we certainly read of “house Churches” in the New Testament (e.g.
1 Cor. 1:11,16; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15), typically being the homes
of wealthy individuals with enough room for a large assembly of
people, the house/cell churches of today do not actually
resemble the worship or piety associated with these New
Testament prototypes. Beyond this, the house Churches of the New
Testament eventually developed into the basilicas of the
post-Constantine Roman empire, when the faith was no longer
forced “underground” as the result of periods of sporadic,
imperial persecution. The same elements present in the earlier
house Churches found their way into the more established
basilicas and temples of the 4th century and beyond; they were
just given a newer and freer context.
Two distinct features of the most ancient house churches — and
in fact, of the most ancient churches that archaeology has
unveiled, period —
are that of the baptistry and the place of the Eucharistic
When discussing the Eucharistic controversy at Corinth, Jerome
Kodell describes a typical, first century Christian house
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.
Jerome Kodell, 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)
which both date to the 3rd century AD (early-to-mid 200s at
latest). Both churches-within-households had a place for baptism
(like the central pool mentioned above), an area for the general
assembly of people, and a small area for the Eucharistic rite
itself (often an elevated platform with a table/altar).
mosaic inscription in Greek at the Megiddo house church reads: “The
God-loving Akeptous has offered this table to the God Jesus
Christ, as a memorial,” a seemingly obvious reference
to the Eucharist, given the words “table”
It gets 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, Christ 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 with the Eucharistic liturgy of
the first century Didache and
the more developed Apostolic Constitutions.
A Greek-language “harmony” of the Gospels (in fragments), that
is distinct from the Diatessaron,
has also been found at this site.
The Eucharistic anaphora in
the Didache, 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.
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 (circa AD 235)
Despite being separated in time 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 are
strikingly similar. They certainly reflect the same tradition of
the Eucharist, and, as Irenaeus has asserted, the Eucharist is
where the heart of our faith and theology 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 3rd 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 “New Testament”
church, it can be demonstrated with great clarity that these
ancient Christian communities were gathered together primarily
for the celebration of the Mysteries of Christ: Baptism and the
Eucharist. Incidentally, I wouldn’t expect to find any
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, where these traditions have been preserved for centuries;
and that church is the Orthodox Church.