After completing this study in early 2007, Todd's region and another in the DFW Church began to implement and empower their house churches. The results are encouraging.
The house church of the New Testament and the following three centuries was and continues to be a culturally relevant model for worship services. It allowed a decentralized freedom that created an intimate and meaningful walk with both God and fellow believers within varying cultural settings. Fellowship, proclamation of the Word, unity, the Lord’s Supper and a mission mindset characterized this model. The house church was small enough to have intimate face-to-face association creating a fusion of individuals into a common whole. It emphasized people that had a relationship with their God and fellow believers, this body, with Christ as its head, produced a home-centered movement, which “turned the whole world upside down” and led to Christianity conquering the Roman Empire.
This movement continued until the third century, in some rural areas well into the fifth century, when a noticeable shift away from home centered church to a larger, more organized structure that emphasized extraneous and collective concerns rather than relationships within the body. It began to cater to larger numbers of believers and began to lose its interactive character. It became an institution rather than a family.
This shift was a quick one. Up to the third century, Christianity was an outlawed religion until Constantine, emperor of the Roman Empire, granted religious freedom with the Edict of Milan, 313 C.E. This new freedom combined with the growing tendency for Christian congregations to use buildings exclusively for religious purposes, began a campaign to construct large basilica church buildings. Up to this time, no known church building had been built unless encouraged by Constantine. This led the early house churches away from their dedication to an uncomplicated, affectionate environment to the cold atmosphere found in basilica complexes. To understand the New Testament house churches one must understand the two external forces that helped shape the budding movement, the predominate Roman culture and the Jewish background of early Christianity.
It would be impossible to outline the impact on the early church by the Roman and Jewish cultures in this short paper, but this paper will focus on a few important influences. Between the years 50-40 B.C.E large groups of Jewish captives of war were brought to Rome and other leading Roman cities. Over time, these captives were released and partially assimilated into the culture as freed-men and women. These Jews set up local synagogues similar in function to synagogues in other cities, but the synagogues were not unified by a centralized authority. These synagogues, “a coming together,” originally met in members’ houses. Recent studies of Jewish inscriptions on buildings and tombs revealed such a synagogue in Stobi, where a certain Claudius Tiberius Polycharus paid for the remodeling of the lower floor his home to be used as a synagogue while the family lived in the upper room.
In the Roman world, there were three major social institutions that held the empire together; the city community, the household community and the voluntary associations. Of the three, the city community (politeia, where we get our word politics) had the least amount of influence because the Christians met in homes rather than public buildings. The household (oikononia, where we get our word economics) on the other hand was the primary social structure of the Roman Empire. Families and individuals held together by economic and physical needs comprised a household. This family or household was usually under the authority of a senior male from the primary family. Lastly, the voluntary associations (koinonia, where we get our words fellowship or community) were made up of groups similar to clubs that were unified due to common interests, such as trade, philosophy or religion.
A steep pyramid, with the heads of households at the top and an estimated slave population of 2 million out of 6 million living in Italy alone characterized Roman society in the first century. The wealthy homeowners typically had a dining room measuring approximately 400 square feet. This would allow room for nine to ten people to recline on couches for a meal, if the couches were removed perhaps up to twenty could dine in that room. The majority of Romans found housing in rented tenement houses called insulae (Acts 20:9). These apartments were 4-5 stories high, with the larger rooms located on the bottom floors measuring about 300 square feet and the smaller upper level rooms measuring about 30-35 square feet. The tenement house projects were densely populated, similar to slums, with an average of 200 persons living per acre. The tenements were mainly for sleeping or storage and did not have running water, toilets or kitchens.
After Pentecost, references to the Christian’s home assemblies became apparent (Acts 1:13; 2:46; 5:42; 8:3). As the church grew, it was impossible for all the disciples to meet at one location (Acts 12:12-17). The house churches in Jerusalem always welcomed the believers to participate in prayer, fellowship and worship. When authorities forced Christians from that city and away from the synagogues, the house churches became a refuge. As Christianity spread, due to persecution, it followed the trade routes to the major cities of the empire. House churches developed in cites such as; Colosse (Ph 1:2, 1:22, Col 1:2, 2:1, 4:15), Philippi (Acts 16:6-10, 14,15), Laodicea (Col 4:15-16), Corinth (Rom 16:23, 1 Cor 1:11, 15-18, 16:15), Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19, Rom 16:4) and Rome (Rom 16). In Ephesus, we have one example of a hall being used but that was rare (Acts19:9).
Paul used the word, church (ekklesia in the Greek, meaning people with a shared belief, an assembly, a church, or those who are called out) as an expression for believers who represent the body of Christ (Col 1:18, 24; Eph 3:10). This reference usually referred to individual congregations in a local area (Rom 16:4,5; Gal 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1), at times it referred to the homes that comprised the congregation (Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15). At the same time it appears that house churches coexisted within the fellowship of a larger local church especially in large cities such as Rome, Corinth and Jerusalem (1 Cor 14:23; Rom 16:23; Acts 12:17). Paul, following the example of Jesus, used the home as a basic building block for the development of churches (Rom 16:23; 1Cor 11: 33) these house churches met in the homes of converted individuals or households (Acts 11:14, 16:15, 25-34, 18:7,8).
Priscilla and Aquila were excellent examples of how Paul developed relationships to further the church. Not much is known about this couple other than a few references to them and the body that congregated in their home. Paul met this couple in Corinth (Acts 18:2), then he greeted them when they were in Rome (Rom 16:4,5) and later when Priscilla and Aquila were in Ephesus Paul sent greetings from them (1 Cor 16:19). For a couple to move three times and to afford a home each time meant that one or both were from considerable means. It is thought that Priscilla (Prisca) came from the family of Acilius, according to inscriptions found in excavations in Rome. This would be inline with Paul’s method of converting influential individuals or heads of households (1 Cor 1:16; Acts 16:15, 33, 18:8) so that he could establish a church in that region.
Paul also fostered unity with house churches that he had not been a part of, such as the house churches found in Romans 16. Paul addressed five sets of groups in the conclusion of his letter to the church at Rome. It was thought that these groups represented five different house churches (Rom 16:5a, 10b, 11b, 14, 15) spread throughout the city of Rome that Paul was aware of even though he had never joined them. This could explain chapters 14 and 15, similar to the controversies in 1 Corinthians, in which different house churches in the same city had different issues and were in conflict with each other.
House churches met many needs for the New Testament Christians, but of those needs five characteristics stand out: family, unity, worship, leadership development and missions. The uniqueness of the New Testament teachings and the Roman household code helped create a family-like atmosphere, which further strengthened unity between the believers. As stated earlier, the social stratification of the empire was a pyramid with the emperor, literally, at the head. He was followed by the Senators and the Knights, the upper class, which only comprised 5% of the population, perhaps 100,000, out of a population of 50-80 million. All the rest were considered lower class, freemen, freedmen and slaves. This group was largely dependant upon the authority of those who led their families. Usually a male, the head of household exercised authority and protected the less socially advantaged families or individuals.
The household code brought order and function; it established rules for everyone, so that society could function. Paul referred to the household code twice in his Epistles (Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:22-6:9). These household codes set a model for all Christians as they interacted in their families and house churches. This Roman institution was then supplemented by the early Christians’ understanding of the family, body, and of God.
All believers were a part of the household of God with Jesus as the head of the household (Eph 2:18-19; 3:14-15; 5:1; 6:23 etc...). This understanding and the use of kinship language (1 Thess. 1:4; 2:1,9,14,17; 3:2,7; 4:1,6,10,13; 5:1,4,12,14,25,26,27 etc..) allowed the church to become a family and for the members to enjoy relations between siblings that were not based on blood. This opened the doors to an integration of all walks of life in the Empire. The wealthy, slaves, men, women, Romans, and foreigners were all brothers and sisters in God’s family. This concept shattered all the usual cultural barriers. This diversity of family allowed for equality of the oppressed. Not only was equality developed, but community was formed. Koinonia meaning fellowship or community and Allelon meaning a mutual support of one another both developed. This unity manifested itself in distinct ways such as in a willingness to share (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37), to build each other up (Col 3:13, 16), and to serve (Rom 7:7; 1 Pt 4:10). The house church allowed this spirit to grow independent of the culture surrounding it and provided opportunities for all to enjoy freedom, in other words, the house church became the training ground for love.
It seemed that in Paul’s worship services (Acts 20:7-12; Col 3:16)), the sharing of the Word came before the breaking the bread. Paul was very concerned that his letters were read and shared with other churches, implying that he understood their prophetic importance (Col 4:16) and that the disciples kept to the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13). While teaching and preaching were a large part of the New Testament house church, it was not clear what types occurred during worship services. Paul’s admonishment to Timothy emphasized preaching the word (2 Tim 4:2), but then he highlighted teaching in Ephesians 4:11. This left the meaning ambiguous as to whether in the early house church teaching, preaching or a combination of both were more common.
The Lord’s Supper, communion, the breaking of bread, or the Eucharist (thanksgiving), in the house churches was a celebration of God’s love, a celebration of what God had done through Christ, it was also a time to rejoice that the risen Lord was in their midst. This celebration was another example of the influences of Jesus, Hebrew history and the Roman/Hellenistic culture. The Lord’s Supper had its roots in the Passover which represented God’s deliverance of his people. It was also similar to a Hellenistic meal which was associated with trade, religious or funeral gatherings called eranoi. Everyone contributed something; sharing and equality became the hallmarks of the gatherings, followed by an after dinner speech. The Lord’s Supper was also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.
For the house church it was a dynamic setting where the family of God would join together and celebrate the Lord, he was with them at the table. In the context of house churches, it was a family meal that included a household of friends. The family could recline together and celebrate. All the Christians could look at each other, participate in the conversations, hear about needs and collectively meet those needs. This meal may have been the only substantial meal that many of the Christians would eat that week due to poverty or enslavement (1 Cor 11:21).
Developing leadership and creating an evangelistic impact were the last two major influences of the New Testament house churches. Two influences directed the development of house churches; the ancient household structures and the Jewish synagogue. Much attention has been given to the similarities of Christian leadership and the organizational forms of the Jewish synagogue in which the three officers; the Synagogue Ruler, Elder and Assistant seem to correlate with the Bishop, Elder and Deacon of the Christian church.
The household structure, as stated earlier, was not only a physical space but also a clearly defined social pecking order. The homeowners, mostly men but some women, already had authority and power due to their community standings; it was a built-in leadership organization. These were, by large, affluent, responsible individuals who were used to being responsible with economic and religious authority. As Christianity spread and many households converted, these hosts continued to fill this role. The New Testament does not mention Paul making any changes in house churches; he just recognized those who were hosting the churches in their homes. One wonders if these positions emerged or did Paul install hosts over their own homes?
Clement of Alexandria wrote about the Apostle John and how he “would go away when invited to the neighboring districts of the Gentiles, here to appoint presbyters, there to form new churches and there to put into the office of the ministry someone of those who were indicated by the Spirit.” The house church became a training ground for new leaders but it did not immunize the early church from divisiveness or disunity. The Corinthian church became a hotbed of issues due to isolated house churches, plurality of house churches in one city, and weak leadership (1 Cor 1:10-13). It is possible that Paul’s concern with proper leadership roles, as seen in his Pastoral Epistles, grew out of established household codes. This individual could preside over the Lord’s Supper, care for the needy and provide for the wandering ministers (3 Jn).
The New Testament showed a clear intentional recruitment of leaders especially household leaders (Acts 16, 17:1-7, 12, 34; 1Cor 1:14,16; Phlm 19). These wealthy members, heads of synagogues, and civic leaders became the base for Paul to expand his mission outreach in that region. Normally, the household would adopt the religion of the host. With the host as a fellow Christian, Paul or various missionaries became insiders and gained a position of trust with the friends and associates of the household leader. This facilitated cross-generational conversions, enabling long-term survival of the church to the next generation. The worship services were evangelistic (1 Cor 14:24-25) and filled with brotherly love which fostered a family atmosphere. Hospitality within homes probably advanced the Gospel more than anything else. The outgoing nature of the disciples and the willingness to sacrifice for others prompted the curiosity of their fellow citizens and in all probability compelled them to find out more about the Christ. These house churches themselves became agents of evangelism and drew the attention of the Roman world.
Practically, one must review the present foundation and structure of the individual church to apply a house church model to that context. Is it possible to add new wine into old wineskins? On the other hand, is that what one would be doing by implementing houses churches in modern church settings? One does not have to redo church to create the small group atmosphere.
As for the DFW Church of Christ, we are a body that is configured already into family groups or Bible Talks, but we still meet for large worship services on Sundays. I would like to see the majority of this congregation read this paper, to openly discuss the current state of their family group, to seek new ways to produce a healthy house church and to recommit to old ways that worked. We will, as a church, commit to every other Wednesday evening house church meetings and once a month have, “Sunday House Church Service.” This will continue through the summer and probably into the fall.
If the house church model is to be successful, it must be supported by the leadership of the church. Time and training must be given to those ministries including a clear vision for the future. This vision, as seen in this paper, is for all disciples of Jesus rejoicing with each other in brotherly love, to spread His message from our homes and to be the family that God intended.
Banks, Robert: Julia Banks. The Church Comes Home. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998