The birthing of house churches was a natural development of the early church’s theology and missionary methodology. The “seed” of theology and the “seed” of missiology united to produce the house church.
These house churches, usually consisting of about forty to fifty people, (See: John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985:61, 65) were planted by Paul and others in important cities located along the trade route. (See: Oetting 24; Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977:63; Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, trans. John Bowden. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1978:117-18.) In some of the larger cities a number of house churches were planted. For example, if we look at Romans 16, we see there were at least five separate house churches—the ones which met in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (v. 5), Aristobulus (v. 10), and Narcissus (v. 11), along with the two house churches which were greeted in verses 14 and 15. (See: Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in their Historical Setting. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980:39)
The house churches were sacramental communities. They were not primarily prayer meetings although liturgical prayer borrowed from Judaism and “free” prayer were a very important aspect of their community life. House churches were not a church within a parish church (i.e., like a cell group of a larger congregation). The house church was the whole church in microcosm.
Christians usually gathered on the first day of the week for catechesis (See: Meeks 81-84; Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962:81ff.), that is, instruction in the teachings of the prophets, the stories and teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the apostles, if the autograph or copy of an autograph, were available. A simple liturgical order which varied from area to area in the first century would have been used in house church worship. (See Ferdinand Hahn, The Worship of the Early Church, trans. David E. Green. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1973:2; Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship. Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall Press, 1953:27, 32) They would also meet for the agape meal. The high point of the worshipping community was the reception of the Lord’s Supper. (See: James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship. Nashville, TS: Abingdon Press, 1993:24ff.; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978:196-99.) Baptism was also practised at the house church. As time passed there was a progressive standardisation of the worship service as evidenced by the common catechism and common liturgy in the Didache. (See: Oetting 27; Ralph Martin, The Worship of God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982:190; Glenn E. Hinson, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1981:34-35.)
The house church was where “hospitality evangelisation”, as Mortimer Arias (calls it), took place. (See: Mortimer Arias, “Centripetal Mission or Evangelization by Hospitality”, Missiology: An International Review 10. 1 Jan. 1982:69-81) Hospitality was a distinctive mark of Christians and Christian communities. They opened their doors to strangers (Romans 12:13) and to each other (I Peter 4:9). The house churches served as a “bed and breakfast” for the itinerant missionaries and for other travelling Christians as they supplied food, lodging, money, and other aids. The house church provided an “equalling” environment where the rich and the poor; the slave and the free man could rub shoulders and accept each other as equals. The house church provided a family atmosphere where people were treated with honour and respect. It offered incorporation into a family, a place for permanent belonging, a supportive circle of brothers and sisters. (See: Elliott, A Home for the Homeless 199, 285ff.) As time passed, and house churches were planted throughout the Roman Empire, an effective network of communication spread all over the Empire due to modest means of Christian hospitality. (See: F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953:46, 75; Allen 134-35.) “Hospitality evangelisation” cannot be underestimated when discussing the expansion of the early Christian church.
The house church was a mission-sending centre. Christians came to the house church to receive God’s grace and mercy, to praise and thank God for their salvation, to hear the stories of Jesus, to study the Word of God, to receive the Body and Blood of their Lord for the forgiveness of sins, to pray for each other and the lost, and to participate in “hospitality evangelisation”. As a result of their house church worship and catechesis they would be prepared “to give the reason for the hope” (I Peter 3:15) they had—to their immediate family, their friends, their slaves, their masters, and their business acquaintances. (See W. H. C. Frend, “The Missions of the Early Church 180-700 A. D.”, in Everett Ferguson, ed., Missions and Regional Characteristics of the Early Church, Studies in Early Christianity XII. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993: 3-5, 7.)
The spread of Christianity was done so quietly and through such “normal channels”—the household and itinerant missionaries—that Walter Oetting writes:
By the year 250 Christianity had spread to the limits of the known world. We hear legends about it in England but know little more. We hear about it in areas to the east of Armenia, even in India and China, but know almost nothing about it. Two facts, however, become clear. First, the church spread rapidly over a geographical area increasing phenomenally in numbers at the same time. Second, this work was done by ordinary Christians. We know of no mission societies; we hear nothing of organized effort. Wherever Christians went doing their regular tasks, the pagan saw a different kind of individual and heard rumors about “the Savior.” (Oetting 23-24)
The house church was the progeny of a theological and missiological union and through this “ordinary child” God worked to multiply His family, literally, from house to house (Acts 20:20).
Note: This paper was first presented at a Mission Convocation held at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, on 23 February 1994. It was published in the Lutheran Theological Review IX (Academic Year 1996-97) 25-31.