Monday, May 18, 2009

3.1 Houses and Synagogues

Monday is allegedly my day to put a pulse through my Generous Ecclesiology project while I am waiting for word back from a publisher on the proposal. You can look at the sample material I have already written here.

I've titled the third chapter, "Where and When We Meet," and the first section, "Houses and Synagogues."
3.1 Houses and Synagogues
It is by now well known that the early churches met in homes, at least when it comes to Paul's churches. And in Paul's writings, the word church primarily referred to a local group of people assembling in a home. So when Paul writes to the "church," singular, at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), he writes to a group of people who could in all probability meet in a single house, perhaps 40-50 people at most. [1] On the other hand, he writes to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), a region in which there was a plurality of local gatherings. Scattered in the closing remarks of the Pauline letters are greetings to churches that meet in homes like the church in Nympha's house (Col. 4:15), the home of Archippus (Phlm 2), or the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:5).

For this reason, it is perhaps better for us to refer to Paul's churches as assemblies, local congregations, rather than to call them "churches." On the one hand, the word church might mislead us when we think of something bigger than a local assembly, the church universal. [2] And it is prone to mislead us with regard to a local group of believers because we automatically picture people meeting in a building. The word assembly helps us picture a group of believers congregating in someone's home for worship and fellowship.

Meeting in homes generated more than one complication, at least in the city of Corinth where the entire assembly could probably meet in the house of Gaius (cf. Rom. 16:23). One such complication had to do with women, who in some Jewish circles of the day would normally have been sequestered within the home from the outside world and other men. But in a house church, men and women suddenly found themselves around people of the opposite gender who were not part of their household--and that in close quarters. This awkwardness quite possibly accounts for Paul's instructions concerning head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. He is concerned that wives not disgrace their husbands or themselves in the presence of men who are not their husband.

Another complication follows in the later part of 1 Corinthians 11. The issues created by Jew and Gentile Christian eating together had already exploded in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14) and the Jerusalem leadership had taken their stab at a solution (Acts 15:22-29). Paul apparently did not agree, for he never mentions their letter or its conclusion in any of his writings, even when he is talking about similar issues. [3] The question of meat sacrificed to idols, which Paul takes up in 1 Corinthians 8-10, may have faced the Corinthian assembly most starkly when they came together to eat.

But the Corinthians perhaps also ran into issues of Roman and Greek practice as well. In Mediterranean practice, issues of social class played a major role not only in relation to who you ate with but it could even affect what food you served which guest. It is at least possible that these sorts of issues played into the chaos of the Lord's Supper at Corinth, where some in the assembly were getting drunk while others went away hungry.

These sorts of problems may very well have played into the eventual separation of worship time from fellowship time in the later church. And of course the legalization of Christianity in AD313 with the Edict of Milan certainly made the construction of buildings more feasible. It is popular in some circles today to villianize this shift in Roman culture, as if the fact that the Romans stopped killing Christians for being Christians was a bad thing. However, if we step back for a second, it is surely likely that more people ended up as "true" Christians as a result, even if an environment was created where there were many more superficial ones.

Further, one cannot neatly separate the "standardization" of Christianity that took place in areas of worship in the 300s from standardizations that similarly took place this century in Christian belief and Scripture. It was in the 300s that the Christian understanding of the Trinity was forged. [4] It was in the late 300s that the New Testament began to reach something like its current shape. [5] If you reject the process of Christianity's legalization, you by extension call into question the fundamental Christian understanding of Jesus' divinity and the precise contents of the New Testament. [6]

Those who villianize the acceptance of Christianity in Roman culture sometimes idealize house churches. Indeed, some extreme voices suggest that house churches were a God-ordained move away from the Jewish synagogue structure into the more "organic" and natural context of the home. On the one hand, we should applaud some of the features of the early church that they are highlighting, features that have often been lost in the time since the move to physical structures.

For example, the early church did apparently see itself as a family, where the men in the assembly were brothers and the women were sisters and the leaders were fathers (since most of the leadership in the early church was male as in most cultures). The meal they shared was meant to embody all the fellowship and connectedness of a family meal. Worship, at least at Corinth, seemed to have substantial room for spiritual spontaneity, including prophecy from anyone in the assembly, including the women.

So we find it difficult to fault the attempt of the house church movement to recapture some of these dynamics that so often are lost in the worship and relationships of more institutionalized churches. At the same time, the more isolated a house church is, the more it faces its own sets of dangers and weaknesses. A group of 15 seems far more likely to drift off into strange ideas and strange personalities than a church of 100. Similarly, a collection of fifty churches of 100 are less likely to drift off into strange ideas and personalities than one church of 100. Of course, the larger the collection of churches gets, the more likely its leadership will be out of touch with the local church and new opportunities for power grabbing arise.

But it is difficult to say that any of these structures are un-Christian. They each have advantages and disadvantages in both local and global contexts. No doubt we could debate what structures have the most overall advantages. There probably are better and worse structures.

What we should not do is un-Christianize other believers because of the structures they prefer. For example, the most strident voices in the house church movement seem to confuse description of the early church with prescription. An important distinction must be made between New Testament descriptions of where early believers worshipped and instructions on where they should worship.

We find no clear instructions in the New Testament on what kind of structure a Christian should worship in. And of course, even if we did find such instruction, we would still need to ask whether the reasons for those instructions played out the same way in our world as they did in the first century. But we do not even find such instructions in the first place. Indeed, the matter of meeting places is so much an assumption rather than argument or description in the New Testament that it is only by way of coincidental comment that we even really know anything about where the early Christians worshipped at all!

This last observation leads us to an important point. It is quite likely that the early believers met in places other than just homes. It is all too easy for Christians two thousand years laters to assume that a clean break took place between Judaism and Christianity in the early church. But neither the New Testament nor good historical common sense pushes us in this direction. The foundational personalities of the earliest church were Jews, and the New Testament reflects their struggle to relate Jesus to their prior understandings and practices.

One anachronistic aspect of common thinking is the presumption that synagogues themselves were buildings at the time of Christ. But the word synagogue itself, like the word for "church," simply means a gathering. Another word at the time, "prayer house," actually was more often used of a Jewish building than the word synagogue was. The archaeological evidence for free standing synagogues at the time of Christ is actually rather sparse. We know they existed here and there. Indeed, there apparently was one in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:7). But it is quite possible that many synagogues in Palestine at this time may have met in the open air, such as in the village center. Acts mentions a gathering by a river in Philippi (Acts 16:13).

So not only did the Pauline practice of meeting in homes not represent an intentional shift away from buildings. It may actually have been a known practice among Jews that some Christians adopted. Acts tells us that Paul taught at Ephesus in a building that was known as the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Nothing would allow us to say he did not also use this hall for worship as well.

The first few chapters of Acts indicate that the chief apostles used the temple as their primary meeting place for prayer. It seems likely that entire synagogues in some places would have come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The expulsion of Priscilla and Aquila along with other Jews from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2) seems to have resulted from conflicts among the synagogues of Rome over Christ. [7] It is at least possible that you had some Christian synagogues at odds with other synagogues that had not believed Jesus to be the Messiah.

In summary, we cannot say with any certainty how significant meeting in homes was across the broad spectrum of early Christian practice. It seems more likely that Christians met in the same spectrum of locations that Jews met in synagogue: houses, buildings, open spaces, and so forth. What knowledge we have is largely coincidental, drawn from side comments here and there. It would be wrong to make such descriptions into prescriptions. Indeed, even if the New Testament gave instructions on this score, we would still need to take the difference between our contexts and their contexts into account. In short, there is no clearly Christian place or structure in which to meet.

[1] This is one of several subtle reasons why I do not believe the evidence favors the originality of 1 Corinthians 14:34. It does not make great sense for Paul to tell the church, singular, at Corinth for them to keep wives silent in the churches, plural.

[2] Ephesians does use the word in this way (e.g., Eph. 5:25) but it is important to recognize that it is a departure from Paul's normal way of using the word and in fact one of many small shifts that has raised the question of whether Ephesians is pseudonymous.

[3] It is of course possible that the letter of Acts 15 is artistically placed here in the narrative of Acts and that it did not exist as such in this form at the time Paul was addressing issues like meat offered to idols. In that case, the letter would more summarize the conclusion reached in Palestine perhaps over an extended period of time rather than in a day or two.

[4] It was the legalization of Christianity and drive to standardization of Christian belief by Constantine that set the stage for the Council of Nicaea in AD325, where the belief that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons but one God in substance. The belief that Jesus was the first of God's creations but not God in the same way as God the Father, was a viable Christian option throughout the 300s, at one time superceding what we now consider to be orthodox Christian faith.

[5] We have no known instance where the current books of the New Testament were even suggested to be the right books until the Easter letter of Athanasius in AD367. A regional council in the city of Carthage accepted this list in AD398. The text of the New Testament also was reaching something like the form it has in the King James Version in the 300s.

[6] It is no coincidence that Socinianism flowed out of the Protestant Reformation along with Luther and Calvin. Socinians, in their drive back to the text of the New Testament alone, abandoned orthodox Christian faith in the Trinity. In the same way, "back to the New Testament" groups today run a serious risk of disintegrating into cults, since they are usually unaware of how much "glue" Christian history has provided in organizing biblical material. Take the glue away and you have placed yourself on a trajectory toward the disintegration of faith. Theological liberalism in its technical sense is thus a natural trajectory of the Protestant principle of "Scripture only."

[7] If Christ is what the Roman historian Suetonius meant by "Chrestus."


Martin LaBar said...

Interesting. Thanks!

D Anderson said...

It would be wrong to make such descriptions into prescriptions.So true, my brother, we see this frequently.

Even those apostolic greetings to the "churches in the houses" may have just referred to the saints who lived at that locality rather than offering hints at where regular meetings occurred.

Thanks Ken.