(Old Facebook post, lightly revised 7/23/2016.)
Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post three years ago. I wish I had more time for such study and writing today. But I am thankful that I am now living what I wrote then more fully than ever before. Prayers are welcome as I prepare to teach tomorrow (the Lord’s Day) at our little church (in a friend’s house).
How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? That is, how do we know, when reading of what the New Testament church did, whether the church today should imitate them? (To be clear, I am not asking about NT commands; that is another valid question for another time.)
Test Cases: When and Where the Church Gathers
For example, when and where should the church today gather to worship? Let’s talk about when first. The NT church commonly met on the Lord’s Day. Yes, early in the book of Acts we read of the church gathering “day by day.” But the history of the early church shows that gathering on the Lord’s Day rapidly became the standard practice of the early church. This practice has remained the norm for most of the world-wide church to this day. Is this simply a matter of tradition or preference? Or does this example carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?
Before we answer, let’s consider the second part of our question: Where should the church gather to worship? Again, while early in Acts we read of the church gathering in the temple, the pattern of the rest of the NT becomes clear: the early church normally gathered for worship in private homes (and sometimes also in public spaces). The history of the early church clearly shows that this practice became the near-universal norm for the first several hundred years of the church. In fact, church historians regularly report that Christians built no buildings specifically for worship gatherings during the first several hundred years of the church. Since the time of Constantine, however, the regular practice of most of the church has been to build special “church buildings” for worship. So again we ask, is the NT example simply a matter of tradition or preference, or does it carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?
We imitate the NT practice for when the church meets, but not for where it meets. Why? The contrast between these examples gives us an opportunity to evaluate our theological understandings. It should cause us to scratch our heads and sift our assumptions. But first, let’s examine the historical and theological evidence for both NT church practices a little more closely.
Examining Historical Data
Again, let’s address the when question first. By my count, there are two places in the NT where we read of the church gathering on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Besides this, we also read of John being “in the Spirit” (though presumably alone in exile) on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Judging by later historical evidence, this was likely a reference to the first day of the week. In addition, the disciples were gathered on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to them. This happened twice, judging by John’s idiomatic expression “eight days later.” But it could be argued that this hardly counts, because during these post-resurrection weeks the disciples were gathered most every day! If I missed one or two references in my summary here, the point remains the same: we have only a handful of NT references to the church meeting on the Lord’s Day.
In contrast, the host of references and allusions to the church gathering in private homes is too long to summarize properly in a paragraph. For a list of only the clearest evidence, see Acts 2:46; 12:12; 20:8; Romans 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 1:2. For example, four of these references speak of “the church in so-and-so’s house.” In addition, given the clarity of this evidence, a range of other references also appear to fit the house church pattern: Acts 8:3; 20:20; Philippians 4:22; 1Timothy 5:13; 2Timothy 3:6 and 2 John 1:10 (more could be added). For example, Acts 8:3 speaks of Paul “entering house after house” as he searched for Christians. 2 John 1:10 warns not to “receive [a false teacher] into your house.” The internal and external evidence is beyond dispute: the normal practice of the NT church was to gather for worship in private homes. In fact, if we look at the NT historical data alone, the evidence for house churches is much stronger than the evidence for Lord’s Day worship.
So, what should we do? Today the typical American church gathers on the Lord’s Day, but not in homes. In fact, the average American Christian (including the average Mennonite) would be quite uncomfortable if “church” was switched to any day besides Sunday. But many of the same people are rather suspicious of those who gather in homes for worship. Are we inconsistent here? Or is there a theological distinction between the two examples that I am missing?
Examining Theological Purposes
Here is one factor that I have delayed mentioning: the Lord’s Day is called the Lord’s Day because it was on this day that our Lord rose from dead. Church history clearly shows that the reason the church met on the first day of the week was because they wanted to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In addition, it appears that the Holy Spirit was first poured out on a Sunday (the Pentecost of Acts 2). Indeed, the first day of the week (sometimes called the eighth day) was the beginning of the new creation. No other day of the week has been graced with such a high honor! It can be argued from this theological symbolism that there is great value in meeting on the Lord’s Day. Every time we gather on the Lord’s Day we are (or should be) reaffirming our faith in our risen Lord and celebrating the outpouring of the Spirit.
No such rich theological meaning is tied up with meeting for worship in houses. Right? Not so fast.
First, we should note in passing that the NT nowhere mentions the above theological motivation for gathering on the Lord’s Day; this connection is only found in later historical writings. It is almost certain, however, that the NT church shared this theological understanding. (This is an example of how historical study can help us understand the Bible better.)
Second, neither persecution nor poverty can explain the practice of house churches. Persecution, though severe at times, was sporadic and localized during most of the first three centuries. And while many Christians were poor, others (such as Erastus the city treasurer and members of Caesar’s household) would have possessed the funds to build church buildings, much as the Roman officer who built a synagogue in Jesus’ day (Luke 7:1-5). Yet, for nearly three hundred years Christians were “one of the few religious groups at the time that did not make use of some sort of sacred buildings or structures” (Rad Zdero, author of the helpful brief book The Global House Church Movement).
Third, we should not overlook the ubiquitous NT references to imagery of the church as a household, a family. Here, again, the evidence is too overwhelming to properly demonstrate in a paragraph. As Paul S. Minear writes in his classic work Images of the Church in the New Testament, “the salutation ‘brothers’ was in the New Testament the most natural (and therefore most quickly conventionalized) way to address fellow Christians or a congregation as a whole.” The word “brothers” is found 183 times in the ESV NT, many times used to refer to fellow Christians. In addition, we find a host of other familial terms, such as the family of God, little children, God’s household, children of God, God as our heavenly father, Jesus as our brother, adoption, heirs, fellow heirs, and inheritance. Consider a few typical examples:
- Jesus to his disciples (Matt 12:50): “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
- Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
- Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15): “…The household of God, which is the church of the living God…”
- Paul to the Ephesian church (Eph 2:19): “…You are… members of the household of God…”
- Peter to some scattered saints (1 Pet 4:17): “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God…”
See also John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5, 30; 6:10; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 1Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 1:4; 2:11; 12:7; 1 Peter 1:4; 1John 2:1, 12-14; 3:1; 2John 1:1—varied references that demonstrate that the household imagery was shared widely by many NT authors. In addition, given the nature of the first-century household, which included more than the just the “nuclear family” of parents and children, we should also probably consider the use of terms such as servant/slave, master, manager, and elder.
Thus, both the time and the place that the NT church met are filled with rich theological significance. In both cases, the link between NT church practices and theology is never made explicit in the NT itself. Nowhere do we read that “we meet on the first day of the week because that is the day Christ arose.” No text says “we meet in houses because we are a family, the household of God.” Yet in both cases, the practice was both a natural outflow of their theological understandings and a natural result of imitating the practices of the apostles.
Must We Gather Today on the Lord’s Day and in Homes?
So, are we obliged to meet on the Lord’s Day? Are we obliged to gather in private homes to worship? Here’s the best answer I can give: No, and no; but we should not overlook the possible blessings of doing so.
Regarding the time of meeting: Since this was a major point of conflict in the first century, it is addressed clearly in Scripture. Christians are no longer compelled to observe a weekly sabbath: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16; for a longer answer to this question, see here). Romans 14:5 broadens this freedom to all days, implicitly including the Lord’s Day: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Therefore, Christians are free. I bless my brothers and sisters in Muslim lands who gather on Friday, the one day of their week when they are not expected to be at work. On the other hand, let us never forget our Lord’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit! I bless all who gather on the Lord’s Day with these gifts in mind. I enjoy this practice myself.
Regarding the place of meeting: This also was of major significance in the first century, but in a different manner. The temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, was eclipsed by Christ who freed us to worship anywhere as long as it is in S/spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24). However, the Jews already also worshiped in synagogues, so NT Christians did not argue over the place of meeting as they did over the time of meeting. They were already used to the idea that there was not only one place where worship could happen. Therefore, the NT does not speak prescriptively about where Christians should meet. This, too, is a matter of freedom in Christ. I bless Christians who meet in barns, offices, and caves. I even bless those who meet in “church buildings.” However, let us never forget that the church is a family, a household!
I will add this: Perhaps we need to consider afresh how the architecture of our meeting places sometimes inhibits NT church family life. For example: we often add a concept of “sacred space” that is very foreign to NT Christianity, calling the building “the church” or “God’s house.” On the other hand, we lose the interactive familial exchange of participatory worship when we sit in rows like spectators, staring at the backs of each others’ heads. Our love feasts have shriveled into mere symbols of a symbol. When did we forget that eating a full meal together in communion with Christ can be a central element of our worship services? Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians suggests that such love feasts may not be essential (1 Cor 11:22, 34). But they are certainly possible and even desirable, if they be true “love feasts” (Jude 1:12). (Paul does not argue against love feasts in 1 Corinthians 11, only against their abuse.)
Too often our church buildings become sterile, safe places where our Sunday best becomes armor that shields us from each other. If you really want someone to get to know you deeply, where do you invite him to meet? In a coffee shop, an office, or a warehouse? At a concert hall—which is the secular venue that our modern church sanctuaries are perhaps most closely patterned after? Or do you invite him into the intimacy of your own home, where he can see your economic status, your hobbies, your family, and all your worst and best up close? And what about when you are someone else’s guest? Which location makes you most feel like you are being included as part of the family?
In sum, just as I have a slight preference to meet on the Lord’s Day, so I also hunger for the kind of NT church family life that often comes most naturally as we gather to worship, eat, and pray within our own homes.
Summary: Guidelines for Imitating NT Church Practices
To return to our initial question: How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? Our dual case studies suggest a few guidelines:
- We should not automatically assume that we are obligated to woodenly imitate every physical practice of the NT church. Historical precedent is not necessarily prescriptive.
- We should remember that one repeated NT command was to imitate the actions of the apostles and other faithful leaders (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess 3:7-9; Heb 13:7)—even though no specific list of mandatory actions is ever given.
- We should try to be consistent, not turning historical precedent into prescription in one area while feeling smugly superior to those who imitate NT church practices literally in another area.
- We should examine closely the possible benefits of freely imitating NT church practices and not simply react against others who have abused them.
- We should aim to chose practices that naturally express the rich theological truths of our Christian faith.
- We should remember that the same theological truths may be expressed through a variety of practices. Where Scripture does not speak clearly, we should allow much diversity and bless our brothers and sisters who serve their Master in ways different from us.
Each of these, I think, are worth further reflection.
What do you think? Is it helpful to imitate the NT church in their practices of meeting on the Lord’s Day and in houses (and public spaces)? Do you have other biblical observations, or other guidelines for weighing NT church practices? Share your insights in the comments below, and thanks for reading.