Toward A House Church Theology
by Steve Atkerson, Beresford Job
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. G.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.”1 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.”2 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).3 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 have been 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 communalism of Acts 4:32-36 reveals that many early converts owned lands and houses. 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 11:16, 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.
1. 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). (In fact, in China today, house church is called family church.) 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?
2. 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 (1Ti 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.
3. Early church meetings were clearly participatory (1Co 14, Heb 10:24-25, Ep 5:19-20, Col 3:16). Any brother could contribute 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. The first century church turned their world upside down (Ac 17:6), and they did so using the New Testament house church. 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).
7. 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.
8. 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. Regarding the size of first century homes, Fuller seminary professor Robert Banks, wrote that “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.”4
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 Atkerson
Why do we keep insisting that churches ought normally to meet in people’s houses? Won’t anywhere else do? A lot of churches that practice in the way we advocate meet in Christian book shops and coffee shops that have a lounge area just like in someone’s private house; what’s wrong with that? Well, I suppose that in some parts of the world Eskimos might meet in igloos and Red Indians in teepees; and of course on a nice day (and we even get them occasionally here in England too) what possible objection could there be to meeting in the garden (that’s the ‘yard’ to my American readers) or in a field somewhere? And to the above I have no objections whatsoever, but merely wish to bring us back to the essential point that the format for church gatherings in the New Testament kept each individual church small in numbers, and was therefore simply perfectly suited to everything occurring in people’s home. What more, after all, does a biblically based church need for its gatherings than the homes of those who are part of it? And when it comes to biblical churches meeting in lounge areas of book shops and coffee shops – or indeed, in any other public building – there is actually a big problem that will (hopefully) have to eventually be faced, but of which some seem to be completely unaware.
Now it is certainly true that a church could meet in a public building of some kind and still remain small enough in number to function as scripture teaches; and if such a building can be arranged with a nice cozy lounge area and made to feel “like home,” then all the better. Indeed, assuming there are kitchen facilities then there isn’t even a problem regarding sharing the love-feast together. But there is a problem to be faced, and a big one too, and it is simply this: A first-generation biblical church may well be able to come together and meet in such a way without any problem – but what of the situation once growth occurs and other churches need to come into being from it? (I am assuming that, being biblically based, this imagined church does indeed want to grow numerically, as the Lord enables, and not just remain the same personnel its whole life.) So, do you see the problem? That church can’t just keep getting numerically bigger (even though larger numbers can easily be accommodated by virtue of the fact of it meeting in a public building) because it could then no longer function in the way the New Testament teaches that it should, and another church needs to come into existence. And here is the point: Where will that church meet?
Now there may, of course, be an abundant supply of Christian coffee houses and book shops round about with nice lounge and kitchen areas, and so I guess new churches could just go and hire them out; but I still think that an important question remains: Why not just meet in each others houses? I mean, what is the problem with simply doing that? It is, after all, what every church in scripture did. (Every time individual churches are given a location in the New Testament it is always, and without fail, in someone’s home.) So why, oh why, would you want to be different? Why be a church that is biblically based in every other respect, having bought into the notion that we should do things just like they did back then, and then break ranks over this?
Could it possibly be (though surely not) that behind this is a feeling that opening our homes to each other is a bit too inconvenient? Too close for comfort, even? The apostles of Jesus taught believers to open their homes to each other and to actually have their church gatherings in each others homes. After all, am I truly known as I should be if my home-life isn’t wide open to those with whom I have fellowship? Can people know me properly, truly and deeply, if they don’t regularly see my home life and family life and have it shared with them? Are we really to believe that meeting in homes was a purely incidental aspect of the blueprint for church life we find in scripture, or is it as significant and important as the other aspects such as open, participatory gatherings, having the Lord’s Supper as a full meal and practicing biblical leadership and consensual church government? I put it to you that the burden of proof very much lies with those who seem to think it unimportant!
However, let me say too that where homes are literally too small to have more than three or four people visiting at any one time (Tokyo, perhaps?), then by all means make other appropriate provision. The irony is that in the very place where this trend is particularly prevalent, America, homes are very definitely on the large size. (At least they are by our standards here in England where, incidentally, at our church we pack each other into our homes, come what may, even though it means that in some of them, mine included, you can’t even see the carpet any more.)
So if you are a biblical church meeting in a coffee house somewhere then fine; that sure is better than being an unbiblical church meeting in someone’s home. However, do take on board the simple fact that, should you grow and become too large numerically to remain one church any longer (and as I have already indicated, you should most certainly desire for such to be the case), then how ridiculous to be trying to find more and more Christian coffee houses and the like to rent rather than just locating each church’s gatherings in the homes of those who are part of them. How ridiculous as well to end up with a new church gathering in people’s homes, whilst the original one continues to meet in the coffee house, or book shop, or public hall, or whatever.
Which ever way you look at it, it seems quite illogical to not just do things the way the New Testament churches, under the direction of the apostles, did them. A church can indeed meet in a public building and yet remain truly biblical in every other way as far as practice is concerned. Yet the question remains: When it is quite feasible, all things being equal, to meet in each others homes, and given that this was the universal practice of the New Testament churches as taught and directed by the apostles of Jesus, then why on earth would any otherwise biblical church want to decide not to do likewise?
— Beresford Job
How can a church keep from wearing out the host family and their home? New Testament writings indicate that the same couple hosted the church every week. This was probably due to the fact that larger homes, needed to host scores of people, were in short supply. Some people really do have the gift of hospitality and won’t mind hosting the church every week, but admittedly this can be quite taxing. This is especially a problem if one spouse is out of tune with the other. Typically, the tuned-out spouse (usually a man) will be clueless to the miseries that the other one (usually the wife) is suffering in hosting the church weekly. Church members could come over to help clean up both before and after the meeting. Another alternative is for the meeting location to be rotated on a weekly basis, with all who have suitable dwellings sharing the load. It is good for others to learn hospitality! Further, each home could have its own house rules, such as: please take off your shoes when entering the house, no children jumping on the furniture, no eating in the living room, etc.
What if the homes are tiny and just too small for a meeting? This can be a real problem. One alternative is to add on to a home to make the meeting room bigger, or knock out a wall, or remove much of the furniture from the church meeting room, or close in a garage. If all else fails, renting an apartment clubhouse or some similar arrangement can work, as long as the objective is not to hold more people than could fit into a moderately well-to-do home. The typical first century house church was composed of scores of people, not hundreds of people.
How can we keep the neighbors from complaining about the cars? Rotate the church meeting from week to week between different homes, park only on one side of the street, be sure to fill up the drive way to get as many cars as possible off the street, park at a nearby school or closed store, etc. Remember too that the idea is to start a new church after the existing church starts to get crowded. There should not be all that many cars pulling up to park.
What type of property damage can hosting the church cause? Spilled drinks, food dropped on upholstery, crayon markings on the floor and table cloth, tracked in mud, etc. During one home church meeting a teenage girl ran through a closed sliding glass door. Be mentally and (medically) prepared for accidents.
How would you handle a situation where visitor’s children, or the children of a newly attending couple, are not well behaved? Some couples’ standards of acceptable social behavior are vastly different from others’ standards. It may shock and amaze you at how indifferent some parents are to the destructive actions of their children. In such cases you must calmly, politely, and directly ask them to control their children. (And, expect them to be offended no matter how tactfully you approach them!). Doubtless, they will not have a good idea on how to control their children, so be prepared to help them with child training. Have a good supply of child training books on hand that you can give out.
Home meetings are not easier, but they are the New Testament way.
— Steve Atkerson