Were New Testament House Churches Multi-site?

This post consists of excerpts from a doctoral paper I wrote for a Ph.D. seminar on Ecclesiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The introduction, third major section, and conclusion have been given.

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Those in the multi-site church movement often claim that their church structure is biblical because in the New Testament a citywide church was comprised of multiple house churches in the same way that one multi-site church today is comprised of multiple sites or campuses.  This paper will argue that there is not precedent for multi-site church structure in the house churches of the New Testament, and that because of this, multi-site proponents are unjustified in seeking to root their practice in the structure of New Testament house churches.

This argument will proceed in three steps.  First, claims will be given from those multi-site proponents who argue that there is precedent in the New Testament for their form of church structure.  Second, certain ideas that have been advanced by biblical scholars and theologians that might be understood to support the claims of multi-site proponents will be put forth.  And third, it will be argued that the findings of such scholarship cannot be used to claim that contemporary multi-site structure finds precedent in New Testament house churches.

[Section one, entitled “What Multi-site Proponents Claim,” and section two, entitled “What House Church Scholarship Says,” have been omitted here.]

House Churches Not Precedent for Multi-site

Even given the arguments above for multiple house churches forming one citywide church, I remain unconvinced that New Testament house churches are precedent for contemporary multi-site churches.  This section will present four serious problems with making such a claim.  First, those who argue for multiple house churches in a city frequently assume what they set out to prove.  Second, recent evaluations of Greco-Roman domestic architecture reveal that much larger crowds could fit into a home than has previously been recognized.  Third, arguing for the existence of a house church simply because a Christian household is mentioned in a biblical text is unwarranted.  And fourth, even if a citywide church consisted of multiple house churches, there is evidence that citywide churches still held assemblies of “the whole church”; something that the majority of contemporary multi-site churches never do.

Assumed Rather Than Proven

One of the faults in the scholarly arguments for citywide churches consisting of multiple house churches in the New Testament is that these scholars often assume what they set out to prove.  For instance, Roger Gehring simply assumes that multiple house churches existed in the cities of Antioch, Ephesus, and Philippi.  Concerning church gatherings in Antioch he states,

Everything seems to indicate that this gathering was done in small house groups. . . . That the church in Antioch met κατ᾽οἶκον in the private domestic houses of affluent members as in Jerusalem is probable simply because this was the case for the overwhelming majority of all believers in the early Christian movement for the first three centuries.

Again he states, “we can assume a plurality of house churches in Antioch.”  Gehring also thinks the same can be assumed of Ephesus.  He writes,

Not much can be said about house churches in Ephesus.  The greeting from “all the brothers” (1 Cor 16:20) points to other Christians in Ephesus who did not meet at Aquila’s home.  This, along with the relatively large size of the church in Ephesus, suggests a plurality of house churches there, but we cannot be certain.

There are a couple of problems with these statements.  First, his interpretation of 1 Cor 16:20 seems off.  As Gordon Fee notes, it is more likely that “all the brothers” refers to Paul’s traveling companions and fellow workers, not the members of a separate house church.  The second problem with Gehring’s statements is that, even if he is correct that 1 Cor 16:20 might imply more than one house church in Ephesus, it certainly does not offer decisive proof that this was the case (as he himself admits).  If multiple house churches per city is true in the “overwhelming majority” of cases, it is strange that Antioch and Ephesus, two very important cities in the early Christian movement, cannot be proven to be a part of this majority.  The same kind of assumptions seem to be made in Gehring’s assessment of the church in Philippi.  Gehring states that “the number of Christians in Philippi apparently so grew that multiple houses were necessary as ongoing places of assembly,” and that this “would be a plausible explanation for the plural number of overseers in 1:1.”  “There is much in support of the view,” says Gehring, “that the ἐπίσκοποι in 1:1 were hosts and leaders of house churches in Philippi.” However, besides mentioning that the church in Philippi grew rapidly, Gehring does not provide any additional evidence to support his suggestion that the multiple overseers in Philippi were individually heads of distinct house churches in that city.  That multiple house churches existed in Philippi seems simply to be assumed by Gehring given the size of the church and the existence of plural leadership.

The problem with all of these assumptions is that Gehring is assuming what he has set out to prove.  He states that in the “overwhelming majority” of cases there were multiple house churches in a city, but then for three of the most important Christian cities mentioned in the New Testament he has to assume that this is true.  With all of these assumptions one cannot help but wonder if Gehring has proven much of anything in support of his view that citywide churches were comprised of multiple house churches.  As R. Alastair Campbell states in response to Gehring’s assumption that the church in Antioch was made up of multiple house churches based on the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of churches were: “Well yes, but presumably the purpose of examining each of these churches in turn is to establish that consensus on a firmer footing, and this cannot be done by assuming what it undertakes to prove.”

Houses Could Hold Plenty

Another weakness of the view that a citywide church was made up of multiple house churches is that it relies too heavily on the faulty assertion that only around fifty people could fit in even a relatively large home.  Recent scholarship has shown this to be false.  Before addressing the size of crowd that a Greco-Roman house could accommodate, however, another issue related to supposed size limitations needs to be addressed; that is, the question of the Jerusalem church and the ability of its many members to meet together.

It is sometimes argued that the Jerusalem church, with its thousands of members (Acts 2:41; 4:4), was too large to have met in one place.  For instance, Gehring writes that the Jerusalem church “grew quite rapidly beyond the capacity of a single meeting place.”  He mentions that some met in homes while others met in the temple. The problem with this is that Acts 2:44 says that all of the believers in this church were “in the same place [ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό]” (my translation), and 5:12 that “they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.”  Though some might still have doubts about the feasibility of fitting this many people onto Solomon’s Porch, as Thomas White has pointed out, this was indeed quite possible.  White explains:

Solomon’s Porch ran along the eastern wall of the temple, which was 1,509 feet in length.  To put this in perspective, the Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, measures only nine hundred feet in length and eight hundred feet wide.  This stadium holds 73,367 people. . . . The wall would be about the length of five football fields.  Also remember that this was the location where the three thousand were added and where the number increased to five thousand.  Thus, we know that large crowds could gather and could hear from this location.  This structure was enormous, and despite the lack of microphones or speakers, large crowds apparently had no trouble hearing.  Biblical evidence forces the conclusion that even the large Jerusalem church could and did gather at Solomon’s Porch.

Whatever one’s interpretation of Acts 2:46 (“breaking bread in their homes”), it should not be denied that the entire Jerusalem church met in one place.

Appeals to size limitations are also made when it comes to house churches.  As has already been mentioned, many scholars (e.g., Murphy-O’Connor, Banks, Theissen, and Dunn) argue that the most a Greco-Roman house could accommodate was around fifty people.  If this is true, then if the church in a city ever grew over this amount multiple homes would be needed.  The problem with this view, however, is that some scholars have provided archaeological proof that many more than this could fit into the houses of wealthy homeowners in the first century, especially if the peristyle gardens (i.e., courtyards) common to many of these homes were utilized.  Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch note that the House of the Citharist in Pompeii had two large dining halls, “the first of 75.5 square meters,” as well as “three large peristyles, measuring approximately 300, 250, and 220 square meters.”  Their description of this house continues:

Six significant rooms (c. 55, 70, 25, 25, 10, and 20 sq. m.) open onto the largest garden.  Figuring one-half square meter per person and an equal half square meter for furniture, vegetation, statues, and other artwork, 505 people could be served in this peristyle and adjacent rooms.  Three rooms (c. 50, 8, 20 sq. m.) open onto the second largest garden, which could then serve 330 people.  The smallest of the gardens has six adjacent rooms (c. 6, 9, 12, 6, 12, 45 sq. m.), so could serve 300 people.  The three gardens with adjacent rooms could serve 1,135 people simultaneously.

Osiek and Balch also mention the house of Menander in Pompeii, which was “1,800 square meters including two gardens (c. 150, 115 sq. m.) with a dining hall of 93.8 square meters.”  By the same calculations (a half square meter per person and another for furniture and ornamental features) “360 people could be served.” According to Osiek and Balch, there were at least twenty-four home gardens in Pompeii that ranged from between 255 and 2,000 square meters.  Given these dimensions, they state, “Cicero might have been able to feed his two thousand . . . in these spaces.”  It seems, then, that houses did exist in the first century that could accommodate many more than the commonly assumed size of a New Testament house church.

Of course the size of such large homes is of no significance to the present study if Christians would not have had access to houses like this.  Most scholars would agree, however, that there were indeed wealthy church members in many of the early churches, that they would have owned large homes, and that they would have likely offered to host the gatherings of their local church.  According to 1 Corinthians 1:26, “not many” of the Corinthian believers were “wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”  As E. A. Judge notes, this would “imply that the group did not contain many intellectuals, politicians, or persons of gentle birth”; but, as he goes on to say, the use of the phrase “not many” does “suggest that the group did at least draw upon this minority to some extent.”  Abraham Malherbe concurs, and states, “When Paul says that not many of the Corinthian Christians were from the upper social strata, he assumes that some, at least, were.”  Malherbe goes on to demonstrate that Crispus, Erastus, and Gaius were likely wealthy individuals.  Gehring points out that while the majority of the Corinthian church were from a lower social class, those whom Paul baptized seem to all be from the upper levels (1 Cor 1:14-16).  This is probably due to the fact that ministering to the wealthy seems to have been part of Paul’s mission strategy.  As Bradley Blue notes, “Consistently, Paul’s objective is the conversion of a home owner who is capable of benefaction, including a house which was used as the alternate venue in which the Christians assembled.”  If the church at Corinth is at all typical of Christian communities in the first century, then we can assume that large houses would have been available as venues for church gatherings.

The likelihood that some Christians in first century churches were wealthy coupled with the findings of Osiek, Balch, and others on the large crowds that could be accommodated in the homes of wealthy patrons suggests that the oft-repeated limit of fifty people per house church is unwarranted.  As Balch states, by studying large Greco-Roman homes,

We learn that the conclusions in many books that early Pauline house churches were necessarily small and private are mistaken. . . . Some or many Christian assemblies may indeed have been small in number, but that conclusion does not follow from the archaeological investigation of the size of houses in Pompeii.

This is very significant in light of the fact that the size limitations of homes is one of the driving forces that lead scholars to claim that there were multiple house churches in each citywide church.  If the common assumption that only around fifty people could fit into a home is done away with, and the capability of large homes to accommodate upwards of three hundred people is put in its place, then the claim that multiple house churches were necessary due to size limitations is shown to be unjustified.  This means that multi-site proponents cannot claim that there must have been networks of multiple house churches due to the size restrictions in first century homes.

Difference between Households 
and House Churches

Another problem with the claim that citywide churches were comprised of multiple house churches is the fact that it is often based on an assumption that whenever a Christian household is mentioned in the New Testament a house church is present.  If multiple households in a city implies multiple house churches, then cities like Corinth (where multiple Christian households are mentioned) would ipso facto have had multiple house churches.  The problem with this is that it is simply not true that households were equivalent to house churches.  The existence of house churches is often merely assumed by some scholars who see evidence for them whenever households are mentioned.

As was mentioned above, Gehring simply assumes that Lydia’s house (Acts 16) was the base for a house church in Philippi.  The problem with this, of course, is that nowhere in Acts 16 is mention made of a house church.  Verse 15 says that Lydia was baptized, “and her household as well,” and that she urged Paul and his companions to “come to my house and stay,” but a house church is not mentioned.  Gehring employs the same assumptions about the Philippian jailer’s baptized household (Acts 16:29-34), and Jason who “received” Paul and his companions when they were ministering in Thessalonica (Acts 17:7).  Neither of these accounts mentions anything about a house church.  It seems that Gehring is simply assuming the presence of a house church wherever a household is mentioned.  Such assumptions do not seem warranted, however, because, as even Gehring notes, the ἐκκλησία and the οἶκος were not identical.  First Corinthians 11:20-22, 33-34 and 14:33b-35 clearly point to a distinction in Paul’s mind between the private sphere of one’s home and the public sphere of the church meeting.  In 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, Paul rebukes the church for abusing the Lord’s supper and asks the rhetorical question, “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”  The implied answer is, “yes,” which means that people from separate, private households came together (presumably in the house of Gaius [Rom 16:23]) for the public meetings of the church.  Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 Paul states that it is inappropriate for a woman to speak in church, but that “if there is anything they desire to learn” they may “ask their husbands at home” (v. 35).  Here too there is a clear distinction between the sphere of the private household and that of the public assembly of multiple households.  The multiple households in which members were to eat and drink, and in which wives were to inquire of their husbands were not churches, they were simply the separate homes of church members and their families.  As Stephen C. Barton notes, “[T]hese two passages make clear that Paul regarded certain kinds of activity as ‘out of place’ so far as (his view of) church was concerned and ‘in place’ so far as (his view of) household was concerned, and that he attempted to distinguish church from household accordingly.” It seems better to say, with Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann that in the early house churches there was an “orientation toward the ancient household, but no structural equivalence.” What this means for our discussion is that multiple house churches cannot be assumed in a city simply because multiple Christian households are present.

Whole Church Gatherings

Even if the scholars are right who argue that a citywide church was made up of multiple house churches, this is still not precedent for contemporary multi-site church structure.  This is because many of these same scholars point out the fact that there were times in which the entire church in a city came together in one place as well; something most multi-site churches never do.  Gehring states that “the primitive [Jerusalem] church gathered for two different types of worship services.”  One type of gathering was “in the temple in a large meeting as the whole church,” and the other was “in private homes as individual church bodies in small groups as house churches.”  The gatherings in the temple, says Gehring, were assemblies of the church as “a publicly visible unit.”  Likewise, Banks argues that unless the Christians of a particular location could all meet together, they were not considered a single church, but a plurality churches:

The plural references to “the churches in Galatia” (Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 16:1), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), “the churches in Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), and “the churches of Judaea” (Gal 1:22) demonstrate that the idea of a unified provincial or national church is as foreign to Paul’s thinking as the notion of a universal church.  Only if there were an occasional provincial meeting of all Christians could he have spoken of them in this way.

For Banks, this explains why Paul never addresses the Christians in Rome with his usual “to the church in” phraseology.  In Romans 1:7, Paul addresses his letter “to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”  Banks explains the significance of the difference between the address to Rome and the address to Corinth when he writes,

Since for him [Paul] ekklesia cannot refer to a group of people scattered throughout a locality unless they all actually gather together, it is not possible for him to describe all the Christians in Rome as a ‘church.’  The ‘whole church’ of Rome never assembled in one place.  By way of contrast the Christians in Corinth are [emphasis original] an ekklesia.  Although they, like the Romans, meet in small groups in different parts of the city, they also come together as a unit from time to time (as did the earlier believers in Jerusalem).

Thus, for Banks, a single church was not present unless its members were characterized by meeting together in one place.  This is the view held by Branick as well.  He writes,

While Paul affirms the existence of the private or single family house church, and while for Paul that house church remains the basic cell of the local church, he clearly wants those house churches to form a body with each other within the city-wide church.  Instead of a group of house churches closed to each other or even hostile to each other, Paul envisions apparently a kind of federation of several house churches forming a local church.  The Pauline local church existed thus on two levels, both connected with households, 1) a household assembly of an individual family and those associate with that family, and 2) a city-wide level meeting in a private home but consisting of several families.

Branick goes on to point out the similarities that this had with the citywide assemblies of Greek cities: “In gathering the house churches together for a city-wide assembly and calling this city-wide assembly an ekklēsia, Paul most probably had in mind the city-wide assemblies of the Greek cities, assemblies called ekklēsia.” Thus, even if there were multiple house churches in a city, they would have also been expected to have meetings of “the whole church.”

The problem with the argument that contemporary multi-site churches are simply a new expression of the structure of the New Testament house churches is that almost all contemporary multi-site churches are missing Branick’s second level of the New Testament church structure.  The multiple sites or campuses of most multi-site churches never have a citywide (or state-wide, nation-wide, or world-wide for some churches) assembly in which the members of each individual unit gather together in assembly at the corporate level.  This is not a minor difference; rather, this gets to the heart of the major problem with multi-site churches.  An ἐκκλησία (assembly) cannot be one ἐκκλησία (assembly) unless its members are characterized by actually assembling together.  If multi-site proponents are going to justify their view, they need to do it by arguing that New Testament patterns of polity are not binding on the church today, not by trying to root their practice in the structure of New Testament house churches.


This paper has sought to show that proponents of multi-site church structure are unjustified in claiming that the structure of New Testament house churches is precedent for multi-site.  Evidence from scholars who have written on New Testament house churches, and that might be understood to serve as a biblical basis for multi-site has been presented and found lacking in at least four areas.  First, it has been shown that the presence of multiple house churches in one citywide church is often assumed rather than proven.  Second, the claim that a citywide church was necessarily comprised of multiple house churches due to space limitations has been shown to be false.  First century houses could hold far more than is commonly assumed.  Third, the tendency by some scholars to see the existence of a house church every time a Christian household is mentioned has been shown to be faulty.  And fourth, even if those scholars who argue for multiple house churches per citywide church are correct, there is evidence (as even they would agree) that these churches would have also come together in assemblies of the whole church.  Thus, if there were not multiple house churches in a citywide church (a view that is quite possible given points one through three above), then multi-site proponents would obviously not be able to base their church structure in that of New Testament house churches.  On the other hand, if there were multiple house churches in a citywide church, multi-site would still not be able to claim this as precedent for their church structure, because these New Testament churches would have had assemblies of the entire church; something that the majority of multi-site churches never do.  Therefore, the conclusion of this paper is that New Testament house churches are not precedent for multi-site.

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