House churches were used in the Old Testament to evangelize and integrate His chosen people into his family.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
By the time Abram was born false worship and corruption had again become predominate on earth. Consequently the Lord called Abram to abandon his idol- worshipping family and to establish a traveling house church that worshipped the Lord (Gen. 12:1). The Abrahamic house church consisted of Sarai, his nephew Lot, and the slaves in his household (Gen. 12:4-5). Abram and his family had no set place where they worshipped God. Abram built a number of altars during the journey in order to worship the Lord. It is interesting to note that at various times he and his family returned to those places where altars had been built in order to worship the Lord (13:4).
Abram and his household were a beckoning light to the nations around them. Luther, commenting on Genesis 13:4 states,
When Moses states here that at this place Abram called in the name of the Lord, it is the same as if he had said that he erected a public chapel or an altar, at which he preached and taught about the true religion — mainly, of course, to his household but then also to the neighboring Canaanites who came together at this place. (LW 2, 332)
The neighboring people realized God blessed Abram’s household. In Genesis 14 Abram was visited by neighboring kings because they recognized God had brought Abram victory in a battle for Lot. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who was also priest of the God Most High, came to bless Abraham and to praise the God Most High for granting Abram victory over his enemies (18-20). One might suggest this account is an example in Genesis 14 of fellowship between two house churches that are united in their belief in the Lord and who refuse to have fellowship with people who worship false gods (22-24).
In Genesis 17:23-27 we see the fruit of Abraham’s preaching when the male members of his household subjected themselves to circumcision. Granted some of these men may have subjected themselves to Abraham’s command because they were duty bound to do so as his servants, but yet, it appears that some men in his family subjected themselves to circumcision because they wanted to be part of God’s covenant people. Luther writes,
Hence this is most beautiful and admirable example, not only because of Abraham’s person but also because his influence was so great that he induced his entire household not to be offended by the disgraceful and shameful deed. Thus it is evident that Abraham’s house was nothing else than the church instructed in the most saintly manner and accustomed to the worship of God and the obedience of the Word. (LW 3, 174)
Abraham’s house church worshiped the Seed and spread the message of the Promised One to neighboring people. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, 18:18-19 and 22: 17-18 were probably the centerpiece of his gospel preaching. Abraham’s son, Isaac, was appointed to be the one through whom the Messiah would come (Gen. 17:21). He was also appointed to be the leader of the house church. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, being from the Haran district was probably a worshipper of false gods (Gen. 24:10ff.). She probably worshipped the gods of her fathers — the gods Abraham had abandoned, but when she became Isaac’s wife his Lord became her Lord. Isaac recounted to his wife the promises the Lord had made to his father Abraham and the role he and Rebekah would have in the redemptive drama. In the tradition of his father, Isaac also built altars for worship so that his family could worship the Lord (Gen. 26:25). Isaac continued to witness to the people around him of the Lord. Consequently, neighboring people came to Isaac to establish treaties with him because they saw the Lord was with him (Gen. 26:28). Unfortunately, his own son, Esau, did not share his devotion to the Lord. Esau rebelled against Isaac and Rebekah when he married two Hittite women (Gen. 26:34-35; 28:46). The text states, “They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” Very likely Esau allowed these two women to continue to practice their idolatrous worship and may have participated in false worship. The responsibility to pastor a house church was given to Isaac’s son, Jacob.
The Lord established His covenant with Jacob at the “house of God” — Bethel. After Jacob left his family, and shortly before he entered the pagan surroundings of Haran, God blessed Jacob with a dream that assured him of the Lord’s presence (Gen. 28:10). After experiencing this divine revelation Jacob exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:17) Jacob vowed he would return to the Lord’s house if the Lord would bless his journey.
Jacob did not forget the Lord throughout his twenty year sojourn in Haran. Even though he married two women and had two concubines Jacob continued to proclaim to his household the name of the Lord. That Jacob proclaimed the name of the Lord is evident from Genesis 29:35 where Leah uses the personal name of the Lord in praise for the birth of Judah. She must have heard of the Lord through Jacob. This is also true of Rachel who praised the Lord when Joseph was born. (cf. Gen. 30: 24)
Jacob’s presence amongst Laban made an impression upon Laban as well. Laban recognized that it was the Lord who blessed him through Jacob (cf. Gen. 30:27). Laban did not want Jacob to leave.
Genesis 31 demonstrates that Jacob has not forgotten God and more importantly, God has not forgotten him. In obedience to divine revelation Jacob announced to Leah and Rachel that he must return to the house of God at Bethel. Leah and Rachel responded, “Do whatever God has told you.” (Gen. 31:16) Unfortunately, Rachel had not been able to rid herself of idolatry completely. Rachel stole the household gods. (19)
Jacob would have nothing to do with idolatry. When Laban accused him of stealing the household gods, Jacob proclaimed, “If you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live.” (32)
After meeting with Esau, Jacob was invited by Esau to live in Seir but not wanting to reside in a pagan community Jacob chose to settle in Succoth and then Shechem (33:16-20). It was at Shechem that Jacob set up an altar and worshipped the Lord. After the incident between Dinah, Shechem, and the sons of Jacob in Genesis 34, God commanded Jacob to return to Bethel (Gen 35:1). In preparation for the return to God’s house, Jacob ordered his household to turn over all their false gods so that the idols could be buried at Shechem. When they arrived at Bethel Jacob led his household in worship (cf. Gen. 35:6-7). Unfortunately, Jacob’s sons never totally abandoned their sinful ways and were in many ways a negative witness to the Lord, even as was their father, but Jacob never forgot the promises of God and he did not fail to remind his sons of those promises as well (cf. Gen. 49).
In Genesis 41:50-52 we are told that Joseph married Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On who bore two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. On the basis of verses 39:2,3,21,23 and 41:52 we can assume that Joseph trained his sons in the ways of the Lord and revealed the promises of the Lord to them. Joseph did not forget that the Lord was responsible for his success in Egypt (45:5-8; 50:19-20). Joseph’s sons were received into Jacob’s family by Jacob and became members of the covenant family (48:5ff.). One can only imagine the influence Joseph and his family had upon the Egyptian court as they witnessed to the grace and faithfulness of the Lord.
See Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:18; 22:9.
Note that the males were not all blood relatives of Abraham. They were servants purchased from foreign traders. I think it is safe to assume that Abraham’s house church consisted of people from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. After the circumcision one might say that they became “blood brothers.”
Esau’s marriage to the Hittite women might explain why Rebekah connived with Jacob to steal the blessing from Esau in chapter 27. Rebekah may have been so disgusted (Gen. 27:46) with Esau for abandoning the Lord that she felt he was unworthy of receiving the blessing of the first born son.
Levi and Simeon slaughtered Shechem and Reuben (Gen. 34:25-29). Reuben slept with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Ten of Jacob’s sons conspire to kill Joseph out of a jealous rage (Gen. 37). Judah violates Tamar (Gen. 38). It was not what one would call a disciplined congregation.