The House Church in the Writings of Paul. By Vincent Branick. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989, 2012). 144 pp. Paper, $20.00.
Where and how did the early churches meet? In this slim volume, Vincent Branick summarizes the academic literature on house churches in Paul’s writings. Along the way, he also explains the many different connections houses had to early church life. “The study of the house church, we will see, takes us to the heart of many basic issues in early Christianity” (p. 10). The book has many interesting insights.
Chapter 1 explores the role of households in the early church. For example, according to Branick, hospitality was crucial for supporting itinerant teachers such as Paul, and homes were also where itinerant teachers gave Christian instruction. If a household converted, it “functioned as the nucleus of the Christian community” (p. 20). Moreover, a Roman or Greek home had a head of the household, and as Branick notes, the office of “presbyter-bishops” were “judged by their ability to function as a paterfamilias” (p. 21; cf. 1 Tim 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).The prominent role of women in Paul’s writings and in the early church also makes sense in the context of house churches (e.g., Nympha in Col 4:15).
Interestingly, Branick also notes that Paul can talk about both individual house churches and a city-wide church (e.g., “the church in Corinth,” 1 Cor 1:2). However, when Paul refers to Christians in an area larger than a city, such as in a province, he usually uses the plural, such as “the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor 16:1; Gal 1:2) or “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19)”(p. 29).
Chapters 2–4 look at practical issues such as the size and layout of typical Roman homes (e.g., they could hold up to 50 people), the prominent people whom Paul mentions as connected to house churches (e.g., Prisca and Aquila, Titius Justice [sic], Crispus, and Gaius), and how positions of leadership such as diakanoi and episkopoi were normal and minor offices in ancient voluntary associations, and we should not read later, technical meanings of those terms into Pauline texts.
Chapter 5 examines the details of the church gathering. Branick recognizes the Lord’s Supper was a full meal (p. 98), not unlike a normal family meal in a Jewish home (p. 99). He discusses whether the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a different meeting than a “sharing the gift” assembly, but thinks they were one meeting, with the sharing following the meal (p. 110). He says there might have been separate disciplinary gatherings of the city-wide church (p. 113).
Chapter 6 describes the demise of the house church. When the church was small, it could meet in a single house. But as it multiplied to many house churches within the same city, the city-wide church became more prominent. For example, the church in Ephesus became large enough that Paul sent only for the elders (Acts 20:17, 28).There is archeological evidence for house churches continuing for some time. Then something dramatic changed. Branick quotes Eusebius as writing that, in the late third century, “vast collections of men flocked to the religion of Christ,” and “not content with the ancient buildings, they erected spacious churches from the foundation in all the cities” (p. 132). The new converts were not content with the house churches but built distinct church buildings, complete with “thrones for the presidents and benches for the clergy and a lattice-work chancel to allow the laity to see these leaders” (p. 132). Also, the Lord’s Supper stopped being a supper and became a “stylized meal seen as a cultic ritual” (p. 133). That changed the nature of the church meeting. Rather than being a head of the family celebrating a family meal, the presider was to be a “cultic leader who mediated God to the assembly.” And when the Eucharist became thought of as a sacrifice, “the leader was seen as a priest,” developing into a clergy/laity distinction (p. 133). In sum, “The church sought to reappropriate the cult of the Old Testament. The community sought a temple with an altar” (p. 133). That transformed the Christian meeting up to today, even in Protestant churches.
In sum, this is an excellent survey of early church life as seen in Paul’s writings. It demonstrates that later forms of church meetings—whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—are significantly different from how churches met in the NT. Branick provides helpful context to some of Paul’s comments and instructions about the church. This book gave me much to think about. Highly recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society