… According to Josephus, there were 100,000 Christians in Jerusalem at the end of the first century (or so I have heard – I have not read that in Josephus myself). But if that is true, where did they all meet? I think we assume there was a Main Street Church of Christ at the time and every Sunday all the Jerusalem Christians assembled for worship. We assume there was one congregation of the saints in one city and everyone knew one another and they all met in one location regularly.
Thinking about the church at Rome, I don’t know how many Christians were in Rome in the first century but even if there were less than in Jerusalem, Rome was a major metropolis. How would all the Roman Christians possibly assemble at one location, even if there was such a location? How would they get there? There was no mass transit then. They could not have negotiated those distances on foot on a regular basis.
We know that Christians did use some public places on occasion such as the Porch of Solomon and the school of Tyrannus.
We also know that Christians were eventually barred from the synagogues and temples.
We also know there were no dedicated buildings (churches) until the Constantinian era in the 4th century.
So for regular assemblies, until the “legalization and sponsorship” of Christianity by Constantine, the only available places to meet were private homes.
We know from archaeological evidence that most homes at that time could only accommodate 30-35 people.
So….doing the math, if we allow 25 people per home, that means that 4000 homes would be needed to accommodate the Jerusalem church.
My question then (finally) is how many elders oversaw all of these Christians. There surely were not elders in every house congegration. So did one set of elders shepherd the entire city? If so, how?
I actually wrote something on this several months ago (ironically enough, in response to similar letter), so this is a re-run. But it’s summer, the season of re-runs, and I don’t feel like writing something brand new, you know —
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.
Later, 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, an amphitheater — 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 and practice. 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.