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Many evangelical groups today are proposing that we abandon traditional models of doing the Church, instead replacing that presumed stodginess with what is—they claim—a more “New Testament” model: the “house church” or “cell” church models.
Essentially, they are promoting that the local church be a de-centralized assembly, meeting in the homes of various individuals and proportionally scattered throughout a city (or town or region). The presumption is that this is the Biblical model for both fellowship and discipleship, derived from the New Testament itself.
While we certainly read of house Churches in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:11,16; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15), usually being the homes of wealthy individuals with enough room for a large assembly of people, the house/cell churches of the modern day do not actually resemble the worship or piety associated with such New Testament prototypes.
Additionally, the house Churches of the New Testament developed into the basilicas of the post-Constantine Roman empire, when the faith was no longer forced underground as a result of both imperial and Judaic persecution. The same elements present in the earlier house Churches found their way into the more established basilicas and temples of the fourth century and beyond—they were just given a newer and freer context within which to thrive.
Two distinct features of the most ancient house churches—and in fact, of the most ancient churches that archaeology has unveiled—are that of the baptistry and the place of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
When discussing the Eucharistic controversy at Corinth, Jerome Kodell describes a typical, first century Christian house Church:
Archaeology has shown that the typical large home of the period could accomodate about fifty people for a meal, ten in the triclinium (dining room), where the guests reclined on couches, and forty in the atrium (courtyard), where the guests sat around a central pool.
—The Eucharist in the New Testament, p. 75
This description corresponds with that of the two oldest archaeological finds of ancient house churches—those at Megiddo (Palestine) and Dura Europos (Syria), which both date to the third century A.D. (early or mid-200s). Both house churches have a place for baptism (like the central pool mentioned above), an area for the general assembly of laity, and a small area for the Eucharistic celebration (often an elevated platform with a table or altar). A large, mosaic inscription in Greek at the Megiddo house church reads: “The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ, as a memorial,” a seemingly obvious reference to the Eucharist, given both the words “table” and “memorial.”
These substantial structures were not simple homes with simple services, lacking any notion of adornment or beauty. In fact, Hugh Wybrew notes:
Even if worship took place in a domestic setting, it was not necessarily lacking in a certain splendor. Paul, Bishop of Samosata in the sixties of the third century, had a lofty throne erected on a dais in the meeting-hall. Attached to it was an audience chamber. When he entered the room for services he was acclaimed by the congregation like a Roman magistrate . . . The congregation at Cirta, a small town in North Africa, met in an ordinary house. But it possessed a rich collection of gold and silver vessels, and bronze lamps and candlesticks.
Despite occasional persecutions, the Church was growing rapidly in strength throughout the third century, laying the foundation for its remarkable expansion in the next. —The Orthodox Liturgy, p. 22
This church at Cirta, worshipping during the rule of the emperor Diocletian—one of the most ruthless persecutors of the Christians in Roman history—was raided by imperial authorities. In the official records kept by the pagan Roman officials (written by the hand of one Munatius Felix), an inventory of the church is given:
Victor, son of Aufidius, made the following brief record: two gold cups, also six silver cups, six silver jugs, a silver vessel, seven silver lamps, two candlesticks, seven small bronze candelabra with their lamps, also eleven bronze lamps with their chains, eighty-two women’s tunics, thirty-eight cloaks, sixteen men’s tunics, thirteen pairs of men’s shoes, forty-seven pairs of women’s shoes, nineteen rustic belts. —Beard et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook, p. 112
It is even more interesting at Dura Europos, where the extensive discovery has yielded not only abundant examples of iconography throughout the house church structure (e.g. frescoes of Christ as the Good Shepherd, him walking on water, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb), but also some fragmentary manuscripts in the Hebrew language that show a continuity between the Eucharistic liturgy of the first century Didache and the more developed (fourth century) Apostolic Constitutions. A Greek-language harmony of the Gospels (in fragments), which is distinct from the Diatessaron of Tatian, has also been found at this site.
The Eucharistic anaphora in the Didache (ch. 10), which has been dated as early as AD 50–60, reads:
Thou, O Lord, Almighty, hast created all things for the sake of Thy name, hast given food and drink to the children of men for enjoyment, but to us Thou hast granted spiritual food and drink for eternal life through Jesus, Thy servant.
For all these things we thankfully praise Thee, because Thou art powerful. Thine is the glory forever. Amen.
The Hebraic fragment uncovered at Dura Europos also includes an anaphora, and it has a strikingly similar composition:
Blessed be the Lord, King of the Universe, who created All things, apportioned food, appointed drink for all the children of flesh with which they shall be satisfied; But granted to us, human beings, to partake of the food of the myriads of his angelic bodies. For all this we have to bless with songs in the gatherings of [the] people. —Fragment A, Dura Europos (ca. A.D. 235)
Despite being separated by at least two centuries, the anaphoras of both the apostolic Church in the first century, and that of this Syrian house church in the 3rd century share a number of similarities. They certainly reflect the same tradition of the Eucharist, and, as St. Irenaeus has asserted, the Eucharist is the heart of where our faith and theology both begins and ends. Similarities between these and the Judaic blessings for food and wine should be noted, as well. The Christians of both the Didache and third century were certainly assembling in the large homes of wealthy believers, but the detailed instructions for the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist in both sources indicates a community gathering for a purpose that is quite distinct from a simple Bible study, lecture, and sing-along.
So while evangelical groups in our present day might be attempting to emulate the house churches of the so-called New Testament era, it can be demonstrated with great clarity that these ancient Christian communities were gathered together primarily for the celebration of the sacred mysteries of Christ: Baptism and the Eucharist. I wouldn’t expect to find much in the way of iconography in a present-day house church, either.
If a Christian today wants to assemble in a way that is comparable to these ancient and New Testament-era house churches, the best way to do so is within the apostolic Church itself. A Church within which these venerable traditions have been preserved for centuries. And that church is the Orthodox Church.