Are House Churches Biblical?

Preston Sprinkle —  February 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

I’ve never been a member of a house church, but a big part of me would like to be. I love the idea of a stripped down, no bells and whistles, authentic gathering of believers making house church 2disciples and living on mission together. And I’m sympathetic with the house church movement that’s gaining traction in recent years. But are house churches biblical?

Early on, Christians gathered at the temple and at synagogues. But as Christianity began to separate from Judaism, believers gathered in homes. Or more specifically, they gathered in the homes of rich Christians who had houses large enough to host a gathering of 20 or so people. We see such gatherings throughout the New Testament. In Acts, houses quickly become the primary location for Christian gatherings (1:13; 2:2, 46; 12:12). Paul addressed at least 5 different house churches in Romans 16. 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). In the first century believers didn’t gather at church buildings as far as we can tell; they gathering in homes. House churches are therefore biblical in as much as this is where believers gathered for worship.

But we have to distinguish between what is described and what is prescribed. Unless I’m house churchmissing something, 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 question is why? Why did believers meet in homes rather than buildings? There are usually two answers that are given.

1) They met in homes because this is where they “did life.” Well, not really. Whatever “doing life” meant for first-century believers, it didn’t happen in the homes. Most believers were crammed into a tiny 500-700 square foot flat with little or no ventilation, no running water, and no toilets other than a large pot in the corner. (Watch out below when it’s time to empty!) Most folks, in the cities at least, “did life” on the streets, in the market place, or at the shop. Homes weren’t very homey.

2) They met in homes because believers protested meeting in buildings. This is what some people think, but it’s historically not true. Early believers first met in synagogues, which were buildings designed for gatherings much like our contemporary churches. If Christians didn’t get kicked out of these buildings, they would have continued to meet there. The same goes for the temple, another building, although they moved away from there for more theological reasons.

So why did they meet in the homes of rich Christians? Because that was the only option. 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?

So, house churches in the first century weren’t reacting against the organization of the synagogue or the liturgy of the temple. And they certainly weren’t opposed to meeting in a building on principle. They met in homes because they didn’t have other real options.

dura

A reconstruction of the church at Dura-Europos

So when did the church start meeting in buildings? Some people think that believers met in homes for the next 300 years until Constantine got saved (AD 313) and introduced all sorts of paganism into Christianity—including organized services and elaborate buildings. While there may be a grain of truth to this, it’s only a grain. We have evidence of a church building that dates back to AD 240 (80 years before Constantine) at Dura-Europos in Syria. This church building had a sanctuary, a Sunday school room, and a separate baptistery. And there may have been many other buildings such as this one. This is simply the earliest one archaeologists have found.

So are house churches biblical? Sure. And again, I personally resonate with such small, authentic gatherings. But I don’t think they are any more biblical than buildings. And if believers gather in homes in reaction to the “organized” church that meets in buildings, not only is this wrong-headed—reactions are shaky foundations—it may be further from the original intention of first-century house churches.

Here’s the key point for all of us: Don’t make your church model your identity. Jesus is your identity. The type of structure where we gather and the model of service—or lack of service—should always be secondary. Nothing should compete with our claim that Jesus is supreme.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • http://www.beingfilled.com/ Chuck McKnight

    Preston, I quite agree—both that house churches are biblical and that they are not prescribed as being necessary. I have had the privilege to fellowship with believers in a number of different “models” of church gathering, and I have benefited from all of them (and hopefully I have been able to contribute as well).

    That said, it seems like most gatherings in a “church building” tend toward an audience-receivership mentality. When you have multiple rows all pointing toward a stage, it is very hard to allow the whole body of Christ to contribute to the one-anothering that is commanded when we gather. It’s not impossible—the Plymouth Brethren, for example, have developed an excellent model to encourage the participation of all believers present. But “church buildings” in general do tend make it harder to have true intimate fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.

    While I will not begrudge others whatever model they feel is best, I can personally attest to no sweeter fellowship, discipleship, and edification of the body than what is encouraged by gathering in homes.

    Now on that note, it’s not like there’s anything magical about meeting in a house either. A house church can end up acting no differently than a church building if the sole purpose of gathering is to listen to only one person preach.

    No matter the model, if our purpose in gathering is to honor Christ and actively participate in edifying one another, God will be pleased.

  • John Metz

    Hi Preston.
    It is interesting that the word ‘church’ is used only once in Romans 16 in reference to the believers in Rome. It is used in reference to the church in Cenchrea, in Greece, in verse 1 and to all the churches (plural) of the Gentiles in verse 4. Then, ‘church’ is used once in reference to the Roman believers in verse 5.

    Many individuals and groups of persons are mentioned in Paul’s wonderful greeting in this chapter. To interpret these as independent house churches is one way to look at them but it seems to be a way of applying today’s understanding of what constitutes church, or a house church, and today’s situation of the believers (the church of your choice) to the scripture, in this case to the real situation in Rome. Instead, should we not ask is what was the real organic situation of the believers in Rome? Did they see themselves as independent house churches or as a single church meeting in different homes of (as you say) wealthy persons with large rooms? There is a huge difference. It seems according to the wording of Romans 16 that Paul addressed them all once as the church and then as groups of believers, perhaps grouped by environmental conditions or familial relationships.

    • Preston

      John, that’s a great point! And yes, I agree. The local “church” refers to the believers in Rome, Corinth, or wherever, which gathered in various houses in that city. I don’t like the phrase “independent house churches.” I don’t think they were independent but interdependent. I went back to make sure I didn’t accidentally use that phrase in my blog!

      I wonder how much of this interdependence had to do with the small number of believers at this time. If there were, say, 100-200 believers in Corinth, maybe 1,000 in Rome, then there could more easily be a tight network among the house churches. But when the church grew to 10k or 20k in Rome and elsewhere, I wonder if the situation may have looked different. Pure speculation, but an interesting thought…

      • John Metz

        Thanks Preston,
        You didn’t use “independent house churches,” that was my interpolation based on today’s common understanding and practice, at least as I perceive it. Yes, interdependent is better but perhaps organically one would be even better.