The House Church and Its Relevance for Starting New Churches

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. 


The House Church in the Ancient Mediterranean World

A survey of Jesus’ ministry, Acts[1], and the epistles and other church writings[2] reveals Christianity spread, principally and normally, though not exclusively, through the conversion of households (oikos) and the planting of house churches in urban centers.  The spread of Christianity was rapid. Some historians claim that by A.D. 250 Asia Minor was 60% Christian and the congregations in Rome numbered 30-50,000. North Africa counted hundreds of small-town congregations.   In Evangelization of the Roman Empire, Hinson (pp. 23-24) gives a number of factors for the triumphant rise of Christianity: a. There was a giant spiritual vacuum that needed to be filled in the Roman Empire due to the failure of the old state cultus, the philosophies, and the mystery religions failure to fill that vacuum. b. Christianity’s survival was partially due to pagan ignorance of and indifference towards it.  c. Constantine’s conversion gave Christianity a massive boast.  Wayne Meeks, in The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (p. 16), observes that Christianity triumphed because it won the cities.  The cities of the Graeco-Roman world were where new novelties were sought, tried, and tested and many urbanites were ready to try Christianity.

Until approximately A.D. 250 Christians gathered in homes or in renovated houses (domus ecclesiae) to study the word of God, to partake of the Lord’s Body and Blood, to pray, and to evangelize the community. Guy, in Pilgrimage Toward the House Church, ( pp. 116-117) lists five conditions that made house churches a viable option for early Christianity: 1. The total family was involved in hearing and responding in the home setting of the church. 2. Their emphasis was almost entirely on people. 3. Space, such as it was, was immediately available. 4. The role of the father as teacher-priest was preserved and enhanced (Deut 6). 5. Times of instruction, discussion, and prayer were more likely to be shared more often, and by more people, than could have been the case if services were conducted in some distant building.

Next Week: Jesus and the Oikos.

[1] Acts 1:12-14; 2:1; 44-47; 4:23-31; 5:42; 8:3; 10:44-48; 12:12-16; 16:31-34; 20:7-12; Rom 16:3-5, 14-15, 23; 1 Cor 11:17-22; 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 1-2; 2 John 10.

[2] Didache 14:1-2; Passio sancti Justini et socii 3:1-4; The Acts of Peter 7-8, 19-20; The Acts of Paul 5, 7; The Acts of Thomas 131-133;  The Pseudo-Clementines 71:1; Tertullian, De fuga in persecutione 14:1; The Apostolic Tradition 16:1-2; Origen, De oration 31:4-6; Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica VII 15:3-4; 30:18-19; VIII 1:5, 9; X:3:1)

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