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Christian Community: The Church as Extended Household

Christian Community: The Church as Extended Household

By Rollin Grams
April 29, 2024


All believers could be thought of as members of God's household (Eph. 2.19). Yet individual congregations were, in themselves, 'Christian households'--an extension of an actual household. The characteristics of a home are different from other social structures or organizations, and so several characteristics of the home are shared with the church. Ancient authors wrote on the nature of societies, aware of different practices, customs, laws, and constitutions. They compared the household's members, relationships, and dynamics to the city. Christians, following the Jewish practice of the synagogue, understood a social unit that fit between the household and the city: the church. Unlike the synagogue, however, the church was a house church, and in this way the relationship between the home and the church was even stronger. This essay highlights several ways in which the Christian family household was extended into the church 'family' in the early Church.

1. Household Values: The home is a place for building others (strong and weak) up, living in harmony, and welcoming others. These features of the home appear in the local church:

Romans 15:1-2 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.

Romans 15:5-6 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 15:7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

2. Household Practices: Also, homes were places for fellowship and eating, and Christian worship was centred on them, especially in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Acts 2:46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts....

Jude 1:12 These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, looking after themselves....

1 Corinthians 11:20-21 When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.

3. Social Interaction and Living Life Together

Social interaction was a strong feature of Greek and Roman cultures. It was a feature of the home, marketplace, clubs, and temples. Eating together was a feature of all these settings. The early Church, too, saw social interaction as a key to the Christian life. Hebrews 10.25 says,

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Luke records that the early church in Jerusalem 'devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers' (Acts 2.42). Key aspects of the church's social interaction were attending the temple together, eating together in one another's homes, and worshipping God together (2.46-47). Also, Jerusalem Christians even voluntarily sold their belongings and distributed the proceeds to those in need and otherwise held things in common (2.44-45). Their interaction was not only social but also spiritual--with God, whose presence among them was evident through many wonders and signs done by the apostles (2.43).

4. Teaching in the Household: Education is always an important feature of the household, even if children go to school. In the Graeco-Roman household, a slave may have been tasked to teach or watch over children, including disciplining them (the paidagogos). Husbands were expected to educate their wives and hold them to the standards of the household. Children were trained in the virtues and values of the household: education outside the home did not replace this. The house church was also a place where teaching could take place during the day or night, whether in worship services or not. We catch a glimpse of this ministry out of homes from a couple of passages in Acts:

Acts 5:42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Acts 20:20-21 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Titus 2, the age, gender, and social differences of the standard Graeco-Roman family are mentioned as groups receiving special teaching. Other household codes, already found in philosophical writings (e.g., Aristotle, Politics; Economics) as the initial building block of society, were applied by Christian authors to the church (1 Corinthians 7; 1 Thessalonians 4.1-12; Ephesians 5.22-6.9; Colossians 3.18-4.1; 1 Peter 2.13-3.7).

5. Hospitality and Guests in the Household: One aspect of the home that served the saints was Christian hospitality. Several verses from the New Testament seem pertinent for this point, beginning with the verse mentioning Stephanas:

1 Corinthians 16:15-16 Now I urge you, brothers- you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints- 16 be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.

Romans 12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

1 Timothy 5:9-10 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.

Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

1 Peter 4:9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.

Household hospitality was also extended to strangers--a cultural practice that became a Christian value. We read, 'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it' (Heb. 13.2). Paul offers a brief work about how to treat members in the church, strangers to the church, and those in opposition to the church: 'Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them' (Rom. 12.13-14).

A particular form of hospitality to strangers was the help one church might provide to missionaries from another church, as we read in 3 John:

3 John 1:5-8 Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, 6 who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. 7 For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. 8 Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.

Larger homes gave special attention to the hosting of guests. Vitruvius Pollio says:

For when the Greeks became more luxurious, and their circumstances more opulent, they began to provide dining rooms, chambers, and store-rooms of provisions for their guests from abroad, and on the first day they would invite them to dinner, sending them on the next chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and other country produce. This is why artists called pictures representing the things which were sent to guests "xenia." Thus, too, the heads of families, while being entertained abroad, had the feeling that they were not away from home, since they enjoyed privacy and freedom in such guests' apartments (The Ten Books on Architecture VI.7.4).

Paul, committed to take the Gospel to the nations, took full advantage of this custom. We see him making plans or accepting invitations to stay in the guest rooms of families:

Acts 16:15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 21:16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.

Titus 3:12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there.

Philemon 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

1 Corinthians 16:5-7 I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, 6 and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.

Titus 3:12-13 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing.

Thus we can see how helpful the Graeco-Roman concept of the home and its architecture was for the early Christian mission. Paul could expect to find lodging in the guest rooms of these houses, receive people where he was staying to evangelise or teach them about the Christian faith, or be welcomed to other homes where the same activity would be welcome. Also, as persons came to faith, the same homes could be used to entertain worshippers.

6. Inclusiveness, Membership, and Mutuality: The home also provided an interesting 'space' for ministry to everyone. A Roman religion such as Mithraism was designed for males, particularly those in military service. Judaism was typically for Jews, although God-fearing Gentiles were allowed to attend. The openness of Graeco-Roman religion to various deities allowed people to attend various festivals and temples in the city. However, Christianity was both more open and more closed in its worship, and the house setting was perfect for these distinctions. It was more open in the sense that the home was the natural place for masters and slaves, males and females, adults and children, and persons of different ethnic groups (because of ethnic groups in the cities and because most slaves were foreign) to come together. It was more closed in that Christianity was not an open religion fitting into the rest of polytheistic society but made the exclusive claim of devotion to one God. It also held members to a holy standard of living. It judged and excluded those who did not comply. Worship and community were conducted in and through homes where others could be welcomed--either as extended members of the family or as guests.

One remarkable difference Christian life offered was in regard to the church as the basic, family unit. This notion stood over against the notion of the individual believer as the basic unit--without ignoring the importance of every person. But individuals were also members. Thus, for example, the church could be described as a single body with many members sharing their gifts for the benefit of others and the church itself (Romans 12.3-13; 1 Cor. 12.11-25; Eph. 4.1-16). Such a Christian theology of the church did not argue for an equality in the sense that there were or should be no distinctions between people, such as masters and slaves, men and women, parents and children, or even Jews and Gentiles. However, placed within the home, there was a mutuality (over against the 'sameness' of 'equality') that derived from the notion of family or body as a unit. All were members of the same unit, and each worked for the mutual upbuilding and benefit of the others. Everyone was a 'brother' in the family (among the many references in the New Testament, note several: Jn. 20.17; 21.23; Acts 1.15; 9.17; 15.23; 21.17; 28.14; Rom. 1.13; Philemon 16; Heb. 2.11-12, 17; James 1.2; 1 Pt. 2.17; 5.9; 1 Jn. 3.10-17). Hebrews' author says, 'Let brotherly love continue' (13.1)--the mark of the household church. Even the runaway, Christian slave was a 'child' (in the faith?) to Paul and a 'brother' to the master: , familial relationships were extended to members of the household church and all believers:

Philemon 10-12, 16 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.... 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother- especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

There was no equality in gifts but a sharing of gifts, and no equality of position but a mutuality in the family life. Some had greater responsibility or were more 'presentable,' whereas others were less so.

The Christian church, however, did not leave these differences as they were. Instead, they acknowledged that weaker members were indispensable, that less honourable members were to be shown greater honour, and that less 'presentable' members were to be treated with greater modesty (1 Cor. 12.22-24). 'Equality' was not sameness in functions or roles or gifting or abilities but in the same care shown by each member to the others (1 Cor. 12.25). Children did not try to be or did not insist on being adults or parents, but this did not mean that they were disadvantaged. They were part of the family, with their needs met like everyone else. They played the role that children play in the family. The household codes in the New Testament, such as Col. 3.18-4.1 and Eph. 5.22-6.9, are there not to argue that everyone was equal in the sense of being the same but that everyone was part of a unit--the family--and that, if Christ were the focus of and model for everyone, the strife that erupts in that unit of the family could be removed. The family was the smallest denominator for the household church in Christ, and its health extended into larger unit of the household church. This might be seen rather clearly in that Paul's description of the Christian household in Eph. 5.22-6.9 is the final part of a larger section in Ephesians addressing unity in the church, which starts already in Eph. 4.1:

Ephesians 4:1-3 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

7. Exaltation of the Slave and Service in the Household: Moreover, an even more remarkable understanding existed in the early Christian household church: the uplifting of the lowest role, 'slave,' as the one to model Christian life and ministry. Christ himself took this role on behalf of the church: 'For I tell you that Christ became a servant...' (Rom. 15.8). He took on the form of a slave (Phl. 2.7), and so did his followers (some translations may use 'servant' instead for the Greek, doulos):

· James, (1.1) Peter (2 Pt. 1.1), Jude (v. 1), Paul and Timothy (Phl. 1.1) take the title to themselves

· Christian prophets are called 'slaves' (Rev. 10.7; 11.18)

· Moses--God's slave (Rev. 15.3)

· Paul identifies himself as a slave of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1.1; Titus 1.1).

· Epaphras (Col. 4.11) is called a 'slave' for his role in ministry

· Ministers in the church are the Lord's slaves (2 Tim. 2.24-25a)

The slave's modelling of humble service is representative of Christ's incarnation, birth in humble circumstances, and obedience to the Father. This humility is even extended to execution on the painful, humiliating cross. And yet this form of service is held up as the key to peace and unity in the Christian home (Eph. 5.21-6.9), as each member models his or her role in the family after Christ.

The humble, even suffering, service of a slave undoubtedly explains why the early Church seldom found 'leadership' language or thinking relevant to ministry. Instead of 'leaders' one finds 'overseers,' (episkopoi), people with oversight over certain tasks (ergon, 1 Tim. 3.1), such as hospitality, teaching, finances, and--as the head of a household--management of church members through respect and humility (1 Tim. 3.1-7). The household manager is accompanied in the early home church in ministry by 'deacons,' persons who serve others (e.g., 1 Tim. 3.8-13). All Christians were to see themselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ (1. Revelation: 11.18; Rev. 1.1; 2.20; 7.3; 19.2, 5; 22.3), as Paul himself did (Rom. 12.11; 14.18, contrast 16.18), whereas actual slaves were to see themselves as free persons (1 Pt. 2.16; 1 Cor. 7.22; 1 Th. 1.9). One can only hope that this simple study messes with so much literature since the 1970s/1980s about ministry as 'leadership'.

8. The Home Business and the Church: The family home, as already indicated, was associated with a business. The head of the household would likely have a slave or slaves who worked in the business, and, typically, freedmen remained part of the master's business. Moreover, the family head was likely a patron and had various people depending on him for one need or another. Thus, the family was extended further into society than those (including slaves and freedmen) living in the house itself. Persons in relation to the home or involved in business with it might show up to the house to conduct business for a certain portion of the day, and then the master with his freedmen and others might process to the marketplace for further business. In this way, the home and family was associated with a wide variety of persons in different social roles. The home and business relationships and the system of patronage enabled early church evangelism and church planting, especially with an apostle as guest meeting visitors in the home. We can well imagine this with Paul in Corinth, staying with Aquila and Priscilla, who were fellow Jews involved in the same trade (Acts 18.3).


Thus, the church as a family expanded to include slaves and guests provided an excellent beginning to features of church life that bonded the members into a tightly connected unit. Instead of a church that sought to have family (and other) ministries, it was itself a sort of family. 'Brothers' and 'sisters' lived out the Christian life together in home settings. The expansion of the family to a larger group meant that single people were included in the life of children, peers, married adults, and the elderly for their own benefit and for the benefit of the 'family'. Family values, practices, social interaction, life together, education, hospitality, inclusiveness, membership, mutuality, service, and business activity were features of the household that extended into the life of the church.


Earlier Post: 'How Do We Form Christian Community?' (Lessons on community are considered in regard to an English village setting. While not a Biblical study, the essay considers how aspects of community might be developed by Christians in light of the present challenges that undermine community.)

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