The concept of house churches began at the beginning of the early church in Jerusalem:
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people (Acts 2:46-47).
House churches continued and developed as the church grew and spread out across the Roman world. However, church buildings didn’t appear until the third century AD. It is not impossible that some of the early congregations used community halls where it was safe to do so. For example, Paul used the lecture hall of Tyrannus daily for two years to teach God’s word (Acts 19:9-10) – although this wasn’t really a church. But it is clear from the New Testament that the church used homes. Individuals opened their homes to host local congregations so they could meet together.
Offering a house for church meetings was an important ministry in the early church. The expression, “the church that meets at your/their/his/her house”, is found four times in the New Testament
Let’s look at these.
The church that met in the home of Pricilla and Aquila:
Like Paul, Pricilla and Aquila were tent-makers. But they were also fully committed to the Lord’s work in planting and establishing churches across the Roman world. Paul called them, “fellow-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3). They were teachers, with Pricilla seemingly more the leader of the two. They hosted churches in their home in Ephesus (1Corinthains 16:19) and later also in Rome (Romans 16:5).
The church that met at the home of Philemon:
Philemon was an active member of the church in Colossae, and apparently the local church met in his home. Paul wrote,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home
It has been suggested that Apphia was the wife of Philemon, and Archippus was the pastor of the church, though we cannot be certain.
The church that met at the home of Nympha:
Give my greeting to the brothers at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church at her house
This wealthy lady called Nympha was most likely from Laodicea, and hosted one of the church congregations there and quite possibly led it as well. From the very beginning, wealthy women were attracted to Christianity and they were among the church’s first patrons and protectors (e.g. Acts 12:12).
The early church met in homes for several reasons. First, they didn’t have the financial resources to build. Instead they depended on the generosity of patrons who could offer their homes and give support to the ministry in other ways. But secondly, it wasn’t long before Christianity became an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. There was a need for secrecy and open worship wasn’t possible. Third, using homes allowed for the rapid growth of Christianity.
What exactly did the leaders of these house churches do? Probably they did much the same as teachers, pastors and evangelists do today, except there wasn’t the same organisational structure as in our denominations.
Colossians 3:16 gives us a feel of these meetings, where gifted and capable people would contribute,
… as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in your hearts.