Initially, Jewish Christians worshipped in homes, in the temple, and synagogue (Acts 2:46-47; 3:1; 5:12, 21). As the Holy Spirit added converts to the household of God it became increasingly difficult for all the believers in the city to meet in one house. As the church experienced persecution it became impossible to worship in the temple or synagogues (Acts 8:1; 14:1-20). Despite popular sentiment, the catacombs did not serve as regular meeting places for Roman Christians. The chambers were too small and could only hold a handful of mourners. The stench deterred worship in the catacombs (Jeffers 1991, 48-50; Oetting, 1964). God’s people chose instead to worship in members’ homes.
Scholars propose a number of reasons for Christians worshipping in homes. Davies suggests there were three reasons why the church took so long to erect Christian places of worship: poverty, paucity (small numbers) and persecution (Davies 1968, 1-9). Grant offers that Christians were slow to build a place of worship because: 1. They expected Christ to return at any moment. 2. They lacked funds. 3. They had an uncertain legal status. 4. They desired to spend what money they had on practical charity (Grant 1977, 146). Quoting H. L. Ellison, Castillo gives five reasons for the use of house churches by early Christians: 1. Christians were shut out of synagogues. 2. They were able to avoid the attention of angry leaders. 3. When a group grew too large for one house they were better able to divide into a number of house churches. 4. At times of suffering and attack it was much safer for the Christian community when their enemies entered and raided only one house. 5. Church buildings were unknown until A. D. 222-235. (Castillo 1982, 53-54; see also: Branick 1989, 14; Shepherd 1963, 141-142)
Since the house church (domus ecclesiae) was held in a regular house there was no difference in its outward appearance from any other home. This fact is confirmed by archaeological evidence such as the Dura-Europos (Salhiyeh), which is dated around 230 A.D. (White 1990, 97-99; Jungmann 1959, 15-16; Davies 1953, 20; Krautheimer 1965, 7; Filson 1939, 107-108; Schaefer 1983, 39-41; Griffen 1987, 35-36; Allen 1973, 23-25). The present church of St. Clement in Rome is built upon the ruins of an earlier church and under the ruins of that house are ruins of a house from the first century. Many Protestant scholars share the traditional view of the Roman Catholics that this is the first century house of Clement of Rome (Filson 1939, 107; Petersen 1969, 264-272; Jungmann 1959, 13-14; Schaefer 1983, 41-42). Jeffers maintained in his discussion of the excavations under San Clemente, that the warehouse was used as a place for Christian worship. The warehouse had an inner courtyard which could have accommodated several hundred worshipers. According to Jeffers it was unlikely gatherings got to this size in the first two centuries but the Christians might have met in one of the perimeter rooms in inclement weather (Jeffers 1991, 80ff.)
See Jeffers 1991, 63-89 for a thorough treatment of the findings under San Clemente.
NOTE: Monday’s postings are reviewing the rise and decline of the house church during the first 300 years of the Christian church. This review began a couple weeks ago and will continue for a couple more weeks.