Significance of the Early House Churches


“The Significance of the Early House Churches” – Floyd Filson

Five ways the House Church impacts our understanding of the apostolic church:

  1. Enabled a distinctively Christian worship and fellowship. The creative and controlling aspects of their faith and life were precisely those which other Jews did not share. These aspects found unhindered expression not in temple or synagogue worship but in the house gatherings.
  2. Explains in part the great attention paid to family life in the letters of Paul and in other Christian writings. On many occasions entire households were often converted as a unit (Acts 16:33).
  3. The multiplicity of house churches in the city helps to explain the tendency to party strife in the apostolic age. Christians of a certain tendency grouped together and thereby were confirmed in that tendency. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 demonstrates a loyalty to households. There were definitive patron-client relationships. It’s natural to be attracted to personalities (i.e. favorite teachers, preachers, etc).
  4. The house church situation also sheds light upon the social status of the early Christians. The early church was not just a poor man’s group. 1 Corinthians 1:26 demonstrates that there were at least some wealthy members of the church. The apostolic church was more nearly a cross section of society than we have sometimes thought.
  5. Helps to understand the development of church polity. This was aided by the fact that many converts were formerly “God-fearers,” who had shown enough independence to leave their native faith heritage and establish a relationship with the synagogue. The house church became a training ground for the future leaders of the church following the apostolic era. Everything was set up for the host to emerge as the most prominent and influential member of the group. 1 Timothy is dealing with potential problems with the leadership. Titus is dealing with developing leaders.


Five Stages of Physical Development of the Church

  1. 50-150 AD
    1. Christians met only in private homes.
      1. Insula – apartment or tenement complex that housed numerous families. Often consisted of four to five levels surrounding a central court. Included lower and upper crust families.
      2. Domus – consisted of a suite of rooms grouped around an atrium. Atrium  was a rectangular room with an opening in the roof. It included a triclinium or a dining room where the meals would have been held while reclining on pillows (Palestine) or couches (gentiles).
      3. Villa – an estate consisting of a house, grounds and auxiliary buildings.
    2. This was a time when worship in Imperial Rome was split into two spheres: public and private. The public worship of the gods guaranteed the welfare of the Empire and a civic duty performed under state ritual. The private sphere is the locus where spiritual needs were satisfied by divinities of one’s personal choice. Christianity flourished in the private realm.
    3. There is no archeological evidence for Christianity during this time period.


  1. Intermediate Stage
    1. This is a transitional time between the house church and the domus ecclesiae; which were selective and partial alterations to interior structures of the family home to accommodate worship.


  1. 150-250 AD
    1. The house church moved from domestic to entirely religious function. A specific example is found at Dura Europus (246 AD).


  1. 250-313 AD
    1. Concludes with the Edict of Milan.
    2. Some met in larger buildings/halls – both private and public.
    3. This was the aula ecclesiae “hall of the church.” These predated the great persecution (303-311) and Constantine’s building spree.


  1. Post 313 AD
    1. Constantine began building basilica’s for church gatherings.
      1. These accommodated the larger groups.
      2. There were no pews as this time period was highlighted with a focus on the Eucharist (instead of the modern homiletically focused meeting that began during the Reformation).


Scriptures that that mention the physical location of the early church’s meetings:

Temple area

Acts 2:46 – Infant church met daily

Acts 5:12 – Meeting regularly at Solomon’s Portico

Acts 5:42 – Meet daily in the Temple teaching that Jesus is the Messiah


Upper Room

Luke 22:12 – Jesus and His disciples gathered to share His last Passover meal.

Acts 1:13 – the Apostles went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying.

Acts 20:8 – Paul was in Troas with the Christians



Acts 10:25 – Peter converted Cornelius and his household

Acts 12:12 – gathered together at home of Mary (mother of John Mark) for prayer on behalf of Peter. Had a gate which meant that a courtyard must have separated the main building from the street.

Acts 16:34 – Paul and Silas brought into the house of the Philippian Jailer following his conversion. Hosted a meal for Paul and Silas.

Acts 21:8 – in Caesarea at Philip the Evangelists’ home.

1 Corinthians 16:19 – home of Priscilla and Aquila

Colossians 4:15 – church in Laodicia, Nympha’s house church

Philemon 2 – church that meets at the house of Philemon


Roman House Churches – at least 5, perhaps as many as 16

16:3-5; 16:10; 16:11; 16:14; 16:15


Other locations

Acts 19:9 – Paul taught in the Lecture Hall of Tyranus.


Role of Hospitality in the Growth of Christianity

There is a practical aspect of hospitality which Paul experienced and in some instances may have relied on during his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 21:4, 7, 16-17; Philippians 4:15-18). Often when he experienced difficulties it was due to a lack of hospitality (1 Cor 4:11-13; 2 Cor 6:4-10). In addition to being a practical issue for Paul it was also a fundamental expression of the Gospel where God had demonstrated ultimate hospitality in an eschatological sense (Matt 8:11; Matt 22; Luke 14:15-24). In early Christianity, hospitality was expressed in the form of sharing meals together in celebration of the risen Savior and acknowledging His presence and unifying work in their own community (1 Cor 11:17-34). This explains why Paul prominently listed hospitality as a function of the church leader in 1 Tim 3. In this way, Paul’s practice and teaching of hospitality mirrored that of the ministry of Jesus who used the meal as a unifying symbol of the socially marginalized of society (Luke 7:39; 19:7). In summary, hospitality was an expectation of both the Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. Hospitality in the church was primarily manifested as an informal, household based ministry for sustaining itinerant missions and unity within the community.


Bonhoeffer, Life Together

  1. Community is initiated by the work of Christ. This means that Christians need other Christians because of Jesus Christ. Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. We should not try to create a vision of what we hope for community to be. We should exist in the reality of what Jesus has created. We should be grateful and appreciate of our fellowship and not complain because it isn’t what we envision or hope for. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. Physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.
  2. A Day With Others. Prayer, Reading the Scriptures, Singing the new song, table fellowship.
  3. The Day Alone. Let him who cannot be alone beware of Community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Intercession is a powerful creator of community. I see someone I did not like as a person for whom Christ offered His life.
  4. Ministry. Holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helpfulness, bearing (one another’s burdens Gal 6:2), proclaiming.
  5. Confession and Communion. Brings sin to light where it loses its’ power. Sin wants a man by himself. It withdraws him from community. Our experience of the cross and not life, makes one worthy to hear a confession.


Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family

  1. The group comes first. Strong-group society where the group is greater (priority) than the individual. Group is not only helpful, but also formative in our life’s decisions. Not until the individualistic culture did man ever need therapy. Our individual freedoms have pushed us over the edge of the emotional cliff.
  2. Family in the NT world. Purpose of marriage was to strengthen the family. Family went through/defined as the Patriline (allegiance there and not to spouse). Strongest bond was between brother and sister, not the spouse. Family is the most important group. The greatest act of disloyalty was betrayal of brother, not spouse. Jesus is changing the family.
  3. Jesus’ New Group. We have domesticated Jesus so that we can feel comfortable to bring Him home. Orthodoxy answers what Jesus is like. He is like God. Our response is worship and adoration. Orthopraxy helps to define what God is like. He is like the behaviors of Jesus which must be observed and copied. In this regard, Jesus modeled a new community and called it family. Creating an alternative family. Redefined the priorities of (1) God (2) Family (3) Church (4) Others to (1) God’s family (2) My family (3) Others. As Jesus created an alternative family and people found their identity in the context of their family, Christians are forced to redefine their identity.
  4. The Churches of Paul. Affective solidarity is emotional bond. Family unity – interpersonal harmony. Material solidarity – sharing of resources. Family Loyalty – undivided commitment to God’s group.
  5. The Church in the Roman World. Expanded not solely because of what they believed but predominantly because of how they behaved.
  6. Salvation as a Community Creating Event. Cannot have God has your Father unless you have the Church as your Mother (Cyprian of Carthage). When we are saved we are justified and familified.
  7. Life Together in the Family of God. Four NT values: share our stuff, share our hearts, stay and grow with one another, family is about more than me, wife and kids.
  8. Decision Making in the Family of God. Diagram of spirituality and community. Community is horizontal, spirit is vertical.
  9. Leadership in the Family of God. Plurality, servant


“Rich Pompeiian Houses, Shops for Rent, and the Huge Apartment Building in Herculaneum as Typical Spaces for Pauline House Churches” – David L. Bach

  • Evidence from domus in Pompeii and Herculaneum indicates that not all Pauline house churches were necessarily small or that they were private.
  • They may have been small, but may have accommodated numbers far greater than 40 persons.
  • Domus were ‘housefuls’ of persons unconnected by family ties. Rich and poor living in the same spaces.
  • Domus and insulae incorporated shops which placed owners, freedmen and slaves in the same domestic spaces.
  • They may have included public baths and/or gymnasiums.
  • Women owned some large domus, and would have exercised influence over groups that met and dined in their houses.