The Early Church 1st & 2nd Century
Organized Church in Buildings OR Multiple House groups making up the “church” the body of believers.
Early on, Christians ( mostly converted Jews ) gathered at the temple and at synagogues. But as Christianity began to separate from Judaism, believers gathered exclusively in homes. Or more specifically, they gathered in the homes of rich Christians who had houses large enough to host a gathering of 10-50 people (the size of most churches in the 1st century).
We see such gatherings throughout the New Testament.
In Acts, houses quickly become the primary location for Christian gatherings.
Act 1:13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.
Act 2:2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
Act 12:12 And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.
Paul addressed at least 5 different house churches in Romans 16. Three by name.
Rom 16:5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.
Rom 16:10 Salute Apelles approved in Christ. Salute them which are of Aristobulus' household.
Rom 16:11 Salute Herodion my kinsman. Greet them that be of the household of Narcissus, which are in the Lord.
Corinth had a few house churches, though on occasion they all gathered at the house of Gaius, who must have had a rather large home
Rom 16:23 Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you. Erastus the chamberlain of the city saluteth you, and Quartus a brother.
In the first century believers didn’t gather at church buildings as far as we can tell; they gathered in homes. House churches are therefore biblical in as much as this is where believers gathered for worship in the early days of Christianity. There is a verse in the New Testament,
Acts 19:9: “But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus”. However this does not suggest that the school of Tyrannus was a meeting place.
Why did they meet in the homes of rich Christians?
Buildings were expensive and in some cities like Rome it would have been extremely difficult to afford to build a building or to purchase an existing one, plus, the gatherings were relatively small. Most fellowships were 10-20 people, 50 at the most. Why spend loads of money for a building when we could just meet over at Gaius’ house?
When did the church start meeting in buildings? Some people think that believers met in homes for the next 300 years until Constantine professed Christianity (AD 313) and introduced all sorts of paganism into Christianity including organised services and elaborate buildings. This eventually developed into the Roman Catholic Church. While there may be truth to this, it’s only a grain.
There is evidence of a church building that dates back to AD 240 (80 years before Constantine) at Dura-Europos in Syria, but this is still 240 years after the birth of the church.
Dura Europus Church Syria
However, we have to distinguish between what is described and what is prescribed. The New Testament never prescribes (i.e. commands) that believers meet in homes as opposed to meeting in a building. It simply describes that this is what they did in the first-century.
The Gospel spreads through Houses
After the Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples formed house churches, modelling the strategy of Jesus when he sent his own followers into homes.
Luk 9:4 And whatsoever house ye enter into, there abide, and thence depart.
Mat 10:12 And when ye come into an house, salute it.
Mat 10:13 And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.
Mat 10:14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
House-based ministry was so common that throughout the book of Acts, every mention of a local church or church meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is a reference to a church meeting in a home.
Communicating information was another essential activity in the early house churches. News from visitors, letters that were passed from one city to another (e.g., Paul's letters, 2 and 3 John), warnings of persecution, and accounts of actual persecutions were all shared through the house churches. They also served as centres of social services for those members who were in need. Young widows and the poor looked to the house churches as a means of support.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a picture closely resembling any of the fully developed systems of today.
Church government was not very highly developed, and local congregations were rather loosely knit groups.
House churches in the New Testament existed side-by-side with other house churches. Individual believers and house churches considered themselves part of a greater citywide church. Church ministry was fluid and dynamic. Members were encouraged to experience their spiritual gifts for the common good of the body, and leaders operated as gifted men and women, (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 27-28). This led to many opportunities for ordinary people to develop into leaders.
Acts 2:42, 46 And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. …
46 And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.
At the time of the letters to Churches (Revelation ), organised churches ( buildings ) were not the norm. These letters were sent to “the church” greek ekklēsía – those called out, from ( believers that resided in the city.) The letters would have been circulated around the various house groups in the city, to be read to the “church” and passed on to the surrounding areas.