The First Church: A House Church
The church building is a common sight in America. They come in all shapes and sizes, from traditional churches which hold 30 people to church buildings which you would not recognize as a church and which can seat thousands of people. Yet the first Christians did not gather in church buildings but in people’s homes. These were known as house churches.
One reason Christians in the first fifty years after Jesus met in homes was monetary: the money collected went to help poorer Christians and to support missionaries and even clergy. As Christianity grew larger, the Roman Empire began persecuting Christians. Therefore Christians were not able to build churches because that would be like putting on a big target and saying “Here we are.” So Christians gathered and held their meetings secretly in people’s homes.
Some of the New Testament books attest to this: From Acts 20:20: “You know that I [Paul] have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” From I Corinthians 16:19: “Aquila and Priscilla greet you in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.” And from Philemon 1, 2: “Paul . . . To Philemon . . . and to the church that meets in your home.” [There are others.] Additionally, II and III John may have also been written to house churches.
These house churches varied greatly. It would make sense that Christians would gather at the largest home among the small Christian group, and so Christians gathered at the home of the wealthiest member. The layout and decoration of the room or rooms varied greatly. They could consist of a simple room with seats or may be larger rooms with benches and frescos, drawings, or etchings on the walls.
The ceremonies of Communion and Baptism would take place in the rooms by using a table for Communion and a basin or pitcher to sprinkle or pour the water. Baptisms by immersion would have taken place in a river since houses did not have tubs.
The number of house churches in a city would also vary and is unknown. Rome or Corinth or Ephesus could have had from a couple of house churches to 100 or more, we just don’t know.
The first actual church building which has been discovered is in Dura-Europos in southeastern Syria and dates from the 230s. It was originally a house (and shared walls with surrounding houses) and was made into a church. The church had a number of frescos on the wall: Jesus as a shepherd carrying a sheep (which was the most popular way to represent Jesus before the cross became vogue); Peter and Jesus walking on the water; and three women, which probably represents the three women at Christ’s tomb (the name “Salome” was painted near one of the women). They are among the earliest pieces of Christian art in existence.
A long table was at one end of the house, probably used for communion, and a pool was in the center, no doubt used as a pool by the previous family and for baptisms by the Christians.
The whole city is amazingly preserved for a simple fact: it was a Roman fortress-city built in the desert, and, after it was conquered by the Persians in 256, it was abandoned. Over time it was covered with sand and the city was not discovered until the 1920s.
The church building itself was preserved for an additional reason: before the Persians attacked, the Romans built earthen fortifications on top of the fortress walls. Part of the fortifications fell down and covered, you guess it, the church. And so the covered-over church was not discovered by the Persians and plundered but remained covered until the 1920s.
And in a bizarre twist of history, in the 1930s Yale University archaeologists dismantled part of the church and reconstructed it in the Yale University Art Gallery, where it resides today.
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