Regarding the Organization of the First Century Church

MergerJay,In the article “Imagine a World Without Denominations” you start with the statement that “In New Testament times, the ‘church’ in Ephesus was a series of house churches in which thousands were members, meeting 30 or less to a house, under a single eldership.”

I have always assumed that was how the “church” was at that time as opposed to how we think about it now. So I agree… but my question is how do you know that (thousands meeting 30 or less per house; one eldership)?

Thanks. Love the website.

A reader


Dear reader,

I reach the conclusion this way:

1. The early church met in homes (after they were kicked out the temple and synagogues). This is not in dispute. I’ll cite the verses below.

2. A First Century home could hold about 30 people for a meeting. In the Second Century, archaeologists have found homes of wealthy Christians modified to hold up to 70.

First Century homes were quite small, even for the relatively wealthy-except for the extraordinarily wealthy. Remember, the houses that have been preserved are largely houses made of stone, being houses of the fairly well to do. The very poor surely had even more modest homes.

3. Acts 20:17 says, “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” “Church” is singular.

It seems unlikely that this late in Paul’s ministry the church in Ephesus had 30 or fewer members. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine a church of 30 or fewer having elders and deacons and an order of widows (1 Timothy was written to Timothy while he ministered to the Ephesian church).

5. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul instructs Timothy to ordain elders of the “church” (singular) in Ephesus.

6. Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders “in every town” (Tit. 1:5)–not every congregation. Paul assumes one congregation per town or, at least, one eldership per town.

7. “Church” is very often used of all the Christians in a town (Rom. 16:1 (the church in Cenchrea), 1 Cor. 1:2 (the church of God in Corinth), 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1).

8. Acts 2 is highly suggestive of this idea as well:

(Acts 2:46-47) 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, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Although they met in the temple courts (initially), the single Jerusalem church under a single eldership (including apostles) also met in homes, in which they broke bread. This likely refers to the love feast and Lord’s Supper (a single event in the early church) (compare Acts 20:6). It seems improbable that they took communion at the temple. I just don’t see the Jewish authorities allowing such an act of worship there.

Early on, the Jewish authorities evicted them altogether from the temple, meaning they were surely meeting only in homes from very early on, and yet the Jerusalem church was but one church with one eldership (Acts 11:22, 26; 15:4; 21:17-18). And it had thousands of members.

9. But there are, of course, also references to a “church” meeting at a house, suggesting that those meeting in a single house also constituted but a single “church” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Phile 1:2).

It seems that “church” (ekklesia) was used to refer to (1) the church universal, (2) a group of Christians meeting in a home, or (3) all the saints in a given community.

The question is which “church” were the elders to oversee? Well, what we see of Jerusalem and of Ephesus pretty clearly indicates that a single eldership sometimes oversaw a single church (of up to thousands) meeting in multiple homes. We read nowhere of multiple elderships in a single town.

(David Lipscomb taught it was sin to meet at any church other than the one meeting closest to your home. After all, there is no Biblical basis for a town to have multiple churches competing for members.)

The Christians in a town would, on occasion, have chosen to meet as a single body if public space could be accessed-the temple courts, a synagogue-but the Christians quickly lost access to Jewish meeting spaces and weren’t about to meet in pagan temples. Judaism was legal in the Roman Empire, but Christianity was not, so it was not long before Roman authorities would deny any privilege to meet in a public amphitheater or the like. Hence, private homes were often the exclusive place of meeting.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is a mandatory “pattern” that must be followed today. But I do suggest–

* That the “pattern” of having multiple congregations in the same town, headed by multiple elderships, and each teaching a slightly different doctrine is utterly foreign to New Testament theology. In fact, it’s wrong on many levels. Churches should merge at every opportunity. Elderships of different church should spend time together in Bible study rather than tearing each other down through their bulletins and pulpits!

* It’s entirely permissible to build on the house-church model, as some are doing, where a single church meets in multiple homes, under a single eldership. These are often in highly urbanized areas where “homes” are apartments and simply can’t accommodate large groups.

* I also have no problem with a church having multiple campuses–although I can also imagine ways in which this might be wrongly handled. Maybe we can talk about how that might be properly done some later time.

* The only Biblical reasons for separating Christians in a given community into multiple congregations are pragmatic in terms of travel distances and the practicality of organizing a church of a given size. A large community may well have different churches with different elderships, but never because of doctrinal differences.

Rather, an organizational structure consisting of elders, deacons, and everyone else is just not infinitely scalable. At some point, the structure collapses of its own weight unless additional layers of “middle management” are added, at some point removing the shepherds too far from their flock. To allow shepherds to actually be shepherds, and not merely managers, once churches get a certain size (no concrete rule), it’s necessary to break the church apart organizationally.

But the Bible does show us churches of many thousands (Jerusalem, without a doubt) under a single eldership. There is no hard and fast rule for how large a church can be.

Nor should we try to divine rules where God hasn’t made any. Rather, we should acknowledge that God has given us consider leeway, but also considerable guidance to ponder and apply. See A Better Way to be a Restoration Church.

On the other hand, I see no Biblical justification for an eldership to claim authority outside its immediate community. For example–

(2 Cor. 1:1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:

(Gal. 1:1-2) Paul, an apostle–sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead– 2 and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia:

Although Corinth was surrounded by a larger community in which there were additional Christians, the “church” was just those in Corinth. The Christians in the surrounding area weren’t part of the Corinthian congregation.

Just so, Galatia was a province and it held multiple churches, not a province-wide church.

Thus, the First Century practice seems to have limited elders to oversight of the church in that community, but that “church” often met in multiple locations.

Now, we feel so strongly about our doctrinal purity that we consider it unthinkable to be part of a church that we disagree with on some point or other. I understand. But I find no Biblical support for division over any doctrine other than the gospel itself. Rather, the Bible quite plainly compels us to be united–in fact and in theory–based on the gospel.
Plainly, this means we must learn to think about church and fellowship in very, very different terms.

At this point, to avoid repeating myself (as I’m bad to do), let me refer the reader to a series of posts from some months ago wrestling further with these issues.

Why We Shouldn’t Merge Churches

Why We Should Merge Churches–the Practical Reasons

Why We Should Merge Churches–the Doctrinal Reasons

Why We Should Merge Churches–Overcoming Doctrinal Differences

How We Can Both Merge and Plant

Autonomy and the Cell Church

Radical Autonomy and the Disintegration of the Churches of Christ

Imagine a World Without Denominations

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Regarding the Organization of the First Century Church

  1. Alan says:

    This post reminds me of a book from the early 1980's titled "How the Church Grows in the City", advocating the same kind of arrangement. In addition to the things you've identified, the author of that book points out that not owning a building frees up the church budget so that many other good things can be accomplished, which are sadly neglected today.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    If you think about it, it's surprising how much we let our church buildings define who we are. I mean, the Churches of Christ love to preach on how the "church" is the people, not the building–so much so that I just can't keep from calling the meetinghouse a "church building" myself.

    And yet … we define a "church" as only those people who will fit in the building. Moreover, it's unimaginable that we'd try to do church without a building. We are VERY building-centered in our thinking.

    This is partly because we define ourselves more in terms of how we worship than in terms of mission. If we saw ourselves as a people sent to serve the community, we'd be looking for all the help we could get and would consider the assembly preparation for our true work.

    However, we think of ourselves as a worshiping community and so see "church" as a group that worships together in a room, rather than a gathering that serves together in a community.

  3. shannon says:

    How different would our practices be if the very word "church" had not been forced into scripture?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    It's true that "church" is not the most natural translation of ekklesia. The word can equally well be used of a mob (Acts 19:32)! (which is not that far removed from many churches).

    "Assembly" or "gathered people" or "called people" or "summoned people" are decent translations. Even the mob had been summoned (Acts 19:25). The First Century usage is not so much "called out" (which is the original sense) but called together. The mob wasn't called out of the city but called to assemble and take joint action.

    In Greek usage, the ekklesia was the assembly of free people called together by a herald to take action as a body.

    There's a lesson in there somewhere.

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