Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Understanding the Early Development of the House Churches in Rome, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Aquila, Priscilla, and the accurate history of Acts 18.2

From William Lane:
The primary social universe in which members of Greco-Roman society lived was the household. It provided the basic economic, political, and religious social unit of Greco-Roman civilization. In Rome the household community constituted the basic unit of society. The Roman familia, consisting of all the persons, free or slave, under the authority of the head of the household (paterfamilias), provided an emotionally and existentially satisfying social setting for its individual members. The early church in Rome could not exist in such a milieu without something of that environment leaving its mark upon it.

In Romans 16:3-15 Paul shows an awareness of the existence of several house churches in Rome, one of which was associated with the Jewish Christian leaders Aquila and Priscilla, who are now back in the imperial capital after the lapsing of the decree of expulsion (Rom. 16:3-5)
Here Lane cites Peter Lampe, from a chapter of his work published in “The Romans Debate”, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2nd ed., 1991. I intend to spend some time with that work, but for now, I’ll just continue with Lane:
Christians in Rome during this formative period appear to have met as “household” groups in privately owned locations scattered around the capital city. They constituted a loose network of house churches, without any central facility for worship. The absence of central coordination matches the profile of the separated synagogues in Rome during this period.
On this point, see, for example, Scot McKnight, “A Light among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press © 1991).
An impression of what such early house churches in Rome may have been like is conveyed by the remains of buildings of several stories that date to the second and third centuries, but which have been modified over the course of time. Incorporated into the walls or preserved below the floors of at least three of the existing titular churches in Rome are the remains of large tenement houses. The ground floors appear to have been occupied by shops, and the upper levels by prosperous families. The connection of these buildings with the social world of craftsmen and artisans is suggestive in the light of reference to the church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16:5), whose property must have served as workshop, residence, and meeting place. As yet there has been no excavation of common housing from the days of the early empire in Rome, but the work of J.E. Packer and A.G. McKay on the insulae, or apartment buildings, points to the existence of amorphous blocks of tenements, one building abutting another, that served the vast majority of people in the capital and other large cities of the Roman empire (Lane, pgs 208-209).

Here is where we begin to cover material that genuinely contradicts what the Roman Catholic Church has taught about the papacy for centuries. Here we arrive at the place that I’ve written about in my blog post, “John Reumann best states the problem”. Reumann says:
Biblical and patristic studies make clear that historically a gap occurs at the point where it has been claimed “the apostles were careful to appoint successors in” what is called “this hierarchically constituted society,” specifically “those who were made bishops by the apostles . . .,” an episcopate with an “unbroken succession going back to the beginning.” For that, evidence is lacking, quite apart from the problem that the monepiscopacy replaced presbyterial governance in Rome only in the mid-or late second century. It has been noted above how recent treatments conclude that in the New Testament no successor for Peter is indicated.
These, too, are some of the “historical facts” that are not disputed.

Lane was writing in 1998. More recently, Robert Jewett, in his “Romans” commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, ©2007), summarizes some of the latest work on this topic:
One of the standard studies of house congregations and house churches by Hans-Josef Klauck opens with a citation from Heinz Schurmann, “The living space of the congregation is the house. Another study rests on the same premise: “the earliest Christians met in private homes.” These studies investigate the references to houses as the meeting places of early Christian congregations and usually assume a freestanding building owned by the patron or patroness of a house church. Although the term οἶκος [oikos or “house”] can refer to a Roman atrium, a Greek peristyle house, a Hellenistic style of courtyard with adjoining rooms, or even an apartment building with shops on the ground floor, the standard conclusion is: “Private houses were the first centers of church life.” Klauck remains more open than most scholars on this question, concluding that congregations of 10-40 members could function in any of the four options, but he does not entertain the possibility that s different structure of leadership and a different style of community life might result from meeting in a space not provided by a patron. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s early calculation of the maximum size of 30-40 for a house church congregation rested on the premise of a freestanding villa. His later work considers the possibility that the shop space on the ground floor of a tenement building might be used for a “house church” such as Prisca and Aquila sponsored in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome; it might accommodate a group of 10-20 believers. A number of earlier experts suggested the likelihood that even if Prisca and Aquila’s church met in their private apartment, it was probably in a tenement building.

Some details in the NT point indisputably in the direction of house churches presided over by patrons and patronesses, including references to “the church in the house” of particular patrons. The model of a house church presupposes a patron or patroness who owns or rents the space used by the Christian community. A number of such persons are mentioned in the Pauline letters, including Phoebe, Erastos, Crispus, Stephanos, Gaius, Appia, and Philemon and his wife, Nympha. A house church is thus assimilated into the hierarchical social structure of the Greco-Roman world, in which heads of houses exercised legal and familial dominion over their relatives and slaves. In the words of Wayne Meeks, “The head of the household, by normal expectations of the society, would exercise some authority over the group and would have some legal responsibility for it. The structure of the oikos was hierarchical, and contemporary political and moral thought regarded the structure of superior and inferior roles as basic to the well-being of the whole society. This model of a house church has led to the widely accepted theory of Gerd Theissen that such churches were marked by “love-patriarchalism” in which the hierarchical social order is retained while mutual respect and love are being fostered by patrons serving as leaders of the congregations in their houses (Jewett 64-65).
Steve Hays has already commented on this phenomenon:

The Co-Pope Team of Priscilla and Aquila

The Aquilan-cum-Priscillan lineage represents the true succession

The First Church of Rome

And he responded to quite a few objections in these blog posts:

The Counterfeit Shepherd


Here might be an excellent time to re-state what the Roman Catholic theologian John Meier stated in his essay in “How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?” (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2010):
A papacy that cannot give a credible account of its own origins can hardly hope to be a catalyst for unity among divided Christians (14).
There is, in fact, nothing that is credible about the papacy.


  1. I know its been up a long time - but I really enjoyed reading this - do you any where set down your thoughts on the transition from the house churches of Romans (c.55AD) to the presbyterial (in a 1C sense) style of government set out in 1 Clement?

  2. Hi Elliot -- thanks for checking in.

    There are a few additional links in this series here:

    Also, as to how the "development" of the authority structure took place, see this link:

    Let me know if you have other questions!