s Supper as a true meal becomes.

3. Participatory Worship: Early church meetings were clearly participatory. Since public speaking is a great fear, participatory meetings are best suited to smaller gatherings, composed of people who all know each other and are true friends. Participatory meetings are impractical for large numbers. After church meetings in Roman atriums were replaced by meetings in much larger basilicas, participatory worship was replaced by worship services.

4. One Another Ministry: The Scriptures are full of the “one another” commands. Church should be associated with mutual encouragement, accountability, relationships, community and maintaining church discipline. These ideals are best accomplished in smaller congregations where people know and love each other. A large auditorium of people, most of whom are relative strangers to each other, will not easily achieve these goals. Nominal Christianity is harbored as it becomes easy to get lost in the crowd. Smaller churches can best foster the simplicity, vitality, intimacy and purity that God desires for his church. 

5. Consensus: The New Testament church had a plurality of clearly identified leaders (elders, pastors, overseers), yet these leaders led more by example and persuasion than by command. The elder-led consensus of the whole congregation was paramount in decision making.[13] Achieving consensus is possible in a church where everyone knows each other, loves each other, bears with one another, is patient with one another, and is committed to each other. However, the larger the fellowship, the more impossible it becomes to maintain relationships and lines of communication. Also, in a large congregation, the pastor necessarily functions more like the CEO of a corporation. An informal homelike setting is an effective place for the building of consensus.

6. Multiplication: House churches are low cost, can reproduce quickly, and have great potential for growth through evangelism. We need to think small in a really big way! God does not equate bigness with ability. Paul reminded that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1Co 1:27-29, NIV).

7. Resource Allocation: Without a lot of money, it seemly has become almost impossible to do the Lord’s work. Charles Price, Director of Missions for the San Antonio Baptist Association, lamented that the typical cost to start a new church in North America is 2 million dollars (!)[14] Not nearly so much money is required to plant house churches. Gathering as a church in a dwelling is about as simple as it gets. The first century church turned their world upside down (Ac 17:6) and did so via small congregations (house churches). The early disciples planted churches in homes, had simple gatherings in homes and multiplied into other houses as the fellowship grew. Like the early church, a simple home can be enough for the fellowship of the church. Freed from the burden of constructing church buildings and their resulting expenses, greater sums of money can go toward the support of pastors, missionaries, evangelists and the poor.

 

Proportions

             Since the New Testament church met almost exclusively in private homes, the typical congregation of the apostolic era was relatively small.[15] No specific number is ever given in Scripture, but there were generally no more people than would fit into a wealthy person’s home (in the atrium or perhaps courtyard area). In general, the overall pattern is for smaller rather than larger congregations.

      The Matthew 18 restoration process detailed by Jesus assumes more than two or three families in a church. Counting the various gifts dealt with in 1 Corinthians 14 reveals the presence of a healthy number of believers. That qualified widows and elders were supported by early house churches (1Ti 5:3-16) also required more than just a handful of believers. Having a plurality of elders in a single church is also unlikely in too small a setting (Acts 14:23).

        The meeting room of the Lullingstone Villa house church in Kent, England (built during the Roman occupation) measured approximately 15’ x 21’.[16] Fuller seminary professor Robert Banks opined that “the entertaining room in a moderately well-to-do household could hold around 30 people comfortably — perhaps half as many again in an emergency . . . it is unlikely that a meeting of the “whole church” could have exceeded 40 to 45 people, and may well have been smaller . . . In any event we must not think of these as particularly large . . . Even the meetings of the ‘whole church’ were small enough for a relatively intimate relationship to develop between the members.”[17] Dr. Banks’ numbers may be too low. An examination of floor plans in Pompeii shows typical atriums measuring 20’ x 28’.[18] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor measured six homes in Pompeii and found the average atrium to be 797 square feet.[19] 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.[20] Acts 1:15 records 120 believers assembled in the upper room.

 

Progression

        Some argue that the practice of churches small enough to meet in an atrium was merely an initiatory phase of the church’s early development, a transitory step toward later maturity. It was right and natural, it is argued, for the church to grow beyond these small sizes and develop ways that are far different than the practices of the apostles as recorded in Scripture: cathedrals, large spectator worship services, archbishops, the modern presbytery system and the merger of church and state after Constantine.

        In answer, it should be noted that the apostles intended for churches to adhere to the specific patterns they originally established. For instance, the Corinthians were praised specifically for holding to the apostles’ traditions for church practice (1Co 11:2). Sweeping appeals to hold to various church practices were made based on the universal practices of all the other churches (1Co 11:16, 14:33b-34). The apostles were handpicked and personally trained by our Lord.  If anyone ever understood the purpose of the church, it was these men. The practices they established for the church’s corporate activities would certainly have been in keeping with their understanding about the purpose of the church. Respect for the Spirit by whom they were led should lead us to prefer their modes of organization to any alternative that our own creative thinking might suggest.

        Also telling is the total absence of any instruction in the New Testament regarding the construction of special buildings for worship. This is in contrast to old covenant Mosaic legislation, which contained very specific blueprints regarding the holy tabernacle. When the new covenant writers did touch upon this subject, they pointed out that believers themselves are the temple of the Holy Spirit, living stones that come together to make up a spiritual house with Jesus Christ as the chief corner stone.[21] In The Radical Christian, Arthur Wallis said, “In the Old Testament, God had a sanctuary for His people; in the New, God has His people as a sanctuary.”[22] Through Christ Jesus, we ourselves are God’s temple and God’s church (1Co 3:16, Ac 20:28). Let us give heed to the penetrating words of John Havlik:  “The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray. A structure of brick or marble can no more be the church than your clothes of serge or satin can be you. There is in this world nothing sacred but man, no sanctuary of man but the soul.”[23]

        The real issue 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 aptness of  building 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 worship services, evangelistic meetings or seminars, but the weekly church gathering is to be about something more: mutual edification, accountability, encouraging one another, the fellowship of the Holy Meal, strengthening relationships, building consensus, etc.

 

The Practical

        Given the right circumstances, a private home can be the ideal setting for a church meeting.  The smaller, homey setting fosters the genuine friendships. The Lord's Supper celebrated as a holy meal in this relaxed, unhurried, comfortable setting helps build unity and love. Since a home is usually not big enough to accommodate a huge number of people, participatory worship wherein each person contributes according to his spiritual gift is much more intimate and meaningful. Also, with no joint ownership of property, the carnal temptation to fight over such things as the color of the carpet can be avoided. House churches can be simple, wonderful, down-to-earth (yet touching heaven) expressions of new covenant church life. J. Vernon McGee predicted, “the Christians met in homes. I used to hold the viewpoint and I still do . . . that as the church started in the home, it is going to come back to the home.”[24]  

        The challenge in worshiping in a home lies in the fact that modern homes are often far different from first century Roman homes. Comparing the two is almost like comparing apples and oranges. Scholars tell us the early church met in the homes of its wealthier members. This was probably because of the large size of the home and the ability of the host to provide much of the food for the love feast. Roman villas typically also served as a center for commerce. The front two rooms facing the street were often stores fronts. A hallway between the two led into the home’s atrium. At the far end of the atrium was the business office. Thus it was not unusual for strangers to be in and out of a home. Further, there were typically multiple generations of family under the same roof. In addition, the household employed servants and their families. These were big, semi-public houses. There were large areas in which the church could gather, such as the atrium. Walls between adjoining rooms off the atrium could be removed to create a large area. Beyond the business office was an even larger semi-covered and completely enclosed courtyard. Enough believers gathered to make disciples, manifest a variety of spiritual gifts (and multiple people with the same gift), to have a plurality of elders and financially support qualified elders (who were thus freed to provide in depth teaching and leadership). They also probably had more of an Asian mindset to crowding than we do in the West; there may have been 150 people in an early house church.

        Many modern homes are simply too small to hold enough believers to have the strength of a New Testament church. In modern Western house churches there often is no one qualified to serve as elder (such men are in short supply) and no one gifted to teach. Consequently, lacking leadership, the church becomes more of a “bless me” club. The fellowship at the Agape is fantastic and often the worship is wonderful and the kids have a good play time together, but no discipleship is really taking place.  Outreach is nil.  The congregation is so small there is no way a pastor could be supported. Though 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.

        Western Christianity has been associated with church buildings for over 1500 years. To meet in a home is, frankly, counter-cultural.  It frightens many who see it as cultic.  On top of all this, the Romans did not have to worry about where to park all the cars of the believers who arrived for church. Your neighbors will not be pleased if, every Lord's Day, the streets around your house are choked with cars. In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). The real emphasis should be on New Testament church practice, not simply meeting in homes.

 

The Proposition

        Historically, little value has been placed on the New Testament example of house churches. Our fathers in the faith probably had compelling reasons to move church meetings from homes into sanctuaries. Indeed, 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. Also, it is in a smaller setting that teaching can be done in a dialogue fashion rather than monologue; it is more pervasive and very effective.  Using suitable private dwellings where possible is a much better use of scarce 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 relatively small and the seating arrangement flexible. Since every member’s participation and ministry was highly valued and encouraged in the early church, a large home 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. 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 not arguing for meeting in houses simply for the sake of meeting in houses. 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 house 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).

        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.[25] We must 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!

 

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

 

Discussion Questions

1. What evidence is there that persecution was not the only reason that the early church met in homes?

2. Some argue that house sized churches were characteristic of the church in its infancy, but not in its maturity. It was right and natural, they argue, for each church to grow beyond the confines of a home, building larger and larger places to meet. How do you feel about this?

3. Are we to believe that having smaller congregations was a purely incidental aspect of the blueprint for church life or is it as purposeful as the other aspects such as participatory gatherings, the Lord’s Supper as a full meal and congregational consensus? Why?

4. Why might the apostles have laid down a purposeful pattern of small churches?

5. What practical advantages and disadvantages would meeting in a home have?

6. What psychological impact might the setting of a church meeting have on the actual meeting and people themselves?

7. How would the number of people involved impact a church’s ability to have a participatory meeting or to achieve congregational consensus?

8. What advantages for growth and reproduction might house churches have over fellowships that have to building church houses?

9. What inconveniences will occur if homes are opened up for church meetings?

10. What should be done in a situation where a home is simply too small to host a church meeting?

11. What of a situation where growth occurs and the congregation is getting too big for the home?

12. How did New Testament churches grow numerically yet still meet in private homes? 

 

Note: NTRF also offers a leader’s resource to help guide a discussion of New Testament church life.  Request The Practice of The Early Church: A Theological Workbook from www.NTRF.org.

 

 



[1] David Watson, I Believe in the Church (Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978), p. 121.

[2] “Unearthing the Christian Building”, Dura-Europos: Excavating Antiquity (Yale University Art Gallery), p. 2.  Italics my insertion.

[3] Graydon F. Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 166.

[4] Ibid., p. 67.

[5] Lane Dennis, ed. ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), p. 2217.

[6] ,J. D. Douglas, ed. New Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL:  Tyndale, 1982), p. 498.

[7] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House), p. 22.

[8] W.H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), p. 422-423.

[9] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP, 1981), p. 744.

[10] Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1977), p. 190-191.

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

[12] Acts 16:40, 20:20, Romans 16:3-5a, 16:23, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1-2b, James 2:3. It is also possible that churches met in Roman tenement housing called insula which were not nearly so large as a Roman villa.

[13] Matthew 18:15-20, Luke 22:24-27, John 17:11, 20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 10:17, Ephesians 2:19-20, 4:13-17, Philippians 2:1-2, 1 Peter 5:1-3.

[14] E-mail exchange, May 8, 2013.

[15] 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.

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

[17] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), p. 41-42.

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

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

[20] 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?).

[21] 1 Peter 2:4-5,  Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19.

[22] Arthur Wallis, The Radical Christian (Rancho Cordova, CA: City Hill Publishing, 1987).

[23] John Havlik, People Centered Evangelism (Nashville: Broadman Publishers, 1971), p. 47.

[24] J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible: Philippians and Colossians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991 ), p.190

[25] To learn more about the disadvantages of modern house churches, see the chapter herein, “Practical Considerations for Starting House Churches in Western Cultures.”




Steve Atkerson

Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.

 

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