I have deep respect for the house-church movement, not least because my own Baptist heritage began among dissenters from the Church of England who took to meeting in private homes—a violation of the laws of that time—in order to pray and study the Scriptures in an environment free from the restrictions of the ecclesiastical higher-ups. I also know, and celebrate the fact, that the first Christians met in private homes, as is abundantly attested in the New Testament.
Sometimes, however, house-church folk try to prove too much. In this, they are close cousins with every other group that wants to hearken back to a supposed pristine apostolic era, which was the last time the church ever got it right! In this group as well I would place my Baptist forebears, along with a slew of Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and pretty much everybody else who have decided that church history is irrelevant because nobody after about the 4th century ever got it right. (For some, the death of the apostles is the cut-off point. If the apostles couldn’t be trusted to impart what Jesus told them even to the very next generation, doesn’t that cast suspicion on Jesus’ wisdom in appointing them and his promises to guide them?)
Many of these groups find that emperor Constantine was the major culprit. By making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire and rewarding material benefits to the leading bishops, he singlehandedly created the Roman Catholic Church in all its depravity. In other words, they have the same opinion of Rome as does Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, just with better theology. For the true believers, Constantine is the font of all that is wrong with the institutional church: liturgy, bishops, and perhaps worst of all: church buildings!
It can certainly be debated whether buildings represent the best stewardship of a congregation’s money. It is also certain that too many Christians idolize their buildings and assume that they have discharged the totality of their Christian commitments when they show up once or twice a week for activities that take place within them. I’m not going to argue for or against the importance church buildings have assumed in Christian history. I just want to demonstrate that they are older than is sometimes imagined.
The earliest known church building, properly so called, is a modified private dwelling discovered in the Syrian village Dura-Europos (wikipedia article) and dating to ca. AD 240. Dura-Europos was situated on the Roman border, and in fact it was overrun by the Parthians in AD 256.
What was it like to worship as part of that church? We can tell a little bit from its architecture. The building looked from the outside no different than any other largish private dwelling, but on the inside, frescoes and mosaics indicated that many rooms were devoted to religious functions. One small room had been converted into a baptistery, and at some point the inner wall between two rooms was removed to make way for a larger assembly room, complete with a raised platform on the eastern wall. This is suggestive of customs attested from other early sources such as prayer facing eastward and the placement of the communion table on the eastern wall of the worship space. A raised platform also suggests some sort of division of labor between those who led or conducted the worship and the people of God as a whole.
How many people gathered for worship there? That is a good question, and may shed further light on the style of worship they conducted. Let’s begin with the raw data: After remodelling to expand its size, the assembly room at Dura-Europos measured 12.9 x 5.15 meters, for a total area of 66.44 square meters. We can approximate the total capacity of this room using some of the insights used to estimate crowd size at political rallies. In “Chronology of a Revolution 1986,” Angela Stuart Santiago developed some rules of thumb for crowd density estimates based on the postures and configurations the people might take. For example, she found that people standing with plenty of elbow room take up on average 0.64 square meters, or about 1.56 people per square meter. People standing side by side with an arm’s length of space in front and behind them take up 0.44 square meters (2.27 people/square meter), and people sitting or squatting on the ground take up 0.313 square meters (3.19 people/square meters). The absolute maximum capacity—people standing shoulder to shoulder with barely enough room to breathe—is about 8 people per square meter.
Santiago suggested an average crowd density of 3.56 people/square meter, but I’m not sure you can “pack” a worship service as tightly as you can “pack” a political rally. Even without chairs or benches (and there were none in the early church, except along the walls for the elderly and infirm), it is likely the people sat for portions of the service, and getting up and down takes a bit more space than remaining still. Also, there is the possibility of movement within the worship space: coming forward for communion, processions of various sorts, the passing of the peace, etc. So let’s assume an ancient worship space has an average capacity of about 2.0 to 2.5 people per square meter. (If your vision of ancient worship involves people remaining still and in one place for the duration, you can probably bump that up to 3.0 or more.)
The Dura assembly hall is said to have had a “small platform or dais” at the eastern end (Bradley B. Blue, “Architecture, Early Church,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin (InterVarsity, 1997), 94). Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an indication of how “small” this “small” platform actually was. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it measured 10 square meters. That gives us a bit more than 56 square meters for the congregation. Depending on whether we assume an average of 2.0 or 2.5 people per square meter, that gives us a maximum capacity of 112 or 140 worshipers.
Now, the church growth folks tell us—and they’re probably right about this one, at least for North American Christians—that it is not desirable for a sanctuary to be full to capacity. Rather, they speak of the sanctuary being “comfortably filled” at about 80% capacity. Any more than that, and people feel crowded in. People in other parts of the world don’t have the same sense of personal space that North Americans do, so that figure might need some tweaking, but if it is close to accurate, we can imagine the “real” capacity of the Dura assembly hall at somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-112 people.
But wait: It is known that this assembly hall was created by tearing down the interior wall between two rooms. Before this remodelling program, the Christians in Dura worshiped in a smaller space, which they then felt the need to expand. I can’t find a floor plan of the Dura church with dimensions included, but by eyeballing what I have been able to find, I would estimate that the larger of the two prior rooms was maybe 60% of the size of the final meeting room, or 39.86 square meters. If they used an identical 10-meter square platform, this room would have had nearly 30 square meters available for congregational “seating.” Let’s say 29 just to be conservative. In this size room, maximum capacity would be 58 people (2.0/square meter) or 73 people (2.5/square meter). The room would be “comfortably filled” at about 46 or 58 people.
So here is the picture that emerges: Some time in the mid-third century, a house church met in the village of Dura-Europos in a modified private dwelling. Their meeting space could accommodate somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 worshipers, but this was not enough room for the growing congregation. The meeting hall was on its way to becoming “uncomfortably filled” with perhaps 60 or more people crowding into a limited space. At that point, it was decided to remodel their worship space by tearing out a wall to make a larger assembly room. This new sanctuary would comfortably accommodate as many as 100 worshipers.
The archeologists call the Dura-Europos church a “house church.” That is most certainly was: it was a house modified to accommodate the needs of a worshiping community. But was it a “house church” in the sense that Christians use the term today? I doubt that many advocates of getting “back to the New Testament” and foreswearing church property for the sake of meetings in private homes would embrace the kind of worship that seems to have prevailed at Dura, with (1) perhaps 60-100 worshipers in attendance, (2) a raised platform from which to conduct the service, and (3) icon-like frescoes adorning the walls.
Was the Dura church an anomaly, an early example of capitulation to the ostentation and superstition of the surrounding paganism? Maybe, maybe not. The recently discovered church building at Megiddo dating from approximately the same era has many of the same features, and a “memorial plaque” (actually, a mosaic) in honor of the woman who donated the communion table to boot! Neither of these locations would suggest close ties to Rome, although the Megiddo church might have corresponded with the mother church at Jerusalem and Dura-Europos might have had some contact with Edessa or some other episcopate in eastern Syria.
The most we can say is that this kind of church experience was available decades before Constantine. Whether it is to be rejected as a gross disfigurement of the New Testament pattern, embraced as confirmation that Christians had been worshiping like this all along, or simply accepted as the way things were—for good or ill—it cannot be blamed on Roman imperial politics or its byproducts.