Through the Reformation in the 16th Century, God began to restore some basic doctrines from the 1st Century. Often they are summarized by three Latin phrases: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is our authority), sola gratia (we are saved only by God’s grace), sola fide (our only contribution to salvation is faith that responds to God’s grace).
We look at these basic teachings now and say, “Well, of course!” It’s hard for us to imagine that for well over a thousand years these obvious Biblical principles had largely been lost. What was clear in the 1st Century had been generally forgotten by the 16th Century. Church leaders, who in many cases were intelligent and godly people, had simply lost touch with some of the foundational principles of the faith. (Spiritual warfare comes to mind here.)
“ONLY PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY IS THE TRUE CHURCH” – MARTIN LUTHER
The Reformers understood that they were not inventing something new. Rather, they were rediscovering the original teachings of the New Testament. Martin Luther said it this way, “Only primitive Christianity is the true Church”. However, as important as the Reformation was in restoring some 1st Century doctrines, it was largely ineffective at restoring 1st Century structures and practices.
LOST FOR 1700 YEARS – NOW REDISCOVERED!
In Social Aspects of Early Christianity (1977), A. J. Malherbe observed that up until that time “no major work has been devoted to the New Testament house church”.
Linger on that last statement for a minute. For over 1700 years, no major Christian leader had written on (or apparently, thought deeply about) the context and physical structure of church in the 1st Century. Church leaders, who in many cases were intelligent and godly people, had once again lost touch with the origins of the church. (Spiritual warfare again?) Some of those leaders saw glimpses of this but none of them were able to implement what they saw. Not Luther. Or Calvin. Wesley made some attempts but fell far short. Spurgeon…Moody…Billy Graham…we could add lots of other names here.
“Then suddenly at the beginning of the 1980s, five exegetical sociohistorical studies on the topics “family”, “house”, and “house church” in early Christianity appeared independently of one another.
FOUR INSIGHTS FROM GEHRING’S BOOK
The book that helped me understand these things in 2004 was House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity by Roger Gehring. This book did a masterful job of summarizing the five exegetical studies mentioned above. Since the book is written on a doctoral level, it’s a bit difficult to wade through. (Although well worth the effort!) To make it more accessible, I tried to summarize the book through what I thought were the most important quotes. To receive my 16 page summary of the book, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and say “Send Gehring”.
*To understand the context of Gehring’s book, watch my video below. Then, come back here to read key quotes from the book.
1. THE HOUSE CHURCH CONCEPT IS SUPPORTED BY THE BEST NT SCHOLARSHIP
“Only in the last twenty-five years has research begun to focus more closely on the architectural setting of early Christian gatherings and on its corresponding social and theological implications. Since 1980 we have seen a flood of popular and scholarly publications on the subject. Here again it appears most scholars are in agreement: the fact that early Christian communities met in homes is of great sociohistorical, ecclesiological, and missional significance.” P. 1
“The year 1980 represents a watershed for the publication of literature on the topic of the house church. In Social Aspects of Early Christianity (1977), A. J. Malherbe observed that up until that time “no major work has been devoted to the New Testament house church”. Then suddenly at the beginning of the 1980s, five exegetical sociohistorical studies on the topics “family”, “house”, and “house church” in early Christianity appeared independently of one another. And by the time Malherbe’s book was reprinted in 1983, one of the most substantial and significant works in the Anglo-Saxon world on the subject of the house church had been completed by his pupil L. M. White. It would appear that, beginning in 1980, the time had fully come for scholars to tackle the issues relating to the house church. Since then a relatively large number of books and articles have been published on the subject. The following pages summarize the main findings of seven studies.” P. 5.
2. JESUS PLANTED HOUSE CHURCHES
“…already in the pre-Easter period, the house of Peter served as a kind of prototype of a house church with most of the key elements included in our definition of a house church in the full sense of the word…The house of Peter before Easter was a place where the first core group of disciples gathered around Jesus in a house community that can be described as a kind of house church in embryonic form, the ‘cradle of the ecclesia in its early formation.’…this house appears not only as the house of Peter and the home of Jesus but as the house of the new family of God as well.” P. 47.
“…it follows that Jesus may have undertaken a Galilean village-to-village (or house-to-house) mission, in which houses, households, and sedentary (as opposed to those who were itinerant) followers of Jesus played a role similar to that which they played in Capernaum (Mark 6:1, 6, 56; 8:27; 9:30)….We even know some by name: Mary and Martha, Lazarus (Luke 10:38-39; cf. John 11:1, 18), and Simon the leper (Matt 26:6/Mark 14:3), all of whom were residents of Bethany on the Mount of Olives. At this point it must be asked if the house of Martha in Bethany might not be considered the counterpart to the house of Peter in Capernaum…” p. 43.
“Our observations lead us to the following conclusions: Jesus’ missional approach consisted of finding a house and a household willing to commit themselves to his kingdom message. With this house as a social and material basis, he, along with his newly recruited followers, attempted to reach the entire town of Capernaum and from there the surrounding area within and beyond the ‘evangelical triangle’ by traveling from house to house and village to village.” P. 46
3. JESUS HAD A DEFINITE STRATEGY FOR EXPANDING HIS KINGDOM
“It seems likely that in his mission discourse (Lk. 10) Jesus instructed his disciples to use houses in a manner similar to the way he did: as fixed quarters and a base of operations for his mission.” P. 53.
“The disciples continued what Jesus had begun in Capernaum as they met together with their new faith companions in various houses. Throughout the countryside sedentary cell-like house communities came into existence, communities that, along with Jesus and his disciples, were experiencing and expecting the coming of the kingdom.” P. 60.
“Another similarity to the pre-Easter mission of Jesus can be seen in the practice of community formation around a core family in private domestic houses. As we have observed, this was a pattern in Jerusalem, presumably in the house of Philip in Caesarea, and surely in the house churches of Antioch. Houses served as community centers for the life of the church and as operational bases for missional outreach; as such they were a powerful force for the mission enterprise in these places.” P. 116.
Paul believed that his main objective was to establish small cells, that is, bases of operations in these cities, and to develop missional outreach from these support bases. From these bases outward, the city itself and then the surrounding area were to be reached with the gospel. ” P. 179-180.
4. “THE HOUSEHOLD (OIKOS) WAS THE FORMATIONAL MODEL FOR ECCLESIOLOGY”
“Of fundamental importance is Elliott’s insight that ‘households thus constituted the focus, locus and nucleus of the ministry and mission of the Christian movement.’” P. 6
“For Verner this concept of church as the ‘household of God’ (1 Tim. 3:15) incorporates two aspects: (a) the house or family is the fundamental unit of the church, and (b) the church is a social structure patterned after the household.” P. 7
“The household was more than a model; it was the matrix of the new congregation.” P. 193, footnote quoting Campbell.
“…the choice of the gathering place was formational for the self-understanding and the organizational structures of the individual churches to such an extent that the ancient oikos can be seen as the formational model for ecclesiology.” P. 255.
Click on the picture below to watch the video…