St. Paul and other Christian missionaries capitalized on the role of the oikos in the Meditterranean world. Since the oikos was the basic social unit in Greco-Roman society the household became the means through which evangelization occurred.
The cities of the Greco-Roman world were a conglomeration of families (oikos/oikia). A common evangelistic strategy of Peter and Paul (Acts 2:39; 10:24-48; 16:11-15; 16:16-34; 21:5) was to convert the pater familias (Meeks 1983, 28-30; Tidball 1984, 84-85; Judge 1960, 36; Birkey 1991, 93-94; Hardy 1894, 184; Castillo 1982, 113-115; Kyrtatas 1987, 134-135; Martin 1980, 10; Branick 1989, 18-20; Elliott 1981, 188-189; Neyrey 1991, 226). Peter, Paul, and other itinerant missionaries knew that if the pater familias became a Christian most of the other people in the oikos/oikia would seriously consider the Christian message because of the authority, respect, and obedience owed to the pater familias. This is the case of Cornelius in Acts 10. Luke tells us that “he and his family were devout and God-fearing.” (10:2) When Peter arrived to proclaim the Gospel he found that Cornelius had assembled his relatives and close friends (24). Many of his relatives and friends came to hear Peter out of respect for Cornelius and the position he held as pater familias. They had come to hear the Lord’s word (33). As Peter spoke the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message (44). Let there be no mistake: the Holy Spirit used a conventional societal structure in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the oikos and the pater familias) in order to gather people together so that he might be able to convert them to faith in Christ through the proclamation of the Word. This same phenomenon occurs again and again in the early church. In Acts 16 Lydia is converted to faith in Jesus Christ after she hears the Word of God. It appears that this new convert to Christianity gathered her household together so that they might hear the Good News. In that same chapter (16:31-34) the jailer and his family (32) heard the Word of the Lord and were baptized in Christ’s name (33-34). In Acts 18, Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household (8) heard Paul preach God’s Word and believed in Christ. Crispus influenced his family to hear the gospel and many others became Christians (8). In 1 Corinthians 1:14-16, Paul mentions that he baptized the households of Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas. These people movements were possible because the Holy Spirit worked through the dyadic nature of the family and the influence of the pater familias over his oikos in the Mediterreanean society in order to gain a hearing of the Gospel. These house churches were cohesive since they were united in their faith in Jesus Christ. Many nominally pagan households became committed Christian homes.
Aside from the group cohesion that resulted from a common decision, the families themselves were transformed by Christ’s love. Marriages became images of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5). Husbands were commanded to love their wife as Christ loved the church (25-33; see also Col. 3:19). Wives were exhorted to obey their husbands out of respect for the Lord (23-24; Col. 3:18). Fathers were instructed to teach their children God’s redemptive story (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). Children were to honor their parents (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). Slaves were to obey their masters with fear and respect (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25). Masters were to treat their slaves in the same way that slaves were to treat them (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; see Philemon). The Spirit-filled household manifested such fruits as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness (Col. 3:12-13). We can only guess the magnetic appeal the Christian oikos had to those people who were members in a pagan household that knew nothing of Christ’s love and forgiveness.
Not every member of a household became a Christian when the pater familias was converted. A good example of this is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy man who has become a Christian and who allowed his home to be a house church (2). Onesimus, a servant in Philemon’s household, had rejected the Christian faith until he met Paul in prison (10-11). In the letter, Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back – not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord (15-16) (Branick 1989, 22).
The conversion of domestic units meant that households of Christians became the basic social/cultic centers, economic support systems, and practical means for the extension of the Christian movement (Justin Martyr, Acts of Justin and His Companions, 3; Elliott 1981, 188-189; Castillo 1982, 71-95). These Christian households became the backbone of the Christian church in many urban communities located all around the Mediterreanean Sea.
This term is used by Donald McGavran to mean “multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversions.” He writes,
Multi-individual means that many people participate in the act. Each individual makes up his or her own mind. They hear about Jesus Christ. They debate with themselves whether it is a good thing to become a Christian. They believe or do not believe. If they believe, they join those who are becoming Christians. . . Mutually interdependent means that all those taking the decision are ultimately known to each other and take the step in view of what the other is going to do. This is not only natural; it is moral. Indeed, it is immoral, as a rule, to decide what one is going to do regardless of what others do. (McGavran 1990, 227)
McGavran’s words are especially appropriate for cultures that are dyadic — those cultures that know little or nothing of individualized decision-making processes. In dyadic societies important decisions are usually made by the group.
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.