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Ecclesiological Significance of Houses in the NT

Posted by on Jul 13, 2009 in books, definition | 5 comments

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m reading through the concluding chapter of Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. (See my posts “Church and Meals,” “Achitectural Significance of Houses in the NT,” and “Socioeconic Significance of Houses in the NT.”) 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 the final part of his summary chapter, Gehring examines “The House as a Church”, looking at the ecclesiological significance of the use of hosues in the New Testament. He begins by answering the following question: “What the house church a church?” He says:

[I]n the primitive church in Jerusalem, houses were used for assembly, community formation and fellowship, prayer, teaching, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is legitimate here to speak of house churches as churches in the full sense, as all of the ecclesiological elements that constitute the church are observable. (pg 295)

In fact, Gehring argues that the Lord’s Supper could only be taken in houses, and not in the larger Christian gatherings. However, that brings up another question: If the house church is a legitimate church, then what is the relationship of the house church to the local church (church in a location) and the whole worldwide church.

Next, Gehring continues his conclusion by comparing the church in a house, the church in a location, and the church worldwide. Gehring concludes that in Scripture (especially Paul’s letters) the “individual congregation” (that is, the church that meets in a home)  has priority over either the church in a location or the whole worldwide church.

Thus, based on this conclusion, we can see how important the household and household structure is for the church. He says:

In some respects the architectural and particularly the social image of the ancient oikos [household] becomes the determining image for ecclesiology, church development, leadership structures, and social relationships of Christians in the community. The well-organized household becomes the model for a well-organized church. This is related in particular to the fact that many house churches were small, close-knit groups with a nuclear family as their core. Consequently, it was quite natural that household patterns impressed themselves upon the social reality of the congregation. The house churches of the Pastoral Letters understood themselves essentially as the “household of God,” and it is therefore fully legitimate to speak here of an oikos [household] ecclesiology. (pg 298)

Thus, according to Gehring, the structure and organization of the church is best seen in the structure and organization of the family or household. Any other expressions of the church (location or worldwide) should grow from our understanding of the church as a family, and should not replace or override that understanding.

I disagree with one of Gehring’s conclusions at this point. He says that since the church is based on household structures, then each congregation had a single leader just as each family had a single leader. Gehring associates the episkopos (overseer or bishop) with this single church leader. He says, “It seemed quite logical and natural that one single overseer should lead the house church, just as the household was led by one housefather…” (pg 298)

I agree with Gehring that each house church had one leader, just as each household was led by the father. However, I think Gehring missed the point that in Scripture this “housefather” was always designated to be God. Jesus Christ was recognized as the only “head” of the church, and the “head” of each house church. Note that headship language is used in Scripture both when speaking of the church worldwide and the church local and the church in a house.

Thus, it is not the episkopos (overseer or bishop) who carries the role of the housefather, but it is God himself who is ever present with his children and leads as head of the family and church. (Unless, of course, Gehring was referring to the episkopos of 1 Peter 2:25, but he wasn’t; he was referring to a human overseer.)

Otherwise, I think this is a great study of the importance of understanding the church as a household or family.


5 Comments

  1. 7-14-2009

    Alan,

    So if “The well-organized household becomes the model for a well-organized church” what would that look like today where the “The well-organized household” is often the exception instead of the norm?

    -jeff

  2. 7-14-2009

    Jeff,

    One of the things that Gehring does well is that he explains that “family” and “household” in Scripture do not mean the same thing as “family” and “household” today. Of course, there were dysfunctional families in the first century, but Scripture is pointing toward ideals, and even those were different in the first century than they are today.

    -Alan

  3. 7-15-2009

    In critiquing Gehring, it is also important to note that when the NT talks about elders, it nearly always (maybe always?) talks about them in the plural. It seems that a church would naturally have more than one elder.

    I’ve not done study in this area, but it would be interesting to look into the notion of elders in household structure. Was Paul leveraging a cultural understanding when speaking of elders? Hmmm.

  4. 7-16-2009

    I can’t remember off-hand right now. But I don’t recall any passage that specifically links “house churches” and plurality of elders. It is true that in the “city church” there were always a plurality of elders, in all biblical references, with the possible exception of the “angels” of the churches in Rev. 2 & 3.

    I suppose the big question is whether the “city churches” mentioned in the New Testament were single congregations or house churches with a plurality of elders, or a network of “house churches” throughout the city, each one having its own separate elder (or possibly elders). In the case of the latter possibility, it seems like the various elders had a collegial relationship, and viewed themselves as a collaborative body (see, for example, Acts 20:17-38).

  5. 7-17-2009

    David,

    You’re correct. The NT evidence concerning leadership in the churches that meet in homes and the church in a city is sketchy and blurred. It seems that the NT is consistent in warning believers not to follow a single individual though.

    -Alan

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