For most Catholics, the word church conjures up images of stained-glass windows, altars, stations of the cross, wooden pews and large buildings with architecture ranging from Gothic to more modern styles.
Most of us link church with building, often giving a sense of stability to our faith, as well as a special space to worship God and to meet with other Church members. We easily take church buildings for granted. It is hard to imagine a community without at least one Catholic church.
But early on in the life of Catholicism, church buildings were not plentiful. Where did the earliest Christians gather before churches as we know them began to be built?
“Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46a). Chapter Two of Acts of the Apostles offers a brief yet curious insight into the lives of the earliest Christians—those who either knew Jesus personally or who were convinced by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost and afterwards. The verse quoted above suggests that the first Christians met in various homes to “break bread” (the oldest term for celebrating the Eucharist) and to deepen their faith.
The New Testament provides several other references to house churches. These were evidently family homes where early believers would gather and ponder the life and message of Jesus and grow in their faith, supporting each other with prayer and Christian love. References to house churches occur within intriguing stories of faith, weaving together colorful glimpses of ancient Christian life.
Mary’s House Church
“When he [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer” (Acts 12:12).
This verse occurs after the ruler of Judea, King Herod Agrippa, suddenly became intolerant of Christians. Seeking to win support from Pharisaic Jews, he had James “the brother of the Lord” beheaded and Peter thrown into prison (12:1-3). An angel visited him there and miraculously guided Peter’s escape. The amazed apostle ran to Mary’s house to tell the Christians praying there what had happened. The astonished worshipers listened while Peter asked them to tell others about this miracle.
While at least five different women named Mary appear in the New Testament, this Mary lived in Jerusalem and was one of the first Christians. No husband is mentioned, which may mean that she was a widow. Because she owned a home and had at least one servant, she was probably a woman of reasonable wealth. This Mary had a son named John Mark, who later accompanied Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey. According to tradition, this John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark.
Lydia’s House Church
“When they [Paul and Silas] had come out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house where they saw and encouraged the brothers, and then they left” (Acts 16:40).
Lydia, who sold purple cloth in Philippi, met Paul during his second missionary journey, as he crossed into Europe to preach the gospel. After spending some time in that city (now in ruins in northeastern Greece), Paul and Silas went along a river, seeking a place of prayer. There they met a group of women and began speaking to them, telling them about the life of Christ. Lydia was so profoundly struck by Paul’s words that she and her household were baptized and she offered Paul and Silas lodging in her home.
While evangelizing in Philippi, the two were unjustly accused of being disruptive and imprisoned. Wondrously, while the two missionaries were singing hymns and praying in their cramped cell, an earthquake abruptly opened the door and broke their shackles. The jailer and his family asked to be baptized.
Learning that both Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, the nervous city magistrates encouraged them to leave Philippi. After stopping at Lydia’s house to encourage the Christians there, Paul and Silas left for Thessalonica.
Prisca and Aquila’s House Churches
“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus…greet also the church at their house” (Romans 16:3,5).
Prisca (also known as Priscilla) and Aquila first appear in Acts of the Apostles when Paul arrives in Corinth during his second missionary journey (18:1-2). Tentmakers by trade, this Jewish-Christian couple had recently left Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city. Settling in Corinth, they allowed Paul, a fellow tentmaker, to stay at their home and assisted in his ministry.
When Paul went to Ephesus, this holy couple accompanied him. When Paul decided to move on again, Prisca and Aquila remained in Ephesus and let their home be used as a church (1 Corinthians 16:19). The couple clearly had learned a great deal during their time with Paul.
One story describes another Christian named Apollos as speaking in Corinth with tremendous fervor about the message of Christ. Although Prisca and Aquila were happy to have Apollos as a fellow Christian advocate, they noticed some errors in his message. They gently pulled him aside and corrected these inaccuracies. Apollos evidently appreciated this deeper knowledge, refined his orations and continued preaching with their blessing (Acts 18:24-28).
Paul’s Letter to the Romans indicates that Prisca and Aquila later returned to that city and established yet another house church there.
Nympha’s House Church
“Give greetings to the brothers in Laodicea and to Nympha and to the church in her house” (Colossians 4:15).
When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Colossae, he extended an additional greeting to the Christian community in Laodicea (now in ruins near Colossae in modern-day Turkey). This letter includes a greeting to Nympha, who apparently let her house be used as a church. Although some manuscripts give the masculine name “Nymphas,” most scholars agree that this person was a woman, Nympha.
The Letter to the Colossians also suggests that Paul may have sent a separate letter to the Church in Laodicea—with a request that the Colossians and Laodiceans share their letters with each other (4:16). Unfortunately, no letter from Paul to the Laodiceans has survived; otherwise, we might know more about Nympha and her house church.
Because Laodicea and Colossae are so near and because Paul encouraged these Christian communities to share letters, Paul’s Letter to the Colossians was probably read to the Laodicean Christians at Nympha’s house church. The two towns may have shared some of the issues that Paul addressed in his Letter to the Colossians, especially tendencies to require gentile Christians to follow Jewish practices or to be in awe of “principalities and powers” (see 2:8-23).
Certainly, Nympha took to heart Paul’s appeal to abandon such customs and to trust completely in Jesus for truth.
Philemon and Apphia’s House Church
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved and our co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house” (Philemon verses 1-2).
Philemon and Apphia, a well-to-do couple in Colossae, had become Christians through Paul’s ministry (verses 4-7). Some scholars think that Paul’s co-worker Archippus (Colossians 4:17, Philemon verse 2) was their son.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon (the shortest of his letters) is unique in the Bible. It has a very personal touch because it focuses on Onesimus, a slave who had run away from Philemon and Apphia. Evidently, Onesimus met Paul and was baptized by him. Paul felt that he must eventually send this slave back to his rightful owners, who could have him killed for running away.
Onesimus, however, brought Philemon and Apphia a letter from Paul. He gently requested mercy for the slave and encouraged Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a Christian brother, rather than as a slave (verse 15).
No records exist about how Philemon and Apphia dealt with Onesimus upon his return. Many claim he was treated with the respect that Paul had proposed. He and Tychicus brought Paul’s letter to the Colossians (4:7-9). Because Colossae was only about 10 miles from Laodicea and because Paul asked for a sharing of letters, Philemon and Apphia may well have known Nympha and shared experiences about offering their homes to be used as churches.
Other House Churches?
So many details are missing: How big were their homes? How were they arranged for worship? How often did Christians meet in these homes? Did they get much help? How did they organize their gatherings? What were their families like? What other people and cities had house churches not mentioned in the Bible?
While the New Testament offers only slight clues about the function of house churches and their owners, there is still much to ponder. Because the references to these house churches are so brief and seemingly incidental, it is probable that there were other house churches not cited in Scripture.
The fleeting references we have reflect a generous spirit. The selfless giving of these house church providers gave Christianity the opportunity to take root and grow.
When Christianity became legal, its members started to construct buildings reserved exclusively for worship. Public buildings had the advantage of belonging to all the members equally.
House Church Spirit Lives On
In most places, due to the numbers of Catholics, house churches are no longer practical. But the same spirit of Christian generosity that prompted the New Testament’s house churches is alive. People offer their homes for prayer groups, Bible study groups, RENEW groups or faith-sharing groups, or for home Masses, worship, catechetical instruction or retreats.
The small Christian community movement, which began in the 1960s in Latin America, updates the idea of the early house churches. Now small communities of Catholics in the United States and around the world are often led by women. These small groups are trying to connect faith and daily life in ways that can have a profound ripple effect that nurtures Christ’s Church in a powerful way for generations.
Mary of Jerusalem, Lydia, Nympha, Prisca and Aquila, Philemon and Apphia are strong role models for generous dedication to Christ and the faithful building up of his Church.
Theresa M. Doyle-Nelson is a former elementary teacher with a master’s in educational administration. Married 23 years, she and her husband have three sons and live in Pipe Creek, Texas. She has written for several Catholic magazines. This article first appeared in the July 2008 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.