Of course, in addition to prayer, we find a strong emphasis on teaching as a reason to gather. For example,
(Acts 2:42 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
(Acts 5:42 ESV) 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
(Acts 13:1 ESV) Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
(Acts 15:35 ESV) 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
(Acts 20:18-21 ESV) 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 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.
Now, Luke is often ambiguous in particular passages as to whether “teaching” is teaching the church or teaching potential converts. In all likelihood, they did both at the same time — new converts gathering with friends and neighbors to hear Paul.
In fact, a close study of the role of elders in the early church reveals that they were primarily charged as teachers —
(Tit. 1:9 ESV) 9 [An overseer/elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
(1 Tim. 3:2 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be …. able to teach … .
We think of elders as administrators, wishing they would become counselors and comforters, and yet the scriptures point primarily to their role as instructors. And don’t we desperately need for our elders to be more knowledgeable in the scriptures? More shaped by the word? More able to refute false doctrine — in the biblical sense of refuting legalism and other real errors? Less reliant on the preacher? Actually able to preach or teach a Bible class with a rich understanding of the heart of the scriptures?
It’s likely that the church’s elders rotated house to house, teaching whichever group they were with. If an elder wasn’t present, then a deacon or other teacher would handle the teaching responsibilities for the elders. To be a teacher was an honor, and surely the churches set up their house meetings so that each would have at least one teacher, deacon, or elder present.
We see in Acts that extended sermons were delivered, but these are usually evangelistic sermons preached to unbelievers. Among believers, the structure was likely more informal and more of a dialogue than a lecture.
Following the example of Jesus, and contrary to the surrounding culture, women were expected to be present and to learn from the teachers. The Jewish style of instruction was for the teacher to receive and to ask questions, as we see Jesus doing in the Gospels. The Greek style was typically Socratic — again with questions being asked of the teacher. In either case, the questions could be very pointed. Therefore, the setting was far more like our adult Sunday school classes than our sermons.
(1 Tim. 4:13 ESV) 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
This is explained by Craig Keener —
As in the synagogue service (both in Palestine and in the Diaspora), public reading of Scripture was central to the service; the reading from the Law was probably generally accompanied by one from the Prophets. The reading was then expounded (exhortation and teaching) by means of a homily on the text that had been read. (This Jewish practice [cf. Neh 8:8 ] would be intelligible in a Greco-Roman context; in Greco-Roman schools, children translated texts from classical Greek into vernacular Greek, then expounded them in response to questions and answers.) By the mid-second century apostolic writings (later officially recognized as the New Testament) were being read alongside the Old Testament in church services.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 615.
Lectionaries would not be invented for centuries. And so it’s likely that the chosen reader/speaker selected his own text. The text was likely written in Greek — either the Septuagint for the OT or an epistle from the hand of an apostle. In many churches, there’d be a need to translate into the local language for the sake of uneducated, especially the women. Most free men and many male slaves would know Greek, which had been the official language of commerce of much of the eastern Roman Empire going back to the time of Alexander the Great. But in the western Empire and other areas outside of Alexander’s influence, Greek would be known only by a select few.
In fact, we find that that portions of the NT were translated into Latin (western Empire), Aramaic and Syriac (Middle East), and Coptic (Egypt) as early as the Second and Third Centuries. In a large city, there might be people in church with several different native languages It was likely that the women especially were unschooled in the Greek of Paul or the Hebrew of the OT and would have needed help to understand. Even if the text was translated for them, they’d have had difficulty following the questions and answers in Greek, which the men would have all understood even if not native Greek speakers.
You can easily imagine the chaos that might result if the men were engaged in Socratic dialogue in Greek while the women couldn’t understand what was being said. They might have gotten bored and begun to chat among themselves in their native tongue. An apostle might even have warned some of the wives to be quiet and ask their husbands at home to explain was being taught.
McGowan concludes that the earliest assemblies were also patterned, in part, after the Greek symposia —
Apart from the Last Supper itself, the most famous banquets of Mediterranean antiquity may be the philosophical feasts of Plato, whose dialogues were often set during the after-dinner conversations of the great Socrates and his associates. These literary meals and those depicted in ancient visual arts are somewhat idealized, yet they reflect much of what was seen as typical or proper. Subsequently, those famous “symposia” (from the name for the drinking course or party, symposion, following the meal proper) have come to serve as models not only for many diners but also even more for scholars, conversationalists, and students.
There were expected features of ancient formal dining, although much variety in detail. We hear of participants gathering in a dining room, or triclinium, often reclining on couches arranged around the room as three sides of a rectangle like an angular U. In some places, and especially in later antiquity, diners might form their party around a C- or crescent-shaped table, or stibadium; the earliest surviving depictions of Christian meal scenes, such as those in the Roman catacombs, present such curved assemblies, as do the oldest images depicting Jesus’ Last Supper.
Places for guests in these configurations reflected the relationship of diners to host, or their social status. Gender roles were often clearly expressed. The classical Greek banquet tended to be a male-centered affair, with women’s participation defined somewhat carefully— women other than attendants and entertainers usually sat, rather than reclined, with the men, unless at women-only events. Roman customs, and later Greek ones, were somewhat more inclusive or egalitarian than those of the classical period.
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ meals reflect interest in some of these issues of status and participation, not only as they occurred in his own ministry but also in the early Christian settings to which the stories were subsequently applied (see Luke 11: 37– 54; 14: 1– 21). Who should sit where? Where and how could women as well as men participate? Preliminaries for the banquet could include washing of hands, offering of an opening prayer or hymn, and libations. The meal proper followed, with the variety and quality of foods depending on the means of the host or group and on the nature of the occasion.
After eating, tables were removed and wine was brought and mixed with water, typically in a large bowl, or kratēr, and then shared by the diners in individual cups after further prayers or libations to the relevant deity. A number of such large bowls of mixed wine might be prepared over the evening— three was regarded as ideal. Entertainment and/or conversation was expected during this time, its form depending on the group. Such diversions ranged from the subdued conversations of philosophers to more raucous events involving flute girls and courtesans.
The communal suppers of the earliest Christians followed this or similar patterns, with the after-dinner conversation centering on issues and forms of speech (including song) appropriate to their faith. An account of the Christian meal from North Africa as late as 200 CE would still have been recognizable to any ancient Greek or Roman reader as a banquet, if a rather restrained one:
We do not recline until we have first tasted of prayer to God; as much is eaten as to satisfy the hungry; only as much is drunk as is proper to the chaste. They are satisfied as those who remember that they have to praise God even in the night; they talk as those who know that the Lord is listening. After water for washing the hands, and lights, each is invited to sing publicly to God as able from holy scripture or from their own ability; thus how each has drunk is put to the test. Similarly prayer closes the feast. (Tertullian, Apol. 39.17– 18)
McGowan, Andrew B. (2014-09-30). Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Kindle Locations 563-593) (paragraphing modified).
In short, the Christians gathered for a common meal, including the Eucharist, and then they gathered for dialogue regarding the scriptures. Someone — likely an elder, deacon, or teacher — led the discussion.
But they also sang and prayed. They exhorted each other to love and good works (Heb 10:24-25). The assembly was designed for edification (1 Cor 14), to build up each one present.
Public vs. private
When the role of women is discussed in the Churches of Christ, it’s common for a distinction to be made between the “public” and “private” gatherings. But their assemblies were held in houses — which we think of as private. Lessons were taught by church leaders quite literally over the dining room table or on what we’d call the front porch. It may not have been secret, but it was hardly public.
We advertise our assemblies in the Yellow Pages (I wouldn’t waste the money anymore) and Internet (definitely would spend the money). The public is welcome and invited. But in the First Century, an assembly was much closer to our small group meetings. Guests were welcome, but they would have been friends and neighbors, not people passing through town who read about the gathering in the local newspaper.
In short, the gatherings were all private. If Priscilla and Aquila taught Barnabas in private, perhaps in their home (NIV, but contrary to most other translations), this was in contrast to Barnabas’ teaching in the synagogue, which was a public building, typically in the central part of the city, and open to the public. But the Christians met in homes — which were private.
While the Christians would meet in public given the opportunity (as in Jerusalem, when they met in the Temple), in most locations, they had to meet in private homes.