The early Church was building-less, an attribute that is becoming more familiar in the modern Church in the West and has long been a reality in places where Christians are still persecuted. The view of the modern Church is often tied buildings, often leading to the checking of faith and evangelism in the narthex on the way out the door. With buildings came tighter church polity (organization), greater financial requirements, and a professionalizing of church ministers and staff. These things brought much good to the Church, but it can shift the focus off of the more relational aspects of Christianity.
The first Christians moved away from the synagogues and into homes, and in some cases they moved underground into catacombs. Due to persecution from imperial and local entities, they could not safely worship in public. There may have been several house gatherings in a city under the ministry of presbyters (the english word “priest” is a contraction of the Greek word presbuteros, which means elder) and deacons, but they were all part of one city “church” body and under a local overseer (first apostles, later bishops). Hospitality in one’s home was a suitable reflection of the relational love which Christ commanded His followers, people seeing each other as “brothers” and “sisters”. The intimacy of gathering in a family’s living space, welcoming in strangers, and sharing an agape family meal together; these are remarkable features of a church body that seems to greatly contrast from where Christian worship evolved starting in the following centuries.
When Christianity became first tolerated and then state-sponsored in the fourth century under Roman Emperor Constantine, Church polity, structure, and power grew substantially. Bishops attained royal-like status and wealth, the Church became dogmatic (official policy and doctrine), and Christians were free to move out of the homes and into the public witness of dedicated buildings where ornate decorations and ritual replaced the informality of the house gatherings. Much of it was done in good faith, with a desire to honor God and sanctify what had been pagan culture to the glory of the Lord. However some, like, Hilary of Poitiers were weary of the change, “let me warn you of one thing: beware of Antichrist. What an evil it is, this love of building that possesses you” (Laurence Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, 25). This significant change, in my opinion, drastically changed the nature of the Church. No more was the “world of the first Christians breaking bread in each other’s home” (Guy, 27), a dramatic change in the practice of koinonia (fellowship as spoken about in Acts and the Epistles) in the Church.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with beautiful church buildings, Church polity, programs, paid staff, prayer books, and all the other things that have developed over thousands of years of Church history. Just as the Holy Spirit worked to inspire the Early Church, the Spirit has worked in the life of Christians since the time of Christ to develop traditions that are edifying to believers, point people to Christ, build His kingdom, and give glory to God. I deeply desire to worship in a beautiful space with beautiful liturgy, as these things have formed me and brought me closer to God. And I have felt the warmth of Christian fellowship and love in these contexts. On the other hand, remaining in a “house church” context could lead to seclusion or exclusivity among other believers, a loss of a missional heart, and in modern contexts it could be a hindrance to new believers or inquirers who might find a “house church” a bit odd. However, it is when any of these things or concepts become idols, when their focus is no longer to point people to Christ, and when they take us away from the fellowship and intimate relationship with each other that we need to reevaluate ourselves.
Two thousand years later, as many church organizations find themselves without buildings and formalized structure, the faith practices of the Early Church can serve as a model for a refocusing and refreshing any relational aspects of sharing Christ’s love that has grown stale over time. We can take this time of tabernacling and church planting to refresh and refocus our mindset as needed. As we seek to build buildings and better organize local parishes (whether large or small), dioceses, and other networks…let us never lose the character of the true meaning of the Church as the Body of Christ.
(Cover: The Martyrs in the Catacombs by Jules Eugene Lenepveu)