A binding agent in Graeco-Roman families was a common household religion. In the Roman cults the father of the house was the head of the cult without any external confirmation (Branick 43-44). The house cult was praised by Cicero in his De domo sua,
What is more holy, more protected by every religion, than the house of every individual citizen? Here are altars, hearths, the divine penates. Here holy shrine, worship, and cult are united. This sanctuary is so holy to all that it is a sacrilege to tear anyone away from here. (41. 109)
In the Jewish world, at the time of the New Testament, the household was a primary place for transmission of the faith as fathers passed the Mosaic teachings and traditions onto their children (Deut 6:6). Edersheim (230) notes Jewish fathers were responsible for transmitting the teachings of the Torah to his sons from the time they began to speak. Much of this household instruction would have taken place in the fields, in the shops, and around the dinner table. This instruction included the memorization of short prayers, Scripture passages set within a liturgical framework (i.e. the Shema, the Psalms), and the child’s birthday text. Aside from this daily instruction, Israelites celebrated one of their high feasts, the Passover, in the household setting (Branick 45-46) and at the appointed household of God (i.e. the Temple). Jewish home instruction seems to have had a significant influence on early Christian worship in house churches. For example, Grant (176-177) argues the Eucharistic prayers of the Didache (ca. A.D. 110) are based upon Jewish table prayers.
By the middle of the first century the Graeco-Roman family structure had begun to deteriorate due to a number of changing social and economic factors: divorce uprooted families (Biggs 103); female infanticide devalued human life; the immoral amphitheater was popular (Allen 1962:30); the senatorial families of the republic lost their power and prestige as the Caesar assumed more control; and an increased distribution of wealth led to the founding of more household communities (Tidball 79). The old virtues — devotion to the country and one’s household, stern discipline, respect for constituted authority, even respect for self — had weakened (Binns 1938:16-17). Many people were searching for a more moral society and fortified family.
Some Mediterraneans found a more moral and fortified oikos through their relationship with Jesus Christ in a house church. The house churches provided them with a way of life distinctly different from their own culture. These Christian households were united in their common faith in Jesus Christ under the heavenly Pater Familias. They had their own distinctive forms of worship in which people of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds participated. Families were transformed by Christ’s love and united in their common faith in Christ. Christian marriages were icons of Christ’s love for the church (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:19). Fathers instructed their children in God’s redemptive story (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21). Children were instructed to honor their parents (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20). Slaves of the oikos were to obey their masters with fear and respect (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25). Masters were to treat their slaves the same way slaves were to treat their masters (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). The Spirit-filled households embodied compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness (Col 3:12-13) to believers and unbelievers. One can only guess the magnetic appeal of the Christian oikos to members of pagan households that knew nothing of Christ and his love.
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.