There is another theological reason for the birthing of the house church. New Testament Christians thought of God as their “Father” and of each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Elliott observes:
In this kingdom/household, God is experienced as a merciful, generous, and forgiving “father” (Luke 2:49; 6:36; 9:36; 10:21-22; 11:1, 13; 12:30, 32; 22:29, 42; 32:34, 46; 24:49; Acts 1:4, 7; 2:33). Jesus is recognized as “Son of God” (Luke 1:35; 3:22; 4:3, 9, 41; 8:28; 9:35; 10:22; 20:13; 22:70; Acts 8:37; 9:20; 13:53). In contrast to the “children of Jerusalem” (13:34), believers who hear and do Jesus’ words form his new family (8:19-21) and become the true “children” of the heavenly Father
(11:13; 24:49), “brothers and sisters”, one with another (Luke 6:41-42; 8:19-21; 17:3-4; 22:32; Acts 1:15-16; 2:29, 37; 6:3; 9:17, 30; 10:23; 11:1, 12, 29; 12:17; 14:2; 15:1, 3, 7, 12, 22-23, 32-33, 36, 40; 16:2, 40; 17:6, 10, 14; 18:18, 27; 21:7, 17, 20, 22; 22:13; 28:14, 15). (Elliott, “Temple versus Household” 228.)
With this familial understanding of God’s relationship with man through Jesus
Christ it was only appropriate the family of God should meet with their Father,
His Son, and the Paraclete in a Christian household.
With this brief explanation, one can see the paternal theological traits stamped on the embryonic development of the house church. But the theological “seed” was not the only thing that brought about the conception and development of the house church. There was also the missiological “seed” that contributed to its conception.
A survey of the Book of Acts will demonstrate that one of Paul’s missionary methods was to target the pater familias for conversion. Paul’s strategic plan to target the pater familias for conversion was a wise decision for a number of reasons:
1. The pater familias was the “emperor” of his household. His authority and decisions were absolute. Vincent Branick writes, “At the top of the pyramid was the paterfamilias, the family father or other ‘head of the house,’ whose power extended at times to that of the children’s life or death.” When we discuss the pater familias we must remember the oikos or oikia was not defined
[b]y kinship but by the relationship of dependence and subordination. The head of a substantial household was thus responsible for—and expected a degree of obedience from—not only his immediate family but also his slaves, former slaves who were now clients, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates or tenants. (Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983, 28-30)
2. A common household religion was the glue that bonded the family. Every Roman home had its own official house cult. In the Jewish world, at the time of the New Testament, the family was the primary place for transmission of the household faith.
3. The first-century Mediterraneans were not an individualistic-oriented people. They were more dyadic or group-oriented. Their basic unit of social analysis was not the individual person but the dyad, a person in relation with, and connected to, at least one other social unit. They were primarily of the group in which they found themselves inserted. Without this group they ceased to have an identity. Thus, the decision of one member would influence and affect the rest, especially if that decision was made by the pater familias.
4. The household was the foundation upon which the Roman Empire rested.
With these factors taken into consideration one can see why Paul and the other missionaries would try to convert the pater familias. The conversion of the pater familias would result in a “people movement” within that household. The conversion of domestic units meant households of Christians became the basic social/cultic centres, economic support systems, and practical means for the extension of the Christian movement.
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.
Next Monday: Characteristics of these early house churches.
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. The author is Dr. Glenn Schaeffer. For proper citation see the published article.