Scriptural Evidence for Home Fellowships

By Calvin Lashway

Today more and more people from our religious tradition1 are meeting in private homes each Sabbath for worship. These small groups are referred to by various names such as Home Fellowships, House Churches, and probably the most popular term, The Living Room Church of God. These Christians are often criticized for this practice by some of the leaders and members of the religious organizations.

An example of this criticism is seen in a quote from a sermon given by a minister of one of the larger groups:

In the NT, there was organization and congregations. Some think that a big organization is a bad thing. The Bible doesn’t spell out the exact organization. It speaks of positions, elders, and deacons. It talks about local churches, but there is no ‘Epistle to the Living Room church’. There is only one letter to scattered brethren, Hebrews, all the rest were to churches.2

This speaker is implying that a Living Room Church of God is unbiblical, that it is not a "congregation" or a "church." What does the Bible say? Is the modern practice of small groups of people meeting in private homes for worship, fellowship and instruction unbiblical?

The purpose of this study is to examine scriptural evidence showing that it was a normal New Testament practice for small groups of Christians to assemble in private homes for worship, fellowship and instruction.

This study will not explore the subject of church government. The speaker implies that a Living Room Church of God has no organization and leadership. This is simply not true. What is true, is most Home Fellowships do not practice the hierarchical and authoritarian form of government used by many of the churches of our tradition. Church government is another subject altogether, and in recent years many writers have addressed this issue.

Definition of the Word "Church"

The word "church" in the New Testament is always translated from the Greek word ekklesia 1577 "an assembly, a (religious) congregation" Abbott-Smith Lexicon.

From the Online Bible, ekklesia 1577:

1) a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly 1a) an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating 1b) the assembly of the Israelites 1c) any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously 1d) in a Christian sense 1d1) an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting 1d2) a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake 1d3) those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body 1d4) the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth 1d5) the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven.

A church is not a building, or a place where Christians met. A church is an assembly or congregation of Christians.

Historical Background

It is important to remember that there is no evidence: biblical, historical or archaeological of Christians having special buildings for worship during the first century. "Not until the first half of the third century did the Christians build houses of worship."3

Richard Krautheimer writing in "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture" states:

Until A.D. 200, then, a Christian architecture did not and could not exist. Only the state religion erected temples in the tradition of the Greek and Roman architecture. The saviour religions [for example, Mithras or Isis], depending on the specific form of their ritual and the finances of their congregations, built oratories above or below ground, from the simplest to the most lavish but always on a small scale. Christians congregations prior to 200 were limited to the realm of domestic architecture, and further, to inconspicuous dwellings of the lower classes.4

As we examine the biblical evidence, we will see the importance of "domestic architecture," (i.e. the private home to the New Testament Church of God).

Direct Evidence for Assembling in Private Houses

First we will examine the direct scriptural evidence for Christians assembling in private homes. After looking at the direct evidence, we will examine the indirect evidence for home assemblies.5

The Assembly In The Ephesian House Of Aquila And Priscilla

First Corinthians is written in the city of Ephesus probably during the spring of A.D. 57,6 by the apostle Paul. At that time an assembly of Christians are meeting in the house of Aquila and Priscilla: "The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca [Priscilla] greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house" (1 Corinthians 16:19). All scripture quoted are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), unless otherwise stated). As we will see later this was probably not the only House Church in Ephesus.

The Assembly In The Roman House Of Priscilla And Aquila

Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is written in the city of Corinth probably during the spring of A.D. 58. By this time Priscilla and Aquila had returned to Rome, where they had once lived (Acts 18:2), and an assembly of Christians was meeting in their house: "Greet Prisca [Priscilla] and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus,... also { greet} the church that is in their house. Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia" (Romans 16:3-5). Like Ephesus, we will see that the House Church of Priscilla and Aquila was not the only assembly of Christians in Rome.

The Assembly In The House Of Philemon

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is written from Rome some time around A.D. 61 or 62, during his first Roman captivity (A.D. 61-63). This is the period of time covered in Acts 28:16-31.

The letter was apparently delivered by Tychicus and Onesimus. Onesimus was a native of Colossae (Colossians 4:7-9). He was a runaway slave of Philemon, who ending up in Rome, was converted by Paul (Philemon 15-16, 10).

In addressing his letter to Philemon, written at the same time as the letter to the Colossians (probably A.D. 61 or 62), Paul sends greetings to the assembly of Christians meeting Philemon’s house: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved { brother} and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:" (Philemon 1-2). The Christians of Colossae assembled in Philemon’s home.

The Assembly In The House Of Nympha

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul makes reference to another House Church: "Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house" (Colossians 4:15).

In the area of Laodicea there appears to be two groups of Christians. The first group being "the brethren who are in Laodicea," or as in verse 16 "the church of the Laodiceans." The second group is "Nympha and the church that is in her house." It is also possible that only one group of people is being referred to, and the entire Laodicean Church assembled in the house of Nympha.

Small Congregations

We see from these scriptures that some 30 years after the crucifixion Christian were meeting in private homes. By the very nature of meeting in homes, these congregations were not large, but small. Each assembly was only as large as the biggest room in a given home.

Richard Krautheimer describes what these homes were like:

And as the congregations were recruited by and large from the lower and middle classes [1 Cor.1:26-31], their houses would have been typical cheap houses. Such houses are known to us, if not from the first and second centuries, at least from the fourth and fifth. In the Eastern provinces, they were apparently one-family buildings up to four storeys high. The dining-room on top was the only large room, and often opened on a terrace. This is the upper floor, the anageion or hyperoon frequently mentioned in the Acts [Acts 1:7; 20:8], the room ‘high up, open to the light’, of which Tertullian still speaks after A.D. 200. The furnishings would simply consist of a table and three surrounding couches, from which the dining-room takes its name in Latinized Greek—the triclinium. The main couch opposite the entrance was presumably reserved for the elder, the host, and speaker as honoured guest. The congregations might crowd the room, including the window sills, so that at Troas—from the heat of the many lamps and the length of the sermon—a young man fell from the fourth floor (the tristegon), only to be resurrected by the preacher, St. Paul [Acts 20:5-10]. In Rome, where tenement houses with horizontal apartments were the rule, not necessarily including a dining-room, any large chamber may have served for these gatherings. No other rooms would have be required by the congregations.7

Indirect Evidence of Assembling in Private Houses

The following scriptures probably refer to Christians assembling in private homes. These verses are not as straight forward as the scriptures we just examined, but are indirect or secondary evidence. Some of them become easier to understand in the context of home fellowship—without it, the reason for the word choice is rather unclear.

The Practice Of The Jerusalem Church

The first seven chapters of Acts are a condensed history of the early Church of God, covering the time period of A.D. 31 to 37. Meeting in private homes is a practice that can be traced back to the early Jerusalem Church of God.

The early New Testament Church met in private homes for fellowship and meals. Luke records: "And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:46-47).

The apostles also utilized private homes as another location (besides the Temple) to teach and preach: "And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they [the apostles] kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus { as} the Christ" (Acts 5:42).

Around A.D. 37, Saul led a persecution against the Jerusalem Church (Acts 8:1-3). In writing about this persecution Luke records: "But Saul { began} ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison" (Acts 8:3). Why did Saul enter "house after house"? Because he knew that is where he could catch Christians "in the act" of teaching and worshipping. If Christians worshipped in "church buildings," Saul would have gone there to find them.

The private house was still being used as a location for Jerusalem Christians to assemble during another period of persecution in A.D. 44. During this persecution, James the brother of John is killed by Herod Agrippa I (reigned from A.D. 41-44), and Peter is imprisoned. Herod plans to keep Peter in prison until after Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, then kill him (Acts 12:1-5).

While Peter is in prison, the Jerusalem Christians are continually praying for him (verse 5). The inference here is to communal prayer, not just individual prayer. This is supported by verse 12 where it states that people were gathered for prayer.

Verses 6-11 deal with Peter being set free from prison. Realizing he was truly free, and not having a dream, Peter "...went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying" (Acts 12:12).

One reason Peter went to the house of Mary that night, besides it being close by, may have been that he knew this was one of those houses in Jerusalem were Christians gathered to be taught and to fellowship. What is known, is that on this night people were gathered at Mary’s home for prayer.

This night was probably the night following the Last Day of Unleavened Bread. Remember, Herod did not want to kill Peter until after the Feast (Acts 12:4), and "on the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward" (verse 6) Peter is set free. It appears Herod was going to act as soon as possible after the Days of Unleavened Bread.

There is another reason for Peter going to Mary’s house that night. If Mary’s house was a regular meeting place for some of the Jerusalem brethren. Paul knew some of them would still be there that night having a fellowship meal, following the end of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Peter did not stay at Mary’s house. Either her house may have been a known location for Christian gatherings or was so close to where Peter was imprisoned, it would be a natural place for the authorities to look for Peter (verse 17).

These scriptures in the book Acts indicate that the Jerusalem Church of God was a collection of House Assemblies or Churches. The Jerusalem Christians assembled in private houses for fellowship and instruction from the word of God. This is the same activity taking place today in the Home Fellowships or Living Room Churches of God of our tradition.

Thessalonica And The "House Of Jason"

After departing Philippi (Acts 16:40) Paul arrives in Thessalonica. It is approximately the fall A.D. 51. He preaches in the local synagogue over a period of three Sabbaths. This results in some Jews accepting Jesus as the Messiah, and even a greater number of Gentiles converting to Christianity (Acts 17:1-4). This angered a few of the Jews, who stir up a mob, made up of "wicked men from the market place" (verse 5). The mob attacks the "house of Jason" looking for Paul and Silas (verse 5). While in Thessalonica Paul and Silas were staying in the home of Jason (verse 7). Not finding them at the "house of Jason," the mob found "Jason and some brethren" who they took to the authorities of the city (verse 6). There is the suggestion here that the "house of Jason" was more then just the place where Paul and Silas were staying. It had become the first meeting place outside of the synagogue for the Church in Thessalonica.

Verse 4 records that some of the Jews as well as "God-fearing Greeks" and "leading women" of the city, "joined Paul and Silas." This may mean they "joined" Paul and Silas regarding religious matters, but that meaning is rather narrow when we examine the context of the verse. When the mob raided the "house of Jason" they only found "Jason and some brethren" (verses 5- 6). This would imply that joining Paul and Silas meant joining them in assembling at the "house of Jason." The loss of these people from participating in the synagogue may have been the motivating factor in the attack on Jason’s house.

Corinthian House Churches

After leaving Thessalonica, Paul travels to Berea, Athens, then on to Corinth (Acts 17:10-18:1). He stays there for about a year and half (verse 11), early A.D. 52 to the middle of A.D. 53.

Paul starts out preaching in the local synagogue. The Jews of Corinth reject Paul’s message. From then on, he concentrates on preaching to the Gentiles (Acts 18:1-6). Paul no longer goes to the synagogue to preach, but "...went to the house of a certain man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue" (verse 7). The house of Titius Justus becomes Paul’s base of operation, and an early meeting place for the young Corinthian Church. The Corinthian Church starts out as a House Church, (i.e. a Living Room Church of God).

By examining the scriptures we see that there are three other possible House Churches in Corinth. First Corinthians refers to two of these House Churches. Paul sends this letter from Ephesus during the spring of A.D. 57.

The first possibility occurs in 1 Corinthians 1:11 "For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s { people,} that there are quarrels among you." (The word "people" is added by the translators, and is not in the Greek.) The verse could also be translated: "For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s, that there are quarrels among you."

Paul writes that he received information about the Corinthian Christians, from some people who are associated with an individual by the name of Chloe. The nature of this association is not clear. They could be members of Chloe’s family, household servants or possible even members of a House Church meeting in Chloe’s home.

A second possibility is found in 1 Corinthians 1:16 "Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. " The Greek word translated "household" in verse 16 is oikos 3624, meaning " a house, a dwelling," Abbott-Smith Lexicon. The NASB translates this word as: descendants (1), families (1), family (1), home (19), homes (1), house (78), household (14), households (1), itself (1), palaces (1). Keep the meaning of this Greek word oikos in mind as we will be seeing it in several other scriptures. The "house of Stephanas" is a completely justifiable translation—the Darby Bible uses exactly that.

Is it possible, then, that Paul is referring to a Christian assembly meeting in the house of Stephanas? Were the members of this House Church baptized by Paul himself? We see additional confirmation in 1 Corinthians 16:15, King James Version: "I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints)." A similar Greek word, oikia (# 3614) is translated "house," above. It means "a house or dwelling" and is related to oikos 3624, Abbott-Smith Lexicon. The NASB translates this word as: home (6), house (77), household (5), households (1), houses (7).

A third possible Corinthian House Church is mentioned in Romans 16;22-23: "I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother" (Rom. 16:22-23). Gaius is not only the host of Tertius (Paul’s secretary), but the "host of the whole church" in Corinth. This may mean the entire Corinthian congregation meets each Sabbath in Gaius’ home. Or it may mean that when the "whole church" gathers together in one meeting. It is done at the home of Gaius. With smaller regular weekly congregational meetings taking place in the homes of Justus, Chloe, and Stephanas. Gaius’ home may have been used for these smaller meetings as well.

Ephesian House Churches

Paul arrives in Ephesus in A.D. 54. He first teaches in the Jewish synagogue for three months (Acts 19:1, 8). After meeting resistance to his message by the Jews, Paul leaves the synagogue, and begins holding public meetings for two years in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9-10). Paul spent a total of three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31), A.D. 54 through 57. It is important to realize that the Bible nowhere condemns meeting in hired halls or buildings built for meetings. The point of this article is that the vast majority of early meetings were in homes.

During his stay in Ephesus, Paul writes First Corinthians (about A.D. 57). At that time there was an assembly of Christians meeting in the house of Aquila and Priscilla: "The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca [Priscilla] greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house" (1Cor 16:19). Aquila and Priscilla had been living in Ephesus since their departure from Corinth about A.D. 53 (Acts 18:18-28).

Paul comments on his stay in Ephesus to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, "...I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house" (Acts 20:17-20). Paul taught publicly in "school of Tyrannus" (Acts 19:9), and "from house to house" in House Churches like the one which met in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19). Is it possible the Ephesian Church was a collection of House Churches, or to use a modern term Living Room Churches of God? The facts point in that direction.

Troas House Church

On a Saturday night in Troas, (about A.D. 58), the local Christians are gathered in an "upper room" to break bread (have a fellowship meal), and listen to Paul speak (Acts 20:6-12). This may have just been a continuation of a Sabbath meeting that had begun sometime in the afternoon.

These verses do not say if the upper room they were meeting in, was in a private house or in a public building. We do know the upper room was on the third floor of this building (verse 9). We also know it was a practice of the early Church to meet in the houses of its members (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philm. 1-2). So it is plausible that this "upper room" was located in the house of a Troas Christian.

The House of Philip The Evangelist

On his way to Jerusalem, Paul spends a few days in Caesarea, staying in "the house of Philip the evangelist" (Acts 21:7-8). During Paul’s visit, Philip’s house is a meeting place for the local Christians community (Acts 21:10-15).

Is it likely Philip’s house was also used for regular worship? It was large enough for him to host Paul and his traveling companions (Acts 21:8). At the same time Philip’s house was able to accommodate "the local residents" (Acts 21:12) or "those from that place" (New King James Version), who were present when the prophet Agabus prophesied what would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem (verse 10-12).

Roman House Churches

During Paul’s first Roman captivity (A.D. 61-63), he rented a house for two years where he preached and taught (Acts 28:16, 23, 29-31). It seems likely Paul’s house would have become a regular meeting place for some Roman Christians. Was Paul the host of a Living Room Church of God? The evidence points in that direction.

Paul’s would not have been the only House Assembly in Rome, and it definitely was not the first. There may have been as many as five other House Churches in Rome, before the arrival of Paul. Mention of these assemblies are found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, probably written in the spring of A.D. 58. It is important to remember that at this time, Rome had no public transportation. You had to walk, or have a litter carried by servants or slaves. Carts and animals were not allowed to move around in the city during the day, only at night. This was a large spread out city. It was not practical for all Roman Christians to meet together for worship. Rome appears to have had at least five House Churches.

1. An Assembly or Church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila.

We know for a fact that there was at least one Church or Assembly meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5). By A.D. 58 they had left Ephesus, and returned to Rome.

2. "Greet those of Aristobulus."

Paul writes: "Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ; Greet those of Aristobulus" (Rom 16:10, Green’s Literal Translation) In the NASB and NKJ say "household of Aristobulus" but "household is not in the Greek text, but is added by the translators. Paul is sending greetings to Aristobulus and those who are with him. It is possible that "those of Aristobulus" refers to a group of believers meeting in the house of Aristobulus.

3. "Those of Narcissus."

The same Greek wording occurs in the next verse, except the name is "Narcissus". If the above assumption is correct, then Paul is sending greetings to Narcissus and those who are with him.

4. "Asyncritus... and the brethren with them."

Paul continues to acknowledge individuals for three verses, then mentions an additional group of Roman Christians: "Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them" (Rom. 16:14). There is a group of brethren associated with Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas and Hermes, This may be another reference to a Roman House Church.

5. "Philologus and Julia...and all the saints who are with them."

Paul sends greeting to another group of Roman Christians, who may have made up a fifth Roman House Church: "Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them" (Rom. 16:15).

False Teachers Subverting Whole House Churches

In his letter to Titus, written around 67 A. D., Paul warns: "For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, especially they of the circumcision: 11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake" (Tit. 1:10-11, KJV). The Greek word oikos is used here again, and reasonably rendered "houses". The NASB uses "families" and the NKJV "households," but the GLT, Darby and Webber Bibles use "houses."

Paul is warning Titus about false teachers who are subverting whole houses. This may refer to families, but it makes more sense if it refers to assemblies of Christians meeting in private houses. We know from other scriptures that by the late A.D. 50’s and early A.D. 60’s, Christians meeting in private homes was common (Rom. 16:3-5; 1Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phlm. 1-2), and this practice is traced back to the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 2:46-47; 5:42; 8:1-3; 12:12). Even today, there are people that travel around to house churches, trying to convert them to some new (or old) doctrine.

Paul sends a similar warning about false teachers to Timothy: "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was" (2 Tim. 3:5-9, KJV).

The Greek word translated "houses" here is oikia, again. The NASB, NKJV and NRSV still say "households, but most other translations say "houses". Logic tells you that people do not "creep in" and secretly become a part of your family or servants, but they enter your house pretending to be your friend, then later teach error.In light of evidence showing that Christians met in private homes (Acts 2:46-47; 5:42; 8:1-3; 12:12; Rom. 16:3-5; 1Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phlm. 1-2), Paul appears to be warning Timothy about false teachers sneaking into House Churches and leading people astray spiritually.

Towards the end of the first century (maybe 95 A.D), the apostle John writes what is known as the Second Epistle of John. In this letter, John writes that there are certain doctrinal standards a teacher should have before he is aloud to teach. "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into { your} house, and do not give him a greeting" (2 John 1:10).

Is it possible that John is warning a House Church to be careful whom they allow to enter their assembly as a teacher? Spiros Zodhiates in his introduction to Second John writes: "The ‘elect lady and her children’ (2 John 1:1) may be a reference to an actual lady and her children, but many scholars contend that this is a cryptic way of addressing a church to safeguard against the letter falling into the hands of those who were hostile to the Church." 8

New Testament House Churches

In this study we examined scriptural evidence showing that during the period of the New Testament, small groups of Christians assembled in private homes for worship, fellowship and instruction. The New Testament contains references to meeting in the temple, in synagogues, and a school. It contains no examples of Christians building a building specifically to meet, though it never condemns the practice. However, there are 4 unquestionable references to House Churches, and at least 21 likely references to House Churches in the New Testament. House Churches appear to be a very common, if not the normal practice of the New Testament Church of God—a practice those in today’s Living Room Church of God have returned to.

—Calvin Lashway

—Email: rlashway@nmsu.edu


Endnotes:

 

1) By "our religious tradition" I mean those who trace their history and theological teachings to the Worldwide Church of God and its founder Herbert W. Armstrong.

2) Don Hooser, "Thirty-five Reasons Not to Leave UCG," August 9,1997, Waco, Texas, transcribed from a tape of the sermon.

3) Albert Henry Newman, "A Manual of Church History, Volume 1, Ancient and Medieval Church History to A. D. 1517," The American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1899, 1933, page 142.

4) Richard Krautheimer, "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture," Penguin Books, 1965, 1975, Page 24.

5) The terms "direct evidence" and "indirect evidence" are from the booklet: Harvey Bluedorn, "The Biblical Evidence For House Assemblies," Trivium Pursuit, 139 Colorado Street, Suite 168, Muscatine, Iowa 52761.

6) All dates are approximations and are based on the chronologies found in Frank J. Goodwin, "A Harmony of the Life of St. Paul," Baker Book House, 1951, 1988, and Merrill F. Unger, "Unger’s Bible Dictionary," Moody Press, 1966, 1982, pages 485-488.

7) Krautheimer, "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture," Page 24.

8) Spiros Zodhiates, ed., "The Complete Word Study New Testament" King James Version, AMG Publishers, 1992, page 798.


Servants News November 1997 index