ILLUSTRATION BY LAURA JAMES
FOR MOST CATHOLICS, the
word church conjures up
images of stained-glass windows,
altars, stations of the
cross, wooden pews and large
buildings with architecture ranging
from Gothic to more modern styles.
Most of us link church with building,
often giving a sense of stability to our
faith, as well as a special space to worship
God and to meet with other
Church members. We easily take
church buildings for granted. It is hard
to imagine a community without at
least one Catholic church.
But early on in the life of Catholicism,
church buildings were not plentiful.
Where did the earliest Christians
gather before churches as we know
them began to be built?
“Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes”
(Acts 2:46a). Chapter Two of Acts of
the Apostles offers a brief yet curious
insight into the lives of the earliest
Christians—those who either knew
Jesus personally or who were convinced
by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost and
afterwards. The verse quoted above suggests
that the first Christians met in
various homes to “break bread” (the
oldest term for celebrating the
Eucharist) and to deepen their faith.
The New Testament provides several
other references to house churches.
These were evidently family homes
where early believers would gather and
ponder the life and message of Jesus
and grow in their faith, supporting
each other with prayer and Christian
love. References to house churches
occur within intriguing stories of faith,
weaving together colorful glimpses of
ancient Christian life.
“When he [Peter] realized this, he went
to the house of Mary, the mother of
John who is called Mark, where there
were many people gathered in prayer”
This verse occurs after the ruler of
Judea, King Herod Agrippa, suddenly
became intolerant of Christians. Seeking
to win support from Pharisaic Jews,
he had James “the brother of the Lord”
beheaded and Peter thrown into prison
(12:1-3). An angel visited him there
and miraculously guided Peter’s escape.
The amazed apostle ran to Mary’s house
to tell the Christians praying there what
had happened. The astonished worshipers
listened while Peter asked them
to tell others about this miracle.
While at least five different women
named Mary appear in the New Testament,
this Mary lived in Jerusalem and
was one of the first Christians. No husband
is mentioned, which may mean
that she was a widow. Because she
owned a home and had at least one
servant, she was probably a woman of
reasonable wealth. This Mary had a
son named John Mark, who later
accompanied Paul and Barnabas during
their first missionary journey. According
to tradition, this John Mark wrote
the Gospel of Mark.
Lydia's House Church
“When they [Paul and Silas] had come
out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s
house where they saw and encouraged
the brothers, and then they left” (Acts
Lydia, who sold purple cloth in
Philippi, met Paul during his second
missionary journey, as he crossed into
Europe to preach the gospel. After
spending some time in that city (now
in ruins in northeastern Greece), Paul
and Silas went along a river, seeking a
place of prayer. There they met a group
of women and began speaking to them,
telling them about the life of Christ.
Lydia was so profoundly struck by Paul’s
words that she and her household were
baptized and she offered Paul and Silas
lodging in her home.
While evangelizing in Philippi, the
two were unjustly accused of being disruptive
and imprisoned. Wondrously,
while the two missionaries were singing
hymns and praying in their cramped cell, an earthquake abruptly opened
the door and broke their shackles. The
jailer and his family asked to be baptized.
Learning that both Paul and Silas
were Roman citizens, the nervous city
magistrates encouraged them to leave
Philippi. After stopping at Lydia’s house
to encourage the Christians there, Paul
and Silas left for Thessalonica.
“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers
in Christ Jesus...greet also the
church at their house” (Romans 16:3,5).
Prisca (also known as Priscilla) and
Aquila first appear in Acts of the Apostles
when Paul arrives in Corinth during
his second missionary journey
(18:1-2). Tentmakers by trade, this
Jewish-Christian couple had recently
left Rome after Emperor Claudius
expelled Jews from the city. Settling in
Corinth, they allowed Paul, a fellow
tentmaker, to stay at their home and
assisted in his ministry.
When Paul went to Ephesus, this
holy couple accompanied him. When
Paul decided to move on again, Prisca
and Aquila remained in Ephesus and let
their home be used as a church (1
Corinthians 16:19). The couple clearly
had learned a great deal during their
time with Paul.
One story describes another Christian
named Apollos as speaking in
Corinth with tremendous fervor about
the message of Christ. Although Prisca
and Aquila were happy to have Apollos
as a fellow Christian advocate, they
noticed some errors in his message.
They gently pulled him aside and
corrected these inaccuracies. Apollos
evidently appreciated this deeper
knowledge, refined his orations and
continued preaching with their blessing
Paul’s Letter to the Romans indicates
that Prisca and Aquila later returned
to that city and established yet another
house church there.
“Give greetings to the brothers in
Laodicea and to Nympha and to the
church in her house” (Colossians 4:15).
When Paul wrote his letter to the
Christians in Colossae, he extended an
additional greeting to the Christian
community in Laodicea (now in ruins
near Colossae in modern-day Turkey).
This letter includes a greeting to
Nympha, who apparently let her house
be used as a church. Although some
manuscripts give the masculine name
“Nymphas,” most scholars agree that
this person was a woman, Nympha.
The Letter to the Colossians also suggests
that Paul may have sent a separate
letter to the Church in Laodicea—with
a request that the Colossians and
Laodiceans share their letters with each
other (4:16). Unfortunately, no letter
from Paul to the Laodiceans has survived;
otherwise, we might know more
about Nympha and her house church.
Because Laodicea and Colossae are so
near and because Paul encouraged these
Christian communities to share letters,
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians was probably
read to the Laodicean Christians at
Nympha’s house church. The two
towns may have shared some of the
issues that Paul addressed in his Letter
to the Colossians, especially tendencies
to require gentile Christians to
follow Jewish practices or to be in
awe of “principalities and powers” (see
Certainly, Nympha took to heart
Paul’s appeal to abandon such customs
and to trust completely in Jesus for
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and
Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our
beloved and our co-worker, to Apphia
our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier,
and to the church at your house”
(Philemon verses 1-2).
Philemon and Apphia, a well-to-do
couple in Colossae, had become Christians
through Paul’s ministry (verses
4-7). Some scholars think that Paul’s co-worker
Archippus (Colossians 4:17,
Philemon verse 2) was their son.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon (the shortest
of his letters) is unique in the Bible.
It has a very personal touch because it
focuses on Onesimus, a slave who had
run away from Philemon and Apphia.
Evidently, Onesimus met Paul and was
baptized by him. Paul felt that he must
eventually send this slave back to his rightful owners, who could have him
killed for running away.
Onesimus, however, brought Philemon
and Apphia a letter from Paul. He
gently requested mercy for the slave
and encouraged Philemon to accept
Onesimus back as a Christian brother,
rather than as a slave (verse 15).
No records exist about how Philemon
and Apphia dealt with Onesimus upon
his return. Many claim he was treated
with the respect that Paul had proposed.
He and Tychicus brought Paul’s letter to
the Colossians (4:7-9). Because Colossae
was only about 10 miles from Laodicea
and because Paul asked for a sharing of
letters, Philemon and Apphia may well
have known Nympha and shared experiences
about offering their homes to
be used as churches.
So many details are missing: How big
were their homes? How were they
arranged for worship? How often did
Christians meet in these homes? Did
they get much help? How did they
organize their gatherings? What were
their families like? What other people
and cities had house churches not mentioned
in the Bible?
While the New Testament offers only
slight clues about the function of house
churches and their owners, there is still
much to ponder. Because the references
to these house churches are so brief
and seemingly incidental, it is probable
that there were other house churches
not cited in Scripture.
The fleeting references we have
reflect a generous spirit. The selfless
giving of these house church providers
gave Christianity the opportunity to
take root and grow.
When Christianity became legal, its
members started to construct buildings
reserved exclusively for worship. Public
buildings had the advantage of
belonging to all the members equally.
In most places, due to the numbers of
Catholics, house churches are no longer
practical. But the same spirit of Christian
generosity that prompted the New
Testament’s house churches is alive.
People offer their homes for prayer
groups, Bible study groups, RENEW
groups or faith-sharing groups, or for
home Masses, worship, catechetical
instruction or retreats.
The small Christian community
movement, which began in the 1960s
in Latin America, updates the idea of
the early house churches. Now small
communities of Catholics in the United
States and around the world are often
led by women. These small groups are
trying to connect faith and daily life in
ways that can have a profound ripple
effect that nurtures Christ’s Church in
a powerful way for generations.
Mary of Jerusalem, Lydia, Nympha,
Prisca and Aquila, Philemon and
Apphia are strong role models for generous
dedication to Christ and the faithful
building up of his Church.