Recent years have shown a renewed interest in the habits of the apostolic church. Many are asking what the church did in the first decades after Jesus’ resurrection. Much of this interest comes from a desire to answer the always important question of what it means to be a church. One specific question that is being asked is where the early church gathered. Did the early church meet in individual’s homes?
The Bible is not silent about where the church met. Scripture makes specific statements that some churches met in homes. Colossians 4:15 says, “Salute . . . Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.” In Romans 16 Paul greets the church meeting in Aquilla and Priscilla’s house. Paul wrote the epistle of Philemon to Philemon and the church in his house. Without a doubt early churches met in homes.
However, the early church did not meet exclusively in people’s homes. The Bible also makes specific statements that some churches met in public areas and large facilities. Acts 5 tells of the church in Jerusalem gathering in the temple courtyard. In Acts 19 the Ephesian believers are said to have met in the “school of Tyrannus” and continued meeting in this facility for two years. These two examples are sufficient to show that the church meeting place was not restricted to homes or that home meetings were seen as superior to meeting in other locations. The New Testament gives many commands about how the church should gather. The New Testament describes when the church should gather. The New Testament does not give any instructions about where the church should gather.
Proponents of house churches sometimes imply and sometimes state that the house church is better because it has less formal structure than a more traditional church. The New Testament shows a development and increase in the organization of the church, but there is nothing to indicate that the basic formal structures of the modern church were not in existence during the apostolic era. The New Testament discusses a number of formal structures in the church. These include a known membership, a select group of deacons, lists of widows, the giving and distribution of gifts, a known and understood body of doctrine, the appointment of special ministers to act on behalf of the church, the ability of the congregation to welcome and remove people from the church, a clearly defined pastorate, men specially appointed as pastors, an accepted body of doctrine and vigorous defense against false doctrines.
The early churches met in homes. These early house churches were not a gathering of the family on Sunday morning. Nor were they an informal gathering of neighbors to discuss the Bible. From the very beginning every church was an official gathering of believers who held to orthodox doctrine, who had a defined membership, who appointed officers to oversee their affairs, who were submitted to pastoral authority and who made binding decisions for themselves. The location of meeting does not define a church. The gathering of believers with the active intention of fulfilling all the responsibilities given by Jesus to His church is what makes a group of people a church.