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Historical Reference:
402 History of the Early Church

The Apostolic Church, a House-Church System

The Value of Historical Awareness
Introduction to the Early Church
The Apostolic Church, a House Church System
Fourth Century Changes in Church Meetings
Other Major Changes of the Post-Apostolic Church
Ideological Competitors of Early Christianity
Changes in 4th Century Theology – The Gospel
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Church and State
The Apostolic Church vs. Greek Mysticism
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Determinism, Divorce
Conclusions, Does God Care About These Changes?

The Apostolic Church, a House-Church System

The first historical difference between the Apostolic church and the post-Augustinian church is that prior to the time of Constantine at around 313-325 AD, Christians didn’t have or meet in church buildings. Instead, for the first 300 years, Christians met in one another’s homes. Let’s look at some quotes from Christian historians on this subject.

Our first quote comes from noted church historian Philip Schaff.

Philip Schaff –
born Jan. 1, 1819, Chur, Switz., died Oct. 20, 1893, New York, N.Y., U.S., Swiss-born American ecumenical leader and theologian whose works, especially the Creeds of Christendom (1877), helped set standards in the United States for scholarship in church history…In addition to his seven-volume History of the Christian Church (1858–92), Schaff’s works include…
Encyclopedia Britannica

That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question…As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so his apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of the their converts.
Philip Schaff, Nineteenth-Century American Church Historian and Theologian quoted by Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 2, The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex, page 9

The Reverend Dr. Frank C. Senn, STS – He holds a B.A. from Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY, a M.Div. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He was Assistant Professor of Liturgics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago from 1978-81 and has taught courses at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the University of Notre Dame, Concordia University in River Forest, IL, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. Active in liturgical circles, Dr. Senn has served as President of the North American Academy of Liturgy and The Liturgical Conference. – Immanuel Lutheran Church, http://ilcevanston.org/

Indeed, Christians of the first three centuries usually met in private residences…This indicates that the ritual bareness of the early Christian worship should not be taken as a sign of primitiveness, but rather as a way of emphasizing the spiritual character of Christian worship.”
Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 53, quoted by Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, page 14

Graydon F. Snyder is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary. – amazon.com, Product Description for Inculturation of the Jesus Tradition: The Impact of Jesus on Jewish and Roman Cultures (Paperback)

Nor is there any extant church that certainly was built prior to the time of Constantine. – Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 67, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.12.

The first churches consistently met in homes. Until the year 300 we know of no buildings first built as churches. – Graydon F. Snyder, First Corinthians: A Faith Community (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), 63, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.12.

In the first three centuries the church had no buildings. – Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 166, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.14.

We have no temples and no altars. – Minucius Felix, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, ch. 32, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.14.

Marcus Minucius Felix
born , Africa?, died c. 250, Rome, one of the earliest Christian Apologists to write in Latin.
Encyclopedia Britannica

The New Testament itself may provide insight into why the early church met in their homes. Both the Last Supper and the day of Pentecost were meetings of Jesus’ disciples in someone’s home.

Mark 14: 14 And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? 15 And he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared: there make ready for us.

Luke 22: 11 And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? 12 And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready.

Acts 1: 13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.

Acts 2: 1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

Acts and the rest of the New Testament confirms what we’ve read in non-canonical, apostolic writings: the early church did meet in one another’s homes.

Acts 2: 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

Acts 20: 20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house.

Romans 16: 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.

1 Corinthians 16: 19 The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.

Colossians 4: 15 Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.

Philemon 1: 2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

Think about the significance of this fact. How much of our regular experience of Christianity and church is defined by what we do at our weekly church services at our church buildings. For Christians today and in the early church, the time we spend meeting with our fellow church-members each week is the key expression of our faith and fellowship with one another in Christ. And yet imagine all the things about our modern weekly gatherings that for 300 years were not part of the early church’s weekly experience.

Today, we meet in large buildings constructed with a large, open space for the purposes of holding hundreds of people or more. But the church of the Apostolic Age met in small rooms in ancient houses. This means that the number of people they fellowshipped with each week was necessarily smaller. As a result, their fellowship would have been decisively more intimate.

This intimacy was both intentional and integral. It facilitated their fellowship and allowed for communion to be shared as a full meal. The early church patterned their weekly communal gatherings on the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted communion as the only regular feast among his followers. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus celebrated this communion meal after the model of the Passover feast, which was a full, evening meal.

Matthew 26: 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had appointed them; and they made ready the passover. 20 Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve.

Mark 14: 16 And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. 17 And in the evening he cometh with the twelve.

Luke 22: 3 And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. 14 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. 15 And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:

John 13: 1 Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. 2 And supper (1173) being ended,

In the New Testament, Paul, Peter, and Jude refer to communion as an evening meal and as a feast.

1 Corinthians 10: 20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper (1173). 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

1173 deipnon
AV-supper 13, feast 3; 16
1) supper, especially a formal meal usually held at the evening,

1 Corinthians 5: 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

2 Peter 2: 13 …Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings while they feast with you;

Jude 1: 12 These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you,

The early church continued to practice communion as a full meal at least once a week.

According to Frank Senn, “Christians of the first several centuries…Their central ritual involved a meal that had a domestic origin and setting inherited from Judaism.”
Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 53. – quoted by Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 2, The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex, page 14

In the first and early second centuries, the Lord’s Supper seems to have been taken in the evening as a meal. Second-century sources show it was taken only Sundays. In the Didache, the Eucharist is still shown to be taken with the Agape meal (love feast). Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, 23, Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 82-84, 96-97, 127-130, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.193.

So, at least once a week every week, for almost 300 years Christians gathered together in one another’s homes and shared a full meal together. This was their central act of fellowship.

On the other hand, Modern Christians gather with hundreds of people. They face forward away from one another throughout the service. And the communion meal is reduced to a few minutes of the service, to a small sip of wine or juice, and a bite of bread or a cracker. Many churches today don’t even have communion on a weekly basis. Instead, they only take communion together once or twice a month.

Think of the contrast here. Jesus instituted only one feast for his followers to keep in the New Covenant. According to the New Testament this was THE central act of Christian fellowship with one another and with Christ. And for three hundred years the early church dearly cherished and celebrated that feast together by eating a meal in one another’s homes. Now that’s fellowship. That’s a family where your fellow Christians truly become your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Eating a full, communal meal and meeting in houses also meant that the early church gatherings were more interactive than our meeting today. In our study on Church Gatherings online, we survey information on church gatherings in the gospels, the Book of Acts, and the epistles. When we examine these passages, we find that whenever Jesus’ followers are gathered together there is teaching and interaction, questions and comments. After Christ’s ascension the early church continued to meet in this format with one to three main teachers or presenters instructing the church through various modes. And the other men present at the meetings were able to ask questions and comment. This format was borrowed from synagogue life in Judaism, which involved a reading in the scripture and then some teaching and discussion by the men present. Throughout the New Testament starting with Jesus and continuing through Paul, we see that the Jew's manner of instruction was interactive involving questions being asked of both the teacher and the student.

Luke 2: 46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

John 16: 30 Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God.

Matthew 13 – Jesus teaches the crowds and his disciples in a long discourse where Jesus speaks for 46 out of 53 verses. There is some interaction and questions from the disciples about the parables.

Matthew 17 and 18 record a series of interactive dialogues while Jesus is gathered together with disciples. Jesus is featured as the teacher with his disciples asking him questions.

Matthew 24-25 – Jesus is gathered with his disciples who ask him about his return and the coming of the kingdom. Jesus responds with 93 uninterrupted verses instructing them what will happen and what to watch for.

Mark 13 – Jesus is gathered with his disciples who ask him about his return and the coming of the kingdom. Jesus responds with 33 uninterrupted verses instructing them what will happen and what to watch for.

Luke 8 – Jesus teaches the crowds and his disciples for 14 verses. He is interrupted in the middle of this by a question from the disciples about the teaching.

Luke 10-22 – Jesus teaches the crowds and his disciples who are gathered together to hear him. Jesus’ speaking comprises 419 of the 538 verses, which end with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Interaction from others occurs throughout.

John 13-17 – Jesus gathers together with his disciples on the night before his death. These four chapters consist of 125 verses with Jesus teaching his apostles for 116 of the verses. During Jesus’ discourse, he is on several occasions interrupted by the disciples who comment and ask questions.

Acts 1 – Peter leads an interactive discussion as the disciples choose someone to replace Judas.

Acts 2:42, 46 – The church meets in their homes for communion meal and for the apostles’ teaching after the model of the Last Supper.

Acts 15 – The apostles and elders meet together and interactively discuss important theological issues and instruct the church, though a few men do lead the conversation. Afterwards, other apostles and elders gather the church in Antioch and together instruct them.

Acts 13:15, Acts 17:1-3, 17, Acts 18:4 – There are multiple occasions when Paul goes into the synagogues and is able to have an interactive discussion with the Jews gathered there on the Sabbath.

1 Corinthians 14 – Paul discusses how the purpose of their meetings was to edify the church community through teaching and instruction-related activities. He discusses how two or three could participate in leading the teaching. Verses 32-37 specifically state that it was only women who were not allowed to speak in the church meetings and indicate that it was the custom of all the churches as given by Christ himself that men could ask questions as others taught.

So, we can see how truly different the early church’s meetings were from our own today. They sat together in a room and had interactive meetings with teaching and questions and ate a full meal together in each others homes.

Related Outlines
> Church History Study

> Early Church Consensus

> Addendum