Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 14, 2007

House Churches. Small Churches.

I hadn’t noticed this before — probably because we don’t tend to think much of exegetical value can be dug out of greeting lists in Paul — but an article I read recently highlighted Romans 16:14-15 in relation to house churches.  Here’s the text:

Romans 16:14-15 (ESV) 
    Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.  [15] Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.

The article is Robert Jewett: “Tenement Churches and Communal Meals in the Early Church: The Implications of a Form-Critical Analysis of 2 Thessalonians 3:10,” Biblical Research 38 (1993): 23-43.

Now, in the article, Jewett is concerned to prove that while there certainly existed “house churches” which met under the auspices of a patron in the early church, other groups of believers which didn’t have a patron to provide a meeting place met in rooms of insulae (Greco-Roman apartment buildings).  Jewett seeks to demonstrate this because he believes that when groups of Christians met in a location provided by a patron (be it Jason, or Prisca and Aquila), that patron became de facto a church leader (this is not necessarily the case, however, as demonstrated in Peter Lampe, “Paul, Patrons, and Clients,” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, ed. J. Paul Sampley (Trinity Press, 2003), 496-97.), while in “tenement churches,” a more “egalitarian” leadership emerged (Jewett’s term).

Jewett seems to be reading more into the text than is warranted, but he does make, I think, a salient observation to note that the greeting list in Romans does appear to indicate different sub-groups of “the church at Rome.”   For one, we have Prisca and Aquila and “the church that is in their house” (16:3-5).  It is possible that those “of” Aristobulus (16:10) and Narcissus (16:11) are congregations which met in their quarters.  And verses 16:14-15 quoted above seem to indicate two distinct congregations as well.

It may very well be that these smaller congregations met as such out of necessity — Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has estimated that 30-40 would be the maximum number which could meet in a free-standing villa, and if congregations did meet in the shop space on the ground floor of a tenement building as Jewett suggests, perhaps 10-20 could be accommodated.  But there would be distinct advantages to keeping the congregations small; accountability comes immediately to mind, and the ability to know one another and the needs within the group. 

The notion of house churches does not preclude, of course, the possibility of those congregations meeting together with other congregations as a larger group as the need or desire arose.  And just because something was done a certain way in the book of Acts does not mean that it is normative for today. 

All the same, the idea of smaller congregations is suggestive, and if that size is typical of the NT era, our mental picture of what is going on in Acts and the Epistles might change somewhat as we think about church discipline, preaching to a congregation, and so forth.  My family attends a newly-planted church which runs about 50 on a good Sunday morning, and the dynamic is quite different than the church of 700 of which we were a part.



  1. Hello Chuck,

    Thanks for this interesting post. I have one question. Do you see any evidence in the NT that the label “ekklesia” was ever used of both a larger group and also used of the sub-groups which composed it? I don’t see it, but maybe I am missing something. For example, the NT never uses the description “the church at Rome.” Perhaps this is significant. Any thoughts? Thanks.

  2. I do not know how I would have survived back then in a smaller congregation. I got saved in 1987 and the church I was a member of had an attendance of 1200. I then attended Bible college and stayed in that church after graduation until 2002 and that church had an attendance of 3000. Now being at Fourth Baptist for five years, they average between 500-600. I have only been at large churches and Fourth is the “smallest” of the large churches!

  3. Jason,

    That’s an excellent question, thanks. The best case I can make for ‘ekklesia’ being used both for all the believers in a city and also subgroups is that we certainly have examples of both in the NT — although not for the same city!

    So, we have the above examples of subgroups in Rome, but as you have noted, the terminology “church of Rome” is not present; it may be perhaps that “the brethren” in Acts 28:15 speaks to the solidarity of the various subgroups there. Also, in Colosse, we have the ekklesia in Nympha’s house (Col 4:15) and also the ekklesia in Philemon’s house (Phm 1:1-2, assuming that Archippus in Phm 1:2 and Archippus in Col 4:17 are the same) — but no terminology specifying the “church in Colosse,” only an inference from 4:16 which seems to parallel the “church of the Laodiceans” with the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

    And on the other hand, we have the ekklesia (sg.) of Jerusalem (that was a big one!), of Antioch, of Caesarea, of Ephesus, of Corinth (even given its divisions!), of Phillipi, of the Thessalonians, of Cenchrea, of Smyrna, of Pergamum, of Thyatira, of Sardis, of Philadelphia, of Laodicea.

    It is grammatically possible to understand “hAI GUNAIKES EN TAIS EKKLHSIAIS” in 1 Cor 14:34 as “your women in the [your] churches” (as KJV), but given the broader reference to “all the churches of the saints” in 14:33, this is unlikely IF you put a full stop at the end of 14:33. IF, however (following RSV, ESV), you put a full stop in the middle of 14:33, you end up with “(33b) As in all the churches of the saints, (34) let hAI GUNAIKES keep silence EN TAIS EKKLHSIAIS,” which would make sense to translate “let your women keep silence in your churches” (just as everywhere else). And as noted above, the “church (sg.) at Corinth” is clearly attested (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1). But compare 1 Cor 11:18: “when you assemble as a church (EN EKKLHSIA).”

    So, all in all, Jason, I don’t see any strong evidence that ‘ekklesia’ is used of BOTH a “city-wide” church AND any sub-groups of which that church was constituted.

  4. tlangejr:

    I’m wondering, why do you say that you don’t know how you would have survived in a smaller congregation?

  5. Because the dynamics and inner-workings of a large church are much different and more protracted than a smaller church. I am currently at Fourth Baptist and many people think of Fourth as a large church, to me Fourth is the smallest church I have been a member of. My wife has been in smaller churches all of her life and Fourth is huge to her. I guess it is a matter of perspective.

    In my case, I am so used to being in a large ministry, I do not know how I would adjust to being in a much smaller ministry. Maybe I am in a rut!

  6. Terry, I’ve been in everything from 2000 member churches (small by your experience, right…hee hee) to 50 member churches, and the overall dynamic of a smaller church is like extending “Homemakers” to the entire church experience. The pluses are that everybody gets to take part in just about everything. The minus is that you generally have leaders who are not as much “cream” (good men rising to the top) as might occur in a well-led larger church.

    You’d be just fine, judging by how you interact in the Sunday School hour. You might even grow to prefer it.

  7. I think another significant plus is that in a smaller church, it is harder for people to “fall through the cracks” when it comes to both care and accountability within the church.

  8. The minus is that you generally have leaders who are not as much “cream” (good men rising to the top) as might occur in a well-led larger church.

    I realize I’m joining the conversation a bit late. If I may, I’d like to request some elaboration on the comment made above. Curious. Thanks.

  9. Doug,

    True enough. By the same token, though, perhaps smaller churches “force” men to take the lead in ways that that they would not were they in a large church.

  10. More for my own reference than anything else, here is a quote from Peter Lampe, “Paul, Patrons, and Clients,” p. 496.

    “Usually, all of the Christians in a city would not fit into one private household. Therefore, several house churches coexisted in the bigger cities in New Testament times. In Corinth and its harbor satellite town Cenchreae, groups crystallized in the homes of Stephanas, Gaius, Titius Justus, Crispus, and Phoebe. In the capital city of Rome, at least seven Christian circles can be identified in the middle of the first century C.E. In the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor, in the area of Colossae-Laodicea-Hierapolis, Christians met at the dwelling of Nympha or at Philemon’s house.” (Supporting evidence is given in a footnote.)

  11. Doug–Bert Perry here–and what I meant by that comment is that in a bigger church, you’ve simply got a bigger pool of men to choose for church office. Hence, you get to be a little pickier on who is actually appointed if (big if here) the men in the big church are spiritually similar to those in the small church.

    As with all “statistical facts,” of course, there are any number of complicating issues that make the conclusion anything but foregone, and a good place to start that list is with Chuck’s point that small churches can hasten the “maturing” process by forcing younger men into leadership roles.

  12. Note to self: Cf. Moyer Hubbard, Christianity in the Greco-Roman World (Hendrickson, 2010), 197-98. Good recent summary info on house churches in Scripture.

  13. Note to self: “Romans 14-15 suggests that Gentile and Jewish members were unintegrated, and Romans 16 supports the notion that the community existed in a series of house churches composed of Gentiles or Jews.” Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (InterVarsity, 1999), 302-303.

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