Response to the House-Church Movement: Part One
Written by Keith Throop
Does the Bible require that churches meet strictly in houses rather than in other kinds of buildings?
Many advocates of the House-Church Movement answer this question in the affirmative. For example, a paper posted at the House-Church.org website states the following after discussing a number of Biblical passages that indicate where Christians met in the first century:
There you have just about all the verses in the New Testament which relate to where churches were located when believers met together; and it’s patently obvious that they met in houses. Neither is it the case that there are other verses to which I haven’t referred which might indicate that churches sometimes didn’t meet in homes. Any such verses, as any biblical scholar will tell you (and we will see them doing just that in the next section), are completely absent from the text of the New Testament. No-one who knows their biblical stuff would challenge the simple fact that the apostles established churches to meet in the homes of those believers who were part of them, and there is not one word or hint in the New Testament that it was in any way envisaged that it would ever be any different.
Let us test these claims by examining the passages commonly cited by the House-Church Movement (HCM). I have gathered a list of such passages from two sources: 1) an article by Beresford Job entitled “The Apostles’ Traditions – The Heart of the Matter: Part 4 – What the Bible Says!” and 2) an article by Steve Atkerson entitled, “Were Persecution, Poverty, and Progression the Real Reasons for First Century House Churches?.” In addition, I will introduce a few passages that indicate – contra the claims of HCM advocates – that churches at times met in public buildings rather than in homes. All the texts I have cited are from the New King James Version.
Acts 2:46-47 “46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
In commenting on this passage, Beresford Job has this to say:
Here we see that in the very beginning they gathered in each others homes and the temple courts…. From this point the temple gatherings fade from view completely as the church spread outside of Jerusalem and eventually to the Gentiles. The temple was then a complete irrelevance (being eventually destroyed, of course, in AD 70), and we are left with the simple fact that whenever churches are located in scripture they are always, without exception, in people’s homes.
Job obviously agrees that in the earliest days the church did not see meeting in homes as a requirement, since he agrees that they “gathered in the temple courts” as well. He would no doubt also agree that this was the case a bit later, when we are told that “daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). But if this point is admitted, I fail to see how it can be argued that the Apostles saw meeting in homes as somehow essential to proper church order. After all, if it was regarded as so essential by the Apostles, wouldn’t it have been essential in the beginning days of the church as well? And if not, why not?
At any rate, Job’s real argument appears to be that – although not so at the beginning – the churches are thereafter “always, without exception, in people’s homes.” This is his whole argument in a nutshell, and I will respond to it in what follows in a couple of ways.
First, I will continue discussing the passages cited by the House Church Movement in order to show that some of them do, in fact, describe the churches as meeting in homes. But we will also find that none of these passages either expressly commands or necessarily implies that churches must meet in homes. In short, we will find that these passages are descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Second, in the process of assessing the HCM proof-texts I will challenge the notion that the rest of the New Testament demonstrates that churches “always, without exception” met in people’s homes.
Acts 8:3 “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.”
I have to admit being a bit surprised at the use of this passage by HCM advocates, since it doesn’t say that the churches were meeting in the homes when Paul dragged the people out. It just says that in his attack on the church he went into every house dragging off men and women and putting them into prison. But this may have been for no other reason than that these men and women lived in these houses. Of course, it is also possible that Paul found out about some churches that met in homes and that he went into these homes when they were meeting. The passage just doesn’t say that, nor does it necessarily imply that the churches wherever Paul went were meeting only in homes.
Acts 16:40 “So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.”
Atkerson cites this verse as one that shows that “the original church held its meetings primarily in private homes.” Of course Lydia’s home also happened to be where Paul and his companions had been staying (16:15), so it isn’t surprising that they would return there to rest before leaving the city. But the primary problem with Atkerson’s use of this verse is that it doesn’t say the church was meeting there. Supposing that this house is where Paul and Silas saw the brethren and encouraged them, it may be that they were meeting there as a church for worship, but it may also be that the brethren were stopping by and visiting them before they left town. Let us assume, however, that Atkerson is correct in seeing this text as describing a church meeting at Lydia’s house. The fact still remains that there is no indication from Luke that they did so because it was a requirement of some kind.
Acts 20:17-21 “17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them: ‘You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; 20 how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Atkerson cites this passage as another that shows that the early church met primarily in houses, but I can’t help but notice that Paul says in verse 20 that he taught the Ephesians both publicly and from house to house. So, he indicates that his ministry was not restricted to private teaching in homes, but was also public. But what might he be referring to when he contrasts his public teaching with teaching from house to house? A look at the earlier account of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus – in Acts 19:8-10 – may provide an answer:
8 And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning
and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were
hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he
departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of
Tyrannus. 10 And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia
heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
It is obvious that Paul’s ministry was conducted in Ephesus primarily not from any house(s) but from the school of Tyrannus, even though he later reminded them that he taught them from house to house as well. The text says that Paul was reasoning (dialégomai) daily at the school of Tyrannus, using a term that is used elsewhere to describe his evangelistic ministry in the synagogues (e.g. Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8) but also to describe his teaching ministry when the church met together (Acts 20:7, 9). Given that the ministry at the school of Tyrannus was directed to “the disciples,” we may conclude that it was a part of the public teaching to which Paul later referred in Acts 20:20. But this leads me to question how Atkerson can see this passage as indicating that the early church met primarily in houses without at the same time acknowledging that they sometimes met primarily in a public building such as the school of Tyrannus. After all, Paul’s and Luke’s description of his ministry in each case is the same. In other words, I do not see how one can argue from the example of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus that churches should meet in houses while ignoring equally strong evidence that they met “daily” in a public building as well. Now, I suppose that such a person could try to argue that the term daily (hēméra) here does not include Sunday gatherings, but that would be a truly incredible argument and would amount to nothing more than begging the question.
So, thus far we have not seen much in the way of clear evidence that the early church met exclusively in houses, let alone any indication that this was seen as some kind of requirement. However, there are some clearer passages that expressly refer to churches that met in homes, and I will list them here as a group:
Romans 16:3-5 “3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ.”
1 Corinthians 16:19 “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.”
Colossians 4:15 “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.”
Philemon 1:1-2 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house….”
We have in these passages some clear evidence that there were churches that met in houses, specifically in the house of Philemon, in the house of Nymphas, and in the house of Aquila and Priscilla. But what we still do not have is a clear indication that they met only in houses or that they saw meeting in houses as a requirement set forth by the Apostles. Again we have descriptive but not prescriptive passages. Steve Atkerson anticipates this objection, though, and responds to it in an article entitled “Interactive Meetings”:
In short, we believe that the patterns for church life evident in the New Testament are not merely descriptive, but are actually prescriptive (2Th 2:15 , 1Co 11:2). Thus, we believe in home-based and sized fellowships….
Lets take a look at the two texts Atkerson cites to support his thesis that the passages we have been examining are actually not just descriptive but are, in fact, prescriptive as well.
1 Corinthians 11:2 “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all
things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the
traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
Apparently Atkerson sees Paul’s reference to the “traditions” as including the practice of churches meeting in houses. In order to assess this argument, it behooves us first to understand what is meant by the term traditions. The Greek term in both cases is parádosis, which lexicons consistently define as does the Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament by Timothy and Barbara Friberg:
as an action handing down or over; in the NT in a passive sense, as teachings about ways of doing things that are handed down from generation to generation tradition (MT 15.2); as Christian doctrine handed down teaching, instruction, tradition (2 TH 2.15). (# 20561, BibleWorks)
Thus Paul clearly refers to the teaching of the Apostles that was to be handed down and followed. So, Atkerson must believe that the Apostles actually taught that the church should meet only in homes. The only way we could know that the Apostles taught such a thing, however, is if the Scriptures tell us that they did. But when we look at the various passages cited by HCM advocates we do not find any evidence at all that they did teach this. We only find evidence that there were some churches that met in homes, along with evidence that they initially also met in the temple courts and that later they also utilized a public building in Ephesus. So, when Atkerson cites these verses to defend the assertion that the Biblical passages that refer to churches meeting in houses are not “merely descriptive, but are actually prescriptive,” he is begging the question. He is assuming the very thing that needs to be proved, namely that the Apostles did, in fact, teach that churches should meet in houses and that this teaching was thus a part of the tradition. But enough of this; the point is made. Lets take a look at another passage cited by Beresford Job:
James 2:1-4 “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly [sunagōgē] a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Job argues that this passage refers clearly to a church that met in a house:
James is quite clearly referring here to when they met as a church, and what he says only makes sense if they were doing so in a home as opposed to a public building. What is at a premium here is space, or otherwise why would the poor brother be required either to sit on the floor or to stand? He could have just been shuffled out of the way to a seat somewhere in the back row!
Actually, the term James uses to describe the assembly is sunagōgē, a word which can refer either to a gathering of people or to the building in which this gathering takes place. Commentators are divided as to the exact meaning of the term in this context. It is possible that it refers to a church that met in a synagogue, in which case we have here more evidence of a church meeting in a public building. On the other hand, it probably simply refers to the gathering of the people themselves. But in this case is Job right when he asserts that what James says only makes sense if they were meeting in a home as opposed to a public building? I don’t think so. Even if one agrees that the passage assumes that there was limited room to sit, there is no reason to conclude that they must have been meeting in a house. It could just be that they were using a smaller public building or perhaps that they were using a large building but that the church had grown so large as to make space limited. Haven’t many of us seen a church service in which there was “standing room only”?
Well, that covers the passages commonly cited by various advocates of the House-Church Movement. Along the way, I have addressed the problem of citing descriptive passages as though they are prescriptive when the Scriptures do not justify this. I have also highlighted the fact that the early church must not have seen meeting in homes as an essential thing, since there is also evidence that they met in the temple courts (at least for a while) and even made use of a public building such as the school of Tyrannus. But I would like to discuss just a bit more Scriptural evidence from 1 Corinthians before ending:
1 Corinthians 11:20-22, 34 “20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? 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 do not praise you. …. 34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.
1 Corinthians 14:23 “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”
1 Corinthians 14:35 “And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”
Notice that the the members of the church at Corinth all came together to one place for their Sunday gathering (11:20; 14:23; see also 16:2) and that they were gathering to partake of the Lord’s Supper and to worship God and edify one another, so this was clearly the regular Sunday gathering. This one place was apparently not one of their homes, however, because Paul assumes that he can address all of them as not being at home. Notice that he doesn’t ask the Corinthians, “Don’t you have your own houses [as opposed to the house where they were meeting] to eat and drink in?” Rather he simply asks them, “Do you not have houses [as opposed to where you are when meeting together] to eat and drink in?” Likewise he assumes that the women who need to ask their husbands questions are not at home, and he contrasts their being at home with being “in church.” He assumes throughout the passage that he can address them all as though they are not in their houses. This is a very strange way to speak if they were all meeting in one of their homes. Also, since the whole church at Corinth came together to this one place, and this was a place where unbelievers might easily come in (14:24), it is more likely that it would have been a fairly large, public building.
Well, that is about all I have time for now. I will finish by saying that I am not at all bothered if there are churches that prefer to meet in houses. But neither am I bothered in the slightest if they should choose to meet in some other kind of building. I am only troubled by the tendency of some among the House-Church Movement who try to say that meeting in houses was what the Apostles taught and therefore is essential to proper church order today. In my opinion, there is no credible case to be made for such a position.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, in which I will respond to the argument for fully participatory worship, in which no one leads but each contributes in a spontaneous manner.