(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.
10 thoughts on “Which New Testament Church Practices Are Normative for Today?”
“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.”
Dwight, I’m sorry, it isn’t.
I could go reference by reference, but I’ve put it together before in an article. I hope you’ll interact with it.
Ted, thanks for sharing your concern for the unity of Christ’s church. I don’t have time to interact point-by-point with your article. I’ve responded to you regarding some of its ideas elsewhere in the past (such as regarding NT use of the word “church”). For the sake of other readers, I’ll simply say for now that it seems to me that too many of your arguments are based on weak evidence.
I do strongly affirm and share your concern for unity in Christ’s church. But church history clarifies that for hundreds of years Christians shared our concern and often successfully achieved it, all while meeting regularly each Lord’s Day in house church gatherings. To argue that the NT speaks against such house church gatherings means you also need to argue that the church became universally disobedient on this point within the first generation and stayed so until the time of Constantine, when they began building church buildings. The alternative is to conclude that the early church didn’t understand apostolic teaching the way you present it in your post. I find the latter more credible.
Your article ends by exhorting “house churches, en masse and as groups of Christians, to find a church nearby that is more faithful to Scripture than they are… Churches can meet in any building.” However, you also suggest in the article that there may have been 20,000 Christians in the early Jerusalem church. Where do you propose they should all have met in one place after the destruction of the temple? Where do you suppose all the many more thousands of Christians in my home city of Atlanta should all meet in one place each Sunday? At some point the assumptions that (a) one church per city means one Sunday gathering place per city and (b) multiple Sunday gathering places per city means schism, must break down. Believe it or not, it is possible to be part of a house church while actively networking in the unity of the Spirit with Christians in all sorts of other gatherings, both local and distant, as well as rooting yourself directly in the stream of historic Christianity.
I have found orthodox and loving Christians in both large and small gatherings. If we follow the advice Paul gives the divided Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13, then I am confident we can all live together in loving unity as part of Christ’s one church. I hope our disagreement here can reflect that spirit of love.
Blessings to you as you gather, wherever you do, on the Lord’s Day tomorrow.
“To argue that the NT speaks against such house church gatherings means you also need to argue that the church became universally disobedient on this point within the first generation… ”
In my article I discuss the obedient house church in Gaius’ house (Rom. 16:23) before dismantling the disobedient theology of present day house churches. So, obviously, I don’t “argue that the church became universally disobedient within the first generation.”
I actually believe the opposite, and place the disobedience of house churches squarely in our present generation. It’s why my article interacts with many of the best books on house churches, which are all recent. I know of no writers over fifty years ago, or for the previous 1900 years, who were popularly advocating house churches. House churches as a viable theology is a recent phenomena, and you ought to admit that.
“you also suggest in the article that there may have been 20,000 Christians in the early Jerusalem church. Where do you propose they should all have met in one place after the destruction of the temple?”
Even before the destruction of the temple, the church in Jerusalem was greatly reduced in number as attested in Scripture (Acts 8:1-3, James 1:1). Many of those persecuted moved out into Judean, Samarian, and Galilean churches (Acts 9:31, 11:29, Gal. 1:22, 1 Thess. 2:14).
Furthermore, the population of Jerusalem was decimated by the 70 AD destruction, and it is likely Jewish Christians died in it, as Christians worshiped in synagogues alongside non-believing Jews until 83AD, when it was outlawed by the rabbis.
After the first century, the greatly reduced church in Jerusalem was honored as “primus inter pares,” a Latin phrase meaning “first among equals.” Some theologians claim this honorific title is reflected in the “of God” phrase connected to it (1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13) and in Paul’s financial gift (2 Cor. 9:13-14). But numerically, the church dropped off precipitously, and though greatly loved, was evidently quite small after 70 AD.
“But church history clarifies that for hundreds of years Christians shared our concern and often successfully achieved it, all while meeting regularly each Lord’s Day in house church gatherings.”
No, it doesn’t. The greatest single topic discussed in the extensive writings of the Apostolic Fathers (96-180 AD) is preventing schism, the very thing house church theology advocates.
Rome was the largest city in that ancient world, and it is generally assumed had the largest church by 100 AD and long after. Just prior to his martyrdom in Rome in 165 AD, Justin wrote,
“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.” (Justin Martyr, Apology, 1:67)
That quote, too, is in the article I gave you.
“Where do you suppose all the many more thousands of Christians in my home city of Atlanta should all meet in one place each Sunday?”
Atlanta is divided into regions. Skillful elders there, who reject schism and heed Christ’s admonition, “to shepherd the flock among you,” would be in the best position to determine best how to shepherd the flocks, including all geography questions.
“Believe it or not, it is possible to be part of a house church while actively networking in the unity of the Spirit with Christians in all sorts of other gatherings, both local and distant, as well as rooting yourself directly in the stream of historic Christianity.”
The ‘unity of the Spirit’ described in Eph. 4:3 requires you worship and serve the body of Christ together on Sunday with those Paul calls your “one anothers” in 4:2: “showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” You can’t show 1 Corinthians 13 love and tolerance for those you don’t know and never worship with, just the “one anothers” you do. Therefore, you do not possess the “unity of the Spirit” with believers who are distant. Only those you worship Christ, in the Spirit, with.
Thus, schism is a reasoned rejection of both unity and love. But rather than deciding for ourselves which Christians we will worship with on Sunday, and which we won’t, 1 Cor. 1:10 calls us to worship together as one body with all in Christ where we live.
Blessing on you too, forever, in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ted, you have shared some interesting information, yet I believe there are errors included in your comments. For example, you write, “House churches as a viable theology is a recent phenomena, and you ought to admit that.” This may be technically true, in the sense that most historic Christians have never developed a theology for meeting in homes. But you could also say that the Trinity as a developed theology was unknown during the apostolic age, and you would be equally true. The fact remains that the Trinity is orthodox theology, and the fact remains that the vast majority of scholars agree that the early church commonly met in houses for worship. It is not just modern house church proponents who argue this, but standard historians such as Philip Schaff. The practice began with Jesus instituting the cup and bread with his disciples in a private home, and there have been multiple periods since then when the same has happened, whether with some Anabaptists during the Reformation or with the modern house church movement in China.
I note that you dodged my question about a single meeting place for 20,000 Christians in Jerusalem by talking about a later decline of the Christian population in that city.
You note correctly that the Apostolic Fathers argued against schism. But this is not the same as saying they argued against house church gatherings, which I have never read that they did. House churches can exist without schism, and schism exists most commonly these days without house churches!
I might also caution you in your theological claims. For example, you write that “you do not possess the ‘unity of the Spirit’ with believers who are distant.” This would be news to Paul, who wrote that “there is one Spirit” and that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” There is not one Spirit per city, but one Spirit for all saints of all times and places, binding us together.
I do agree with you on the great value of large gatherings of Christians celebrating their common participation in Christ. I like that testimony from Justin Martyr, and we need such perspectives in our post-Reformation fragmentation. But to argue that smaller local church groups are intrinsically schismatic goes beyond anything found in Scripture and against much of church history.
I don’t have time for more discussion of this today, so I’ll request that we end this here. If I decide I want to respond to your full article at a later date, I can do that. Thank you.
Addendum: Here is an essay which sets the modern house church movement in historical context. From the introduction: “This paper… seeks to show that the modern house church movement is not a novelty, but rather that it has strong historical precedent and roots in the very concepts that brought about the Protestant Reformation.”(https://cmmorrison.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/house-church-roots.pdf)
“the vast majority of scholars agree that the early church commonly met in houses for worship.”
As do I Dwight. You are arguing a straw man, and haven’t understood my argument, which is the proliferation of house churches in the same locale schisming the local body of Christ, not the type of meeting space.
“I note that you dodged my question about a single meeting place for 20,000 Christians in Jerusalem by talking about a later decline of the Christian population in that city.”
No Dwight, you originally asked this:
“Where do you propose they should all have met in one place after the destruction of the temple? ”
You asked about where the church in Jerusalem met after 70 AD, not the church before 70 AD.
So, the question I answered is the one you asked. Obviously, once the church in Jerusalem was decimated in size, it could have met in many locations, possibly even a house. But unlike today’s self-styled thinkers, they valued unity, and aggressively judged those who separated themselves off and did their own church as either schismatic or heretical (cf. Rom. 16:17-18).
“I might also caution you in your theological claims. For example, you write that “you do not possess the ‘unity of the Spirit’ with believers who are distant.” This would be news to Paul, who wrote that “there is one Spirit” and that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” There is not one Spirit per city, but one Spirit for all saints of all times and places, binding us together.”
My claim is still valid and you ignored my argument on why it is valid – Eph. 4:2 and the moral imperatives connected to the “one anothers.” You have arbitrarily separated Eph. 4:3 from Eph. 4:2; I have simply reconnected them in order to help you know who you are obligated to obey the apostolic admonition to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” with.
Similarly, you have assumed that 1 Cor. 12:13 speaks of the universal body of Christ – “one Spirit for all saints of all times.”
But 1 Cor. 12:13 does not refer to all who shall ever be regenerated in Spirit baptism but rather the local body of Christ in Corinth, as required by the context of chapter 12. For instance, 12:15 – “If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.” The entire chapter requires a people who interact with and care for each other, and who worship together as one body formed by God.
Your misinterpretation of this verse is the same as Eph. 4:3. You assume the text is addressing the universal body of Christ, but the ethical imperatives and activities of the body described in those texts make such a conclusion impossible, for most of the universal body of Christ is in glory with Christ.
Blessing in Christ.
Ted, I have responded in private.
Thanks for the article, Dwight.
One thing I often think about is that as house church proponents, we have our work cut out for us in that often times today house churches are started by those who can’t get along with others and want to do their own thing. Our aim should be a more holistic New Testament church, which will include strategy, structure, and at times, standards along with the NT example of home churches. I think one way of bringing unity amid many small “home churches” would be to have a regular larger gathering for encouraging one another and enjoying mutual fellowship.
Along that line, consistent with NT example, would be that a local church (while may have met from house to house) was according to city (the church at Corinth, the church at Rome, etc.). How do we return to that? Should we even try? Is that irrelevant?
“Our aim should be a more holistic New Testament church.” I agree; focusing on being a “house church” as our primary identity is not healthy.
I also agree that networking between multiple groups is extremely valuable (I almost wrote essential). Given, however, the varied NT uses of “church” and the differing sizes of cities and urban Christian populations past and present (not to mention our post-Reformation multiplicity of denominations, some more orthodox than others!), I wouldn’t want to push the one-church-per-city paradigm too hard. Our goal here is to intentionally seek out other groups of Christians and look for those with whom we can most fruitfully fellowship and serve, in addition to our own functioning as a local gathering. It is crucial that when we think of “church” we think of more than just those nearest and most like ourselves.