Saturday, March 20, 2010

First century house churches

The canonised writings of the apostle Paul take the form of (traditionally) thirteen epistles. Nine were written to churches with which he had various relations. For example, Galatians (the earliest 49-52AD) was written to a church of Pauline converts he visited twice (Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, pp. 392, 885), first and second Corinthians to a church Paul had spent eighteen months ministering with (Acts 18:1-18), and Romans to a church he had yet to visit (Romans 1:10). These churches were not abstract theological entities formed in a ‘social vacuum’ but complex groups of individuals of varying backgrounds meeting in rooms of people’s homes forming the house churches. Recognising the influences on and characteristics of the people within these churches gives a greater understanding of Paul’s letters to them.

During the time of Paul’s mission, as apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 54), the people of Mediterranean basin were undergoing change. Greco-Roman culture was progressively influential (Meeks, 1983, p. 15) in areas of politics, class status, philosophy, religion, and the household. This change was occurring most prominently within the cities – the focus of Paul’s mission.

A common language and well established trade routes coupled with personal mobility, both physical and social, facilitated the expansion of Christianity during its first 120 years (Meeks, 1983, p. 16). The faith’s landscape shifted from the Jewish rural Palestine to a Gentile urban environment (Tidball, 1993, p. 1). Conservative villages underwent the least change, demonstrated by the persistent use of traditional languages (such as Aramaic used in Galilee) in the face of Koine Greek becoming the dominant language elsewhere (Meeks, 1983, p. 15). After the dispersion of the ‘Hellenists’ until the time of Constantine’s rule the cities became the ‘dominant environment’ of Christianity (Meeks, 1983, p. 11).

By modern standards the cities were small but overcrowded. Cities would contain sizeable ethnic communities (Banks, 1980, p. 8). Rome’s population would have been close to one million (Banks, 1980, p. 7). Antioch held 250,000 people (Tidball, 1993, p. 1) with an incredible 200 per acre (Meeks, 1983, pp. 28-29) (49,400km2) compared with Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs (4,000km2 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004)). The housing density was made tolerable by a large portion (one quarter) dedicated to public facilities. Privacy in such conditions was rare (Meeks, 1983, p. 29). Involvement in early churches would have been noticed by the community.

Households were large inclusive communities consisting of extended family, slaves, friends, tenants, partners and clients involved in common commercial or agricultural enterprise. Housing would be shared by the extended kin often with individual rooms shared by nuclear groups (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 84). The physical layout reflected it’s function with commercial (workshop and shop frontage) and residential areas (Tidball, 1993, pp. 3,8).

Status within community was shaped by ‘achieved status’/‘acquired honour’ (wealth, education, occupation) and ‘accredited status’/‘ascribed honour’ (race, gender, birth, legal status) (Tidball, 1993, p. 11; Spence, 2009, p. 4). Accredited status stratified society similarly to the way today’s society is segmented into economic class (e.g. lower-middle class) (Tidball, 1993, p. 9). A blurring of social distinctions was gradually taking place (Banks, 1994) with increasing ‘status inconsistencies’ (such as an educated slave or wealthy women) (Tidball, 1993, p. 10).

Roman society was pluralistic and polytheistic (Driscoll, 2009). Rome assumed that conquered people had religions and these were to be incorporated as acceptable beliefs (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 285). Iterant philosophers (Tidball, 1993, p. 3) and foreign settlers would gather and set up shrines to their native gods (Meeks, 1983, p. 18), temples or philosophical schools (Banks, 1980, p. 11). Influence and intermingling of religions led ‘people to think of the gods of other nations as similar or identical to those they already knew’ – a process known as syncretism (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 44).

The Christian ‘religion’ started with political friction. New religions required political licence (Tidball, 1993, p. 6); Christians referred to themselves as ekklesia (assembly) which was a Greek political term (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 138). Christians came from various classes and cultures, and were passionately monotheistic both of these characteristics were unusual in their socio-political context.

The house churches were groups of Christians that would gather together in private homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12). These meetings were typically small, limited by the physical size of the premise (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). Most often the meeting would be based around a meal and occur in the dining room. This practice followed in the tradition of Jewish practices with archaeological excavation demonstrating first century synagogues which were rooms in private homes (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 549).

Several households are mentioned in scripture: Nympha in Laodicea (Col 4:15), Philemon in Colossae (Philemon 2) and Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) hosted gatherings of early Christians in their homes (O'Brien, 1993). The owner of the house would function as host and patron (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). It is likely that these patrons were wealthy gentile God-fearers who had previously supported the synagogue (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). Multiple house churches within the same town are implied in scripture (Romans 16:23, 1 Corinthians 14:23) (O'Brien, 1993) and confirmed by archaeological evidence (Tidball, 1993, p. 4).

In many ways these gatherings reflect contemporary Christian ‘services’. They would meet for fellowship (Hebrews 10:25), music (Ephesians 5:19), prayer and public reading of scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), teaching (Colossians 3:16) and conflict resolution (1 Corinthian 5).

The pattern of modern churches being based around a central public building is a clear point of distinction. Designated buildings owned collectively by the church for the purpose of worship were not seen until the middle of the third century (O'Brien, 1993). Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity led to increased legal protection and the start of government sponsored buildings (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 549).

Another distinction is the social dynamic within the church. The church began as a community that ‘held all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). However private property continued to exist (private homes) and unloving class distinctions persisted (1 Corinthian 10). Early churches formed as communitas of anti-hierarchical brotherhoods with loose structure and strong sense of belonging (Tidball, 1993). Within the early decades social status was rejected such that freeman and slaves shared together (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55; Banks, 1980, p. 26) – ‘neither Jew nor Greek...slave nor free...male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28). A common faith, rituals (particularly baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and common experience such as external persecution resulted in community identification within group. Contemporary Australian culture is much more individual (at personal and family level) with the tendency to gather at the church building and this disperse.

To accurate read and interpret Paul’s writings we must appreciate that he lived in and preached to a world very different from our own. Failure to recognise differences leads to the ethnocentric tendency to regard our own experiences (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2004, p. 12) and world view (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 283) as the standard in which to interpret the texts. Conflict with the circumcision group (Galatians 5), the role of women (1 Corinthians 11:5, 1 Timothy 2:12) and food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8) are examples of context bound issues that faced the House Churches. Careful study of the author’s contexts and ‘all conditions that surround the recipient’ provide important information about the author’s intended message and how the recipients would have understood that message (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2004, pp. 10-11).


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Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2004, Janurary). Sydney Centre Has The Highest Population Density In Australia. Retrieved November 5, 2009, from Australian Bureau of Statistics:

Banks, R. (1980). Going to Church in the First Century: An Eyewitness Account. Jacksonville: SeedSowers.

Banks, R. (1994). Paul's Idea of Community (Revised Editiion ed.). Hendrickson Publishers.

Barton, S. C. (1993). Social-Scientific approaches to Paul. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Driscoll, M. (2009). Happy Birthday Mars Hill: Special 13th Anniversary Acts 17:16-34. Retrieved November 1st, 2009, from

Klein, W. W., Blomberg, C. L., & Hubbard, R. L. (2004). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Marshall, I. H., Millard, A. R., Packer, J. I., & Wiseman, D. J. (Eds.). (1996). The New Bible Dictionary (3rd Edition ed.). Leicester: IVP.

Meeks, W. A. (1983). The First Urban Christians. Binghamton, NY, USA: Vail-Ballou Press.

O'Brien, P. T. (1993). Chuch. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Spence, S. (2009). Lecture 6: The Cultural World of Jesus. Adelaide: Tabor Adelaide.

Stambaugh, J. E., & Balch, D. L. (1986). The New Testament in Its Social Environment. (W. A. Meeks, Ed.) Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Theissen, G. (1978). The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Tidball, D. J. (1993). Social Setting of Mission Churches. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionry of Paul and his Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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