Before there were church buildings

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 27, 2019

In the church’s early days, people celebrated Mass in their homes

The holidays are not that far off and some people may already be planning for family gatherings. As you prepare for Thanksgiving or Christmas, do you realize that your house mirrors the Sunday gatherings of the earliest Christians?

Most of us think of “going to church” as going to a specific building set aside for liturgical celebrations. But in the first centuries of Christianity, Jesus’ followers did not have formal church buildings to attend. Yes, they did go to the Temple for sacrifices and feasts — until it was destroyed by the Romans in 79 A.D. And they also went to synagogues for instructions and prayer. At least those of the early Christians who were Jewish did — since many of these first Christians were, like Jesus, Jewish.

Stained-glass image of St. Paul, who cited many of the early Christian house churches in his writings. (Bigstock.com)

However, we can see from the writings of Paul, and also the Acts of the Apostles, that the first Christians gathered at homes to celebrate the Eucharistic meal.

‘In their homes’

“Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).

These gatherings took place in normal, everyday houses, although many of these abodes were larger and probably owned by the wealthy members of the community. This meant that they had a room large enough for several people to gather in and partake of a meal.

As L. Michael White, a biblical scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, noted for PBS, “The worship of an early Christian house church probably centered around the dinner table. … and the center of their activity really (was) the fellowship meal or the communal meal. The term ‘communion’ actually comes from this experience of the dining fellowship. … We need to remember that dining is one of the hallmarks of early Christian practice almost from the very beginning. All the Gospel traditions tend to portray Jesus at the dinner table as a very important part of his activity.”

These “house churches” held at most 40 to 50 people for the celebration. Each member of the faith community brought what they could contribute to the gathering.

In Paul’s letters

We see specific houses listed in Paul’s letters.

  • “The house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer” (Acts 12:12). This is where Peter went after an angel had rescued him from prison. John Mark is considered to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. His mother was wealthy enough to have a maid (mentioned by name, Rhoda, in Acts), so she would likely have had a large house where people could gather.
  • Another well-to-do businesswoman was Lydia, who dealt in purple dye and cloth in the city of Thyatira (Acts 16:15). Paul and Timothy stayed at her house, which they called “a house of prayer” after Lydia prevailed upon them: “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home.”
  • Yet another house church, or actually two churches in two different cities, was where the husband and wife, Aquilla and Prisca, lived. First, they were in Corinth and later in Ephesus. Paul wrote of them in Romans 16:3 and First Corinthians: “Aquila and Prisca together with the church at their house send you many greetings in the Lord” (Rom 16:19).
  • Others who owned houses that were such centers of faith included Nympha in Laodicea (Col 4:15), Philemon and his family in Colossae (Phil 1:1-2) and Gaius in Corinth (Rom 16:23).

A room set aside

Eventually these house churches may have developed so that one room would be set aside and used exclusively for religious gatherings. This is certainly the case of the famous Dura-Europos house church in Syria. It dates to the early third century A.D. and contains early Christian paintings such as the Good Shepherd. The church was discovered in 1920. In 2005, another house church, specifically set aside for Christian worship, was found at Tel Meggido in Israel. Its third-century mosaic floor contains images of two fish and the words, “The god-loving Akeptous (most likely the house owner) has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial,” in ancient Greek.

House churches — and these transitional houses containing special rooms for worship, sometimes called the domus ecclesiae (the house of the church) — continued to be used into the fourth century.

Rise of basilicas

At that time, in 313 A.D., the emperor Constantine legalized the Christian faith. He also commissioned the building of basilicas — a type of large building traditionally used for governmental purposes in ancient Rome — for use as Christian churches. One example of these was the original St. Peter’s in Rome, started in 360 A.D. At the same time, Constantine also gave the Lateran Palace (which had been the home of the Lateran family) to Pope Militiades. This was the beginnings of what is today St. John Lateran in Rome.

Basilicas mark the beginning of the building of Christian churches exclusively for the purpose of worship. Soon after came cathedral churches — overseen by bishops. Smaller (relatively so) parish churches, abbey churches and shrines followed. The spirit of the house church remained, at least in memory. They experienced a resurgence in the 20th century with small Christian communities and house gatherings for groups such as Renew and Renew 2000.

 

Sources: Haaretz.com; Catholic Encyclopedia; From Age to Age; franciscanmedia.org; PBS.org; the New Testament Reformation Fellowship; and Adoremus.org

Related Posts

Scroll to Top