Consider a typical “Christian service.” Upon arriving at an imposing religious edifice, congregants are quieted by its grandeur and orderly fill the pews. There is a program of worship directed by the traditional clergy, or more modernly by a worship leader. There is then some singing of predetermined Christian songs; maybe some laymen or even the congregation assists in this. Then one man speaks, with some possible confirmation from the listeners, followed by the passing of an offering plate. Now some congregations maybe relatively louder or vary in details of practice, but it is still usually just a matter of following an expected spiritual form. Traditional or contemporary, liturgical or charismatic, this kind of pastoral system is the expected norm of today’s Christian meetings. If someone arrived at a Christian meeting and there was no obvious pastoral system, no prescribed program or even a “church building,” they might become alarmed and even on the alert for something heretical, at the worst, or leave wondering why this group cannot seem to get its act together, at the least. After all, heaven forbid that anything be expected of a congregant other than prompt consistent attendance and faithful giving! A small number of believers are active, but the rest are “frozen” in their function. But has this always been the case? Was there ever a time when believers meet together in a way where “whenever you come together each one has…” (1 Corinthians 14:26)?
We know from Acts 2 that the thousands in the newborn church in Jerusalem “continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles” (v.42) and met “day by day and house to house” (v.46). Glimpses of this kind of assembly life can be found throughout the rest of the book of Acts and the Epistles. Of course the apostles give some example of larger gatherings, e.g. at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), but they were for a “ministry meeting” with only one or a few speakers. To emphasize, these were special ministry meetings, not the typical church gatherings which were mutual and in the homes of the believers. Since, a home is a place where people live, the early Christians did not merely meet together, but they were intimately involved with each other’s lives.
The light and truth is in the Word, but it may be helpful to also have a portrait of how early believers met to save us from our own predilections. In academic writings such as Anti-Pacem – Archeaological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine, by Graydon F. Snyder, and popular writings like God’s Frozen People, by Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton, there has been much consideration of the way early Christians met and lived.
Anti-Pacem considers the state of early Christianity prior to the so-called “peace of Constantine” where Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. One of the first points made is that prior to 180 A.D. there are hardly any recognizably Christian artifacts to be found. As historical documents attest, this is not because of the lack of Christian presence, but is due to early Christianity transcending culture to the degree that anything utilized was indistinguishable from what other people would typically use. “The first Christians did not build temples or public buildings. Rather they met in homes or rooms within existing edifices” (Anti-Pacem 2). Many items now universally familiar would be missing, e.g. “the cross symbol, as an artistic reference to the passion event, cannot be found prior to the time of Constantine” (Anti-Pacem 58).
“At the heart of the Christian Faith is meeting together, the assembly of the faith community. … / Early Christians undoubtedly met in private homes (Colossian 4:15; White, I, 103-110, Reumann, 109), …. There is neither literary evidence nor archaeological indication that any house church was converted into an extant church building. Nor is there any extant church or basilica that certainly was built prior to Constantine (White, I, 3-10). Consequently, we have no evidence regarding the intentional built-form of a Christian meeting place prior to the ‘peace.’ There were homes that were restructured to accommodate the Christian assembly (White, I, 111-123)” (Anti-Pacem 127-128). There were some heathen Roman basilicas with the traditional front-facing layout that were later converted to Christian use after the peace.
The two earliest Christian meeting places known to archaeology are the Duro-Europos house-church in Syria and the mid-third century assembly hall near Tel Megiddo in Israel. Within the Roman outpost of Duro-Europos several structures are preserved under a defensive siege wall. Here “… one finds here a ‘photograph’ of a domus ecclesiae [“house church”] as it was in the year 256. … The excavators of the Christian church [at Dura-Europos] have reported finding three stages of development on the site: an earlier dwelling, a private house, and the house adapted for the use as a domus ecclesiae” (Anti-Pacem 129). This house-church had no altar, but a baptistery was installed at a quite early date.
In Tel Megiddo a mosaic floor of an assembly hall attached to a private home was found. “[T]he excavators date it to the first half of the third century, around 230 A.D…. from a time before Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. … [An] inscription makes it unmistakably clear that this place was intended to serve the religious needs of the Christian community organized in the Roman military camp. It also removes any doubt that a table once existed in the center of the hall …” (Vassilios Tzaferis, Biblical Archaeology Review, 2009). The congregation did not have a front-facing orientation, they sat in a square facing one another. This is the strongest archaeological evidence of an early Christians practicing an “each one has” assembly life. In fact, the “confession and the altar were introduced no earlier than the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth.” (Anti-Pacem 152).
Prior to the Tel Megiddo discovery, Snyder wrote that, “the New Testament Church began as a small group house church (Col. 4:15) and it remained so until the middle or end of the third century. There are no evidences of larger places of meeting before 300. … Christians must have met in homes or other small edifices without sufficiently altering the structures to leave traces of their presence. What evidence we have points only to the house church. At mid-third century we have in Dura-Europos a house remodeled to function as a church; … Street lists in Egypt indicate some homes were used as churches. Thousands of Christians met throughout the Mediterranean basin for two centuries without leaving us solid data regarding their places of assembly. Those places of assembly must have been private homes not owned by the ‘church’ and, therefore, not remodeled” (Anti-Pacem 299).
Gibbs and Morton colloquially summarize that, “to the early Christians the church was not a building around the corner (after all they meet in one another’s houses), nor was it a denomination (Christians argued together from the earliest months, but they were not yet divided as we are), nor was it the clergy, with some kind of ‘top clergy’ controlling things. They would tell us that the church meant people, people like themselves, the people of God, a community, a fellowship. The local church was the fellowship of Christians meeting in X or Y’s house, but the whole church was the fellowship of all Christian people—already spread about the ancient world in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Corinth, and in Rome itself. These were the ‘laos’ … from which our word laity is said to come ….” (God’s Frozen People 14).
Next, there is the matter of the clergy-laity separation that has developed into the modern pastoral system. “Without denying the formal presence of ministers and elders or bishops in the governance structure of a local church, it must be stated that the pre-Constantinian Church was remarkably democratic. In letters and inscriptions there are very few references to clergy, and those few are late. … There was leadership, but clergy were not divided from laity, nor reli-/gious act from religious actor” (Anti-Pacem 299-300). In the book of Revelation, there is mentioned a practice which those in the church in Ephesus stood against, the works of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6). There is no indication of a historical person named Nicolaos who fostered some sort of following. Literally translated from the Greek nikao “I conquer, I overcome” plus laos “the common people,” would imply a simple interpretation that the Nicolaitans were those who conquered and subjugated the laity in the church. They first set themselves apart from the laity and then overcame them. Then they went on to teach others to do the same, and it is this teaching that was present in the church in Pergamum, as condemned by the Lord (Rev. 2:15). It is sobering to consider that the Lord Jesus Himself informs us of His feeling when He says, “the works of the Nicolatians, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:6). So like Ephesus we should be one with the Lord’s feeling and hate any work that separates the laity from any special class. The church in Ephesus had already suffered from losing their first bridal love toward the Lord (Rev. 2:4), affecting their relationship with the Head. Now others desired to paralyze most of the Body of Christ. Without the Head and the Body, the Church loses its reality and impact.
If we admit the existence of a clerical class separated from the common believers, when the Bible never does, we are subscribing to nothing less than the teaching of the subduing of the laity! Where in God’s Word does it say that Christians should be supplanted by a group of people with a special ministry? Surely there is none. Based on the New Testament, we can say that this matter was introduced or invented later by others. They mainly borrowed items from Judaism and Paganism, using them for their own purposes. Although we certainly appreciate those with a pastoral gift, all those who take the Bible as the supreme judge would condemn the pastoral system. Furthermore, this system is absolutely deadening to the functioning of the members of the Body of Christ. Christ as the Head of the Body hates this kind of paralysis.
Once the clergy-laity system began to develop, the next step for it to be firmly established required the change of assembly place. “It is doubtful whether there was any full-time professional clergy till the church began to have buildings of its own. It was when the center of the life of the church moved from the houses where men live to special places of worship to which men went that the division and distinction between the laity and the clergy became obvious” (God’s Frozen People 31).
Finally, a balancing word: revolution merely for the sake of more freedom just leads to the church in Laodicea, which literally means “the opinion of the people,” and is equally useless to the Lord (Rev. 3:16). Believers still need leadership under the direction of an eldership of a proper local church in a city. And they also need much guidance and training to get into the healthy teaching of the New Testament and to enter into more experiences and enjoyment of Christ. So there is a definite place for the more mature and gifted believers, but it is in more of a raising-up role, not a replacing one. This is difficult to work out in large meetings, but is possible in the homes. Indeed, the apostle Paul’s concept of a Christian meeting seems to be more like the current trend of “active teaching” in a classroom, where the students become the teachers of each other. Instead of strictly lecturing, the teacher can address the students’ needs one-on-one and all can progress more effectively. Paul was clear that, God “gave some … for the perfecting of the saints [the sanctified believers] unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the Body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Therefore, Paul’s aspiration was “until we all arrive at the oneness of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:13) can be attainable in a church life where “each one has.”