What Was the New Testament Church Like?

What Was the New Testament Church Like?

Acts 2 house churches have a lot to teach today's small groups.

We often quote Acts 2 when we talk about the kind of small groups we want. We love the picture of community in Acts 2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Before we commit to forming small groups that look like the Acts 2 community, though, let's discover what that community was really like.

The Flame Spreads through Houses

After the Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples formed house churches, modeling the strategy of Jesus when he sent his own into homes (Luke 9:1-6; Matthew 10:1-16). House-based ministry was so common that throughout the book of Acts, every mention of a local church or church meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is a reference to a church meeting in a home.

House churches played an essential role in the rapid growth and ultimate triumph of Christianity, and it's safe to say that the first three centuries belonged to the house-church movement. House-to-house ministry allowed the believers to challenge the social order of the day. They became witnesses—through their words, lives, and suffering. Because of their small size, house churches maintained a family-like atmosphere and practiced brotherly love in personal and effective ways.

Inside a New Testament House Church

What did they do in those early house churches? The activity was diverse and spontaneous but always centered on belief in the risen Jesus. We know they broke bread together, following their Master's instructions to remember his death and resurrection (e.g., Luke 22:7-38). Everyone brought food and shared it. We don't know for certain if they celebrated the Lord's Supper every time they met, but we do know it was very common.

Beyond sharing the Lord's Supper together, the agenda for house church meetings was flexible. Paul wrote to the house church in Colossae, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16). Paul wanted the house church believers to encourage one another, share transparently, and rejoice in God's goodness. The members enjoyed each other's presence, laughed together, and drew near to Jesus.

Robert Banks writes, "We find no suggestion that these meetings were conducted with the kind of solemnity and formality that surrounds most weekly Christian gatherings today." At the same time, they accomplished a lot. Most scholars agree that the early house churches emphasized the following elements:

  • Worship
  • Practice of the spiritual gifts
  • Teaching
  • Prayer
  • Fellowship
  • Evangelism
  • The Lord's Supper
  • Baptism

Communicating information was another essential activity in the early house churches. News from visitors, letters that were passed from one city to another (e.g., Paul's letters, 2 and 3 John), warnings of persecution, and accounts of actual persecutions were all shared through the house churches. They also served as centers of social services for those members who were in need. Young widows and the poor looked to the house churches as a means of support.

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