Last week, I posted an excerpt from Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity in a post called “Church and Meals.” I decided to read the final chapter of the book and share Gehring’s concluding remarks. Remember, Gehring does NOT argue that the early church ONLY met in houses, nor does he argue that the church today MUST meet in houses. Instead, he examines the scriptural and historical/archaeological evidence to determine the significance of houses in the early church.
In his conclusion, Gehring discusses three significant aspects of houses for the early church: the House as Building (Architectural Significance), the House as Community (Socioeconomic Significance), and the House as a Church (Ecclesiological Significance).
When discussing the architectural significance of the early church’s use of houses, Gehring concludes that they primarily (perhaps only) used normal houses. The church did not modify their houses, nor did they build special buildings, until later in history – that is, after the time of the New Testament. This is part of Gehring’s conclusion:
From an architectural point of view, the house offered certain strengths by providing space used in a variety of ways for missional outreach. The begin with, it should be pointed out that houses differ architecturally from one another. For the time period of the early Christian mission, Palestinian, Greek, and Roman types of private houses come into question. They were easily adapted, and they provided Christians with a low-cost venue for assembly. With relatively little effort it was possible to establish a Christians presence in the everyday life of ancient cities. At least in the early days, the triclinium (often in conjunction with the courtyard or atrium) provided an ideal room for teaching and preaching minisries, catechetical instruction for baptism, and other missional activities. The triclinium was also a room well suited for prayer meetings, table fellowship, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (cf. the primitive church in Jerusalem). Because of the physical limitations of the triclinium, the numerical size of the first house churches was relatively small (on average, twenty to forty persons; in very few exceptional cases, up to a hundred). Hence by necessity these first Christian communities were small, family-like groups in which individual pastoral care, initimate personal relationships, and accountability to each other were possible. “One reason for the house church’s powerful impact on its environment is found in the fact that it was not possible to grow beyond the parameters of a small group due to lack of space.” (pg. 289-290)
(By the way, the triclinium was a dining room, perhaps a formal dining room in larger houses.)
(Gehring ascribes the last quote to H.J. Klauk, Hausgemeinde und Hauskirche im frÃ¼hen Christentum (House-community and House-church in Early Christianity), SBS 103, Stuttgart: Katholisches Biblewerk, 1981, pg. 100.)
According to Gehring, individual pastoral care, intimate personal relationships, and accountability to each other were possible only because the early church met in small groups (twenty to forty max, or up to a hundred in rare cases).
The question that we (the church today) must ask ourselves is this: Is individual pastoral care, intimate personal relationships, and accountability to each other necessary for health and mission of the church? In other words, did these things only occur in the early church because they were limited by their meeting space, or were these important to the early church regardless of their type of meeting space?
I think a case can be made from the New Testament that our relationships with one another – intimate relationships – are vitally important to the health and mission of the church. I am not concerned with meeting space, as long as meeting space does not hinder our relationships and our functioning as a church – that is, the entire church functioning together as we see described in the New Testament.
Gehring does offer a couple of limitations and weaknesses placed on the church by the architecture of houses:
1) “The relatively small capacity of the triclinium was not only a positive factor, as by necessity it limited the potential number of participants for the worship service.” Gehring suggests that once the number of participants grew above the space limitations, the church would be required to find a larger house in which to meet. I think there may have been other options to the early church, just as there are other options today.
2) “[W]ithout intentional Christian alteration, a private house did not outwardly testify of the faith.” In other words, these houses did not have a sign out front, or a steeple, or a big cross on the top. Again, I think the early Christians were more interested in spreading the gospel in other ways.
I want to return for a moment to the quote by Klauk:
“One reason for the house church’s powerful impact on its environment is found in the fact that it was not possible to grow beyond the parameters of a small group due to lack of space.”
This seems backwards. It would seem that a larger group would have a larger impact on its environment. But, Klauk says just the opposite: the early church had a “powerful” impact on its culture and community precisely because they remained in smaller groups. Perhaps we can learn something from this: bigger is not always better. Sometimes, bigger is a detriment.