Part 3: The New Testament Church (Meeting in houses and community living)


Before you read this series of articles, it's important you read the general introduction.  In this series we've identified a number of features and qualities that can be found in the lives, experience and practice of the Early Church.  These characteristics, which are not set out in any particular order, are also being outworked in many congregations and faith communities today.

Through this series we hope to encourage individuals and congregations within the Church, to break free from the strait-jacket of religious tradition to re-discover their true identity and destiny as a living organism, a subversive and counter-culture movement, and the Bride of Christ.

Community living and house churches

In the introduction to this series we said that the Church can be described in only two ways - the Church universal and the local congregation of believers.  Any other definition inevitably touches on forms of institutionalism.

Here in Part 3 we'll look at how the Church gathered and met under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Their love for the Lord and for one another drew the believers together to share in the new life they were experiencing for the first time.

Community living, similar to the kind the apostles had experienced with Jesus, therefore seemed a natural and, in some cases, a necessary development - necessary because many no longer had homes they could return to in view of their conversion to Christ.

An expectation of the Lord's imminent return also meant that any thought of building temples to meet in would have been unthinkable - besides, the Holy Spirit knew that the Church would develop and mature in the rough and tumble of daily life, lived in small fellowship groups, meeting in houses.

Greet also the Church that meets at their house (Rom 16:5)

Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the Church that meets at their house (1 Cor 16:19)

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the Church in her house (Col 4:15)

To Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier and to the Church that meets in your home (Philem 2)

The house was the right environment for sharing fellowship and life in the Spirit.  A place where they could learn to hear the Lord together, experience the priesthood of all believers, be discipled, develop leadership and ministry gifts, etc.

Initially, whilst they still enjoyed the favour of the people, they also met in the Temple Courts, but the house was always where they gathered for close fellowship and instruction from the apostles.

As persecution arose they stopped meeting in the Temple Courts. Their fellowship gatherings were no longer open to outsiders - it was too dangerous.  This is the same today for the underground House Church Movement that meets in countries like China.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer . . . all the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone, as he had need.

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, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.

We've become so used to thinking of the Church along institutional lines that we forget its organic beginnings, which enabled it to adapt and respond to each new situation as the Holy Spirit led them.  The wineskin was incredibly flexible.

And even though they grew in number, they continued to keep organisation to a minimum - see Acts 6:1-7 as an example, where we first read about the selection of deacons to meet a practical need.

Counter-culture movement

The New Testament Church was to become a subversive and counter-culture movement.  The following segment of a quotation written by a Roman to Diognetus describing the Christians in the Early Church:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs.  They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life . . . With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives.  They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through.  They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens.  Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.  Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them.  They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.  They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven . . . Christians love all men, but all men persecute them . . . They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything.  They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory.  They are defamed, but vindicated.  A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult . . .

Living in community is one of our shared values here at Christian Spectrum and so we'd encourage you to also read our article on this for more understanding.

Constantine converts to Christianity in AD 312

During the first three centuries after Christ, the Church in the house remained the normal way for Christians to share their lives together.  However, when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312 and established Christendom throughout his Empire, everything changed.  Communal living was generally abandoned, priests were approved and licensed to conduct weddings and other functions in a more professional and public manner.

Since the Church needed to be fit for the emperor, it needed cathedrals to meet in, not houses.  The divide between clergy and laity emerged at this time and was sanctioned and protected by the State.

After years of persecution, the Church welcomed national graduation from being a persecuted cult to a state-prescribed religion.  In so doing, however, it lost its organic nature, its flexibility and strength, its identity as a subversive, prophetic counter-culture movement and it became a 'celebrated insider.'

Institutionalism and bureaucracy set in.  From this point onwards it becomes a story of growing institutional power and declining spiritual power.

The institutional Church had arrived and remains

The institutional Church had arrived with a life of its own and needed to be serviced.  This has continued in one form or another right up to the present.  We've become focused upon the Church as an institution and drawn away from the reality of the Church as a living organism.  The institutional wineskin sadly, has become rigid and inflexible. 

The institutional Church, if it's to recapture its vitality and strength, must at the very least recognise the foundational importance of the local fellowship of believers, whatever ecclesiastical and institutional structure is employed.

Focusing on a couple of short periods on a Sunday and a midweek slot led and directed by religious specialists, with no further meaningful interaction during the week, is not Christianity as Jesus intended.  

We must above all else rediscover that the dynamic point of the life of the Church is the local fellowship, small enough for all the members to know and minister to each other on a daily basis. 

Wolfgang Simson's 15 thesis

In his book, 'Houses That Changed The World,' Wolfgang Simson argues the case for a return to house churches.  You can read his 15 thesis by clicking here

If it's your heart to pursue a more radical and authentic experience of community based Church life, we'd encourage you to give careful consideration to these principles.

Should you wish to discuss any of this with us why not give us a call


Mutually beneficial

It's important to bear in mind the overlap and relationship that exists between the different characteristics of the New Testament Church:

General introduction to series . . .
Part 1 in this series discusses Eschatological focus . . . 
Part 2 in this series discusses Prophetic mandate . . .
Part 3 in this series discusses Meeting in houses and community living . . .
Part 4 in this series discusses Leadership . . .
Part 5 in this series discusses Discipleship . . .
Part 6 in this series discusses Spiritual gifts . . .
Part 7 in this series discusses Pioneers or settlers . . .
Part 8 in this series discusses Identity precedes function . . .
Part 9 in this series discusses Relational unity . . .
Part 10 in this series discusses Kingdom message and proclamation . . .
Part 11 in this series discusses The persecuted Church . . . 

An expectation of the Lord's imminent return, also meant that any thought of amassing wealth for personal gain or talk of building temples to meet in, would have fallen on deaf ears - besides the Holy Spirit knew how to avoid the pitfalls of institutionalism.  He knew that the Church would best develop and mature in the rough and tumble of daily life, lived in small fellowship groups, meeting in houses . . . 

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