There are no known church buildings prior to the time of Constantine. During the apostolic era and for the next two centuries, the church met primarily in the private homes of its wealthier members. This necessarily meant that the typical congregation was smaller rather than larger.
Everything in the New Testament was arguably written to churches that met in private homes. These smaller fellowships foster the intimacy and accountability that characterized the early church. The relationships the New Testament describes work best in congregations where everyone knows each other.
The word church (ekklésia) in the New Testament never refers to a building. It fundamentally means assembly, gathering, meeting or congregation. It is clear from Scripture that the early church met in the private homes of its more affluent members. For example Philemon, who was wealthy enough to own a slave, also hosted the church in his home (Philemon 2b). Church hostess Lydia was a prosperous businesswoman who sold expensive purple fabric and could afford servants (Ac 16:14-15) “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay. And she prevailed upon us.. “
Aquila and Priscilla were tent makers, a lucrative first century trade (Ac 18:1-3). Gaius’ home was big enough to host the whole church (Ro 16:23) and John indicated that Gaius had the means to generously support missionaries (3Jn 1-5). Less well known is the fact that the early church continued this practice of house churches for hundreds of years after the New Testament writings were completed. What are we to do with the fact that the early church met mostly in homes?
A Purposeful Pattern
The most common explanation for the existence of early house churches was the pressure of persecution. However, the reality of persecution would not rule out the possibility of a preference by the apostles for smaller, Roman atrium sized congregations. Arguably, the New Testament ideal for church life is best realized in a smaller, family-like context (scores rather than multiple hundreds or even thousands of people).
Might the apostles have laid down a purposeful pattern of relatively small congregations? It is a design axiom that form follows function. The apostles’ belief concerning the function of the church was naturally expressed in the form that the church took on in the first century. Some of the distinct practices of those early house churches are worth considering: A loving, family-like atmosphere is more easily developed. One of the things families do is eat together and celebrating the Lord’s Supper as an actual meal is much more conducive to a smaller setting. Achieving congregational consensus is easier when everyone knows everyone else and open lines of communication genuinely exist. The many “one another” exhortations of Scripture can be much more realistically lived out. Participatory worship is natural to a smaller setting and is more meaningful. Also, freed from the burden of maintaining a dedicated campus, more assets are available for kingdom expansion. Roman house church was more like a business in both size and public areas. They had different ideas of privacy than we do.
The real issue, of course, is not where a church meets, but how it can best do what God requires of it. The problem is that a major reason church buildings have been erected is in order to hold more people than would fit into a typical Roman home’s atrium or courtyard .We wonder at the appropriateness of constructing overly large church edifices since having too many people in attendance can serve to defeat the very purposes for holding a church meeting in the first place. Large crowds are great for special events such as evangelistic crusades or a teaching seminar, but the activities of the weekly church gathering (mutual edification, accountability, encouraging one another, the fellowship of the Holy Meal, strengthening relationship, building consensus, etc.) is better suited to smaller gatherings.
Although house churches are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mega-churches, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking too small.
There is nothing wrong in itself with a congregation having a church building. However, we need to remember that structure and systems exist for a purpose; they are not ends in themselves. There is a great necessity for us to have structures and systems that will benefit the effective functioning of the church. Gathering in smaller venues facilitates participation, interaction, discussion and one-another ministry. Using private homes when suitable is a much better use of resources.
To function as effectively as the early church functioned, modern church structures, sizes and systems must be carefully considered. The structure should be informal, the size of the community ought to be around a hundred (or so) and the seating arrangement must be flexible. Since every member’s participation and ministry was highly valued and encouraged in the early church, a large home with ample parking is still a good setting wherein every person can comfortably contribute and function for the edification of the whole body of Christ.
Regretfully, due to the structure and the order of churches today, we are often missing some very important purposes of church gatherings — fellowship and one another encouragement (Heb 10:25). Church is not about passively attending formal services; neither is it to be a program. It is a people. Worship is not going to a service but doing service to one another. It should be about intimate fellowship with one another and actively encouraging one another. It is about interdependently functioning for the edification of all.
In the same way, the New Testament envisions followers of Jesus living alongside one another for the sake of one another. The Bible portrays the church as a community of Christians who care for one another, love one another, host one another, receive one another, honor one another, serve one another, instruct one another, forgive one another, motivate one another, build up one another, encourage one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, confess sin to one another, esteem one another, edify one another, teach one another, show kindness to one another, give to one another, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, hurt with one another, and restore one another.
The apostolic church did not erect church buildings in large part because they simply didn’t need them. The letters which were written to the various New Testament churches were mostly written to Roman atrium sized churches. Because they are written to house churches the instructions contained in them are geared to work in a smaller congregation — they were never meant to work in a large group setting. Consequently, they don’t work as well in large congregations. To attempt to apply New Testament church practices to a contemporary large church is just as unnatural as pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17).
The Bible never tells us how many people met in the New Testament house churches (except for the 120 in Acts). However many (or few) there were, they were able to make disciples, evangelize, plant churches, have a plurality of elders, support some elders and be receive plenty of good teaching. Somehow the vast majority of modern Western house churches are not able to do this. Another factor to consider is that a house church is counter-cultural in the West. Many people (lost and save alike) will consider it a little too weird. Many metropolitan areas in America are now passing zoning ordinances making it illegal to have a church in a home. In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.
A reformation is needed to help God’s people function more effectively and biblically. Gathering in houses is not a perfect solution wherein we don’t have any problems at all. It is only perhaps a better and more effective approach (it has more advantages and less disadvantages). Problems will still occur and must be dealt prayerfully and wisely according to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and with the counsel of experienced godly people. May we never forget that any church paradigm is weak and lacks life without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is the life of the church; without Him any church is dead. Let us seek to be clothed with the power from on high as we constantly seek to establish His Kingdom on earth. May the Lord abundantly pour out His Spirit upon His body, the church!
The Premise from the Apostles
The apostles had a very definite way they organized churches and it was based on the teachings of Jesus. Their intent was for all congregations to follow these same apostolic traditions of church practice, for as long as the church exists.
There are certain things on which all true churches focus. Oxford University professor of ecclesiastical history Stanley Greensdale stated, “the church exists to promote the worship of God, the inner life of the spirit, the evangelization of the world and the molding of society according to the will of God.” The apostles knew the best context and methods to achieve these objectives and purposely patterned this for us in the churches they established.
1. It’s Logical
If anyone rightly understood the purpose of the church, it was the original apostles. They were hand-picked and personally trained by Jesus for three years. The things Jesus taught His apostles about the church were naturally reflected in the way they later set up and organized churches. The apostles’ beliefs about the function of the church would surely have affected the way they organized churches (form follows function). To imitate the apostles’ traditions regarding church life would be a wise choice for any fellowship.
2. It’s Praiseworthy
Paul praised for the Corinthian church for holding to his traditions of church practice: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). The Greek word for tradition, paradosis, fundamentally means “that which is passed on.” Gordon Fee pointed out that although paradosis was also a technical term in Judaism for oral transmission of religious instruction, in 1 Corinthians 11 it almost certainly does not refer to teachings, but rather to religious traditions regarding worship. Thus we see an apostle praising a church for holding to his traditions regarding worship. It is of note that the word “traditions” (11:2) is plural. Paul had in mind more than the one tradition dealt with in 1 Corinthians 11. Should we limit our observance to this one tradition only or should we follow all the traditions of church organization that can be observed on the pages of the New Testament? Most churches still do follow some New Testament patterns. Our question is: Why not follow all of them? We argue for consistency.
3. It was Universal
Paul quieted those inclined to oppose his traditions for church practice by appealing to the universal practice of all the other churches: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1Co 11:16). This final statement was designed to win over the contentious people and settle any argument. The point is that Paul expected all the churches to be doing the same thing. Just to realize that one was different was argument enough to silence opposition. Prior emphasis had obviously been given to certain practices that were supposed to be done the same way, everywhere. This indicates a uniformity of practice in all New Testament churches.
1 Corinthians 14 is another chapter that deals directly with church practice. In verse 36 Paul asked two questions: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” The obvious answer to both questions is no. The Corinthians were tempted to deviate from what all the other churches were doing. Evidently all the churches were expected to follow the same patterns in their church meetings. These two questions were designed to keep the Corinthians in line with the practice of all the other churches. It was not as if they had authored the Scriptures or were the only church with a copy of the word of God. They had no right to differ from the practice of the other churches and neither do we. Holding to apostolic traditions (New Testament church patterns) was universal in the first century and, we argue, should be today as well.
4. It Brings God’s Peaceful Presence
In Philippians 4:8-9 we are given the recipe for how to have the God of Peace be with us. Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” We are instructed to put into practice what we learned, received, heard from Paul, or saw in Paul (Phlp 4:9). Would this not also include the way we see Paul organized churches in the New Testament? To bypass apostolic tradition in this area may be to bypass a portion of God’s blessing. Could it be that those fellowships which also follow the apostle’s church practice may enjoy even more of God’s peaceful presence?
5. It’s Commanded
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we are commanded to “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” It is not just apostolic teachings to which we are to adhere, but also apostolic traditions (as revealed exclusively on the pages of Scripture). The Twelve are not here today to teach us by word of mouth. However, we do have letters that record their traditions (the New Testament). The overall context of 2 Thessalonians 2 refers to Paul’s teaching tradition about end-time events, not church practice per se. Yet the word “traditions” (2:15) is again plural; the author clearly had more in view than merely his teaching tradition about the second coming. Why would it not also apply in principle to his traditions regarding church order, as patterned in the New Testament?
What are some of the apostolic traditions for church practice? Ancient church practice included celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly as a holy fellowship meal co-terminus with the Agapé feast, participatory worship with mutual edification as the goal of the gathering, church government by elder led congregational consensus, Roman atrium sized congregations, meeting regularly on the Lord’s Day for worship, integrating church and family as children stay with parents during worship and a community church focused on relationships over programs.
It seems to us that whatever was normative church practice for all the churches in the New Testament should be normative practice for churches today. Perhaps these patterns of church practice are part of what gave the early church the dynamic that today’s church has been missing for so long. It bears pointing out that without Christ at the center of things, these patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell (Jn 15:5). We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine. Both have their place. Either one without the other is problematic (Lk 5:36-38).
If the Bible commands something, then we ought to obey. The fact is that the Bible commands adherence to the traditions of the apostles (2Th 2:15). We must be careful not to develop our own church traditions that might inhibit our ability to obey the commands of our Lord. Care must also be taken not to develop our own traditions that replace the original traditions of the apostles. The real question thus is not, Must we do things the way they were done in the New Testament? Rather, the question is: Why would we want to do things any other way?
The Pattern of the Lord’s Supper
The first century church celebrated the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day as a sacred, covenant feast (the Agapé). It was an actual meal centered around one cup and one loaf. This holy meal was the main reason for the weekly gathering of the church and was a wonderful time of fellowship and edification.
When partaken of as an actual feast in a joyful, wedding atmosphere, the Lord’s Supper typifies the wedding supper of the Lamb and thus has a strong forward looking aspect to it. The bread and wine are symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood and also serve to remind Jesus of His promise to return and eat of the meal again with us. In addition, using a single cup and loaf not only symbolize the oneness of the church, but God also uses it to create unity within a body of believers. Another major benefit of celebrating the Supper as a holy banquet is the fellowship and encouragement that each member experiences. It is a primary means of edifying the church during the Sunday gathering.
His future wedding banquet was much on our Lord’s mind during the Last Supper. Jesus first mentioned it at the beginning of the Passover feast when He said, “I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Lk 22:16). He mentioned it a second time when passing the cup, saying, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Lk 22:18). After the supper Jesus referred to the banquet yet again, saying, “I confer on you a kingdom . . . so that you may eat and drink at my wedding supper.
Functions of The Lord’s Supper:
The Lord’s Supper is arguably the sign of the new covenant. As Jesus took the cup He said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). The purpose of any sign is to serve as a reminder of covenant promises. Thus Jesus said we are to partake of the bread “in remembrance of Me” (Lk 22:19). The Greek word translated “remembrance,” anamnesis, means “reminder.” Literally translated, Jesus said, “do this unto my reminder.”
Is the reminder primarily for Jesus’ benefit or ours? Joachim Jeremias understood Jesus to use anamnesis in the sense of a reminder for God, “The Lord’s Supper would thus be an enacted prayer.” In The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, he argued that the Greek underlying the word “until” (1Co 11:26, achri hou) is not simply a temporal reference, but functions as a kind of final clause. The meal’s function is as a constant reminder to God to bring about the Second Coming.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:26, confirms this by stating that the church, in eating the Lord’s Supper, is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” To whom do we proclaim His death and why? Arguably, it is proclaimed it to the Lord Himself as a reminder for Him to return. The normal Greek for until (heos hutou) merely denotes a time frame. For example, I might say that I will use an umbrella “until” it stops raining, merely denoting a time frame. (Using the umbrella has nothing to do with causing the rain to stop). However, this is not how “until’ is used in 1 Corinthians 11:26. The Greek behind “until” in 1 Corinthians 11:26 is ‘achri hou’. Reinecker points out that as it is used here it denotes much more than a mere time frame; grammatically it can denote a goal or an objective. Paul was instructing the church to partake of the bread and cup as a means of proclaiming the Lord’s death (as a reminder) until (with the goal of persuading) Him to come back! Thus, in proclaiming His death through the loaf and cup, the Supper looked forward to and anticipated His return.
2.) Creating Unity
The bread and the wine serve as representations of the body and blood of our Lord. His propitiatory death on the cross is the very foundation of the Lord’s Supper. Just as the form of the Lord’s Supper is important (a full fellowship meal that prefigured the wedding banquet of the Lamb), also important is the form of the bread and cup. Mention is made in Scripture of the cup of thanksgiving (a single cup) and of only one loaf: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1Co 10:16-17). The one loaf not only pictures our unity in Christ, but according to 1 Corinthians 10:17 it may even create unity! Notice carefully the wording of the inspired text. “Because” there is one loaf, therefore we are one body, “for” we all partake of the one loaf (1Co 10:17). Partaking of a pile of broken cracker crumbs and multiple cups of juice is a picture of disunity, division, and individuality. It completely misses the imagery of unity. One scholar wrote that Lord’s Supper was “intended as means of fostering the unity of the church . . .”
In the book of Acts we learn that the early church devoted themselves to “fellowship in the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42, literal translation). In many English versions there is an “and” between “teaching” and “fellowship” and between “bread” and “prayer” but not between “fellowship” and “bread” (Ac 2:42). This is because in some Greek manuscripts the words “fellowship” and “breaking of bread” are linked together as simultaneous activities. They had fellowship with one another as they broke bread together. Luke further informs us that this eating was done with “glad and sincere hearts” (2:46). Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? It was also the opinion of F.F. Bruce that in Acts 2, the fellowship enjoyed was expressed practically in the breaking of bread. Bruce further held that the phrase “breaking of bread” denotes “something more than the ordinary partaking of food together: the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper is no doubt indicated . . . this observance appears to have formed the part of an ordinary meal.”
Its Frequency: Weekly! Early believers ate the Lord’s Supper weekly as the main purpose for their coming together as a church each Lord’s Day. In Acts 20:7, Luke informs, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” The words “to break bread” in Acts 20:7 reflect what is known as a telic infinitive. It denotes a purpose or objective. Their meeting was a meating!
Another place the New Testament states the purpose for a church gathering is 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Their “meetings” (11:17) were doing more harm than good because when they came “together as a church” (11:18a) they had deep divisions. Thus Paul wrote, “when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (11:20). From this it is obvious that the stated reason for their church meetings was to eat the Lord’s Supper. Sadly, their abuses of the Supper were so gross that it had ceased being the Lord’s Supper, but the fact remains that they outwardly were gathering each week to celebrate the Supper.
The third and last reference to the reason for an assembly is found in 1 Corinthians 11:33, “When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” As before, it shows that the reason they came together was to eat. Lest this appear to be making much out of little, it must be realized that no other reason is ever given in the Scriptures as to the purpose of a regular, weekly church meeting.
In summary, the Lord’s Supper is the primary purpose for which the church is to gather each Lord’s Day. The bread and wine are also symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood and serve to remind Jesus of His promise to return and eat of the meal again with His church (Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!).
Compiled by Woody Johnson