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Architectural Significance of Houses in the NT

Posted by on Jul 7, 2009 in books, church history, gathering | 17 comments

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 frühen 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.


17 Comments

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  1. 7-7-2009

    Alan,

    I think meeting size does definitely have an impact on the quality of relationships within the church. I wrote about this earlier here:

    http://www.sbcimpact.net/2008/09/05/group-dynamics-and-church/

    There does seem, however, to be some evidence in the NT that early church dynamics were not strictly limited to small group meetings, as seen in the gatherings in the temple court in Jerusalem, and references to the “whole church” in Corinth coming together (1 Cor 11:18; 14:23), though it is uncertain what the numerical size of the “whole church” in Corinth was at this time.

    I think, though (as Gehring points out as well), that meeting size does, to some degree, determine the type of things that normally happen in a church meeting, and that, as a result, there is a place for different types of church meetings with different functions.

    I wrote to you about this a several years ago, referencing Watchman Nee’s “Assembling Together.”

    I think that Bill Beckham’s treatise “The Second Reformation” (http://www.amazon.com/Second-Reformation-Reshaping-Church-Century/dp/1880828901), where he talks about the concept of the Two-Winged Church (e.g. small group and large group), does a good job of addressing this.

  2. 7-7-2009

    David,

    It’s good to “see” you around here again! I hope things are going well for you and your family. I was hoping to see you in person this summer.

    I agree that the church met in many different settings. Gehring argues that the “temple court” meetings and other meetings were primarily evangelistic and could not have been for any type of systematic teaching or such. I don’t know.

    However, I do believe that neither the meeting location or nor the number of people are as important as the relational, communal, and fellowship aspects. Today, unfortunately, I think we’ve replaced the relational, communal, and fellowship aspects with “bigger is better” mentality. In many ways, the big meetings have become necessary today while the smaller meetings are less important. I think this is backwards from what we see in the NT.

    -Alan

  3. 7-7-2009

    Alan,

    I had to drop the seminars this summer in order to tend to some family matters. I am still in the program, though, and hope to get back to W.F. the next time around. I was looking forward to seeing you too.

    I definitely agree that in our institutional-dominated church world today, the large group meeting is typically emphasized way more, comparatively speaking, than it appears to have been in the NT, and than what is best for overall church health.

    However, I still think there is a danger of doing a pendulum swing in the opposite direction, and disregarding the value of large-group church meetings altogether.

  4. 7-7-2009

    David,

    What is the value in large meetings? I have been to many and I promise I have never experienced any real benefit.

  5. 7-7-2009

    David and Lionel,

    I’m guessing that my concept of a “large group” meeting and the contemporary church “worship service” are not very similar. My concept of a meeting with a large number of believers begins with the church in its smaller form. Thus, a “large group” meeting would simply be a meeting of multiple smaller churches. These people already come together with relationships with one another and a desire to see what God is doing on a larger scale among people in their area.

    -Alan

  6. 7-7-2009

    If the church met in the thousands back in the book of Acts multiple times, I don’t see why it should be different today—and regarding benefits, I think there’s much involved in it…whether in conferences or gathering the community together for the sake of networking on common issues to work on or providing money for support/resources (i.e. mission field, benevolence, etc).

    Would things be out of line such as having churches (large or small) having their own fellowships and yet still having times of coming together corporately for celebration and strenghtening?

  7. 7-7-2009

    Lionel,

    Several of the benefits of large-group meetings I can think of are:

    1. They can be an expression of the unity of the larger Body of Christ in an area, whether it be an entire city, a larger region, or a smaller portion of a city, helping otherwise relatively isolated groups of Christians to catch a greater vision of what God is doing around them, and giving a platform for united testimony to the lost.

    2. As Beckham points out in “The Second Reformation,” small group meetings are ideally suited for experiencing the personal, intimate nature of God (His immanence), whereas large group meetings are more ideally suited for experiencing His majesty and awesomeness (His transcendence).

    3. Perhaps related to the first 2 points, there is, in my opinion, something special about singing praises to God together with a large group in unison. This is not to denigrate the value or specialness of singing to God in individual and/or small group contexts. But, there is a different “feel,” if you will, about singing (and other forms of expressing devotion to God) in large groups, that I think provides a healthy balance, whenever combined with individual and small-group “worship” experiences (in the sense of verbally and physically expressing devotion to God).

    4. Though with the advent of modern media (radio, television, internet, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, etc.) this advantage is not as clear as it used to be, meeting in large groups gives the opportunity for more people in the Body to receive the edification that comes from those who are especially gifted as teachers, prophets, etc. I would be quick to agree with you, however, that, if this (large-group settings) were the only platform for teaching and prophetic ministry, we would be losing just as much, if not more, by not receiving interactive, give-and-take, dialogical, “one another” style teaching and ministry from fellow members in the Body.

  8. 7-7-2009

    David,

    Good points. I really enjoy the transcedence. I guess I struggle with the modern expression of that and the enormous expense and the perpetuality of it at the expense of all saints functioning properly. My other struggle would be that small groups are usually only small expressions or extensions of leadership, where the leaders closely moniter, control and dictate, for example most small groups have no ability to really minster to the needs of the saints, that is to be taken up with the leaders, so small groups are like nice safe Christian socials, that have little to no real maturing aspect.

    But again I do agree with your overall assessment as it is a beautiful thing to see multicoloered, multi-socioeconomic, and multi-cultural individuals praising God, it shows the beauty of what Paul expresses in Ephesians 4.

  9. 7-7-2009

    Gabriel,

    if this is the exception and not the rule, I agree brother. I think it is awesome, I don’t believe this is what Alan was expressing however. And I could be wrong. So individual expressions coming together for the common good is wonderful, my bone to pick was with the megachurch scenario versus small intimitate settings. Again conferences, city gatherings, and the such are wonderful and I think even biblically accurate; however, these are not to be the primary way saints gather because you and I both know the current celeberity model that is popular amongs “evangelicals” today.

  10. 7-7-2009

    Thanks for the discussion everyone.

    -Alan

  11. 3-26-2012

    Interesting discussion here, this is a subject I’ve been pondering recently.

    Acts 2:46 sheds light on the early Church’s balance between home & mass gathering-
    “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts”.

    Alan, your comment that “a ‘large group’ meeting would simply be a meeting of multiple smaller churches” makes sense.

    The passage above talks about the original newly Holy Spirit filled 120 and the 3000 extra baptised converts as one group (calling them “they”) but they all met in their own homes (and shared possessions, possibly including homes).

    Meeting in huge groups is cool but there’s absolutely no substitute to sharing life with a small core of friends, a spiritual family. The intimacy of laying down our lives for one another can be hard as people see who we really are and we have to submit to one another, opening the way for costly discipleship. It can be tempting to quit and look for an impersonal and nebulous Christianity but true ‘brotherhood’ relationships are formed in small groups.

    No wonder the early Church called each other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ if they shared their lives by meeting in each other’s houses, like a family.

    I’ve written more on this subject as a guest post on The Church Sofa Blog at http://thechurchsofa.co.uk/2011/07/church-lounge-my-church-is-on-my-sofa/

  12. 3-27-2012

    Aidan,

    Thanks for the comment and for continuing the discussion on this post. I’ll check out your article!

    -Alan

  13. 1-15-2013

    Hi Alan!

    It sounds like I need to read the book you’ve cited here.

    I think another thing that must be considered when we talk about the size of the house churches in the New Testament, which may have been as small as 9-12 in some cases (based on archaeological realities), is church leadership. If churches were normally 10 to 40 people and on rare occasions 100, we need to realize that New Testament church leadership was also based on a reality of small groups. To have a church of 150 to 1,000+ and not realize that our leadership reality is different from that in the New Testament is misguided. Can the leadership roles of the New Testament even be adapted to groups of such drastically larger size? If so, what is lost in leadership function or leadership relationship and influence? There are way too many facets to the group size and leadership question to type here. However, I do think it is an important concern. At the least, we should not use the terminology of New Testament leadership without understanding that the roles which we use the terms to describe are probably not what the roles were when the terms were first used. I hope my comment is coherent, I’m very tired, but wanted to read your post tonight.

    Blessings – Stan

  14. 1-15-2013

    Stan,

    I think you’ve touched on a very important point. The same could be said of other aspects of church life in the New Testament. For example, think about teaching. Today, we primarily think of teaching the church in terms of giving a sermon/lecture to a large number of people (perhaps thousands of people). Of course, we would have a different concept of teaching if our concept of church was those who could gather in a home.

    -Alan

  15. 1-16-2013

    Alan,

    I agree completely. In a lecture format it is difficult to know whether the obedience “to all I have commanded you” that Jesus mandated is being carried out.

    Another aspect, which is vital, is how spiritual gifts function in a group of 10-40. You pretty much have no one who is not vital in the group when it is that small.

    Blessings – Stan

  16. 1-16-2013

    Stan,

    You’re right. Thanks again for the comments and thoughts about this topic!

    -Alan

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