Have you heard this before? The early Christians did not have buildings and hierarchical leadership and programs because they just weren’t organized enough yet. The suggestion is made that once the early Christians became more organized, they moved out of the infant church stage into a stage in which a more mature and right church existed.
Daniel J. Harrington makes a similar point in The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001). Harrington is a professor of New Testament at Westin Jesuit School of Theology.
While describing “how early Christians worshiped” (his chapter title), Harrington says:
Where did early Christians meet for worship? It seems to have been at the private homes of relatively well-to-do members. The earliest Christians did not have a system of animal or produce sacrifices, as so there was no need for a temple. Nor did they have the membership necessary for erecting separate buildings (“churches”). (49)
So, the reason that the earliest Christians did not erect buildings is that they did not have the membership (and the corresponding financial resource) to build a building.
However, according to Acts 2:41, about 3000 “members” were added to the church in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. (By the way, many people who say that large churches are okay point out that this was the first “mega-church”.) So, were 3000 (plus the original 120) too few members to afford to erect a building? Well, some of these were obviously pilgrims who may have returned to their homes. Perhaps after the festival and after everyone returned home there were far less than 3000 in Jerusalem (oops, but that hurts the argument for “mega-churches”).
Of course, in Acts 4:4, the number of believers had grown to 5000 – seemingly because of the power displayed by the apostles. But, there were apparently still too few “members” to erect a building. In fact, later, we find that some disciples are meeting together in “Mary’s house” for prayer (Acts 12:12).
So, how many “members” would be necessary to erect a special building? Perhaps the problem is not with the number of Christians. Perhaps those early Christians did not want or need a special building to meet in – regardless of the number of Christians in a city. Of course, that would be even harder for us to explain.
(By the way, I enjoy reading Catholic exegesis of the NT Scriptures concerning the church. Why? Because, for the most part, they tell it like it was. They use a simple hermeneutic to explain what Scripture says about the church. But, since most Catholics believe that their later traditions can add to the scriptural understanding of the church, there is no contradiction between the early church and the modern church. However, for modern Protestant exegetes – who believe that Scripture tells us what we need to know about everything, including the church – many have to jump through hoops to make the Scriptures align with modern practices.)