In previous articles, we looked at the need for the house church, group dynamics, the “organic” nature of home Christianity, leadership questions, and doctrinal issues. In this article, we will look at the house church patterns and practices.
Unlike most modern church services, participation by all in the first century was important. Paul writes:
When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor. 14:26, NASB).
…speak...to one another in psalms and hymns… (Eph. 5:19-20; compare Col. 3:16, Heb. 10:25).
We get a picture of a dynamic meeting, where the members are interacting and exercising their various gifts for the building up of each other (Rom. 12:6-8). Rather than chaos, however, we see order and mutual respect (1 Cor. 14:40). The key point here is that all members of the house church were expected to contribute according to their individual gifts.
Prayer was very important to first century Christians and a common practice (Acts 12:12). It was their indispensable communication link to God. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples “…joined together constantly in prayer…” (Acts 1:14; compare 2:42). In one meeting, the disciples were praying together when the house shook and they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:23-31). When important decisions were being made, or Christians were sent out on ministry, God was consulted in prayer for His blessings (Acts 1:24; 6:6; 13:3; 14:23).
Prayer was considered so important that the apostles and older men decided to dedicate themselves to it, along with the ministering of the Word (Acts 6:1-4). In one case, Peter and John prayed that some Samarians would receive the Holy Spirit and their prayer was answered (Acts 8:14-16). During persecution, the Christians would earnestly pray for one another (Acts 12:5; Rom. 15:31; 2 Thess. 3:2). They often witnessed God answering their prayers, sometimes in a miraculous and striking manner (Phil. 1:19; Acts 16:25-26; Jas. 5:13-16). Given the many first century examples, prayer should be a central and prevalent practice in our house churches.
Often connected with prayer was praise and singing. Jesus concludes His last Passover meal with a hymn (Mt. 26:30). Paul and Silas sang praises to God while in prison (Acts 16:25). Paul said, “…I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind” (1 Cor. 14:15). He tells the Ephesians to, “…speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…” (Eph. 5:19; also see Col. 3:16). In addition, James writes, “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (Jas. 5:13b).
Without question then, praising God in song was a core element of first century house church life--and so it should be with us today. If a brother or sister has the gift of song, he or she should exercise it in their house church for the edification of all. God is pleased with our efforts to praise him in this way—even if our voices are slightly off pitch! It is our hearts that God is primarily concerned with.
Teaching and learning God’s Word were also very important. It was crucial for Christians to develop their understanding of God’s ways and purposes to the point where they were mature and could teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). On one occasion, Paul taught a house church in Troas until midnight (Acts 20:7). The Greek word used here is dialegomai, meaning to discuss, debate, exhort, preach or reason. It was not just a oneway speech, but more likely a dialogue involving the church members.
To the Colossians, Paul writes, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16; compare 1 Thess. 5:27). We get a picture of someone reading the letter to the church, and undoubtedly, the church discussing it to ensure they understood the import of what Paul was saying. Similarly today, we can read and discuss the Bible with a view to growing up in Christ and better knowing God’s purposes. Those with a gift for teaching should lead these interactive studies (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28.
Miraculous manifestations of the Spirit were common in first century house churches, including gifts of prophecy, healings, discernment, and speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12:7- 10). Paul tells the Thessalonians not to resist the exercise of gifts (1 Th. 5:19). To the Corinthians, he says to, “earnestly desire spiritual gifts…” (1 Cor. 14:1).
However, today there is some debate about whether or not these gifts still exist. 1 Cor. 13 teaches the gifts will pass away, but when? The context suggests, most likely, when Jesus returns to restore all things (“…when the perfect comes…but then face to face” vs. 10-11). Tolerance then, is important. We should not judge our brethren because of their view of spiritual gifts. Yet at the same time, we need to be discerning (1 Cor. 2:14). Authentic spiritual gifts exercised in meetings will not contradict clear Biblical teachings, will be up-building to the brethren, and always motivated by Christian love.
Shared meals were common in the first century church and are popular today. Meals can be a wonderful time for fellowship. The most important meal of all, however, was the communion meal instituted by Jesus: the sharing of the bread and wine, symbolizing His broken body and shed blood (Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Many brethren celebrate this annually, others more often. The Bible does not clearly state the frequency, but it was an important and respectful occasion. It should be celebrated mindful of the high regard we hold for our Lord Jesus and what He did for us.
House church meetings, although primarily for believers, were also an opportunity to evangelize non-believers. Paul suggests that in those cases, Christians should focus on prophesy—that is, speaking the Word of God in the hope of drawing the visitor to Christ (1 Cor. 14:22-25). House churches today can do the same.
Two of the key identifying characteristics of first century church life were love and caring for one another (John 13:14-15, 35). There is a long list of “one-anothering” scriptures (Rom. 12:10; 1 Pet. 4:9; Eph. 4:32; Heb. 13:16; Gal, 5:13; etc.) If we fail to practice these in our fellowships, the rest of our house church activity is in vain (1 Cor. 13). Part of caring for one another is sharing resources with those in need. Christians should be generous when it comes to giving, and give willingly, not under compulsion (Mark 12:41-44; 2 Cor. 9:6-8; Acts 4:32-35). We should not only give for local needs, but also to brethren outside the group who need help (Acts 11:27-30).
We see then, that first century house churches were a hub of spiritual activity: songs, prayers, meals, exercising of gifts, caring, giving, and evangelizing--all done in love and in the worship of the one true God. By modeling ourselves on this pattern, and with God’s help, our house churches will be a spiritual refuge for those who want to follow Jesus, and who need good Christian friends who truly care about them.