High Context Personalities and the Pater Familias

Note: Over the next number of Mondays, I am posting portions of my doctoral dissertation which I wrote in 1995 and 1996. Much of the material is still relevant for the missio Dei today.  The focus of my dissertation was the house church and its relevance for starting churches in the Greater Toronto Area.  The subject of the house church is presented from a theological, exegetical, historical, missiological and social science perspective.  Unfortunately, I am not able to provide complete footnotes which means you will need to do a little work to hunt down the sources.  Of course, if you contact me, I can provide you with the information.

St. Paul and other Christian missionaries capitalized on the dyadic nature[1] of the oiko [2] in the Mediterranean world.  The cities of the Graeco-Roman world were a conglomeration of families (oikos).  Since the oikos was the basic social unit in Graeco-Roman society[3] the household became the means through which evangelization occurred.

A common evangelistic strategy of Peter and Paul was to convert the pater familias.[4]  Peter, Paul, and other itinerant missionaries knew that if the pater familias was converted to faith in Christ then most of the other people in the oikos would seriously consider the Christian message because of the dyadic nature of society and the authority, respect, and obedience owed to the pater familias.[5]  Such was the case with Cornelius’ oikos in Acts 10.  When Peter proclaimed the Gospel, Cornelius had assembled his relatives and close friends (24).  Some of Cornelius’ oikos might have come out of respect for Cornelius as the pater familias.  They had also come to hear the Lord’s word (33).  As Peter proclaimed God’s Gospel the Holy Spirit converted all who heard the message (44).  In Acts 16 Lydia[6] gathered her household (ho oikos, 15) together so they might hear the Good News.  Many in her oikos came to faith in Christ.  In that same chapter (16:31-34), the jailer and his family (en ta oikia autou, 32) heard the Word and were baptized in Christ’s name (33-34).   In Acts 18, Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household (holo to oiko autou, 8) heard Paul preach and believed in Christ.  1 Corinthians 1:14-16, mentioned Paul baptized the households of Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas.[7]   These people movements[8] reveal an important missiological point:  the Holy Spirit used conventional social structures in the Graeco-Roman world (i.e. the dyadic oikos and the pater familias) to gather people together and convert them to faith in Christ through the proclamation of the Word and baptism.[9]


[1]Bruce Malina has done extensive work in analyzing the anthropological and sociological conditions of the New Testament period and contrasting them with conditions in the United States.  Malina (82-86) has produced a Table (Appendix A) that contrasts US Persons (low context oriented) with Ancient Mediterranean Persons (high context oriented).

Malina’s Table is helpful in identifying some of the factors that made the house church
an appropriate church planting model in the first century.  Some of the factors Malina highlights are: 1.  the group-orientedness of society (dyadic personalities), 2. the patriarchal authority (pater familias) in the oikos 3.  the interrelationship between religion, family, and home, and 4.  the intense social stratification.

Canadian persons are different from US persons but the differences are insignificant enough to warrant using Malina’s model to describe Canadian persons.

[2]O.R. Sellers (657) states oikos/oikia is a word used some two thousand times throughout the Bible referring to an abode, varying from the simplest home of a peasant to the palace (house of the king) and the temple (house of God).  See also Elliott

Oikia usually indicates a building but can also mean “inhabitants of a house” –(Mt 12:25; Mk 3:25; Jn 4:53; 1Cor 16:15; Phil 4:22) or “human body.” (2Cor 5:1)  Oikos can refer to a building (Matt 9:6-7); to its inhabitants (Lk 19:9; Acts 11:14); to descendants (Mt 10:6; Lk 1:33); or to the temple (Mt 12:4, 13; Mk 2:26; 11:17; Lk 6:4; 11:51; 19:46; Jn 2:16-17; Acts 2:47, 49 (Russell 1987, 453-455).  In the Old and New Testament “house of Jacob;” “house of Israel” or the “house of Judah” (Mt 10:6; 15:24; Acts 2:36; Heb 8:8 citing Jer 31:31; Lk 1:33; Acts 7:42-43 citing Am 5:25-27) are linked with the metaphorical sense of house,
family, or race which they extend in the direction of the people of God.  Goetzmann (247) observes that when used with God’s name, oikos, as in secular Greek, means the temple, the sanctuary: oikos theou (house of God) or oikos kyriou (house of the Lord) — see Ps 23:6; 26:8; 27:4; 52:8[10]; 84:4, 10[5, 11]; 92:13[14]; 122:1).  The Christian community of the New Testament is referred to as the “house of God.”  This concept is an integral part of the Christian kerygma.  Michel (126-127) argues that the idea that the community is God’s house grows out of the early proclamation that the community is God’s temple (1Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:19-22; 1Pet 2:3ff.; 4:17; and 1Tim 3:16).  The oikos pneumatikos is contrasted with the temple in Jerusalem and the sanctuaries of paganism in the New Testament.  Christ is the “living stone” (1Pet 2:4) and Christians are fitted into the building as “living stones.” (1Pet 2:4ff.; Eph 2:22)

Goetzmann (249) says Heb 3:1-6 pictures the Christian community as God’s house.  He further observes that a similar reality is pictured in Eph 2:19-22 where no less than six different derivatives of oikos are used to describe the spiritual reality of the community under the metaphor of the temple and of the building.  The six derivatives are paroikos (19), oikeios (19, cf. Gal 6:10; epoikodomeo 20, cf. 1Cor 3:10, 12, 14; 1Pet 2:5; Acts 20:32;
Col 2:7; Jude 20), oikodome (21, cf. 4:12, 16, 29), synoikodomo (22), katoiketerion (22, cf. Jer 9:10; Rev 18:2).

[3]Tidball 79-80; Judge 30-32; Banks 1980:15; Branick 20-21; Jeffers 121.

[4]Acts 2:39; 10:24-48; 16:11-15; 16-34; 21:5.  See Meeks 28-30; Tidball 84-85; Judge 36; Birkey 1988:93-94; Hardy 184; Castillo 113-115; Kyrtatas 134-135; Martin 10; Branick 18-20; Elliott 1981: 188-189; Elliott 1991a: 226.

[5]Not every member of a household became a Christian when the pater familias was converted. Philemon was a wealthy man who became a believer who allowed his home to
be a house church (2).  Onesimus, one of Philemon’s servants rejected the Christian faith until he met Paul in prison (10-11).  Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back – not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord (15-16) (Branick 22).

[6]Blue (184-186) suggests Lydia was either divorced and living in her own house, a married woman who owned the principal house or a widow who was living in her own house or living in a house bequeathed to her or she was a freedwoman in the imperial household.

[7]See Blue (172-177) for his discussion of the pater familias in Corinth.  Prosopographic evidence suggests there were a considerable number of influential homeowners in Corinth
but this is not to suggest the majority of the believers in Corinth were wealthy.

[8]This term is used by Donald McGavran (1990) to mean “multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversions.” (1990:227)

[9]Blue says Paul converted home owners who were “capable of benefaction, including a house which was used as the alternate venue in which the Christian assembled.” (152)

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