It is universally agreed on that the early church primarily met in homes. The first church building that we know of, which was a house converted solely for the use of the assembled church, didn’t come along for 200 years (see Dura-Europos below). Here are some of the verses we have as evidence of their meeting places,
Acts 2:46 – “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,”
- Meetings were daily and the gatherings took place in their homes and at the temple. Remember, these first Christians were Jewish and we still see at times that they had connection with the temple (Acts 3:1, Acts 21:20-26 – see esp vs 26). Breaking bread here certainly means eating together. It can also be a reference to the Lord’s Supper.
Acts 5:42 – “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
- Again we see the early church meeting together on a daily basis in both the temple and in homes.
Acts 2:2 – “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”
- This isn’t the “church” proper meeting as the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet come but it does show the disciples awaiting the Holy Spirit “in house.”
Acts 8:3 – “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
- This isn’t a worship/congregational context but it reminds us once again of the connection between church and homes.
Acts 12:12 – “When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.“
Romans 16:3-5 – “ Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.“
- Again we see the church doesn’t meet in an official building, solely designated for the Christian assembly. They met in homes for worship.
1 Cor 16:19 – “The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.”
- Priscilla and Aquila had a church that met in their home both in Rome and in Ephesus! One does wonder if this has anything to do with them bringing Apollos into their home for instruction or if that was a private 2-on-1 instruction (Acts 18:26). All we know is what we are told.
Col 4:15 – “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.”
- What is interesting is that whenever the owner of the households are mentioned ladies are mentioned in every instance except Philemon 1-2 where Philemon seems to be the only one mentioned (the “your” in Phil 2 is singular and seems to refer back to Philemon, not Apphia or Archippus…see below).
Philemon 1-2 – “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:“
Other meeting places
Acts 19:9 – “So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.“
Acts 20:7-8 – “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.“
Implications for church’s association with the home:
In just a moment I will talk a bit about the advent of church buildings but for now let’s discuss a few implications of churches that met in private, occupied homes. This reminds us that the setting of the early church was very much a family setting. We see this in the household conversions in the New Testament (Acts 16:34, 18:8; Rom 16:10, 11; 1 Cor 1:16, 16:15). This is fitting with much of the NT language of the people of God being a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5), “God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17, Heb 3:6 & 10:21). It also shows us that the affect of false teaching had a direct impact on the whole household (Titus 1:11). This makes some sense out of the qualifications for elders, that they “manage his own family well…(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church? – 1 Tim 3:4-5 & Titus 1:7).
Mission and the home – The explosive growth of the early church was also directly tied to the ingenious, providential strategy of meeting in homes. If you convert the head of the household, not only do you convert the entire extended family but you also have a ready made meeting place. The prohibitive overhead of building temples and buildings was negated by this very organic practice. We see this in many effective international missions strategies today and the growth is staggering.
Notice in all of this Paul never refers to the building as the church. The building was someone’s house that they lived in throughout the week…not a protected sacred space that people were to tiptoe through as on holy ground. The implications of this are huge…your living space was the church and the church occupied your living space. How much differently would we see our homes if we used them as such on a regular basis? How would that impact our children? How would that advance our mission? Imagine seeing your congregation, not as a building at a particular intersection but as the conglomeration of all of the families that live in all of the neighborhoods throughout your community!
Household language in the New Testament
What is less obvious is how the frequently the NT writers employ household languages. The word for “house” in Greek is oikos. There are many words that are used in the Greek NT that are derived from that word. I am only going to get into a couple of them just to keep this brief.
Oikodeospoteo – “manage one’s household” – 1 Tim 5:14
Oikodespotes – “master of the house” – used throughout the Gospels (Mt 24:43, Mk 14:14, Lk 12:39, 22:11, etc)
Oikodomeo (verb) – “to build” – used throughout the Gospels (Lk 6:48, John 2:20, etc) and in verses like 1 Peter 2:5-7, Gal 2:18, 1 Cor 8:1, Acts 20:32, 1 Thess 5:11Rom 15:20 in a more symbolic sense of strengthening others.
Oikodeme (noun) – “build” – Rom 15:2, 1 Cor 14:26, Eph 4:29, 1 Cor 14:3-5 – as encouragement/something or someone who is built up.
Oikonomia – can mean training like in 1 Tim 1:4
Oikonomos – a steward or manager like you find in the parables of Jesus or in verses like 1 Cor 4:2, Gal 4:2 or even describing an elder as “God’s steward” (Titus 1:7)
As you can see this household language is used throughout the NT. I left out countless examples in compiling the list. These words were fitting because the church was in the home.
The advent of church buildings
The oldest known “church building” was excavated in Dura-Europos (in Iraq today) from around 250 AD complete with assembly hall and baptistry. The difference here is that before this time churches met in un-renovated houses were families still lived. It wasn’t until the 200s that houses were renovated for the sole purpose of the assembly. It wasn’t until 314, immediately following the Edict of Milan (where Constantine sided with the Christians) that official basilicas started. With the beginning of state sponsored Christianity and the removal of the assembly from the home became an institutionalizing of the church and the clergy/laity divide.
I believe that part of what will make the church vibrant again in the future is not the expansion of larger and larger buildings but of Christians who begin to see their home as an avenue for the Gospel into the community! That is where the real growth is going to take place. It won’t be about more and better ministries “at the building” but about people learning to be disciples right where they live.