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House churches only?

March 20, 2015

It seems like once a week (at least) I read an article or see/hear a comment about how local churches in the New Testament met in houses.  From a Restoration perspective like mine that’s a big deal, because if God said by word or example that all local churches must meet in houses, then you had better believe I’ll be the first one to open my doors and say, “Let’s get it right!”  In my mind, this is a non-issue because Christians in the New Testament met in a variety of physical locations, such as homes, synagogues, the temple, public places, and by the side of a river.  Even folks who don’t necessarily advocate for a house-church-only kind of arrangement today may innocently believe that New Testament Christians met in houses and that’s it.

Here are some resources and quick quotes to illustrate that the issue turns out to be more involved than a simple, “The church meets in my house.”  I don’t necessarily advocate for all of these approaches; but I simply want to make the reader aware that there has been a conversation happening for many years about this subject; and I would encourage you to not simply default to: The first Christians only met in houses.

By way of information on the subject, the first purpose-built church meeting place that I’m aware of is Dura Europos dated to 241-256.  Considering that the apostolic age did not end until somewhere between 70-100, this is extremely early.

The book I would recommend on the subject first is both expensive and time consuming; but it must be considered  before someone says, “The first Christians met in homes and that’s it.”  Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses?. 2013.  You may be able to check it out from a local seminary library if you have access to one.  Here is a review that leans positively, and here is one that points towards some issues.

In the following, I would simply draw attention to a common theme: Scholarly consensus has been primarily for house church; but now there are other things to consider and some questions that need answering.

Bradley S. Billings, “From house church to tenement church: Domestic space and the development of early urban Christianity—the example of Ephesus.” JTS2 (Oct. 2011): 541-569.

…the insula, [think slum apartment complexes-rb] in which the vast majority of the populace were housed, must have played a significant role in the expansion and consolidation of Christianity in cities such as Ephesus. The natural tendency of the group to cohere both socially and in a tangible sense might also have led to the possibility that whole ‘Christian quarters’ or districts (vici) developed in the ‘larger cities’ of the Roman world. For, having outgrown the capacity of its members’ houses, it would have been logical for the Christian community to seek to establish a physical presence in the context of multi-resident, high-density housing, in which the vast major- ity were already domiciled. This would have been achieved by following the well-established practices of extant cultic, ethnic, and commercial groups, by first occupying a definable room or apartment, or possibly space above a place of trade or commerce, and gradually expanding the presence as people came and went, until a series of rooms or apartments, and ultimately an entire floor, could be acquired and dedicated to cultic use as well as domestic use, for the benefit of the association. From the outside, these would appear to the passer-by as ordinary domestic structures, attracting no unwanted or unnecessary attention to the community gathered therein. These ‘tenement churches’ provide a bridge between the ‘house churches’ (Oikos ecclesiae) of the New Testament and the first places dedicated exclusively to Christian worship (Domus ecclesiae), in this respect filling the gap in our knowledge concerning the development of the physical space in which the first generations of Christians met and conducted their rites during this crucial period of development. (p. 569)

Carolyn Osiek, “4. House Churches and the Demographics of Diversity.” Religious Studies Review. 27.3 (July 2001): 228-231.

Yet another kind of diversity needs to be considered. White carefully lays out the evidence for different kinds of structures in which worship may have taken place and then theorizes about the changes and transformations that took place in those structures. In the early years, there are indications that Christians would meet in a domus (free-standing house), a schole (rented hall), or a horreum (warehouse): we hypothesize that, since great numbers of less than affluent people lived in apartment houses (insulae), Christians also met there…

and later

Diversity of venue of the Christian gathering in Greco-Roman cities was therefore present from the start. That diversity may also have produced diversity of style and proceeding in the assembly. In the case of a meeting in someone’s household, it is difficult to imagine any other leadership structure than presidency by the kyrios or Icyria of the household, with the exception, of course, of times when a founding apostle was present. At a gathering in rented or borrowed space ordinarily used for some other purpose, the same hierarchical ordering would not be apparent, so perhaps these assemblies in less formal circumstances were characterized by a more fluid structure and a more participatory leadership…

Jim Harrison, “Paul’s house churches and the cultic association.” Reformed Theological Review. 58.1 (April 1999): 31-47.

This piece focuses on the churches in Corinth.  While churches were patronized by wealthier individual’s homes, the Corinthians (from a pagan background) would have viewed their meetings as something different: “Certain Corinthian believers may have viewed the Christian assembly as a cuitic association (or collegium) and ignored the attendant threat of divisiveness and idolatry.”

Mark Button and Fika J Van Rensburg, “The ‘House Churches’ in Corinth.” Neotestamentica 1 (2003): 1-28.

Abstract – “The generally-accepted view cf the “house churches” sees them as the building blocks, or basic cells of the church in a particular locality; further, It Is widely accepted that the “house churches” were led by patrons of relatively high status. This article seeks to re-examine the prevailing view of the “house churches”, with particular reference to the church in Corinth, in order to gain insight into their nature, composition, leadership and possible activities. The house church formula – ή κατ’ οίκον εκκλησία (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phlm 2) – ¡s analysed linguistically, and New Testament texts relevant to the “house churches” are examined. This evidence leads to the conclusion that the “house churches” should be seen as activities of the local church, and that the leadership of the “house churches” was vested in the gifted leaders and teachers of the local ”

Floyd Filson, “The significance of the early house churches.” JBL2 (1939): 105-112.

All of these studies are useful and necessary. However, all of them would be still more fruitful, and the New Testament church would be better understood, if more attention were paid to the actual physical conditions under which the first Christians met and lived. In particular, the importance and function of the house church [rb – not just the simple fact that they met in a house] should be carefully considered…

and later

Thus archaeology suggests the process by which the small group meeting in a private house developed into a larger body requiring more space than a private residence could offer. Such discoveries, however, do not exhaust the interest which the house churches have for the student of the New Testament.

Johannes A. Loubser, “Wealth, churches and Rome.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 89 (1994): 59-69.

We can talk about house churches all day long, but as we attempt to “translate” that thinking into modern day practice, are we going to be practically able to patronize 50-100 people in the courtyard or central section of our house?

In recent studies by Theissen (1978,1982), Meeks (1983), Peterson (1985) and others, interesting information regarding the sociological aspects of these churches has come to light. They formed close-knit communities around the households of the prominent and more wealthy members. These houses could accommodate from 50 to 100 people, all belonging to the extended family. Here visiting evangelists were accommodated and regular meetings (meals, baptisms etc) were held. (p. 64).

None of what I’m sharing here is me saying that NO local churches met in homes.  To say that isn’t any more accurate than saying that EVERY local church met, and must meet, in homes.  I am only trying to foster awareness that when you hear someone say something like, “In the New Testament, churches met in homes” as if that is the standard of Restoration, that person may not have looked into the subject as much they think.

On a more positive note, I really like Roger Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.  This book is about the evangelistic benefits of a family and home-like setting of a house church community.  Having said as much, I think this same kind of close-knit group can be fostered in a purpose-built building too. (Side note: this is one of the things I really love about Ellisville where I am presently working.)

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