Bible Subjects

When did the Transfer Occur from Small to Large Group Church Congregations?

When did the Transfer Occur from Small

to Large Group Church Congregations?

Reasons for this Study

In the beginning of the Christian movement, the followers of Christ met and worshiped in their homes. According to the book of Acts, the primitive Jerusalem community gathered from house to house. Acts 2:46. The domestic upper room in Acts 20:8 perpetuates the tradition of Christ´s last supper from Luk. 22:12. Furthermore, Paul regularly addressed letters to and from house churches in Asia. During the first two and half centuries there were no church buildings or cathedrals in each village, town, city or on any street corner. At this stage the house church was primarily a social phenomenon of history where small groups gathered.

Within three centuries, however, the situation, and with it the character of assembly changed radically. How and why, not much has been written on the subject. In sharp contrast to informal house churches, stood great monumental church buildings. From the fourth century onward, the basilica became a norm of style. The emperor Constantine and his mother Helena became the chief promoters of monumental buildings both at Rome and in the Holy lands. How and why did the change take place from the simple house church to great monumental church buildings like basilicas? This chapter seeks to follow the transformation of small group house churches to basilicas, from the first century A.D. to the time of Constantine, and the implications of this change.

How Many Came into the Church in the Book of Acts?

Christ began with 12 disciples. 72 more disciples were added to this group but after fully clarifying to them that his kingdom was not an earthly kingdom but a spiritual kingdom, many forsook him. How many were left after the resurrection? It seems like the group increased in size despite the setback. In Acts 1:15 it says, “and in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number was about a hundred and twenty).” This meeting took place so the disciples could come together for prayer and guidance in choosing a replace­ment for Judas who committed suicide. Furthermore, when the Holy Spirit fell on the believers on the day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and gave a sermon to the unbelievers. As a result, 3,000 were added to their number. Acts 2:41, “then those who gladly received his word were baptized: and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.”

From the day of Pentecost and onwards many thousand more came into the church as a result of the disciples, Paul, and Barnabas´ work for Christ. For example, in Acts 4:4 as a result of Peter and John´s work it says, “However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” In Acts 5:14 Luke writes “and believers were increas­ingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” Multitudes can mean any number from 100 to a few thousand. So by this time the church would number approximately 10,000 members. In addition to this number, it says in Acts 6:7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. Furthermore, in Acts 9:42 many believed in the Lord in Joppa as a result of Peter bringing Dorcas back to life. When Paul and Barnabas preached the word in Antioch, many Gentiles came to believe in Jesus Christ. Acts 13:48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.

As Paul and Silas worked in Berea. Acts 17:12, “many of them (Jews) believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.” Furthermore, Paul and Silas continued their work in Corinth and baptized the jailer and his family plus many more. Acts 18:8 “Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians hearing believed and were baptized.” After their work in Corinth, they traveled to Ephesus, preached the word and many there also believed, Acts 19:18.

As the years went by churches consisting of small groups of believers in homes were formed in many of the cities in Asia Minor. In Rev 1:4.11. John wrote to the “seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” Peter wrote to the churches in 1 Pet 1:1 “To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappodocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” Finally, James the brother of Christ wrote in his letter, James 1:1 “James a bond servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” Here James is figuratively using the twelve tribes to mean the thousands of Christians scattered abroad. So by the end of the first century, we can safely say that there were more than 50,000 Christians living outside of Palestine.

Where did the Christians Meet for Worship in the Book of Acts?

We only have literary evidence from the Bible to explain were they all met for worship and social fellowship. Until recently, scholars of the New Testament and Christian origins have devoted little attention to the topic of early Christian Church buildings because of the lack of evidence from the first or second centuries with which to work.”[1] Therefore, we shall look at the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament for clues to where early Christians worshiped. Before the crucifixion, Christians were not allowed to worship in synagogues around Jerusalem if they declared their belief in Christ.

Joh. 9:22 in reference to the story about the man who was born blind, the Jews asked his parents how he received his site. They replied, “ask him for yourself.” Then verse 22 says “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.” It seems like there was a law by the Jews that all professed believers were excluded from the synagogues in Jerusalem. Where could they meet and worship? The only alternative was in their homes. Acts 2:42-47. After the resurrection of Christ, the disciples continued to gather in the upper room from were Christ had met them many times before. Acts 1:12.13, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day´s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying.” It is here they continued to worship, pray and have fellowship with one another.

Another place in Jerusalem where the disciples gathered for prayer was the temple. Acts 3:1 “Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” Apparently, they did not cease to pray in the temple precincts during the time of prayer. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered waiting for the out pouring of the Holy Spirit. It says in Acts 2:1.2. “When the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Here the disciples were assembled in a house. Was it near the temple or was it a house by itself? One can only speculate, but it does say that the meeting place was a house which was situated in Jerusalem according to Acts 2:1.2. and Christ gave no specific command to build a special building for worship even if they had the capacity to do it. They used a simple common building, a house to perform their social fellowship and meetings of spiritual worship.

Even after 3, 000 souls were added to the church they did not go about to take up an offering and plan to build a Church building as a house of worship. It says in Acts 2:42-47, “and they continued steadfastly in the apostle´s doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Again, they practiced communion and the eating of the communal meal from house to house. As the numbers increased, so did the houses of fellowship increase, hence there was no burden of building expenses on the newly born-again Christians. One can understand their situation looking through western eyes of why they went about praising God and eating their food with gladness. It may be because they had no mortgage, repairs or heating bills to pay off on a church building.

In Acts chapter 12:2 King Herod had James the brother of John killed by the sword. He proceeded to arrest Peter and have him imprisoned. While in prison, many of the believers were gathered in a house to pray for him. When the angel released him, he walked straight to where the believers were gathered. Acts 12:11.12, “And when Peter had come to himself, and he said, ´Now I know the for certain that the Lord has sent his angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people. ´ So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” It was the most convenient place, close to where Peter was imprisoned and yet a house for prayer.

Sometimes Christ taught and held meetings out in nature. Paul found such a group also worshiping and praying out in nature, beside a river. Acts 16:13, “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city (Philippi) to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made: and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there.” Paul had found a group of women who believed in God of whom Lydia was responsive to Gods word. She invited Paul to her home and invited all her household to listen to them. Consequently, all were baptized, and this house continued to be a place for worship and fellowship.

Paul established house churches in many of the cities he traveled too, because the Jews rejected his message and would not allow Christians into the synagogues. When he had the opportunity to preach at a synagogue he would teach and reason from the scriptures about Christ. For example, when he was in Corinth working with Aquila and Priscilla, it says in Acts 18:4, “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.” The majority apposed him, so he left them and visited the ruler of the synagogue. Acts 18:7.8, “And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.” Here we have a few house churches in small groups in the city of Corinth. There is no specific command from Paul to start a building fund with the view to building a church.

There is another text showing the believers in Troas coming together, maybe renting an upper room for fellowship and worship and to listen to Paul delivering his message. Acts 20:7-9, “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message till midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together, and in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep: and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead.” Here we have a gathering of believers to have communion and listen to Paul´s address from the scriptures. The meeting took place in a large room for there were many lamps there and disciples. “In the Eastern provinces, they were apparently one family building’s up to four stories high. The dining room on top was the only large room and often opened on a terrace. This was the upper floor, the anageion or hyperoon.”[2]  In Troas the upper floor was however on the third storey and the boy was brought back to life by Gods power. Where there are a number of house churches wanting to come together for worship such as in Troas, then there is a good ground for renting larger premises. But this did not continue on a weekly basis.

The last text from the book of Acts is another meeting place which Paul used for about two years in his evangelical meetings at Ephesus. It was on Paul´s third missionary journey and he went into the synagogue and tried to reason with the Jews for about three months. But when they refused to believe. Acts 19:9 “he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.” Whether this was a place of worship, we are not told. But Paul taught about the Lord Jesus Christ and many Jews and Greeks believed in Asia. I would imagine that this place was used as a place of fellowship, worship and teaching for two years.

In Paul´s letters we find that he sent letters to the churches after his third missionary journey. Many of these letters contained greetings to those who used their houses for church purposes. The first was written to Aquila and Priscila who lived in Rome. They were tent makers just like Paul. Rom. 16:3-5 “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house.” Aquila and Priscilla later moved to Corinth because of persecutions in Rome against Christians. Paul had worked together with them in the same trade. Acts 18:1.2, “After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.” It was in this house Paul began his missionary activities and I presume they used the house for church purposes just like in Rome, Rom 16.5.  because Paul sent a letter to them later acknowledging this. 1 Cor. 16:19, “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in your house.”

Another letter which Paul included in his greetings to the Colossian church. Colos. 4:15 “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.” We know nothing about this person or the brethren in his church. The last greeting is the letter to Phileman. Phil v1.2, “To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Appia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.”

It is very clear from our study of church meeting places in the time during the book of Acts was written that the believers came together for fellowship, worship and the communion in simple dwellings like a house, upper room, school or even out in nature. They went to the temple only to pray and show recognition to the Jews that they had not forsaken God. But nowhere in the book of Acts is there a command, plan or an idea to build church buildings or cathedrals for the congregation of churches.

The Church Meeting Place from the First Century A.D. to A.D. 250.

We do not have an accurate account of the numbers in the Church from the first century A.D. to A.D. 250, but one historian suggests: “By A.D. 250 Asia Minor was sixty per cent Christian. The congregation in Rome numbered thirty to fifty thousand. North Africa counted hundreds of small-town congregations.”[3]  One would conclude, if any of the disciples had any plans for the erection of church buildings, the archaeologists would find many remains. But this is not so. No finds of Christian architecture have ever been discovered in the first two centuries A.D. One writer on Christian architecture writes, “Until A.D. 200, a Christian architecture did not and could not exist.”[4]  The only finds of religious worship are the traditional Greek and Roman pagan temples throughout the empire. Even in A.D. 165 Christians were still worshiping in their homes. A teacher who was martyred at Rome confessed under examination: “Upon his arrest, he was asked by the prefect Q. Junius Rusticus where the Christians customarily met. Justin…. admitted of his own assembly in the same place where he also lived and taught above some ones baths.”[5]  One could also conclude that he used the baths also for baptism because of the convenience.

The first archaeological findings of a developed church building was in 1931. “It was found at a Roman garrison on the Syrian frontier.”[6]  The place was called Dura Europas (Qalat es Salihiye). It is the oldest known building ever found and is dated to around A.D. 240. The place of worship was devoted entirely too religious functions and there does not seem to be any sign of social activity in the building. “It had one large room 5 by 13 meters, which could seat about fifty people. Then there was a dais for the bishop who occupied the short east wall. Near by, a door led into a small room… which was apparently a vestry.”[7]  There was a room 4 by 7 meters at the west wing which could seat about 30 people. This would have been the place were communion was held separately from visiting people. So there may have been two services at this point of time. Then there was the baptistery to the north of the building. This then is the first step to transforming and developing from the house church to a church building. We must take note that the social activities found in the primitive house church began to cease at this time.

The Dura Europas house church building, and other house churches found at a later period in Rome, were not distinguishable on the outside from that of other houses in the neighborhood. Many of the houses in Rome at about A.D.250 were built to five or more stories high, with shops and warehouses at street level and apartments on each of the upper floors. “The Christian communities of Rome installed (domes ecclesiae) in just such an apartment.”[8]  Their resemblance to ordinary apartments would have made these churches hard to identify from other apartments. It was only on the inside the churches would be recognizable, as to the Dura Europas church.

Another developed and renovated house church building was found to be dated in A.D.303. “An official record details the search of a church edifice at Cirta, Numidia.”[9]  This was during the great persecution. From their records listed under finds. There was a library room, dining room and a room full of men and women´s clothing, which would resemble the Dorcas room in our times. They found some gold and silver ornaments which probably was contributed to the church´s funds for the needy and upkeep of the church building.  By the third century there were many partial or gradual renovations of existing house churches and these were later developed into parish churches and Basilicas. For example, there is the Roman “titulus Clementis which later became the Basilica San Clemente.”[10]

In Rome during the Persecutions in A.D.220, some Christian groups went underground and had their services in the catacombs. They did not flock in their thousands as some historians have led us to believe, because “the largest cubiculum could not take more than 50 people.”[11] Therefore, if many thousands attended services on Sundays, this would not go unnoticed by the police or soldiers who were persecuting the Christians at that time. Towards the end of A.D. 250 house church buildings were being renovated and developed to accommodate congregations up to 50 people. There was a gradual moving away from the social structure of the house church and relying mainly on the weekly spiritual nature of the services. What was the cause of this move?  As one author puts it this way, “The primitive nature of the Christian household assembly was assumed to be a product of poverty and low social stand­ing.”[12]  There were many wealthy and ambitious people joining the church, especially in the larger centers of Christendom. These people wanted their faith to be recognized by the classes they associated with, and this meant larger buildings paving the way to halls and Basilicas.

The Church Meeting Place from A.D.250 to Constantine

The Church from A.D. 250 to Constantine expanded over the whole of the Roman Empire. Constantine saw this expansion and most probably used it to his own advantage by promising Christians’ legal rights for freedom of worship, thus procuring their votes for him as Caesar. We have no statistical numbers of how many came into the Church at this time, but we do however have some literary evidence of large Church building programs throughout the empire. “But well before Constantine introduced the Basilica to Church architecture, the Christians had begun to move toward larger, more regular halls of assembly.”[13]  It is at this stage of development that the term “aula ecclesiae” meaning hall of the Church gradually evolved. These hall churches evolved mostly in the large centers of Christendom and in the larger cities of the Roman Empire.  But why in the cities? The Christian population was larger in the cities than in the country villages and towns. Furthermore, men of wealth and rank rose to leadership in the cities, for example “Calixtus, a freedman and a wealthy banker, held the office of deacon in Rome, then that of Bishop from A.D. 217 to 222.”[14]  These men of wealth, power and influence were not satisfied with just worshiping in a developed house church, while all their colleagues, who were not Christians, worshiped in large monumental temples to their pagan gods that literally dominated the landscape of the Roman Empire. What did they do? They began to build large halls for worship thus increasing the number of members attending. Their places for worship were becoming more fitted for persons of their rank and in the likeness of there counterparts in other religions.

By the time Constantine came to the throne as Caesar, the bricks were already in place for the largest Church building program in history. Thousands of new members came into the Church and even these hall churches were not large enough to house all these members. What was the solution to their problem? Constantine and his advisors came up with a unique idea. “They singled out a building type which combined religious connotations with the criteria of official buildings. Such a building type existed: the Basilica.”[15]  The Basilica had been in existence since the first and second centuries B.C. They were used throughout the Roman Empire for tribunals and a place for public assembly. The Basilica was an oblong building, with a broad nave flanked by colonnaded aisles or porticoes and ending in a semicircular apse. In the apse was a platform raised about 50 cm (15 inches) above the ground. On this platform sat the magistrate to administer justice to the people. On this same platform sat the clergy during Sunday services before the altar facing the people. Behind the platform was a picture of Caesar hung on the wall and the clergy replaced this picture with icons and paintings of Christ. They, the clergy would demand the same respect as the magistrate from the people. This social class structure of clergy and people had departed from the example of the early church house meeting were everyone was equal and helped and served one another.

All responsibilities in witnessing for Christ and holding communion were transferred from the laity to the priesthood. Hence their developed a two-class structural system in the church building. There was the hierarchy of the priesthood on the platform and the laity all facing them sitting on benches or standing before them. From this point of time the priesthood would dictate to the people on how to act like a Christian and preach from the Bible which was translated to Latin. Later the Bible was confined only to the priesthood´s use and understandings of its teachings, resulting in the common people were left in ignorance. They could no longer use the Bible for themselves. Hence, the social structure of the church was destroyed, and thousands later came into the Church not really understanding all the doctrines of the faith. Thousands of people came to these buildings, but they lacked the quality and standards of being a Christian. There developed a blending of Christianity with paganism and worldliness of which we still suffer with today.

In the last half of the third century A.D. there became a building boom of Churches through out the empire. Eusebius says “No longer satisfied with the old buildings; they rose from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan. These things went forward with the terms and expanded at a daily increasing rate…”[16]   By the end of the third century, some church buildings had become more prominent than public ones. Porphyry, a student of the philosopher Plotinus at Rome in around A.D. 262, was a contemporary of Paul of Samosata. He said, “In his view the Christians were inconsistent and irrational since they deprecated pagan worship, but, he says they created great buildings of their own, imitating the construction of (pagan) temples.”[17]  This was to be the form of witness Christianity was changing to. Building orientated instead of people orientated. Large Basilicas became dotted all over the empire as a witness to all, that Constantine was the founder and propagator of them. Little did he realize that he was laying one of the foundations to the spiritual and social dearth that would plague Christianity through the Dark Ages and on into the 20th Century.


From the first century A.D. to A.D. 200 most Christian worshiped in simple house churches that helped to establish the social surroundings of new Christians coming into the faith. They did not meet in large church buildings and cathedrals as we know it today. The first Christians met in believer´s homes. Hence when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, Philippi, Rome, Thessalonica etc. he was not writing to large congregations in large buildings in those cities as we know it today, but to small groups who met in houses. These small groups who met in houses constituted the church in these cities. The house church offered two important features to its success since the time of Paul. Firstly, there was the social organization, which meant the coming together of members in close fellowship and eating the communal meal together. If any one lacked clothing or food the other members would step in and help. There was the burden sharing, selling of one´s possessions and giving to the poor. No one lacked anything because of this social setup. Secondly, there was the spiritual nature of the assembly. Worship was organized in a small group, so all were acquainted with each others spiritual needs. Everyone contributed to worship for they were part of that worship, in prayer, songs, praise and thanksgiving. They prayed for each other as if they belonged to a close-knit family, knowing each other and serving each other. There were no long drawn out weekly Sabbath sermons in the house church. In fact, there is no scriptural basis for weekly Sabbath sermons as we know it today. The laity studied the Bible together. This was all contained in the house church, which had helped it to survive and spread through out Asia Minor during the first two centuries.

The move from house church to hall and later to Basilica churches was not a sudden development but a gradual one. This move came about in the cities of Italy, Greece and Asia Minor where wealthy men of influence did not want to be recognized worshiping in simple houses, while their counterparts worshiped in large pagan temples. They gradually began building halls and then later, when Constantine became Caesar, Basilicas. The implications of this gradual move were, that the social structure and personal responsibility for witnessing in the church, diminished. The relationship of brotherly love, like a small group could offer was missing. The personal contact and relationship like they had in the first century were also missing. One could go so far as to say, that large Church buildings had destroyed the first love which the first Christians experienced in their humble lives together in simple small group house churches.



[1] Michael L. White, The Social Origins Christian Architecture of Vol 1 (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1990), 11.

[2] Krautheimer, The Pelican History of Art. 24.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] White, The Social Origins, 1:19.

[5] Ibid., 110.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Krautheimer, The Pelican History of Art, 28.

[8] Ibid.., 29.

[9] White, The Social Origins, 1:122.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] Krauthiemer, The pelican History of Art, 32.

[12] White, The Social Origins, 1:142.

[13] Ibid., 128.

[14] Krauthiemer, The Pelican History of Art, 25.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] G.A. Williamson, Eusebius (London: Penguin Books Ltd,), 257.

[17] White, The Social Origins, 1:129.

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