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Socioeconomic Significance of Houses in the NT

Posted by on Jul 9, 2009 in books, community, missional | 11 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” and “Architectural 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 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).

Gehring says that it would not have been unusual for the early Christians to meet in houses. In fact, many other religious groups met in houses including “members of the cult of Mithras, the mystery associations, and particularly the Jews in their house synagogues.” (pg 291) These house meetings were socially and legally acceptable.

However, there was something different about the social makeup of the Christian meetings. Gehring explains:

Simply gathering in a house did not automatically lead to the reconciliation of individuals from diverse backgrounds in the church. Meetings in a house Mithraeum (the cult of Mithras) were exclusively for men; the members of the collegia were most often from the same social level. The membership in house synagogues was a bit more socially diverse, but even here there was the tendency toward community formation according to profession and nationality, which also led to exclusiveness. As a rule, Christian house churches integrated a large diversity of individuals from a variety of backgrounds. This is primarily related to, and grew out of, the inner structure of this new faith (Gal 3:27-28). Christ had enabled salvation for everyone; consequently, a diversity of people was supposed to live in loving unity one with the other. (pg 295)

If we look around at the Christians with whom we generally spend time and if we notice that they are primarily from the same ethnic, social, economic, professional, or national background, then we should also recognize that the early church meetings were much more diverse.

The social diversity also helped the early church in their mission. Gehring says:

Another socioeconomic factor in early Christian missions was patronage. Most scholars agree that the role it played in missional outreach and church development cannot be overemphasized. By making their houses available for Christian assembly, householders provided and guaranteed the material and organizational foundation for church development. Early Christians took advantage of the social network in the household, profession, guild, and association of the householder to promote missional outreach and congregational development. The contacts of the pater familias with powerful individuals in urban government and society were often quite useful (cf. Jason, Acts 17). The publicly respected householder was able to provide legal protection and a certain social legitimacy for the faith community that met in his home. The extended family, including slaves, clients, and friends, as well as the contacts of the householder with his professional colleagues and business partners offered an entire network of relationships. Once accepted by the householder, Paul, his coworkers, and many other Christians became trusted insiders within this network of relationships and as a result were able to quickly reach out and touch the lives of large numbers of people for Christ. (pg 292)

According to most research today, when a person becomes a Christ as an adult, within a year or two they lose all connections with their unbelieving friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family. Why? Because the new believer is pulled into an already existing network of Christian relationships. The new believer does not have time or opportunity to foster existing relationships, and those existing relationships with unbelievers are soon replaced by relationships with believers.

If Gehring is correct, then the early church worked differently. Instead of only pulling the new believer into the church and relationships with other followers of Jesus, the church also reached out through the relationships of their new brother and sister in Christ. The new believer introduced and encouraged relationships between their old unbelieving friends and their new believing friends.

Thus, evangelism and mission worked primarily through existing relationships. And, since the church was made of a diversity of people, these relationships began to reach through all sectors of society. (By the way, this process is very similar to what the authors recommend in “The Rabbit and the Elephant.”)

Why did this work for the early church? Because they considered one another family of the same household (“oikos“). The household of this time period was composed of more than a nuclear family. The household included extended family and slaves as well as business partners and social relations. When the new believer became part of God’s family, his new brothers and sisters in Christ immediately were part of his family along with those “extended” relationships that he brought in with him.

Today, society works differently. But, I do believe that the church can do a better job of helping new believers maintain relationships with their unbelieving friends. I also think that the church can help new believers through Christian community involvement with those existing relationships. Thus, new believers should be encouraged to introduce their existing friends and acquaintances to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.


11 Comments

  1. 7-9-2009

    Alan, you wrote, “Why did this work for the early church? Because they considered one another family of the same household (”oikos“). ”

    I think this is the very challenge for Americans. Our culture is rooted in a radical individualism that celebrates independence over dependance and personhood over community and rights over service. The house is not the “solution”, it was a reflection of the culture. I am surprised, shocked even, at how many people I meet up in the Pacific Northwest that absolutely REFUSE to meet in a home. I talked with a guy just yesterday who wont even sit down for a cup of coffee to talk about faith because he finds that kind of personal contact too invasive on his privacy.

    We face lots of challenges, and the only hope is the power of the Spirit to bring healing, transformation, and divine community.

  2. 7-9-2009

    I think J.R. is right. But I would add that this culture which is “rooted in a radical individualism” isn’t just the “Culture out there somewhere” — this describes the culture of the modern Church.

    We shouldn’t be shocked when we encounter individualism outside of the Church but when we encounter it inside the Church we should automatically think: “Something is wrong here.”. The sad fact is that individualism is accepted as ‘normal’ in the Church. It’s encouraged. It’s even celebrated in most local congregations.

    But when we preach a ‘gospel’ which informs people that it is all about “you and your personal relationship with Jesus”, what else should we expect?

  3. 7-9-2009

    Just had an interesting conversation this week on a related view. We think of Christianity as: God > Individual > Family > churchFamily. In this model, if something is broken, you start at the individual level, then to the family level, etc.

    The bible presents something more like: God > churchFamily > Family > Individual. In this case, when something is broken, you start at the churchFamily level to see if that is OK, then the Family, and so on.

    So, in addressing the individualism expressed in the church(es), you start by first helping the whole assembly to consider how they see themselves interconnected, interdependent, intertwined.

  4. 7-9-2009

    Joe (JR),

    I agree that we must depend on the Holy Spirit. Since people are not interested in talking with you in their homes, have you found other ways to develop this type of community?

    Wade,

    I’m glad to see that many people today are recognizing and emphasizing the community aspect of the gospel. How would you emphasize the good news for the community instead of good news for the individual?

    Art,

    Very interesting… do you have a chart? :)

    Seriously, can you give an example of how this would play out amongst a group of believers?

    -Alan

  5. 7-9-2009

    Wade hit the nail on the head here (“we encounter [individualism] inside the Church we should automatically think: ‘Something is wrong here’”) and Art has offered an excellent response (“So, in addressing the individualism expressed in the church(es), you start by first helping the whole assembly to consider how they see themselves interconnected, interdependent, intertwined.”

    How do we go about doing this, while responding to the resistant and those who want more immediate results? What if the leadership is in the resistant camp? Can a grassroots movement in the Body begin such a change?

  6. 7-9-2009

    Laura,

    Actually, I think the church can only change when individuals change the way they think about and live as the church. I don’t think this can be a top-down kind of change. Leaders can certainly help or hinder the process, though.

    -Alan

  7. 7-9-2009

    Alan,

    I agree: it must be individuals changing how they think about church. Still, leaders–especially those who speak to large segments of the church community–exercise enormous influence.

    I guess I’m looking for do-ables:

    How can a grassroots movement in the Body begin such a change?

    Any one have a story to share?

    PS: I think I need to pull out my copy of Gehring and give it a read before the fall term starts. :-)

  8. 7-9-2009

    Wouldn’t the issue ultimately come down to how the home is the best way for transition into other realms? In the case of traditional churches, it’s one of the reasons home fellowships are so huge since the unsaved friends of a believer will be themselves moreso in a house of their buds than in a sanctuary many times—though that’s not always the case, of course. But on the issue, it seems to be that hanging out is what makes a difference.

  9. 7-9-2009

    Laura,

    How? Eat together, spend time together outside of “formal” meeting times, share things with one another, take care of one another, help one another through difficult situations, laugh and cry together… in other words, act like family, not like a corporation.

    Gabriel,

    Using the home to “transition into other realms” is one of the issues that Gehring discusses in this book. That is an important social point of the church meeting in homes. There are other significances as well.

    -Alan

  10. 7-10-2009

    Alan said: “How would you emphasize the good news for the community instead of good news for the individual?”

    I don’t want to pretend to have “the answer” to this. I’m in the process of re-thinking a lot of stuff. But…

    I would start by emphasizing the very nature of God as being both one and many. God has been revealed to us, in the person of Jesus, as a Trinity — a community of self-giving love and perfect unity. Jesus did nothing “individualistically”. Everything He did was for the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    We have been created (or re-created) as image bearers of God and as such we are to reflect this community of self-giving love. This can’t be done as “individuals” but only as we, as individuals live in community. The gospel invovles individuals, but is not “about” individuals. “It is not good for man to be alone”.

    To be “in Christ” is to be in His Church — His body. This body, this “new man” is the new humanity which has been re-created in, for and by Christ Jesus.(Eph. 2) I think this teaches us that “the gospel” is more about how God, in Christ and by the power of His Spirit, has restored all of humanity to himself by bringing together what was torn apart (Jew and Gentile). This is what Paul says is “the Gospel” he was sent to proclaim. (Eph. 2)

    What we need to be emphasizing is how the lost can become a part of this new humanity, not how they can get themselves to heaven.

    I agree that this involves changing the way we think. The way we are to do this, primarily, is by changing the way we worship. (IMO) In worship on the Lord’s Day is where we are primarily transformed. Our worship has to be completely saturated with high views of God, it has to be thouroughly trinitarian in shape. Only by seeing God rightly we can we begin to see ourselves rightly.

    Sorry for the ramble. This is a huge topic.

  11. 7-10-2009

    Wade,

    You may not have “the answer”, but your “ramble” sure seems like a step in the right direction.

    -Alan

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