What Was “The Church In Their House”?

By Robert F. Turner

In his book, How Christianity Grows in the City, Alvin Jennings says the first century saints of a city met for worship in small “house churches,” and all such churches of a city were under one group of elders. If this plan is followed he says, “The church, the treasury and elders will be one in the urban area.” Further, “Congregational autonomy will begin to fade within the city and individual congregational growth consciousness will give way to the overall growth of the urban church with all its congregations regardless of their place of assembly.” In a previous article we discussed “One Eldership Over Many ‘House Churches,”‘ and in this article we examine scriptural uses of the word “church,” and what is meant by such expressions as “the church in their house” (Rom. 16:5).

The book places great emphasis upon the vast number of saints in Jerusalem, and the physical problems of getting such a number together for worship. The author is a bit careless with his statistics: p. 31 says 50/100,000 saints before the close of the first century; p. 50, 100,000 by 50 A.D.; and p. 74, 50/100,000 by the time of the dispersion (surely meaning the destruction of Jerusalem). (1) We do not believe the validity of worship depends upon all saints of a local church being assembled at the same time or place. (2) The early multiplication of saints at the beginning of the church was a special situation; and there is no reason to suppose they suddenly formed independent congregations, and by the Lord’s Day following Pentecost were “gathered about the Table” Texas style. (3) The “all things common” (Acts 4:32) and treasury “at the apostles’ feet” (v. 37) were not patterns for all time, as is apparent from later information. It was some time after Pentecost before deacons were appointed (6:1f); and we first read of elders ca. 45 A.D. (11:30).

We believe the practice of the first saints was consistent with truth as a whole, but those who cite the early Jerusalem situation to further their special cause may find they have bitten off more than they can chew. Since the first converts made up the universal body of Christ, how about a universal treasury? Truth is, we do not know many details about the worship and work of early saints in Jerusalem. Jennings says “the patterns given to us through Jesus Christ and His special spokesman, the apostles, (must) be followed explicitly.” But patterns are not established by assumptions concerning some portion of revelation. We must search the total record for a pattern.

The “house churches” of How Christianity Grows . . . are sometimes churches, sometimes not churches. The author equates them with “groups” and “assemblies”; and says in large cities of the first century many such groups made up each city church. He says each church should be independent and autonomous, but his drawing of the “Urban Church of Tomorrow” (p. 64), shows churches with elders (no treasury), plus a panel of city elders who control the total city treasury. Independence and autonomy become empty words under such circumstances. Clearly, we must determine the use of “church” as it is applied to what the author calls “house churches.”

In the New Testament ekklesia is usually translated “church.” This collective noun groups its objects, the people of God, and treats them as one. “On this rock I will build my church,” i.e., my people, those who rest upon the divine foundation. Christ bought the church (Acts 20:28) when He died for all who will obey Him (Heb. 5:9). So, “the church” in its universal sense consists of the Lord’s people, metaphorically assembled in this term. The “grouping” does not necessitate their being physically assembled. They are “the general assembly and church of the firstborn (ones) who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). God “established” and “instituted” this church like He “instituted” marriage, or civil government. He made plans and gave instructions for this relationship. He also gave plans for brethren to act collectively, with overseers, servants, and a treasury (see previous article); and “church” in this sense is an organized body politic, which we usually call a “local church.”

But there are other scriptural uses of the term. Faithfulness is the essential ingredient for coming to Christ, and for remaining in His fellowship; hence “church” has a qualitative sense, referring to a certain kind of people. In Acts 5:11 “the church” is distinguished from “as many as heard these things”: viz., from some other than the saints. And the word may also be used in a distributive sense. In Acts 9:31 “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” refers not to some tri-state institution, but to saints in these three territories. (See ASV, and proper textual studies. Nestle’s text shows all verbs in this verse are singular.) One may speak of “the church in Texas” without implying there is an organized statewide institution. We have been slow to recognize the distributive use of “church,” but I am persuaded it is far more common than supposed. Try reading through Acts and think distributively (saints) when you see the word “church.”

There are four passages that speak of “the church in house” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 2). This could mean “saints in – house,” in the same way we might write to a church, and make particular mention of close friends and brethren in their household. Nothing in this would imply they worshiped separately or were units of some metropolitan system. But “church in house” could refer to a local organized church, meeting in a private home. In this case Acts 14:23 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 would authorize oversight and a treasury there. Twice in my life as a preacher I have done resident work for such churches, meeting in a private dwelling places. Of course some early saints met in private houses; but it will take more than a string of Scriptures which use the word “house” to prove one group of elders should control all the money and direct activities of all the churches in a city. Remove assumptions, while keeping scriptural principles, and “church in their house” poses no problem.

One more suggestion. If you have the book How Christianity Grows in the City, try reading every Scripture citation given, and compare what you find in the Bible with its usage in the book. You will be amazed at where the author finds “house churches,” overseen by city elders. Our “church building” mentality could do with some revision, and more home prayer and Bible studies are certainly in order; but city elders are not the scriptural solution.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 3, pp. 71, 79
February 6, 1986