I’ve never been a member of a house church, but a big part of me would like to be. I love the idea of a stripped down, no bells and whistles, authentic gathering of believers making disciples and living on mission together. And I’m sympathetic with the house church movement that’s gaining traction in recent years. But are house churches biblical?
Early on, Christians gathered at the temple and at synagogues. But as Christianity began to separate from Judaism, believers gathered in homes. Or more specifically, they gathered in the homes of rich Christians who had houses large enough to host a gathering of 20 or so people. We see such gatherings throughout the New Testament. In Acts, houses quickly become the primary location for Christian gatherings (1:13; 2:2, 46; 12:12). Paul addressed at least 5 different house churches in Romans 16. Corinth had a few house churches, though on occasion they all gathered at the house of Gaius, who must have had a rather large home (Rom. 16:23). In the first century believers didn’t gather at church buildings as far as we can tell; they gathering in homes. House churches are therefore biblical in as much as this is where believers gathered for worship.
But we have to distinguish between what is described and what is prescribed. Unless I’m missing something, the New Testament never prescribes (i.e. commands) that believers meet in homes as opposed to meeting in a building. It simply describes that this is what they did in the first-century.
The question is why? Why did believers meet in homes rather than buildings? There are usually two answers that are given.
1) They met in homes because this is where they “did life.” Well, not really. Whatever “doing life” meant for first-century believers, it didn’t happen in the homes. Most believers were crammed into a tiny 500-700 square foot flat with little or no ventilation, no running water, and no toilets other than a large pot in the corner. (Watch out below when it’s time to empty!) Most folks, in the cities at least, “did life” on the streets, in the market place, or at the shop. Homes weren’t very homey.
2) They met in homes because believers protested meeting in buildings. This is what some people think, but it’s historically not true. Early believers first met in synagogues, which were buildings designed for gatherings much like our contemporary churches. If Christians didn’t get kicked out of these buildings, they would have continued to meet there. The same goes for the temple, another building, although they moved away from there for more theological reasons.
So why did they meet in the homes of rich Christians? Because that was the only option. Buildings were expensive and in some cities like Rome it would have been extremely difficult to afford to build a building or to purchase an existing one. Plus, the gatherings were relatively small. Most fellowships were 10-20 people, 50 at the most. Why spend loads of money for a building when we could just meet over at Gaius’ house?
So, house churches in the first century weren’t reacting against the organization of the synagogue or the liturgy of the temple. And they certainly weren’t opposed to meeting in a building on principle. They met in homes because they didn’t have other real options.
So when did the church start meeting in buildings? Some people think that believers met in homes for the next 300 years until Constantine got saved (AD 313) and introduced all sorts of paganism into Christianity—including organized services and elaborate buildings. While there may be a grain of truth to this, it’s only a grain. We have evidence of a church building that dates back to AD 240 (80 years before Constantine) at Dura-Europos in Syria. This church building had a sanctuary, a Sunday school room, and a separate baptistery. And there may have been many other buildings such as this one. This is simply the earliest one archaeologists have found.
So are house churches biblical? Sure. And again, I personally resonate with such small, authentic gatherings. But I don’t think they are any more biblical than buildings. And if believers gather in homes in reaction to the “organized” church that meets in buildings, not only is this wrong-headed—reactions are shaky foundations—it may be further from the original intention of first-century house churches.
Here’s the key point for all of us: Don’t make your church model your identity. Jesus is your identity. The type of structure where we gather and the model of service—or lack of service—should always be secondary. Nothing should compete with our claim that Jesus is supreme.