John Knox Press, Richmond, VA, 1972
Donald R. Allen
Chapter 2. Discovering
It was after this first year as a congregation that some of us discovered, to our surprise, that groups elsewhere called themselves house churches. Through our reading we were discovering, too, that the house church had appeared in the early life of the church. The importance of its historical roots and its contemporary emergence slowly dawned upon us.
Because house churches have hitherto risen to any noticeable degree of prominence only in times of great stress and insecurity in the church, it seems especially fitting to consider the forces that are giving rise to the house church in our day. A comparison of past and present influences upon the Christian community may suggest what role the house church will play in our century. Can we understand the rise of house church groupings as well as their full potential by viewing their ancient past.
So many centuries have passed with the church maintaining the same basic relationship to its cultural surroundings that it is very difficult for most of us really to imagine the church in any other stance. The fact that the Christian community, for a number of centuries, had few public buildings but met primarily in the homes of its members is known by some but comprehended by few. That it survived these centuries with vigor while having no legitimate place or status in its own cities or villages&Jeddah;indeed that to "join" such a community and attend such a house meeting put one in physical danger&Jeddah;is understood by even fewer.
From the New Testament we read of Christians greeting one another in letters which were sent to the homes where they gathered to worship through breaking bread and participating in study and prayer. The words of greeting were directed to the oikon ekklesia or the house church. (Examples can be found in Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, and Philemon 2, where in translation oikon ekklesia reads as the church in your house.) In a book by J. G. Davies, entitled Daily Life in the Early Church, there is a clear picture of the primary use of homes for training members and for the worship of those early communities. Clement of Alexandria carried out his daily teaching tasks in a house. Clement's own home was the focal point for his students' training in discipleship. Referring to a new class of members who had just finished their probation period to join the church and who had just had their ceremonial, Clement of Alexandria wrote: "The memory of the simple but impressive ceremonial is still fresh in their minds. As night was falling on Easter Eve they had gone to the house, which through the generosity of a wealthy member of the congregation had been placed at the disposal of the Church as a place of worship." (1.)
Literature of the early Christian period implies that in some areas separate buildings may have been set aside as churches, but private dwellings served congregations as meeting places for worship. "It is impossible to say what was the situation in Alexandria in Clement's day as his references are ambiguous . . . but it is assumed that a house-church was in existence. The description in the text is based upon that of the Christian house-church c. AD. 232, discovered at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates vide M. Rostovtzeff. 2
The reference made is to one of the oldest actual locations of a Christian meeting place yet discovered. In the Syrian desert, midway between Baghdad and Aleppo, stand the ruins of Dura-Europos. The ancient city rests on the road that, for time immemorial, had followed the Euphrates. It would not be surprising to find evidence there of a Christian group for, according to M. Rostovtzeff, their small communities had ceased to be a novelty in the life of the cities of Mesopotamia in the late Roman times.
"In 1931 - 32 we found under the sloping embankment of the desert wall to the south of the main gate a private house, part of it in excellent preservation, which had been built in the early third century and was transformed very soon, probably about AD. 232 into a Christian meeting place and place of worship. One little room was used as a baptistery..
The relationship of the small Christian cult to the life of the city as a whole was at best a tenuous one. The church existed in a climate where the obvious religious landmarks that were known to the citizens were the many temples dedicated to their numerous gods. In going to the market one would take the usual route past the temple of Zeus on one corner and thence to the center of the city's marketplace where in Dura was to be found the great temple of Artem is. In such a society Christians could not expect popular acceptance, nor could they expect the tolerance that might permit them to erect a public building for worship. The alternative was a house church.
"As was done for the Synagogue, a private house of medium size was reconstructed for the use of the Christian community. The house was adapted to the requirements of the Christian cult soon after AD. 232. . . . The house was well hidden in a cluster of other similar houses, and its appearance remained exactly that of a private house even after its transformation into a Christian church. The Christians in the third century AD. had every reason not to make their house of prayer conspicuous." 4
Artwork on the walls revealed some early Christian themes put there to impress the catechumens at their baptism. Drawings depicting the miracles of Jesus, the figure of the good shepherd, Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Christ reaching to Peter in the miracle of the lake, and the Resurrection were uncovered on the baptistery walls. The drawings were those commonly used to represent central themes which bound the members of the Dura house church to other similar Christian communities already well scattered in this period, little more than a hundred years after the writings of our New Testament.
This is not to romanticize the house church because of its antiquity. Rather, the house church in Dura was in another time when the Christian community existed as a minority, in a day of transition, in an alien environment. Then the people of God found the church in the house suitable to their needs. This example of early house churches should emphasize to the present-day Christian that the church has survived, and indeed thrived, in such circumstances. The church is quite capable of moving in similar ways today. The prime difference would be that, whereas the ancient house churches sought to grow in virgin soil, the house church of today must rediscover its roots in an overworked ground.
The early house church was not determined merely by conditions of numbers and income as though it depended upon time and growth to "arrive" in the community by building the church on the corner. On the contrary, the early Christians who lived under persecutions that began with Emperor Nero in A.D. 64 and continued in localized areas until the reign of Diocletian in the fourth century, could not have purchased public property to raise their steeples if they had so desired. As long as they took a public stand, regarding the Empire as an evil institution - godless, corrupt, and contrary to the will of Cod - they had little chance of having public property. Whenever they were a revolutionary force disrupting popular attitudes, they were bound to gather in hidden sanctuaries where, through instruction, they reinforced their way of life in opposition to the surrounding culture. The house church, then, has represented not only a necessary place for the church but an attitude as well - a stance in relation to one's society. In addition, the house church during this time came to symbolize the transitory state which the members of the body of Christ were experiencing. These earliest Christian communities, composed of Jews and Gentiles, were in a state of fluidity. They operated with a little of the old while moving toward the new. They were leaving their temples and synagogues.
This they knew, but what they were moving toward they did not know. House churches, although not considered temporary, served them well in the transitional times in which they lived.
An additional perspective which enables us to understand the house church as signaling a life-style more than a specific location comes from the broad interpretations given to the terms house and church as they were used in the New Testament.
It is significant to note that in the New Testament the same term, ekklesia, is used to designate (i) the universal church, (ii) the church of God in a certain province or region, (iii) a particular local church, and (iv) the actual assembly of believers in any place, for instance in the upper room of a home." 5
To the writers of our New Testament, then, the church as the people of God could appear as a reality in any setting with any number of persons. Obviously, the church was never seen as a building, be it house or temple; it was and is wherever people gather and live out their life in God's name.
As the New Testament writers used the term church broadly, so too did they define house more broadly than we generally perceive.
'The New Testament term for 'house' (oikos) designates first of all a place, the place where people live and work.
"It is important to note that already in the New Testament the meaning of the term oikos is not restricted to the house as a building. Very often, it rather means house in a social context. Oikos then becomes almost synonymous with 'family,' 'tribe,' or the concrete social environment of a person."6
Applying this understanding to our day, the house church becomes the church in the world when the activity of any gathering of God's people takes place in the concreteness of man's secular and social context in life. House church occurs wherever men are acting out of their basic "frame" of reference and there unveil the presence of God.
The impact of the house church of the first and second centuries upon the church of this century demonstrates that the Christian community cannot only survive, it can exercise powerful influence in the midst of an alien and totally secularized society. It would be tempting to call for a return to the ancient form of the church for nostalgic motives alone, but that would miss the vital truth that the call is not to duplicate ancient form but to duplicate the capacity to re-form. Early Christians were able to adjust from their temples and synagogues to the underground style called for by their situation.
It would be tempting also to suggest a return to their stance wherein the house church existed in opposition to the dominant cultural beliefs of the day. But this too would overlook the far more basic contribution, which is an awareness that, by means of their flexible adjustments in the house church, the Christians were themselves able to determine what their stance might be, whether in sympathy to the society of the day or in opposition. They were able to exist in the stance they chose out of obedience to God; they were not molded by the principalities and powers, i.e. the political and economic influences, but by the calling of the Holy Spirit. For centuries since, beginning with the acceptance of the Christian church by the Emperor Constantine, the church has modeled much of its life, from shapes of buildings to ethical teachings, according to what was acceptable by the dominant culture in which it has become popular. Today we may use the early house church form and stance if it fits our situation, but we must take seriously the concept and the style of the house church if we are again to locate the holy in the midst of life.
The twentieth century has seen a small reemergence of the house church. It had its sudden rise in Europe, mostly in England and Scotland, during the closing years of World War II. Examples of house churches could be found in America approximately a decade later. Mr. Edwin H. Robertson, Associate Director to the World Association for Christian Communication, has written about the European rise in house churches. His observations, recorded in the book "Basileia" in 1959, indicate that several distinct pressures caused this rise. Contemporary pressures were the real reason for the return of the house church, according to Dr. Robertson, and their appearing on the modern scene was "only afterwards interpreted as a movement back to the primitive Church." 7
In England saturation bombing was a continuous element in life. Even though their churches had never been closed, the British were now forced to consider alternatives, It was impossible for members to come together in the customary large groups so far from their homes. Small groups within their homes were, of course, possible. One evening a week the church kept in touch with itself and its Lord through these house meetings. They soon discovered advantages in this arrangement so that the practice was continued in many areas long after the initial cause - the war - had ended.
Of all subsequent house church developments in England the most notable has been the oft-cited work of E. W. Southcott as vicar of Halton Parish in Leeds, London. 8
It was through his spirited leadership in the beginning of the fifties that the congregation at Halton began to experience the moving of worship services, including the Eucharist, out into the streets and into their homes. Provost Southcott's book depicting those experiences displays clearly the new grappling with life made possible by the discovery of the church in the houses of the parishioners. Throughout The Parish Comes Alive, Southcott emphasizes that besides establishing a new location, the house church challenges the body of Christ to face the commission placed upon it to be the church. The vicar brought contemporary relevance to the house church when he wrote: "It is much more out on the frontier that one experiences the weakness and the strength of the Church as the Body of Christ. 9"
"The house church represents, so to speak, the tap-roots of the vine, the Church underground, that of the life of the tree most closely in contact with the clinging soil of everyday existence: it is the tree as it is embedded in the deepest crevices and seams of the secular world."10
The leading pressure at Halton was the appalling failure of the majority of the baptized within the parish ever to return to church again. As Southcott put it, they came to be hatched, matched, or dispatched.
Another kind of pressure during this same post World War II period was at work in the Church of Scotland. This pressure appears to have been the absence of the kind of fellowship within a congregation which could support a true ministry of the laity, one to another.
Naturally, the Church of Scotland with its presbyterian form of government sought to revitalize its lay ministry through the office of the elder. Neighborhoods were divided into sectors with an elder of the congregation responsible for holding occasional home meetings for those families within his sector. This example was followed extensively in the congregation in Greenock as they gave the name house church to these monthly home meetings.
Another strong influence toward the development of house churches came from the lona Community. Their concern was to bring the church into a new relationship with the industrial community. To this end, specific guidelines were offered to those congregations interested through a pamphlet published by the lona Community, written by the Reverend David Orr, entitled simply "The House Church." It is a practical "how to" manual written chiefly within the perspective of the Church of Scotland offering concise guidelines for those who wish to develop house churches through the eldership.
In Norway, the home group meeting sprang up as a result of the influence of the Moral Re-Armament movement. The Moral Re-Armament movement left in its wake a continuing interest in the possibilities derived from the small group. Intimate conversations, relevant study, and in time, a concern for the neighborhood beyond the group all became a part of the spontaneous beginnings of house churches in Norway. Although leaderless in the beginning, these small groups eventually organized for an improved area distribution within their neighborhoods. Study helps in the form of outlines were provided by the church. Ten years ago Mr. Robertson reported more than 1,000 such groups in Norway.
The sporadic development of house churches in Europe found its American counterpart in the next decade. If the 1950's marked the major effort in England, Scotland, Norway, and Holland, the 1960's brought the first brief acquaintance of the house church to the States. The one outstanding exception to this timetable would be the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. This ecumenical church pioneered the renewal trend, of which the house church is a part, and has been well documented..
The present rise of the house church in the States continues the variety of patterns found in Europe but, as could be expected, includes additional types. In the United States, those house churches within the institution seem to be finding themselves involved in the many interacting influences controlling denominational thrusts today. Thus the house church reflects the many nuances of church development found in United States history with its hundreds of denominational and sectarian emphases.
Recently I sent a questionnaire to churches in several sections of the country where the house church is a part of their experience. The following response to just two of the questions - those concerning the purpose and the marks of the house church as they see them - reveals the great diversity with which this movement is being viewed.
From the Valley United Church of Christ, Concord, California.
PURPOSE: "We strive to affirm our humanity in a de-personalizing period. We look for purpose and value in ways that are meaningful to the mid-twentieth century. We experience what it means to belong to each other."
MARKS: "Our group is distinguished in that it does not feel insecure without the institutional markings and program of the church..
From the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan.
PURPOSE: "To bring people in a neighborhood to become aware of current needs and to become better acquainted."
MARKS: "The place where meetings occur.
From The Church Without Walls, Kansas City, Missouri.
PURPOSE: "Mission - mutual support and some study."
MARKS: "A small group of persons who are the church to each other who function together for the purpose of mission, fellowship, education and worship in meetings at least once every two weeks..
From the Oreland Presbyterian Church, Oreland, Pennsylvania.
PURPOSE: Their purpose, printed in a submitted constitution, reads: "The purpose of these groups shall be to follow Jesus Christ by enacting certain agreed disciplines as defined in Article IX of the By-Laws."
MARKS: "Equal division of time allotted in meeting for prayer and Bible study. Complete reforming of groups every four to six months. lngathering - meeting of all groups together for inspiration and public witness every four months..
From Christ Church, Presbyterian, Burlington, Vermont.
PURPOSE: "Common reflection and celebration of the faith."
MARKS: "Self-conscious and overt celebration and reflection of the faith..
These churches are finding through a variety of approaches some expression of the church-in-the-house helpful for their development.
Despite diversity in house church styles, there is a willingness among many house church representatives to confer in an effort to realize what is common between them. To this end several house church consultations have been held in the past few years. One such consultation was held in Louisville, Kentucky in November 1971 at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Approximately twenty-five participants in house churches attended with others who were interested in exploring the movement. This particular group was called together by leaders in the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. Their purpose was to look at the various models of the house church, its theological and institutional implications. They also anticipated a positive experience in simply sharing together.
Representatives of house churches came from such diverse places as the Sycamore Community, State College, Pennsylvania;Genesis II, in Rochester, New York; Church of the Foothills, Ventura, California; The Experimental Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; a house church of the Colorado Conference, United Church of Christ, Denver, Colorado; The Grand Valley Ministry, Allendale, Michigan; the Three Chopt Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia; and about a dozen others. .
During those three days it was almost impossible to ascertain any unifying factor within the group. No theological basis unified them, nor were there similar goals. There was no single model design for house church nor common life-style within house churches. What did appear to be their common ground was a disenchantment with the institutional church. Their sentiments ranged all the way from mild disappointment to abhorrent rejection. Most agreed that whatever its varied expressions, the house church was an attempt to find a better way to respond to the Christian challenge than that allowed by present institutional forms. These twentieth-century house churches represent, as did those of the third century, a particular stance in relationship to society even more than they represent a new place for the church to meet.
While most of those attending were attempting to exist within the institutional framework, all felt some estrangement due to their unconventional stance. This alone accounted for a great deal of the support felt through this opportunity to share. Although this particular gathering remained loose knit and adjourned with no expressed interest in a planned continuity, there was an obvious increase in understanding within the house church movement. Most left strengthened and reassured that their particular efforts toward church renewal were not carried on in vain or in isolation.
One current expression of the house church is located in a pleasant residential district of Claremont, California. The night I attended one of their home meetings, I was told by Father Dan Brown that this was the first gathering of most of those present. The sixteen men, women, and children were personally known to the host and his invitation alone established the reason for their presence. They were not likely to meet in that exact context again.
The guests gradually shifted from their informal conversation to hear Father Brown. Standing behind a card table adorned with candles and flowers, he was explaining to those closest to him the reason for the liturgical vestments he was donning. Worship began quietly but with careful attention to the revised liturgical forms of the Roman Catholic Church. Scripture was read by a layman. The Priest expounded upon the meaning of the Word and invited discussion by those seated around the room. The theme was Acts 2:42 on the meaning of the church as the gathered people of God. "The church is what's there when the walls fall down," 2
Father Brown explained. Discussion followed, beginning slowly at first with only the most proper kinds of questions. Soon, however, the group relaxed into lively exchanges on the pros and cons of new forms of worship.
"Do you think there will be the time when we will play down a little bit all this jazz in our church?" asked one woman.
"I like the new worship. I can follow it word for word. The Latin I could follow, but I didn't know what I was saying," offered another. The group closed the discussion with prayers - prayers for their experience of community, for a couple about to get married, for a teenager who had lost her father.
The home mass followed with a young boy assisting in bringing the elements to the card table in the center of the room. After a number of liturgical responses, Father Brown moved to each person in turn, asking as he passed the bread, "The body of Christ?" Each member responded in turn, "Amen!" It was just a beginning in this group's experience of the church through the ages coming to them in a new way. The event was warmly received and brought new interest to many of the participants.
During the refreshment period that followed, Father Brown explained that home mass was currently being celebrated in his congregation through three approaches. There were those personally invited by the host, as we were experiencing. There were other groups called together by their proximity to one another in some neighborhood. And there were still other groups which met frequently for home study who celebrated mass together on occasion. This latter grouping would, of course, lend itself to less formality and easier dialogue because they would have established a fellowship by the time the mass was brought into one of their homes. Through this procedure one could see the church gradually making new inroads into the awareness of its members in first one neighborhood and then the next. Slowly a movement was beginning for them wherein time-honored concepts were perceived in a new light, offering new challenges in being the people of God.
I have discovered that most house church groups do not know of one another. They have not derived from any common source, and what's more, are not particularly anxious to organize or even to start a chain news letter. Any preoccupation with their unique ties to the church, historical or ecumenical, through the house church specifically, would seem to be equally trivial in their minds, I suspect. The person who dares to be involved and become exposed in some such group, the person who is anxious to get on with the job of being the church, is the person who can neither wait for any mass ecumenical formula nor desire any preoccupation with further crossties, either organizational or historical.
"Look at it this way. This is a very hang-loose group and we adore it that way." So spoke one male member of a house church in Concord, California. His description came in the middle of an evening's gathering where ten young adults were responding to questions about their style of house church living. The terms he used accurately described their life together. As a hang-loose fellowship they meet approximately once a month for worship and educational work with the children and gather on other weekends at times and places that fit their need for the moment. They do not go to meetings together so much as they get involved together for a day or a weekend on a concern of mutual interest. His term "adore" also suits them well, as together they manifest an adoration of life itself. They have determined to be responsible for influencing the forces which affect their life in modern society rather than remaining passive victims of life's forces. A politically active group, the members are often found in the forefront of community improvement meetings and projects, from low-cost housing to new models of education. Their minister, Bill Smith, whose salary is supplemented by secular work, functions as a helper and a catalyst for their group, leaving a great amount of the leadership to the laity.
The twenty-five family units have been meeting in homes for a little over three years now. They have no church building and plan to have none. A bona fide congregation in the eyes of the United Church of Christ, the group is anti-institutional enough to refuse to submit a list of members to the authorities. They feel that membership is of the heart and that an emphasis on numbers detracts from their meaning together. This group did not choose the identity of house church; it was put upon them by others in the area for lack of a more fitting description. They could as well be known as a mini-church, as delineated by Dr. Dietrich Ritschl. 13
The Valley Church actually had its beginnings in a traditional fashion in 1963. They had a plot of land and plans to build. The minister wore a robe, and white tablecloths were used on the communion table. The institutional signs were obviously present. A growing concern over the Vietnam War and a desire not to build were the issues which in time turned the group to new directions.
They are still evolving. Their latest area of interest is in exploring the advantages of a communal or collective style for their Christian community. They are looking closely at the needless duplication of homes and property, from twenty cars for every dozen families to row upon row of duplicate power mowers and swing sets. Twelve households, in an established partnership, have purchased twelve acres of land in their area. Twelve homes, clustered for extended family sharing, are planned. The families involved are committed to work and live together to find deeper community and personal fulfillment.
The Valley United Church of Christ does not expect to become a large church, mainly because their own style of life and interest is not that popular. Remaining small, however, does not worry them. As one young mother put it, "There are a lot of things you can't be as a church when you are big. In our church we see the value of the community that means something special to one another - kind of an extended family. When we go camping together and my kids need a grown-up, my friend Barbara is often that adult, not me. We try to see what we have that we can give to each other..
They might hang loose in organization and doctrinal emphasis, but this group of young adults believes that they can be a church based upon zest for life and concern for others. Some observers might be disturbed by their total abandon to a spontaneous community, but it is obvious that the members of the Valley United Church of Christ "adore it that way..
When the church can blossom spontaneously, free to respond to so many diverse callings, we realize that the church belongs not to man but to God. This realization can thrust us back into our own small group with an invigorating sense of the broader community of Christ's body.
This strength stemming from a sense of community - of the constant awareness of others who share our concerns, fears, and hopes - has been one of the obvious needs calling for the rise of house churches across our land. Indeed, this concern for community was one of the earliest pressure points at work in the development of the congregation of Trinity Church. We had to discover that such a desired community could not simply be decreed. It, too, was a happening.
1. J. G. Davies, Daily Life in the Early Church (London: Lutterworth Press,1952), p. 25. Used by permission.
2. Ibid., citing M. Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and Its Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), pp. 130 - 134.
3. Rostovtzeff, op. cit., p. 100. Used by permission.
4. Ibid., p. 130.
5. "The Church in the House," Hans-Ruedi Weber, Concern, No. 5 (CONCERN Pamphlet Series, 721 Walnut Avenue, Scottdale, Pa.15683, June 1958), pp.9-10. Used by permission.
6. Ibid., p. 13.
7. Edwin H. Robertson, "The House Church," Basileia, Jan Hermelink and Hans). Margull, eds. (Stuttgart: Evang. MissionsverlagG.M.B.H., 1959), p.366. Used by permission.
8. He is now Provost of Southwark Cathedral, London.
9. From The Parish Comes Alive, by E. W. Southcott, published by A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd. p. 69. Used by permission.
10. Ibid., p. 72, citing Dr. John Robinson, Theology (August 1950).
11. See Journey Inward, lourney Outward by Elizabeth O'Connor (New York:Harper & Row, Publishers, 19681 and Call to Commitment by the same author and publisher for an excellent description of the life and contribution of the Church of the Saviour.
12. Father Dan Brown, Chaplain Claremont Colleges, Claremont, California, taped conversation quoting Father Gerard Sloyan, Chairman of the Religious Studies Department, Temple University, Philadelphia (March 1971). Used by permission.
13. Ritschl, Dietrich, "Mini-Churches" with Special Foci - A Suggestion Concerning the Spirit's Polymorphic Self-Expression, Occasional Papers from the Division of Evangelism, No. VII (Board of National Missions, The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America).
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