16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships
It was for the early believers. The way slave and master, male and female,
Jew and Gentile all mixed together in unity has been described as “a sociological
impossibility” bearing in mind the social structures that existed at that
time. Historians admit that it is almost impossible to explain why
Christianity grew in the first century as rapidly as it did. Yet we have
the Lord’s own explanation the night before His death, in John 17 that
because of the unity His death would create, the world would be converted
by the inexplicable unity which there would be between His people. It
was this unheard of unity between people which arrested the first century
world in its tracks. Ephesians 2 and 3 teach that because individuals
were being reconciled to God by the Gospel of Jesus, therefore and thereby
the walls of partition between the men and women thus reconciled were
torn down too. Jesus hints at this when He speaks of how the disciples-
raised as they were in strongly ethno-centric Judaism- were to be witnesses
to Judaea, Samaria, and the whole world. Why single out Samaria? He wasn’t
talking about the wide geographical scope of the mission- for Samaria
was part of Biblical Israel. Surely He was saying that their witness was
to not only cross boundaries of geography, but also those of culture and
prejudice. For the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans.
The first century society was built around the concept of oikonomia,
household fellowship. The head of the house was the leader, and all the
extended family and slaves had to follow his religion and be obedient
to him. For slaves, this was on pain of death. However, the call of Christ
was to individuals; in conscious allusion to the oikonomia
concept, Paul speaks of how we are the “household-servants” of Christ-
not a human master (Rom. 14:4 RVmg.). Individual conversion to a religion
was unheard of at the time. Indeed, religion was something for the wealthy
to play with, as a hobby. The philosophers only spoke to those they considered
to be pure; religion was not a solace to the weary, or a rest to the sin-laden.
It was something which you either played with as a hobby, or went along
with because your social position demanded you did: just as it is today.
Humanly speaking, the message of Christ had no chance of success, just
as it hasn’t today; calling individuals to faith in Him, at whatever
cost, rejecting their human ties of father, brother, master….for Him,
and His ecclesia. This was something so different and so demanding. And
yet there in the ecclesia they would find the fathers, brothers etc. one
hundred fold, to compensate for those they had lost. This meant that the
unity between them simply had to be; they had lost all, in terms
of relationships, and they would desperately have looked to each other.
Thus their radical separation from this world led to their closeness to
each other. And Paul repeatedly taught that salvation was through being
in the body of Christ, i.e. with other believers sharing a common salvation,
rather than a totally individual matter. Tertullian [Apology
39] and Minucius Felix [Octavius 9,2; 31,8] comment how the pagans
were irritated by the intimacy of the Christians, and especially reacted
against the way they called each other “brother” and “sister”.
When the Romans began persecuting the early church, only the leaders
were seized, while crowds of obvious Christians went unpunished. This
was perhaps because paganism was utterly dependent on its elite, and most
cults could easily be destroyed from the top. This explains a few
Bible puzzles- why devout men could carry Stephen to burial and yet be
unharmed; why the apostles could remain in Jerusalem [they were seen as
unlearned and ignorant fishermen] whilst the others in the Jerusalem ecclesia
had to flee (e.g. the great company of priests who became obedient to
the faith). And yet Christianity spread yet further. Unlike other religions,
the faith of the followers was not in the leaders- if the organization
and leaders were taken away, would your ecclesia continue? The early church
did- and flourished. We must beware lest our system of elders and organizations
doesn’t take away our individual commitment to preach and personally care
for people, and especially for the brotherhood. First century Christianity
was a mass movement, rooted in a highly committed rank and file; and therefore
it had the advantage of the best of all marketing techniques: person-to-person
influence. This in the end is how we can preach far more effectively than
through mass meetings or organized campaigns [not that I am saying not
to hold these].
The conversion and baptism of some whole households is recorded:
Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)
and Crispus (Acts 18:8). It is implied in the way the early believers
met in each others’ houses (Acts 1:13; 2:46; 5:42; 12:12; Rom. 16:4,5,14,15,23;
1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2) (1).
This is why archaeology can find no remains of early Christian buildings;
rather is there much evidence that the Christian congregations met
in large rooms within wealthy homes. One analysis of such rooms
which have been unearthed concludes that the average size of the
congregations would have been about 30 people- the size of many
ecclesias today. Graydon Snyder concluded an in depth analysis of
this issue with the statement that there is virtually no archaeological
evidence for dedicated Christian meeting places prior to AD180.
Until then, the word was spread by individuals and small house groups
(2). The way of the world was that
the whole household converted to the religion of the head of the
house. And yet the call of Christ was to individuals. Therefore
when we read of whole households converting (Acts 16:15, 31-34;
18:8; 1 Cor. 1:11,16; 16:15 Rom. 16:10) we must assume that they
had resisted the temptation to mass convert, and that Masters had
the humility to not demand of their slaves and family members
that they just blindly follow them. This request would have been
axiomatic to their preaching of the Gospel; and yet it would have
been a radical departure from how family heads around them behaved.
We have the very same issues before us today. It can happen that
a small church decides to convert to the Truth. It can be that some
are inclined to ‘go along’ with the change just because it is what
the others and their elders are doing. Especially can it be so that
wife or children convert to the religion of their husband or parents,
and it so happens that this new religion is ‘the Truth’. Neither
they nor the parents / partner should expect them to make the conversion
for their sakes. It must be a purely individual choice;
and as even in the newly opened mission fields, 3rd and 4th generations
of believers appear, we cannot emphasise enough that baptism implies
conversion. It is not merely following the faith of our
fathers as mere religion. Further, religion was generally for men
in the first century. The women and the slaves followed along because
it was their duty. Indeed, some of the religions adopted by first
century household fellowships (e.g. Mithraism) were purely for men.
And here again, true Christianity contrasted radically with everything
else on the market. Women and slaves had such a high profile that
this was one of the things the Christian faith was derided for.
And yet further, it was usual for the head of the household to automatically
be the leader of the religion which his household practised. But for the
true Christians, this was not necessarily so to be; for the Lord had taught
that it was the servant who was to lead, and the least esteemed in the
ecclesia were to judge matters (1 Cor. 6:4). Elders of the household fellowships
had to be chosen on the basis of their spiritual qualification, Paul taught.
The radical nature of these teachings is so easily lost on us. And yet
it is urgently relevant to how many of our ecclesias, especially in Africa
or Asia, are run. The more wealthy, more articulate, more educated, can
so easily be expected by everyone to be the leaders, when they
may not be qualified to do so. And elsewhere, it can so easily be so that
those capable of standing on their hind legs and saying fair words from
a platform become on that qualification alone the elders. The
challenge to give humility and other spiritual qualifications their true
weight is uncomfortably urgent. For it seems to me that we have given
too much emphasis to platform speaking in our community.
One Lord, One Master
On the other hand, it is clear from the NT that there were many
slaves converted in households which did not believe in Christ,
and probably had other religions. Those miserable books of Bible
contradictions pick on this as an example of where the Bible cannot
be right. It can’t be, they say, that slaves held a different religion
to their households to which they belonged. But it really was
so…we just have to have the faith that men and women really were
motivated by the power of the Gospel, by the greatness of the Hope
of the Kingdom, by the compelling nature of the person of Jesus,
to risk all, even death, to be ostracised as betrayers, to give
up all human relationships….for the sake of conversion to the one
true belief. They would presumably have sought fellowship in those
households which had functioning ecclesias within them; for it is
our duty to seek out fellowship with each other, whatever the cost.
For us, it may be time, inconvenience, travel expenses, the need
to get along with those we differ with. For them, it was enduring
all the stress that would have gone with a slave leaving the household
who had bought him, and spending some time in another household,
say one hour / week, often on pain of death if his owner found out.
For masters had the right to kill their slaves for any disobedience.
And remember, Christianity was and is exclusive. We cannot worship
any other Lord or Master or religion. We cannot serve two Masters.
The Lord Jesus is our one Master. To recognise Him as Lord therefore
cost dearly for the slave converted to Him. But there was a power
in the early Christian message that nonetheless converted more and
more men and women to the Lord- although this dramatic growth was
against all worldly sense and expectation. Many a man and woman
were fools for the sake of Christ’s imposing and demanding Lordship,
and for the sake of fellowship with their dear brethren. We are
free to speculate as to how there may have been ‘rushed’ breakings
of bread, where brother Rufus or sister Phoebe dashed in to a believing
household fellowship whilst supposedly on an errand for their unbelieving
master, and with all the urgent intensity of true fellowship in
the Truth, they would have taken the bread and wine in memory of
the One True Master for whom they would fain give up all.
Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea Of Community (Exeter: Paternoster,
1980) pp. 29,41.
(2) Graydon Snyder,
Archaeological Evidence Of Church Life (Macon GA: Mercer
University Press, 1985).
APPENDIX: The New Testament Basis For House Churches
The first occurrence of a word in Scripture is often significant.
The first reference to a house is in the record of Noah’s
house / family being saved in the ark. This of course is picked
up by Peter and explained as symbolic of the family of the faithful
entering into Christ by baptism. From the start, the method, the
practical outworking, of God’s salvation was through the salvation
of small houses / communities.
The record of the body of Christ in the New Testament begins with
descriptions of the Lord preaching in houses. The word ‘house’
occurs a huge number of times in the Gospels, especially in Luke’s
record. He seems to have been very sensitive to the way the Lord
entered into homes and did things there. We can be sure that these
homes became house churches after His resurrection. The establishment
of the church began with the believers gathering in the temple,
but breaking bread “from house to house” (Acts 2:46).
Fellowship in Christ is about this family sense of community. In
practice, the early body of Christ was a fellowship of house churches.
They preached and worshipped both in the temple and “in every
house”, i.e. every house church (Acts 5:42). Note how in Acts
8:3, “the church” is paralleled with “every house”
[church]: “Saul laid waste the church, entering into every
house”. That’s a very significant parallel. Those house
churches in sum were the church of Christ. It may be significant
in this context that Paul chooses to use the word patria to describe
the new “family in heaven and earth” to which we belong
in Christ (Eph. 3:15). The word patria is defined by Strong as meaning
“a group of families” that comprise a nation [s.w. Acts
3:25 “all kindreds of the earth”]. The various family
units / house churches comprised the overall body of Christ, the
nation of the new Israel.
Household conversions were a major feature of the first century
spread of the Gospel (e.g. Lydia- Acts 16:15; Crispus- Acts 18:8;
Priscilla and Aquila- Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Nymphas- Col. 4:15;
Onesiphorus- 2 Tim. 1:16; 4:19; Philemon- Philemon 2; “the
elect lady”, 2 Jn. 10; the home at Troas- Acts 20:6-8). Clearly
‘house’ was used in the first century as a kind of shorthand
for ‘house church’. They knew no other pattern of gathering.
There was almost an assumption that if a man converted to Christ,
his ‘house’ also would. Hence we read that Cornelius
would be told words “whereby thou and thy house shalt be saved”
(Acts 11:14). The same phrase was repeated to the jailor at Philippi
(Acts 16:31). It’s emphasized four times in three verses that
the Gospel was preached to his house, and his whole house responded
(Acts 16:31-34). The Lord likewise rejoiced in Zaccheaus’
conversion, that salvation had come to that man’s house (Lk.
19:9). He assumed that Zacchaeus would quite naturally persuade
his ‘house’. The Lord at least twice stressed to His
disciples that they were not to go preaching from house to house,
but rather focus upon one house in a village and make that the centre
of their work (Lk. 9:4; 10:7). Clearly His intention was that they
built up house groups rather than scattered converts. Perhaps this
was alluded to by Paul when he criticized sisters who went spreading
gossip “from house to house” (1 Tim. 5:13). He surely
had house churches in mind.
Eph. 3:15 takes on a new meaning in the light of the house-church
nature of early Christianity. God is the pater [father-
the head of the house] from whom every home [patria] in
heaven and on earth is named”. We’re invited to see
God as a family God, with us as “the household of God”
(Eph. 2:19; 3:15). 1 Tim. 3:4,5 lays down that an elder in the house
[church] of God must be one who rules his own household well. The
implication perhaps is that the ecclesias of which Paul wrote were
household churches. The 1st century household was governed by the
paterfamilias, the head of the house. In terms of the household
ecclesias, this person was the ‘elder’; but to govern
a household church required that such a person governed their own
domestic household well. My point is that there is an implied equation
between the ‘church of God’ and the domestic household;
understandable, if the early churches were in fact household groups.
Where things would’ve got awkward was if the ‘elder’
or leader of the household church was not in fact the paterfamilias
of that house where the church gathered. We are left to imagine
wealthy brother A opening up his home to the house church, in which
poorer brother B was the leader of the spiritual house. This is
the radical import of Paul’s teaching that eldership in the
ecclesia was to be based upon spiritual criteria and not human wealth
or social position. No wonder the extraordinary unity and social
bonding of the early churches proved so attractive and startling
to the world. And we in our day are invited to practice similar
sociological impossibilities in our ecclesias. It’s no wonder
that we so often fail; we shouldn’t be surprised that providence
almost seems to make unity an impossibility, with so many differing
personality types and backgrounds called to participate in the ecclesia.
All too often we’ve flunked out of this challenge by subconsciously
recruiting as it were only those of our own background and personality
type to our ecclesias. But the ideal is clearly laid down for us
in the early church’s example.
Believers who’ve only known large formal churches which meet
in buildings can easily get the impression that any other method
of worship or gathering is somehow second rate or even cult-like.
And those who meet in homes may likewise be tempted to ponder whether
their Christian experience is the real deal. A survey of the New
Testament reveals that early Christianity knew nothing of dedicated
meeting places, church halls etc. The early community was a new
nation, the Israel of God, comprised of a network of house groups
throughout the Roman empire. That was the early body of Christ.
The small groups of earnest believers that network together in the
21st century therefore have every reason to feel they are a continuation
of the 1st century pattern. It’s not that meeting in large
church halls is in itself wrong. But it’s somewhat removed
from the spirit of the first century. My suggestion would be that
those large congregations should definitely split into cell groups.
Only in this way can there be the personal challenge to us in terms
of relationships, love, understanding, service, forgiveness, patience
etc. which true Christianity is all about. All too easily we can
slip into mere weekly attendance at a large, safe, impersonal gathering,
where very little of the radical, uncomfortable, personally direct
challenge of Christ comes through to us.
The House Churches Of Corinth
The Jerusalem pattern of gathering collectively in the temple and
yet also having home groups was repeated in Corinth. 1 Corinthians
is addressed to the singular church in Corinth, which he parallels
with “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus”
(1 Cor. 1:2). Those ‘places’, I submit, referred to
the various house churches in the city. He specifically mentions
the house churches of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11) and Stephanas (1 Cor.
1:16; 16:15). The exhortation that “you all speak the same
thing” (1 Cor. 1:10) would then refer to the need for the
various house churches to all “be perfectly joined together
in the same mind and in the same judgment”. As we know, there
was an issue of fellowship in Corinth, concerning a deeply immoral
brother. If he avoided church discipline by simply joining another
house church, they were not going to be joined together in “the
same judgment”, and inevitably division would arise amongst
those Corinthian house churches. There was to be peace rather than
confusion “in all churches” (1 Cor. 14:33)- i.e. all
the house churches in Corinth. Paul’s complaint that “every
one of you saith, I am of Paul… I of Apollos” (1 Cor.
1:12) surely makes more sense if read with reference to each of
the house churches, rather than every individual member. Paul speaks
there as if the believers ‘came together’ ‘in
ekklesia’ (1 Cor. 5:4), i.e. the various home groups occasionally
met together. Hence he speaks of when “the whole church be
come together into one place” (1 Cor. 14:23), i.e. all the
house churches gathered together for a special fellowship meeting.
He says that when they ‘came together’, then they should
make a collective decision about disfellowshipping the immoral brother.
Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth, and he describes Gaius as
the host of the whole church (Rom. 16:23)- implying that he had
premises large enough for all the various house churches to gather
together in. The abuses which occurred when the whole church ‘came
together’ presumably therefore occurred on his premises.
All this explains Paul’s comment to the Corinthians that
he ordained his guidelines to be practiced in all the ecclesias
(1 Cor. 7:17)- i.e. the house churches that comprised the body of
Christ in Corinth. He gives some guidelines for behaviour that appear
to contradict each other until we perceive the difference between
the commands to house groups, and commands about the ‘gathering
together’ for special breaking of bread services. The role
of women is a classic example. 1 Cor. 14:34 says that women should
keep silent ‘in ecclesia’ [AV “churches”
is a mistranslation]- i.e. a sister shouldn’t teach at those
special breaking of bread meetings when the house churches ‘came
together’ (1 Cor. 11:17,18,20) .And yet within the house groups,
it’s apparent from other New Testament accounts and from what
Paul himself writes, that sisters did teach there (1 Cor. 11:5).
Thus in the house church of Philip, there were four women who ‘prophesied’,
i.e. spoke forth the word of God to others (Acts 21:8,9). This to
me is the only way to make sense of Corinthians- otherwise Paul
appears to be contradicting himself.
And there’s another enigmatic verse explained by this approach.
A woman was to keep silent and ask her husband [Gk. ‘man’]
‘at [a] home’ if she had any questions (1 Cor. 14:35
Gk.). Generations of mystified yet Godly women have read that verse
and thought ‘But I don’t have a man at home to ask.
I’m not even married’- or ‘But my hubbie doesn’t
know a thing about the Bible!’. Read in the context of a house
church scenario, it makes perfect sense. The women weren’t
to interrupt the combined gatherings with disruptively asked questions
from the floor. They were to ask the elders back in their house
churches. And that’s why the Greek in 1 Cor. 14:35 strictly
makes a distinction, between the woman not speaking / publicly asking
questions in the church, but asking the brethren in a house [church].
We can now better understand Paul’s complaint that they were
turning the special communal gatherings into a feast which focussed
on each group trying to outdo the others with the food and drink
they brought. The combined breaking of bread meeting, in Paul’s
view, wasn’t the time to indulge in a huge party, with all
the emphasis upon eating and drinking your own food and wine, rather
than focusing upon that which God had provided in Jesus. Hence he
comments: “Have you not houses to eat and to drink in?”
(1 Cor. 11:22). Given almost every reference to ‘house’
in Corinthians is to a house church or to the spiritual house of
God, it would seem Paul’s idea is: ‘It’s OK to
eat and drink and have a collective meal etc. in your house church
meetings. But don’t do that when you all meet together for
the breaking of bread- it’s getting divisive, because of the
social differences between the house groups which are made apparent
by the choice of food and drink’. They were to ‘discern
the body of the Lord Jesus’ at those gatherings- i.e. recognize
that all of them gathered there, the various house churches of Corinth,
were in fact the collective body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:29). If anyone
was hungry and therefore in need of material support, the combined
breaking of bread meeting wasn’t the place to raise the issue-
he should “eat at home”, i.e. take food and support
from his local house church (1 Cor. 11:34). That’s surely
a more reasonable reading, for at face value it would seem the hungry
brother lacking food is being heartlessly told ‘Well go home
Having spoken of the need to ‘discern the body’ of
Jesus at these gatherings, Paul launches off in 1 Cor. 12 into his
explanation of how there is only one body of Christ, but to “each”
has been given different gifts and emphases. Sadly many English
translations confuse the issue, by speaking of how to “each
man” is given a Holy Spirit gift (1 Cor. 12:7). But the Greek
definitely means ‘to each one’, and I suggest it refers
to how each house church was given a specific gift. I say that because
there is New Testament evidence that suggests that not every single
individual believer in the first century had Holy Spirit gifts.
That is hard to square with 1 Cor. 12 teaching that ‘each
one’ had such gifts. But remember the context. Paul has been
arguing that there is one body of Christ in Corinth, and each house
church contributes towards that. The house churches were divided
against each other and some groups shunned others. Paul is saying
that each of those house groups played a vital role. We can take
a lesson from this. Each ecclesia even today has a somewhat different
emphasis, and all too easily, ecclesias can divide from each other.
And yet this would be a denial of the one body of Christ; we not
only need each other individually, each ecclesia needs each other
ecclesia in their area, if they are to fully function as the one
body. The warning against “schism in the body” (1 Cor.
12:25) applied in the context to there being schism between local
house churches, rather than between individuals.
Rome may have been another example. Paul writes to them as if there
was one church in Rome, and yet he mentions the house groups of
Aristobulus and Narcissus (Rom. 16:10,11). Indeed, in Rom. 16:14,15
we have lists of names of brethren, and then the comment “and
all the saints which are with them”. It could be that the
long list of greetings to named individuals was more like a list
of greetings to the various house churches which comprised the larger
‘ecclesia’ in Rome. Robert Banks observes: “Justin in
his First Apology refers to several distinct house-based
meetings in Rome as much as a century after the New Testament” (1).
Perhaps the same was the case in Ephesus- for Paul reminisced how
he had taught that ecclesia both publicly, and from house to house
(Acts 20:20). Luke used the same phrase “house to house”
in Acts 2:46 to describe house churches. Surely Paul was recalling
how he had taught the Ephesian church both “publicly”,
when they were all gathered together, and also in their house churches.
Aquila had a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), and so did
Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16,18; 4:19). Another indication of this structure
within the Ephesian church is to be found in considering how Paul
wrote to Timothy with advice, whilst Timothy was leading that church.
Paul advises him not to permit sisters to wander about “from
house [church] to house [church]” carrying ecclesial gossip
(1 Tim. 5:13). The existence of house churches within the Ephesus
ecclesia would explain the slightly unusual Greek construction in
1 Tim. 3:15, which speaks of behaviour “in a house of God”.
Maybe Paul refers to the same distinction between house churches
and larger gatherings in Ephesus when he advises that a bishop should
rule well his own house and have his children in subjection (1 Tim.
3:4,5). There is a common New Testament understanding of ‘children’
as referring to converts; and the Greek word translated “rule”
is only used elsewhere, both in 1 Timothy and in the rest of the
New Testament, about ‘ruling’ or ‘providing for’
the church in a pastoral sense (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim.
5:17; Tit. 3:14). This interpretation would solve a commonly observed
difficulty- that the children of many fine elders aren’t not
always believers, they’re not always “in subjection”,
and neither were those of many Biblical heroes. And further, seeing
even the children of believers ultimately have freewill choice,
how can it be that church leaders are held as it were responsible
for their children’s choices? If we understand the ‘ruling’
here to mean spiritual provision for those in ones own house church,
as a qualification for appointment to being a minister of the larger,
joint congregational gatherings- then this difficulty disappears.
Quite how else to solve it is presently beyond me! And this idea-
of being faithful over a household and then being promoted to greater
responsibility- would then be an obvious allusion to the Lord’s
parable about the faithful house-manager [AV “steward”]
who is then promoted to greater responsibility in the Master’s
own household (Lk. 12:42 compared with Mt. 24:45).
What The Early House Churches Were Like
1 Cor. 14:23-25 seems to imply that unbelievers came into house
churches and ought to have been so deeply impressed that they declared
that “God is in you of a truth”. They were to be the
living exemplification of how, as the Lord had prayed in John 17,
the witness of Christian unity ought to be enough to convert the
world. We need to give His words there their true weight. To see
slaves and masters, men and women, Jew and Gentile, all sitting
at the same table celebrating their salvation in the same Lord,
with offices of leadership and responsibility distributed according
to spiritual rather than social qualifications… this would’ve
been astounding to the Mediterranean world of the first century.
The way men mixed with women and the poor with the rich would’ve
been especially startling.
Women were only allowed to be present at meals with men if they
were close family members. Houses unearthed in Pompeii feature two
dining rooms side by side, for men and for women (2). And yet the
Christian breaking of bread featured a “coming together” into one
place for the memorial meal. Men and women, slaves and masters,
eating together- this was radical stuff. To simply be present at
such a meeting as an onlooker would’ve presented an almost irresistible
case for Christianity. Significantly, the catacombs around Rome
[where many Christians lived and were buried] feature meal scenes
which appear to depict breaking of bread meetings. They show men
and women sitting or reclining together around the bread and wine
(3); whereas contemporary secular art nearly always depicts men
and women feasting separately.
The dignity afforded to women by Christianity, the strange bonding
between genders, races and social ranks, all combined to make the
early house churches attractive, especially to women. Celsus complained
that the Christian sect was growing through contacts initially being
made in houses, and Christianity spreading amongst slaves and female
members of households. House groups then, as now, were the key to
the powerful spread of the Gospel. Adolf von Harnack commented that
women “played a leading role in the spread of this religion” (4).
This fact is understandable once we appreciate how house groups
were the key to Christianity’s wildfire spread in the first century.
Young People / Children
In Against Celsus 3.55, Origen defends Christianity against
the allegation that it requires men to leave the world of men and
go mix with women and children in “the washerwoman’s shop”- presumably
a house church Celsus knew. Lucian of Samosata even mocked Christianity
as being largely comprised of children and “old hags called widows”.
Marcus Cornelius Fronto likewise mocked the way “children” [and
by that term he would’ve referred to teenagers too] participated
in the breaking of bread [Octavius 8-9]. The teaching of
the Lord Jesus was attractive to children / young people. They like
women were treated as of little worth; the Greco-Roman world considered
that children had to be taught, and couldn’t teach a man anything.
But the Lord Jesus repeatedly set children up as examples of discipleship
(Mk. 9:36,37; Lk. 9:47,48; as Heb. 12:5-9). So we can understand
the appeal of early Christianity to young people, teenagers, especially
girls. O.M. Bakke has written a fascinating study entitled When
Children Became People (5). The thesis is that the teaching
of Christianity gave disenfranchised people an identity and meaning
as persons- women and slaves are obvious examples- but this also
applied to children / young people. They too were disregarded as
people in Mediterranean society; and yet in Christ they were given
their value as people. In the house church setting, we can imagine
how this happened. Celsus mocks how teenage boys go to Christian
house churches to be taught by women- reflecting how attractive
Christianity was for young people.
Slaves, especially female ones, were in a very bad situation. They
had no identity outside their family of ownership. Both male and
female slaves were used for sexual purposes at will. They were seen
as having no honour, no rights, and therefore there was nothing
to violate. They were used as objects rather than persons. But enter
the call of Christ. Now, the dominated, powerless female slave hears
of honour and beauty being ascribed to her if she is “in Christ”.
Paul’s description of all those in Christ as a beautiful, chaste
virgin must’ve struck chords of wonder with those slave women. For
those who had the faith to overcome the ‘Can this all be really
true for me?’ syndrome, there was a new life and self-perception-
encouraged by the way they saw others like them being transformed
as persons. Slaves were sold with their children at times, but there
are no records of slaves being sold as married couples. Their place
of origin was listed in the records as the place where they had
been purchased. They were the “people without history”, seen as
having no past and no future. They were outside of normal human
society. All this is well summed up in Patterson’s Slavery And
Social Death (6). One example he gives of how slaves were seen
as mere bodies is the way in which female slaves had to wet nurse
the children of their mistress. They were called mamma- literally
meaning, a breast. And from this came the use of that word to mean
‘mother’. But initially, mamma meant strictly a breast; that
was the name given to wet nursing slave women. Into this darkness
and desperation, there burst the light of Christ. We can imagine
a group of those women eagerly listening to Paul’s latest letter
being read out in the house church. They heard of how they had been
bought with the price of Christ’s blood, that now they were slaves
of the Father and Son, that their bodies were truly not their own
but His. And in 1 Cor. 7:21-23 they would’ve heard how Paul
advised them not to be like other slaves, always dreaming of somehow
getting free, but to be content with their situation in which they
had been called, to live for the daily joy of being Christ’s slave.
They were no longer part of the ‘household’ of their master. They
belonged to house churches, which were part of the patria
of God (Eph. 3:15). They belonged to another household, a household
which they perceived by faith- the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).
No wonder Celsus complained that Christianity led its followers
into rebellion against the heads of households. Doubtless he was
exaggerating, but the idea of having another head of house, another
patria , was indeed obnoxious to a slave owning society.
This is why the language of slavery permeates so much of the New
Testament letters; for according to Christianity’s critics, it was
largely a slave, female religion to start with. And of course, the
unity between slave women and free women in the house churches was
amazing; it cut across all accepted social boundaries of separation.
The Martyrdom Of Perpetua And Felicitas tells the story of
how a Christian mistress (Perpetua) and a slave girl (Felicitas)
are thrown together into the nets to be devoured by wild animals,
standing together as they faced death (7). This was the kind of
unity which converted the world.
What does all this mean for us? Firstly, we need to perceive that
the apparent freedoms we have aren’t what they appear. We’re so
easily enslaved to sin in all its guises. This world is a world
in slavery to sin. That’s the telling paradox of Rom. 6- that in
baptism, we are changing masters. We’re not giving up freedom, but
rather escaping from slavery to sin. Secondly, our appeal needs
to be made to those who perceive their slavery to this world, to
those who cry out to be recognized as persons rather than treated
as slaves. And this applies to just about everyone- children abused
by a parent, the high profile corporate manager, the druggies, alcoholics,
the ignored handicapped, the forgotten-about elderly. They’re all
in need of the amazing affirmation of the human person which there
is in Christ; that one lost sheep is worth total effort by Him.
But they need telling about it, and to see it in us; for what passes
as Christianity has evidently failed to teach them anything about
Given the predominance of slaves, children and women in the early
churches, we are to imagine those house meetings with plenty of
women, nursing mothers, kids running everywhere. Eph. 6:1 and Col.
3:20 seem to suppose that children would be present at the church
gatherings and would listen attentively to what was said. The equal
footing upon which women were accepted into the church through baptism
would itself have been shocking and a huge advert for the value
of the human person which there was and is in true Christianity.
The way true Christianity gives meaning to the individual, makes
them see their value before God, is something we need to communicate
better. We need to positively preach a definite salvation in Christ,
specifically speaking of how great is the love and passion of God
for us as individuals; the wonder of the fact that we here on earth
can please Him, can touch His heart, there in Heaven. God is a master
who is so emotionally and profoundly pleased with our service, unlike
human masters who forget. Note in passing how Heb. 11:4 speaks of
God bearing witness, giving a verbal testimony, to Abel’s sacrifice,
and that through that witness Abel is as it were still speaking
to us, in that to this day God is still speaking / testifying to
that acceptable act of service performed by Abel. This is how delighted
our Heavenly Master is with our service; and this would’ve meant
so much to first century slaves. We won’t succeed in convicting
men and women of their value before God if we’re merely preaching
ideas, theology, interpretation... And if that was all the message
of the early Christians had amounted to, they wouldn’t have enjoyed
the phenomenal success which they did amongst women, young people
Female House Churches?
What is worthy of reflection is that the New Testament speaks of
households run by women: Mary (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:14,40);
Nympha (Col. 4:15) and Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11). These women were presumably
wealthy widows or divorcees who hadn’t remarried. We are left to
speculate whether they were in some way the ‘leaders’ of the house
churches which met in their homes. Women are described as ruling
households in 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:4,5. The woman of Prov. 31 clearly
had autonomy within the private sphere of the household, even though
the husband was the public leader. Seeing Christianity was initially
a house-church, household religion, we are left to wonder how much
women actually led house churches, especially seeing that the majority
of early Christian members appear to have been women. The wall paintings
[frescoes] found in the Christian catacombs around Rome are highly
significant for our present study. The significant ones for our
purposes are the catacombs of Priscilla on the Salaria Nuova, Callixtus
on the via Appia Antica, and that of Domitilla on the via Ardeatine.
They feature in places scenes of female Christians raising cups,
with the inscription agape over them. Some show a woman occupying
the central place in the meal, with a large cup in her hand, with
the other women looking at it intently. Some of the frescoes [there
are many of them] show women dressed as slaves doing this in what
appears to be a wealthy home. These frescoes seem to me indicative
of how groups of slave women formed house churches, and faithfully
kept the breaking of bread. Some frescoes show the women sharing
the bread and wine with children around the table; one shows a woman
holding a scroll, as if she is reading Scripture to the others.
One frescoe features a woman holding a cup of wine inscribed ‘nobis’-
‘for us’ (8). Some frescoes show men in the group, but the woman
in the centre, as if she is leading the meeting, or as the host
of the household. How does one square this with New Testament teaching
about brothers leading breaking of bread meetings? I came across
an analogous situation some years ago in Northern Kazakhstan, shortly
after the collapse of atheism and the USSR there. A zealous group
of elderly sisters baptized over 300 people in a short space of
time, establishing a whole set of house churches, comprised almost
exclusively of women. In time, a few men became interested. They
had known little of the Bible, coming from a Soviet background.
They were taught by the sisters, baptized by them, and became members
of the already-existing house churches. But they on their own admission
felt unable to lead the meetings, as they were babes in Christ compared
to those sisters. I can imagine similar situations arising in the
early church. The dynamic success of those female house churches
in Northern Kazakhstan was similar to what happened in the first
century; groups of sisters coming together in home situations and
bonding together in Christ, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, rich
and poor… it would’ve been an amazing thing to behold. What went
wrong in Kazakhstan was what went wrong in the early church; things
got institutionalized, power politics entered the scene, the live,
raw appeal of Christ to the world got somehow muted and made respectable.
Perhaps the Lord foresaw the phenomena of female house churches when He told
the parable of the woman who gathers other women together in her home to
celebrate her finding of the lost coin. The unity between Christian sisters was
celebrated in the Acts Of Thecla, where we read of sisters uniting to
publically demonstrate against Thecla’s condemnation to death for her refusal
to marry a non-Christian. Christianity certainly had something uniquely appealing to first century women. Whilst I think some of the 'liberation theologians' have gone too far, it's true to
say that Christianity spread so rapidly and radically because it was a movement
of paradigm-breaking liberation, especially for women and slaves. And the 21st
century is just as much enslaved and in need of radical liberation as was the
Mediterranean of the 1st century. The message of true Christianity gave meaning to the individual. It wasn’t a
question of signing up for some religion, which required Sunday morning
attendance at a certain place and a certain time. If that was what first
century Christianity had been all about, it simply wouldn’t have had such
success amongst poor women and slaves. For it would’ve been impossible for them
to make regular appointments given their domestic and social situations. But
true Christianity appeals [as much today as back then] to the individual. We
read in the Acts Of Thecla [Section 34] of a woman imprisoned by the
demands of her husband and society… and how she baptized herself. The idea that
baptism can only be administered by a certain group of “elders” was foreign to
The history of Israel shows how people struggle with the intimacy
and spiritual demands of a 'house church'. The Passover was intended
to be kept in families, slaying a family lamb for the household.
Going outside the house was forbidden (Ex. 12:22)- indicating how
it was to be a family feast. But by Josiah's time, the Passover
meal was eaten at a central point in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:23).
The family / home no longer was the spiritual focus; and by the
time of the New Testament, Passover is no longer described as a
feast of Yahweh but instead a "feast of the Jews". Everything
became formalized and institutionalized. Likewise the early history
of Christianity shows a sad shift from the enthusiastic, on-fire-for-the-Lord
house churches of the first century to the stone cathedrals of institutionalized
One wonders whether our enthusiasm for church halls is in fact
in line with New Testament practice. By having them, especially
in India or Africa, we may feel that we have ‘arrived’ as a religion,
but the essential belief and practice of God’s Truth is surely independent
of them. If someone will only join us if we have a building, then
they can hardly believe the Gospel and see their desperate need
for baptism into the Lord. Psychologists have suggested that we
need association on three different levels: the large group level,
where we have a sense of belonging to something transcending our
local state and area [which we have in the world-wide membership
of the body of Christ]; the ‘congregation’ level, where people know
most of the others and yet there are a few strangers [which Corinth,
e.g., had in their occasional larger gatherings]; and the ‘cell’
level, where there is mutual support, in-depth personal fellowship
and understanding. This would have been possible in the household
ecclesias. One wonders whether our larger ecclesias should not consider
a similar breakdown. We surely need to realize that our services
are not as it were a theatre, with actors on a stage and an audience
looking on. We are a body consisting of members who share out to
each other the essence of Christ; the body makes increase of itself,
building up itself in love. We are a family, not just an audience,
linked together by a real and far reaching involvement and responsibility
in each others’ lives. We show Christ to each other; and this is
so much easier in home meetings.
(1) Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea Of Community (Exeter: Paternoster,
1980) p. 41.
(2) See Carolyn Osiek and David Balch, Families In The New Testament
World: Households And House Churches (Louisville: Westminster
John Knox Press, 1997) pp. 16,17.
(3) Ample photographs of the catacomb art depicting these scenes
are to be found in J. Deckers, H. Seeliger, G. Mietke Die Katacombe
‘Santi Marcellion e Pietro: Repertorio delle pitture (Vatican
City: Pontificio instituto di archeologia cristiana, 1987). This
is a huge 3 volume production with a large number of photographs
of catacomb art.
(4) Adolf von Harnack, The Mission And Expansion Of Christianity
In The First Three Centuries (New York: Harper, 1961 ed.) p.
368. This same conclusion is reached by Rodney Stark, The Rise
Of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
(5) O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People (Minneapolis:
(6) Orlando Patterson, Slavery And Social Death (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1982).
(7) ‘The Martyrdom Of Perpetua And Felicitas’, in H.Musurillo,
translator, Acts Of The Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon,
1972) pp. 106-131.
(8) Ample photographs of the catacomb art depicting these scenes
are to be found in J. Deckers, H. Seeliger, G. Mietke Die Katacombe
‘Santi Marcellion e Pietro: Repertorio delle pitture (Vatican
City: Pontificio instituto di archeologia cristiana, 1987). This
is a huge 3 volume production with a large number of photographs
of catacomb art. The photo plates relevant to what I’ve written
of here are numbers 30a-b; 31a-b; 19a-b; 20a-b; 33c; 58a-b.