New Testament house churches: A model for today's complex world?
Interest in house churches has been on the increase since the 1980s. Some are drawn to the subject because of its ecclesiological and missiological implications; others simply wish to show the inappropriateness of today’s “church buildings”; and still others are drawn to the model because of the increasing cost and difficulty of building churches with today’s economic conditions. Whatever the reason, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has no illusions about the necessity of having church buildings. Ellen White counseled, “The companies that shall be raised up will need a place of worship. They will need schools where Bible instruction may be given to the children. The schoolroom is needed just as much as the church building is needed.”1
This article seeks to give a description of the house churches during the times of the early church. Hopefully, this will lead to a better understanding on the suitability, or otherwise, of house churches for Adventist missionary work today.
The phenomenon of the house church
The New Testament speaks of groups of believers meeting regularly in the intimacy of a home rather than a church building. This house church was a Christian fellowship group formed in and/or around a house (Gr. oikos). Paul speaks of such a church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3, 5), of Philemon (Philemon 1, 2), and of Nympha in Laodicea (Col. 4:15).
The use of oikos to describe the group of believers was not intended just to be a spatial marker but a group identifier as well. Indeed the oikos was a significant sociological unit already. According to Acts 2:46, the believers met in these houses to break bread. But on the basis of the wording, we could say that they broke bread “according to” or “by house” (kat’ oikon). Similarly, when they met for teaching, they did so “by house” (kat’ oikon). The phrase “according to house” or “by house” then becomes a unit of measure because of its use in a distributive rather than in a simply locational sense.
The case for the house church as an identifi - able unit of the early Christian community can also be made linguistically, for the words oikos and oikia were used interchangeably for this phenomenon. These two words have a range of meaning that includes the literal sense of house as well as the metaphorical sense of family, household, clan, and even the bigger tribal unit such as the “house of Judah.” This broad range of meaning is the case in both the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament. However, in the Septuagint and in secular Greek usage, when the word oikos is used with God’s name, it refers to the temple or sanctuary2 with Numbers 12:7 as the exception. But the exception of the Old Testament is the unique feature of the use of oikos in the NT, where the idea of the house of God “is transferred from the temple to the congregation worshipping there.”3 The point is that a real sense exists in which the “house” became a unit or group in the structure of the early Christian community.
One can hardly tell whether, as a result of the early church’s preference for the metaphorical use of the phrase “house of God,” the “house church” model was intended to be normative. Clearly, however, the metaphorical use of “house of God” made it possible for the NT writers to further clarify the truth about the Christian community with such concepts and images as foundation (1 Cor. 3:10–12), cornerstone (Acts 4:11), living stones (1 Pet. 2:5), and pillars (1 Tim. 3:15).
The distribution and description of the house church4
It seems clear that the house-church model was a real Christian model, for it was found both within the Jerusalem Christian community and in other communities, including those that Paul established in his missionary efforts.
Jerusalem’s house churches. With the book of Acts as the primary source of information on the use of houses in the primitive church in Jerusalem, there were at least two, possibly more, of these churches in Jerusalem. First, Acts 1:12–15 depicts the disciples, after Christ’s ascension, as returning from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, entering a house whereupon they went into an upper room. The upper room, a common feature of architecture in the East that occupied the second or third floor of a house, was a fairly large room for rest and relaxation. To the extent that here was the place where the disciples and the believers totaling 120 continually gathered, experienced community, and prayed (1:14; 4:31)—possibly breaking bread and teaching and preaching (2:46; 5:42)—this upper room served as a house church.
Second, Acts 12:10–17 records a meeting of believers in the house of Mary, mother of John Mark. The observation that “many” were gathered together praying (v. 12) clearly suggests that this was a fairly large house-worship setting. Other details of the narrative, such as a gatehouse with a servant girl, suggest a distinguished house. Peter came to this house on the night of his liberation from prison, implying that he knew the house and knew that believers would be gathered there, the period being Passover (12:2–4).
Most scholars agree that the house in Acts 12 should be distinguished from the upper room mentioned in Acts 1, with verses 12 and 17 of chapter 12 implying at least two distinct places of assembly. When Peter told the believers in Mary’s house to tell James and “the brethren,” he may have indicated another group of believers elsewhere.
There are other practical reasons to suggest that in Jerusalem there were probably a plurality of house churches and not just the two possible ones mentioned above. If the church grew as rapidly as recorded in Acts 2:41 and 4:4, the two houses alone would not have been adequate for the believers.
In calling these groupings of the early believers “churches,” it is critical to examine the nature of the activities that took place in their meetings.
Worship service. Acts 2:42 provides a list that seems to indicate an agenda for early Christian worship. The list includes teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer—needful activities in the worship experience of any religious community. Apart from the houses, the only other place of assembly for the believers was the temple, but it is unthinkable that these activities of worship could have happened in the temple. Therefore, we may conclude that the believers consciously saw the houses as their churches and undertook the worship services there.
Teaching. Although the first Christians taught in the temple court and took part in the prayer services there, that did not prevent them from engaging in their own teaching activities in the houses.
Fellowship and breaking bread. The word for fellowship is koinonia, which connotes a God-given unity of heart and mind and signifies a close connection among the believers for mutual support and involvement in each others’ lives, both spiritually and materially (2:44, 45; 4:32–37).
Prayer. In the list referred to above, prayer is in the plural. It hints, at least, at two possibilities on the prayer practices of the early believers: as a critical part of the bread-breaking event, possibly at the end of it, or as an imitation of the Jewish prayer times in the house setting.
Mission and house churches. The power of the house-church setting as an evangelistic strategy should not be missed. Acts 5:42 reports that in the temple and from house to house the believers kept on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. To preach Jesus as the Christ, in the context of Jerusalem, would for all intents and purposes qualify as an evangelistic kind of preaching. Also, the experience of Peter and Cornelius recorded in Acts 10:23–48 would seem to not exclude the possibility that houses, even of believers whose households were not entirely Christian, would become the staging grounds for evangelistic activity. The intense fellowship of “heart and mind” (Acts 4:32, NIV), which the house church would foster, expressing itself materially, could be compellingly attractive to neighbors. Indeed, given the context that the believers had “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47, NKJV), it is not unreasonable to conclude that the adding to their numbers day by day was partly a result of that favor with the people.
On the basis of these activities carried out in those house locations may we not legitimately, theologically, call these groupings churches?
House churches in Antioch?
The evidence for house churches in Antioch is not explicit, but scholars suggest that this would have been the case for a couple of reasons: this was the pattern for the early Christian movement, and early converts appeared to have been “God-fearers,” including affluent ones (see Manaen, for example, in Acts 13:1), who could make their homes available for assemblies. Also it is suggested that one relatively small house church of Christians would not have caught the attention of the residents of Antioch as Acts 11:26 suggests. Finally, the prevarication of Peter in his relation to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:11–14) may also be taken as evidence for the existence of separate Jewish and Gentile congregations that on occasion came together.
On the assumption that the “house churches” in Antioch were possibly patterned after the Jerusalem model, the issues of organization, worship service, and mission discussed in the previous section would also apply to Antioch churches.
House churches in Paul’s missionary cities
We have already seen that Paul’s letters recognized the existence of house churches. Acts contains reports of house meetings in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Troas. We need not be detained by details on these and other individual churches, but simply note the texts that possibly mention them: Philippi, (Acts 16:11–15, 25–34); Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9); Corinth (Acts 18:7, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16: 15, 17); Cenchreae—Phoebe is described as prostatis meaning “patron” (Rom. 16:1, 2); Ephesus (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; 1 Cor. 16:19); Rome (Rom. 16:3, 5, 10, 11, 14, 15); and Colossae (Philemon 1, 2). Further, as in Jerusalem, there was the possibility of more that one house church in these cities; for example, in Philippi—in the houses of Lydia and the jailer—and in Corinth—on the properties of Aquila and Priscilla, Justus, Crispus, Stephanas, and Gaius.
The existence of house churches in Paul’s time has been questioned by some New Testament scholars, arguing instead for “tenement churches.”5 The latter would be crowded, low-rent apartment housing where believers might be able to meet together only after joining several apartments. It is argued that the social status of the early Christians was such that they could not have had their own houses. The argument, however, is hardly provable either on the basis of archaeology or the biblical evidence.6 Phoebe probably had a slave background, but she was a patron. The evidence seems convincing that Christians of the churches on Paul’s missionary trail met in the houses of some affluent members.
Worship service. First Corinthians 11 and 14 contain data relevant to the worship service at the church of Corinth. Some discuss whether or not 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 talk about two separate worship services; one for Communion celebration and the other a service of the Word. In any case, from these two chapters we can be certain about the elements of the worship service: song, prayer, teaching/ instruction and prophetic speech, as well as Communion. We could expect that the elements of the worship service at Corinth were present in other Pauline churches: Romans 12:3–8 mentions service, teaching, exhortation; Ephesians 5:19 speaks about teaching, singing of psalms, hymns, and songs; and Colossians 4:16 gives an indication that at least Paul’s letters were read to the congregation at meetings.
Pauline house churches and mission. The role of Pauline house churches in missionary activities seems to have been dictated by Paul’s missionary philosophy. Convinced that he had to preach the gospel to the entire world, Paul visited important cities, following the commercial routes of the time. Paul’s churches, then, fi t into a framework where they functioned as cells from where entire cities were to be reached. The fact that Paul did not stay in the cities to make the cells full-fl dged churches speaks to the point (1 Thess. 3:1–5). Thus, it would have been natural for the house churches to see themselves as bases for missionary work, assisting in providing the needed resources.
Holding it together: Leadership and organization of NT house churches
The picture that emerges from the discussion so far indicates that in many of the cities where the early church found a home, including Jerusalem, there were a number of Christian groups operating simultaneously. But what sense did these groups have of themselves and how was their sense of identity maintained? These questions address issues of organization and leadership.
Organization. Acts 8:1 speaks about the church in Jerusalem in the singular. Yet the evidence presented above suggests the existence of at least two, and possibly more, house groups of believers. Acts 2:42–47 and 4:31–37 provides a picture of a community of believers with a community of goods and the added suggestion that all the believers must have, on occasion, met at the temple for common fellowship. It seems, then, that at some level in the community life of the believers in Jerusalem, they had a common or general organization, whereas at other levels the community was organized along the lines of the individual house groups. Thus, we see at least a two-level form of organization. The argument could be extended to the Pauline churches, at least in Corinth. The possibility of a number of house churches in Corinth has been noted, yet Paul, in addressing his fi rst letter to the Corinthians, made it out to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). Against the background of a plurality of house churches in Corinth, possibly the statement “if the whole church comes together in one place” (1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV; italics added) could refer to a gathering of all the house churches at one place on occasion.
If the foregoing observations are correct, then we may be able to say this much. Although there may have been several individual house churches, all of them saw themselves as belonging to the church in their respective cities. This probably was the sense of identity they had; not an unreasonable one given the fact that Paul’s missionary philosophy may have led them to see their communities as bases or cells for evangelizing their cities. Thus, their missionary goal informed their organization.
Leadership. Such a system of organization could not have functioned without a corresponding leadership. With the church in Jerusalem, leadership appeared to be clearly in the hands of the apostles. What about Pauline churches? First Thessalonians 5:12 gives us a clue as to the leadership and nature of leadership functions in these churches. Paul urges the church to “respect” a specific group of individuals. The Greek word for “respect” (eidenai) means literally to know, which “by itself . . . means to ‘identify’ or to ‘take note of’ those listed as its objects.”7 Describing this group of individuals, Paul uses three participles in the present tense: “those who work hard” (koipiontas), those “who are over you” (proistamenous), and those “who admonish you” (vouthetountas). NT scholars have noted that the use of a single defi nite article to introduce all three participles indicates that a single group is intended. Furthermore, the use of the present tense implies that these functions were not sporadic in nature but consistent and habitual activities in the congregation. As to the nature of the leadership functions, working hard describes strenuous physical labor needed to support a ministry both physically and spiritually (1 Thess. 2:9; 3:5). Here is indicated strenuous effort put out to secure the material and spiritual welfare of the congregation. Standing over, however, has a range of meanings including presiding over, directing, caregiving (Rom. 12:8), and managing (1 Tim. 3:4, 5). Finally, admonishing may involve instructing, usually with the goal of exerting a corrective influence (1 Cor. 4:14).8 Reading 1 Thessalonians 5:12 in the context of verses 20, 21 may lead us to conclude that some in the congregation may have been facing the risk of being misled, and such needed to show respect to those who worked hard among them, stood over them, and admonished them.
The question as to how leadership was constituted is not particularly relevant to our interest here,9 although it must be noted that the householder seemed to acquire leadership authority in the church. In any case, enough evidence exists to show that leadership functions were firmly in place in these congregations as a way of maintaining their material and spiritual health. In Corinth, Paul challenged the believers to submit themselves to the household of Stephanas and others who appeared to have a special position and exercised leading roles. Like those in Thessalonica, “they had devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:16). Certainly, if there was no leadership structure in Corinth, it would have been senseless for Paul to expect certain members of the congregation to resolve the internal conflicts of the church (1 Cor. 6:1–5). Elsewhere, in the church at Philippi, a brief mention is made of leadership functions provided by episkopoi (overseers/bishops) and diakonoi (deacons), functions that appear to be designated as offices. Here we see a formal, ongoing leadership function.
As far as leadership to coordinate the activities of the various house churches is concerned, the duty appears to have rested mainly on the apostles. Paul called himself the “father” of the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 4:15). He exercised the “overseer” function in the churches he founded, employing in no small measure the medium of letters to exercise that function from a distance. He also had several coworkers for missionary purposes (Timothy, Titus, Silvanus, etc.). In addition, we should also keep in mind the role of some central leading authorities in Jerusalem: in sending Peter and John to help Philip (Acts 8:14); in possibly calling Peter to account for his dealing with Cornelius (Acts 11:1–18); in the council dealing with the issue of Gentiles and rituals (Acts 15); and in commissioning Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2).
Although all the details of organization and leadership are not clearly available, the early church had in place structures and leadership patterns that held together what seems to be a plurality of house churches.
In the early church, it seems that in many ways the house churches were vibrant and successful Christian congregations in carrying forward the gospel. The house church was an authentic Christian unit. There may have been several house churches at any one time in the cities where the gospel took root. In each of these congregations activities took place that qualified them to be called churches.
These churches, however, were not self-serving congregations but bases from where the cities were to be reached. Hence, there appears to have been some collaborative effort among several churches of any one city, necessitating what seems to have been at least a two-form organization. While each house church was authentic by itself, the whole church in a city would come together on occasion. All of this organization must have required a level of leadership to promote the health of the churches.
The house church appears to have been a success because architecturally, sociologically, and missiologically it had come into its own. The architectural limitation imposed on congregational size did not seem to be a problem because the household seems to have been a viable unit of social organization. Indeed, the sociocultural situation provided by the oikos concept seemed to have provided a good sociological fit for the house church that potentially served as a catalyst for mission.
Is the house church an option for Adventist work in today’s big cities? Our study shows that in principle the house church is functional or “doable.” Indeed, a house church could be a powerful corrective to the impersonal life of modern cities, and thus, a catalyst for evangelism; not to mention the potential monetary savings.
However, its effectiveness in any particular city would appear to depend on a careful evaluation of several factors including physical, sociological, and organizational ones. What real limitations on size would be imposed given the architecture and building designs of the city where the message likely will take root? What psychological impact would size per se have on the viability of the church? What real dangers of one-sidedness, both theologically and otherwise, are imposed by size? Given the sociocultural mix of the city, how would people warm up to the more intense level of interaction that the house church affords? What would be the potential role of the house owner in the church and how would that fi t in the Adventist system of church governance? What risks will the natural role of the house owner in the church’s life pose to the congregation’s material and spiritual health? Given the potential influence of the house owner, this question becomes critical in view of the contemporary proliferation of independent churches. How effective is the church’s representative form of church governance going to be when the church exists on the goodwill of the house owner? These and many more such questions may need to be addressed on case-by-case basis before a decision can be made on the viability of the house church for today.
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1 Ellen G. White, The Advocate, March 1, 1899.
2 Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 247.
4 For a detailed and critical discussion see Roger W. Gehring, House Churches and Mission (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 1–225.
5 See for example Robert Jewett, “Tenement Churches and Communal Meals in the Early Church,” Biblical Research 38 (1993): 23–43.
6 Gehring, 148–151.
7 D. Michael Martin, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Thessalonians (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Pub., 2002), 171.
8 Ibid., 173.
9 It has been argued from a sociological perspective that the household setting determined the inner life and organization of the local Christian church. Hence, Gehring concludes that “the leadership structures of the house church did not have to be created out of nothing. ‘The church in the house came with its leadership so to speak built in.’ ” See Gehring, 194.