While rooting through my filing cabinet looking for a quote that continues to elude me, I discovered an article by Peter Davids and Siegfried Grossmann that I had printed for my files in December 1998. The original url is now defunct, but thanks to Google, I found it again quite quickly here and here. The article originally appeared in German in Der Ruferrundbrief 1982/3 and was translated by Davids (see note 2 following the article); this fact is of note to me in that it predates the current discussions of house church, missional community, and emerging church, so is not concerned with promotion of any of these concepts under those terms – yet it lends support for them by merely considering the form of church practised by early christians.
I have always considered small group church or house church to be the primary expression of church, but until recently I haven’t been quite ready to consider the step of doing away with the larger corporate expression entirely in favour of house church only. Up until this time, I was content to have the corporate gathering (“Sunday mornings”) as an add-on to the more “pure” form of small group meetings.
It must be said that it is not sound logic to suggest that because the early church did things a certain way that we should do likewise… this would indicate a certain ethnocentricity. However, I think with the subject at hand there is now a de facto view that the larger corporate expression is of utmost necessity, such that the mere spectre of meeting outside a large organized structure (often including a denomination) will practically draw a gasp from the typical evangelical. In this context, the normative experience of the early church finds solid ground for establishing the validity of house church as a healthy model for church structure.
Anticipating an objection, if house churches would be considered valid only until a suitable number of believers existed in a region to esablish a larger organism, it seems unlikely that it would have taken two centuries for this to occur, especially given the spread of the gospel described in Acts. Further, as Davids & Grossmann point out, the churches existing in Rome and Corinth were networks of house churches, suggesting that house church was for them a preferred alternative even when enough believers could be gathered to make up a more centralized organizational structure.
Davids & Grossmann draw conclusions from the house church of Prisca and Aquila. Of note was that “house church was a life-principle for [Prisca and Aquila, who] founded a house church after each move, even in Rome, where by the time of their return there were already many house churches.” In the house church, each contributed what they had, discovering their duties in their gifting so consistently “that even cultural conventions were breached.”
Conclusions are drawn from the churches in Rome and Corinth as well. The churches in each city were actually networks of house churches, and women seemed to be recognized as leaders within them (another breach of cultural convention). A date between AD232-245 is presented as the timeframe within which the house church was supplanted by specially-constructed buildings in which the church met as a larger group.