Were Persecution, Poverty, and Progression the Real Reasons for First Century House Churches?
by Steve Atkerson
That the original church held its meetings primarily in private homes is common knowledge and without dispute (Ac 16:40, 20:20, Ro 16:3-5a, 1Co 16:19, Col 4:15, Phlm 1-2b, Jam 2:3). Less well known is the fact that the early church continued this practice for hundreds of years, long after the New Testament writings were completed. C.F. Snyder observed, “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 Synder, Church Life Before Constantine, Mercer University Press: 1991, p. 166). For longer than the United States has existed as a nation, the nearly universal practice of the church was to meet in houses. 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” (p. 67). Why were house churches the norm for so long?
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. However, could there also have been other, equally compelling, reasons for having living room oriented fellowships? Suppose there had been no first century persecution. Are we to assume that church buildings would automatically have been constructed, and that individual congregations would have swelled to enormous size, limited only by the dimensions of the biggest building locally available?
It is often overlooked that the followers of Jesus sometimes met in homes while simultaneously “enjoying the favor of all the people” (Ac 2:47, NIV). Persecution was not always a factor. Based on 1 Corinthians 14:23 (“if the whole church comes together and . . . some unbelievers come in,” NIV), it is possible that unbelievers also attended church meetings, so where they met was not always a secret to outsiders. It is simply not true that early believers were always persecuted everywhere and all the time. Persecution prior to around A.D. 250 was sporadic, localized, and often the result of mob hostility (rather than the empire-wide decree of a Roman ruler). Surprisingly, Roman officials are often presented in a somewhat favorable light by the New Testament writers since they intervened to protect Christians from unlawful local harassment by unbelieving Judaism (Ac 16:35, 17:6-9, 18:12-16, 19:37-38, 23:29, 25:18-20, 25:24-27, 26:31-32). Prior to 250, Christianity was illegal, but generally tolerated. The simple fact is that widespread persecution did not occur until Emperor Decius in A.D. 250, followed by Gallus (251-253), then Valerian (257-259) and finally Diocletian (303-311) (Williston Walker, A History of The Christian Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1970, p. 43). Someone, somewhere, could have constructed a special church building in the 200 years prior to Decius, but significantly, no one ever did. (Even in China today some believers manage to construct church buildings.) This suggests there might have also been a theological purpose behind home meetings.
When persecution did erupt, meeting in homes did not keep Saul from knowing exactly where to go to arrest Christians (Ac 8:3). The church in Rome later responded to government persecution by meeting underground, in the more protective catacombs. Even the presence of persecution, however, would not necessarily rule out a deeper, purposeful preference for smaller, house-sized congregations. The fact remains that everything in the New Testament was written to a living room sized church, and arguably the New Testament ideal for church life is best realized in a smaller, family like setting.
Could poverty be a deciding factor in explaining the total absence of church buildings during New Testament times and for centuries afterwards? Many of the earliest converts to Christianity were from Judaism. The construction of synagogues was common throughout the Mediterranean world. Presumably these same people would also have had the means to construct church buildings. The bulk of converts in later years were of Gentile stock, whose fellow pagans somehow managed to erect huge temples to their gods. Would not Gentile Christians also have been able to afford to construct places for the church to gather?
That some rich were among God’s elect is made clear by the advice that Timothy received to “instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1Ti 6:17-18, NASV). Also, James warned against showing favoritism toward those who came to the church gathering wearing a gold ring and fine clothes (Jam 2:1-4), indicating such persons were indeed involved with the church.
Further evidence of the presence of wealthy believers can be seen in Paul’s rebuke to the rich in Corinth for slighting the poor by refusing to eat the Lord’s Supper along with them: “Or do you despise the church of God, and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you” (1Co 11:22, NASV). Poverty alone clearly was not a deciding factor in the lack of church buildings during those early centuries.
Some think that God intended for the practice of meeting in homes to be a legitimate phase of the church’s early development, an initial but transitory step toward later maturity. Thus house churches were characteristic of the church in its infancy, but not in its maturity. It was right and natural, they argue, for the church to grow beyond these early practices and develop ways that are far different than, but in the spirit of, the practices of the apostles as recorded in Scripture. Thus the erection of cathedrals, large worship services, the rise of one bishop presiding over a city of churches, the development of the modern hierarchical presbytery system, even the eventual merger of church and state after Constantine, are seen as good and positive developments.
Yet the apostles seem to have intended for churches to adhere to the specific patterns that they originally established. For instance, the Corinthians were praised for holding to the apostles’ traditions for church practice (1Co 11:2). Sweeping appeals for holding to various church practices were made based on the universal practices of all the other churches (1Co 11:6, 1Co 14:33b-34). The Thessalonians were directly commanded to hold to the traditions of the apostles (2Th 2:15). 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 that they established for the church’s corporate activities would certainly be 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 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 (1Pe 2:4-5, Ep 2:19-22, 1Co 3:16, 6:19). Thus at the very best, church buildings are a matter of indifference to our Lord. At the worst they can be a carnal throwback to the shadows of Mosaic law. The real issue is not where a church meets, but where and how it can best do what God requires of it. A major reason that church buildings are erected is in order to hold more people than will fit into a typical living room. Yet one must wonder at the wisdom behind constructing a large church edifice, since having too many in attendance can serve to defeat the very purpose for holding a church meeting in the first place! Large crowds are great for worship services, evangelistic meetings or to hear preaching, but church is to be about something completely different than these activities (see below).
A Purposeful Pattern?
Might the apostles have laid down a purposeful pattern of home churches? What practical effects would meeting in a home have on one’s church life? 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 the early (house) church are worth considering.
- The over arching significance of the house 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. The question becomes, what setting best facilities our functioning as God’s family?
- Many scholars are persuaded that the Lord’s Supper was originally celebrated weekly as a full, fellowship meal (the Agape Feast). Each local church is to be like a family (Ti 5:1-2), and one of the most common things families do is to eat together. Early church meetings, centered around the Lord’s Table, were tremendous times of fellowship, community and encouragement (Lk 22:16-19, 29-30, Ac 2:42, 20:7, 1Co 11:17-34). Rather than a funeral-like atmosphere, the Lord’s Supper was in anticipation of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb (Re 19:6-9). The larger an individual congregation, the less family-like it becomes, and the more impersonal and impractical the Lord’s Supper as a true meal can become. Thus in later centuries, as the church abandoned home meetings, the Lord’s Supper was eventually stripped of everything save the token ingestion of a small piece of bread and one swallow of wine.
- Early church meetings were clearly interactive (1Co 14, Heb 10:24-25, Ep 19-20, Col 3:16). Any brother could participate verbally. The prerequisite for anything said was that it be edifying, designed to strengthen the church. Since public speaking is a great fear for many people, participatory meetings are best suited to living room sized gatherings, composed of people who all know each other and are true friends. Participatory meetings are impractical for large numbers. Once the living room setting was replaced by the sanctuary, interactive meetings were replaced by worship services.
- The Scriptures are full of the “one another” commands. Church is to be about accountability, community, and maintaining church discipline (Mt 18:15-20). These ideals are best accomplished in smaller congregations where people know and love each other. Church is to be about relationships. 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. Churches that meet in homes best foster the simplicity, vitality, intimacy and purity that God desires for his church.
- The New Testament church had 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 (Mt 18:15-20, Lk 22:24-27, Jn 17:11, 20-23, 1Co 1:10, 10:17, Ep 2:19-20, 4:13-17, Phlp 2:1-2, 1Pe 5:1-3). 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. In a large congregation, the pastor necessarily functions more like the CEO of a corporation.
- The first century church turned their world upside down (Ac 17:6), and they did so using the New Testament house church model. House churches are low cost, generally lay led, 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).
- The New Testament urges the generous support of missionaries, evangelists, qualified elders, and the poor (1Co 9, 1 Ti 5:17-18, 3 Jn 5-8). Which group of believers would better be able to fund church planters and assist the poor, a thousand believers organized in a single traditional church that meets in their own church sanctuary, complete with a Sunday School complex and family life center (gym), or a thousand believers networked together in cooperating house churches? Surveys of Protestant congregations in America reveal that on average 80% of church revenues goes toward buildings, staff and internal programs; 20% goes to outreach. In house church networks, those percentages are easily reversed. Being freed from the burden of constructing church buildings and their resulting expenses would also allow greater sums of money to go toward the support of church workers and the needy.
- Since they met almost exclusively in private homes, the typical congregation of the apostolic era was small. No specific number is ever given in Scripture, but there were generally no more people than will fit comfortably into the average living-room. The pattern is for smaller, rather than larger, churches. Robert Banks, in Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting, states that during the first century, “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” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, p. 41-42).
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. God intended the typical church to be living room sized. The letters which were written to the various New Testament churches were in fact 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 well in such a setting. 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).
Steve resides in north Georgia with his wife, Sandra, and their three home-schooled children. Steve graduated from Georgia Tech and worked in industrial electronics before heading off to seminary. After receiving a Master of Divinity degree from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, served on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church. 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 travels and teach as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at the home church he helped start in 1990, is president of the NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, is author of both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to Ekklesia: To The Roots of Biblical House Church Life.