It is extremely difficult to read the teachings of the Bible about the church or local congregations of God’s people and not picture them as looking like the church where we worship on a regular basis. The fact that most of us today meet with others in a church building and the congregation is often made up of several hundred people, makes it difficult for us to picture the church in the first century meeting in different people’s houses. Most of the time the church was necessarily pretty small because the home where they met didn’t have room for lots of people. Think about the church where you worship and ask yourself, how many homes would it take to have all the people meeting in different homes from week to week worshiping the Lord?
Then consider different times in the Bible that people are spoken to and then the phrase is added, “And to the church that meets in your house.” In Colossians 4:15 Paul had been discussing different people who had sent greetings to the church which included Aristarchus a fellow prisoner, Mark the cousin of Barnabas, Jesus who was called Justus, Epaphras, who was one of the members from Colossea, and Luke the beloved physician along with Demas. Then verse 15 says, “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her house.” At the same time Paul wrote the letter to Colossians he also wrote the Book of Philemon which was to a family in that same city. “To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.” This demands that there were at least two churches meeting in that city, one in the home of Nympha and the other in the home of Philemon and Apphia his wife. Or that Nympha lived in Laodicea and her home was where the church there met.
Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in different cities to whom Paul wrote and just about every time the phrase is added, “And to the church that meets in their house.” One example is Romans 16:3-5 where he praised them as fellow workers and those who risked their necks for his life.
Think about some of the questions that we struggle over in different congregations today and try to imagine that same discussion if we were picturing the church as one meeting in someone’s home each week. People wouldn’t be sitting in rows with everyone’s eyes pointed toward a stage where a song leader or prayer leaders or the preacher would stand on the stage to preach or lead singing or prayer. Imagine the church meeting in your house. How many could you get into your living room to meet each week? Even if you had a much larger house than most it is highly unlikely that more than 50 people could get into the space and in most homes it would be more like 20. Passing the communion wouldn’t be very similar to what we see on Sunday. It would likely be the woman of the house producing the bread she had prepared and baked along with the fruit of the vine to be passed from one to the next for each person to participate. Most likely the one who shared the message of the Lord wasn’t standing behind a pulpit at the front but if they stood at all it would be in front of the chair where they had been sitting and more likely they remained in the chair and talked about God’s word and will for their life in that position.
Imagine discussions like Paul had with the church in Corinth in I Corinthians 11 or 14 with the scene being played out in someone’s home with 25 people instead of picturing a large building with 500-600 people meeting together to worship. Does it give you the same image you had before? Think about in chapter 11 with the whole discussion of wearing a covering or veil to pray or prophesy or the discussion of taking the Lord’s Supper together. Or picture the scene in chapter 14 where the primary discussion was about the whole church coming together in one place and that the primary concern was whether what was being done would build up the church or not. Think of the discussion of prophets speaking and taking turns with no more than three at a time and the others staying silent while one spoke. Or imagine the tongue speakers in that setting and the command to no more than three at a given time and then only if there is someone there who could translate what was said into the language of the people. Imagine in this same setting when he told the women to keep silent in the church and said it wasn’t permitted for them to speak but if they would learn anything they were to asked the men at home. Have you ever had or been part of a small group that gathered in a home to study and pray together? How formal was it? Did everyone talk or only one or two people speak the whole time?
What the Bible teaches is certainly applicable to our time and situation. But if I never actually go back and imagine the situation when the message was first given I’m likely to have things in my mind about the instruction that wouldn’t have fit the ones it was originally written to at all. If the instructions wouldn’t fit the people first addressed in the letters, then my understanding is wrong. The different letters were written to actual people and churches about present challenges or problems. My job is to see how what was said to them will apply to our time and situation. Try to imagine them having a discussion about who can rightly pass the communion trays to the people. First you would have to explain what communion trays were to them. Second the notion of it taking something special to pass it from one person to another wouldn’t have made any sense to them, any more than saying in your house that one can’t pass the bread around unless they are family members or even male family members.
God’s word applies to all people in all times under all circumstances. But it was written to specific groups of people in a small window of time. So always start with the question of what this would have meant to the people originally addressed. Then how does it apply to our time and situation? To reverse the order is to leave yourself drawing conclusions from the text that isn’t really there.