DID THE FIRST CENTURY CHURCHES WORSHIP IN PRIVATE HOMES ONLY?
By Nana Yaw Aidoo
(This can be read in just 5 minutes).
One mistake a great many of us make when it comes to taking a position on anything, especially on Biblical teaching is that we determine right or wrong and thus align with or agree with a certain position based on who said what and not on what was actually said. When the government suspended public gatherings a while due to the covid-19 pandemic, some preachers came out advising everybody to meet in homes. Their argument was that, by so doing, we would be doing "what the New Testament churches did." I have heard some people go along with this idea, positing that the churches in apostolic times met only in private homes to worship.
Please folks, I'm not trying to tell anybody what to do. I only want to challenge the assertion that "the churches in apostolic times met only in private homes to worship" and I urge all who are lovers of truth to verify whether this is so. (Acts 17:11). We ought to love truth enough (2 Cor.13:8), to speak only as the oracles of God on all issues. (1 Pet.4:11). I know some are contending that since this is the "Biblical pattern," we ought to dispense with our church buildings and give the money to the poor in the church. (Yes! I saw that on Facebook). I also know that some are teaching that since the churches met only in private homes, then all the house churches in a particular city, formed "the church in that city" and thus, far from there being a plurality of elders in a particular local church (like we've always taught), there were actually metropolitan elders over all house churches in a city. I believe with all my certainty that the idea of metropolitan elders over many house churches is one of the worst forms of heresy. But I'll leave that for another day. In this brief note, I want to examine the idea that the early churches met only in private homes to worship.
Indeed, some congregations met in private homes and to deny this fact is to deny plain passages of Scripture. (See Romans 16:5). However, I wonder where the idea that the churches in apostolic times met only in private homes came from? I have spent some "lockdown time" doing a little reading on this issue and honestly, I still do not see what many seem to see when they read the New Testament. I believe that if I can prove that some churches met in places other than in private homes, I would have contended against the idea that the early churches met only in private homes to worship God.
Some do not hesitate to point to Acts 2:46 which reads, "so continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food (meat - KJV) with gladness and simplicity of heart," as "proof" that the early churches met only in private homes. Folks, I deny that Acts 2:46 describes a worship assembly for the simple reason that we do not eat meat as an act of worship, when we assemble to worship. Is this not true? And besides, if Acts 2:46 speaks of a worship assembly, then one thing is certain; the early church assembled to worship in Herod's temple too. "So continuing daily with one accord in the temple..." I believe like so many good brethren that Acts 2:42 describes the Jerusalem church's worship. Is it not significant that the place of worship, is not mentioned in the text?
Moreover, we are told that 3000 people were added to the apostles on that fateful Pentecost day, when the church of Christ begun. (Acts 2:41). In a short while, this congregation grew so much that the men alone were 5000 in number. (Acts 4:4). As a matter of fact, the number multiplied to the extent that the inspired historian called them a "multitude." (Acts 6:2). Luke wrote that in order to settle a dispute among the disciples, the apostles "summoned the multitude of disciples..." (Acts 6:2). We wonder whose private house had a room big enough to host such a great "multitude of disciples." We call attention to the facts that one day Peter and John went up to the temple to pray (Acts 3:1) and also that all the disciples "...who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet..." (Acts 4:34-35). Now brethren, I am not saying at this point, that this proves that the Jerusalem church didn't meet in a private home to worship. I'm just thinking out aloud.
Furthermore, Luke in Acts 19 says of the apostle Paul that when he went to Ephesus, "...he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." (Acts 19:8-10).
From where did the apostle withdraw the disciples when he begun to face opposition? Was it not from the synagogue? Why not from the homes? Notice if you would that Paul himself when he persecuted the church, sought them in synagogues (Acts 9:2). Does this not impress anything on your mind? And when he withdrew the disciples from the synagogue, where did he go? To a private home? No! He rented a school building, and there continued for 2 solid years. The disciples in Ephesus met in a school building too, folks.
Let us now turn our attention to the church of Christ that was at Corinth. This group of disciples had many problems - one of them being their conduct at the Lord's table - that the apostle Paul dealt with. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which is the place where the apostle corrected their wrong conduct during the Lord's supper, he used language which denotes that the church in Corinth partook of the Lord's supper, by coming together in one place, just like the saints in Troas (Acts 20:7). "...when you come together as a church..." (1 Cor.11:18). "Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's supper." (1 Cor.11:20). "Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another." (1 Cor.11:33)
I do not know how many the brethren in Corinth were, but it is evident that in the assembly in which they took the Lord's supper, which is the Lord's day assembly (see Acts 20:7), they came together in one place. But since they were abusing this memorial feast, the apostle Paul quipped; "What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?..." (1 Cor.11:22). Then again, "But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgement..." (1 Cor.11:34). Good brethren, does the mere fact that the apostle told these Corinthians to eat in their "houses" and "homes" before assembling together with the brethren to partake of the Lord's supper, not impress on our minds that, the "one place" where the Corinthians met together to worship, was some place other than in a private house or private home? I don't know. I'm just asking.
Finally, James in speaking against partiality in the assembly of saints wrote; "My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, 'You sit here in a good place,' and say to the poor man, 'You stand there,' or 'sit here at my footstool,' have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1-4). Please notice the word that is translated "assembly." Friends, it is literally synagogue (sunagoge in the Greek), and is translated "synagogue" rather than "assembly" in the American Standard Version (ASV) 1901, Bible in Basic English, Darby's Translation, and in the Young's Literal Translation. My point is that, James wrote to brethren who assembled in synagogues. Therefore, the idea that the early churches met only in private homes is untenable.
So many times in the book of Acts, the place of assembly is not specified at all. Please study carefully, texts like Acts 4:23-31 where Luke simply wrote, "the place where they were assembled." The "place" not the "private home where they were assembled." Acts 6:1-2; the place of assembly is not specified. Acts 9:26-28; the disciples are in Jerusalem but nothing is said about them assembling in a private home. Acts 11:26 and Acts 13:1-3 say the church was at Antioch but say nothing about them assembling in a private home. Acts 14:21-23 says there were churches in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch but says nothing about them assembling in private homes. And many more. With the place of assembling not specified in these instances, how then do we know that they met only in private homes to worship?
When denominationalists say there were "3 wise men," we contend that they are doing guess work because the Bible doesn't specify how many wisemen visited Christ as an infant. And rightly so. Likewise, we ought to be careful with speculations about where the early disciples met, and ensure that we "speak as the oracles of God" on this issue.
At this stage, some might point to Acts 12:12 as "proof" that the brethren worshipped only in privates homes. Brethren, if this were a corporate worship assembly, then it was a strange one because "James and the brethren" (Acts 12:17) were absent. And more, Peter after telling of his experience, immediately "departed and went to another place." (Acts 12:17). Some corporate worship assembly. Friends, even if this text "proves" that the early churches worshipped in private homes, it still wouldn't follow that they worshipped only in private homes, unless that idea is taught either explicitly or implicitly by God's Word.
Once again, that is not to say some churches did not meet in private houses or private homes. Clearly, some did. However, to teach that the early churches met only in private homes is to teach that which cannot be proven by the one who is willing to take God at His Word. Some might point to uninspired history to "prove their case." There's some merit in doing that. But when uninspired history speaks where God or the Bible has not spoken, then we ought to reject it like Paul rejected those "scholars" in Athens.
You can take this article for all it's worth. My humble plea and prayer however is that, we love truth enough, to verify what our favourite preachers tell us and also to speak as the oracles of God on all issues.
Stay positive. Stay safe and God bless.