Gentile House Churches
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23. Gentile House Churches

Water and the Holy Spirit

Centurion HelmetSome of the early converts to Christianity form Gentile house churches. They are attracted to Judaism but have not become full proselytes. In Palestine, we have the example of Cornelius, a Gentile Roman centurion stationed in Caesarea, whom Luke describes in Acts 10.2 as "a devout man who feared God with all his household. He gives alms generously to the people and constantly prays to God." As a result of Peter's vision and proclamation of the Gospel in Acts 10.44-48, "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who have come with Peter are astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit is being poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues [or "other languages"] and praising God. Then Peter said, 'Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.' So he ordered that they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days." Many Gentiles, including Cornelius' household in Acts 11.1-18, are saved and baptized, as Peter opens the door of faith to the Gentiles. Luke appears to reinforce the significance of this event by repeating it to the Jewish believers and leaders in Jerusalem and alluding to it again at the Jerusalem Council.✞

The Saints

Peter reminds the council members in Acts 15.7-11, "After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between them and us, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'" God has obliterated particular legalistic distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and directs that salvation is by faith and not by keeping the law. Given Cornelius's loyalty, generosity, and financial means, he probably opens his house to the Gentile believers in Caesarea. One wonders whether Philip's house in Caesarea mentioned in Acts 21.8-10 is used in this way as well. The New Testament describes other Gentile house churches, with the names of the people in whose houses they meet. We find them at Philippi in Acts 16.40, Corinth in Acts 18.7, Rome in Romans 16.5, Ephesus in 1 Corinthians 16.19, Laodicea in Colossians 4.15 and Colossae in Philemon 1-2. Such phrases as "the brethren who are with them," and "the saints" (fellow Christians) "who are with them" seem to mean those "who are in their Gentile house church."

Open Door Household

Thyatira RuinsThe open door household is found everywhere in the Roman Empire. They do not baptize some wealthy people and others. An open door household, like the one in Jerusalem, is held in the homes of women, many of them widows. In other cases, the Scriptures name both husband and wife. Where they add additional names, they probably represent grown-up members of the family. In one household, they mention only men, according to John Foster in "The First Advance - Church History 1: AD 29-500." Detailed information is not available in other cases. Still, the fact that the first converts in certain places are wealthy or prominent persons who are baptized together with their households is significant for the way the movement spreads. At Philippi, it begins with a pro-Jewish woman who is the business agent for the luxury textile industry based in Thyatira in Asia Minor in Acts 16.15. The baptism of this household is followed by that of the city's jailor in Acts 16.33. The first Corinth baptism is of the household of Stephanas, who earned a reputation in 1 Corinthians 10.16 and 16.2 as a Christian benefactor. Still, the most interesting is that of the household of the chief ruler of the synagogue in Acts 18.8. The New Testament household exhibits a remarkable "open door policy." Does your Christian community hold to and practice the same open-door policy?

Colossian House Churches

House Churches of PaulThe Gentile house churches and households of faith in Colossae are systematically visited and communities evangelized by Saint Paul. Saint Paul's letters to the Colossian house churches and Philemon refers to several house churches in the cities of Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, which are communities evangelized by Epaphras whom Saint Paul describes as a "fellow servant" and "co-worker." Although Epaphras "worked hard" in Hierapolis, according to Colossians 4.13, there is no evidence that Epaphras is successful in establishing a church there at this time. Saint Paul writes, "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and those at Laodicea and Hierapolis." Concerning Laodicea, Saint Paul refers to a group in Colossians 4.15 "of brothers and sisters, and Nympha and the church in her house." Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" assert that the natural reading of the text implies that two separate groups are meeting, one of them led by Nympha, the likely patron and leader. A church in Philemon's house is also mentioned explicitly in Philemon 2, "To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier — and to the church that meets in your home." Colossians 1.2 assumes the existence of a second house church so that all the "saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae" require additional homes for fellowship and worship. Arthur G. Patzia, in "The Emergence of the Church - Context, Growth, Leadership, and Worship," asserts that in situations where hospitality to itinerant teachers and evangelists is encouraged it implies other house churches. In this situation, the leaders of a house may have decided who to take in.

Paul's Household Churches

PhilemonSaint Paul's Gentile house churches, including that led by Philemon in Colossae, are established and visited by him on his missionary journeys. The number of Paul's Household Churches in each city varied from place to place and from time to time, but we may assume that there are ordinarily several in each area. Gaius, before Philemon became as stated in Romans 16.23 "host of the whole church," is probably the overseer of one of Paul's Household Churches. The household assembly in Philemon's house is not the whole of the Colossian church, according to Wayne A. Meeks in "The First Urban Christians - The Social World of the Apostle Paul."

Baptized with all Her Family

Paul at a Writing DeskIn Philippi, as recorded in Acts 16.14-15, "One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. 'If you consider me a believer in the Lord,' she said, 'come and stay at my house.' And she persuaded us." Paul and Silas encounter the merchant Lydia, who accepts baptism "with all her household" and prevails upon Paul to accept her hospitality. Following their miraculous deliverance from prison in Acts 16.25-26, when "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. At once, all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose." The jailer takes Paul and Silas into his house, where the whole household is assembled, preached to, and baptized in the middle of the night!

All Night Discussion

Wall Painting of House LeaderBefore leaving the city, Paul and Silas in Acts 16.40 go back to Lydia's house, where there is an established group of believers. In Paul's final journey through Asia Minor, he pauses in one of the Gentile House Churches gathered for the breaking of bread in an upper room, a gathering that turns into an all-night discussion with a tragic accident miraculously righted in Acts 20.7-12.✞

Peter Household Teaching

Household CodePeter's household teaching is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles as taught by the Apostle and includes several conventional literary devices. New Testament writers adopt these devices to aid them in the teaching of ethics. One significant method or tool in Peter's household teaching is a "household code." This term is a translation of the German word "house table," which the great German reformer Martin Luther (1485-1546 AD) originally coined and which describes the extended passages in the NT that address various ethics for members of a household.

New Testament Letters

TaxesThe New Testament letters classify several sections in this way as literary devices, for example, Colossians 3.18-4.1, "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers (or "parents") do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged." Related and similar teachings occur in the writings of the late first and second-century apostolic fathers such as in Ephesians 5.22-33, 1 Timothy 2.8-15, Titus 2.1-3:8 and 1 Peter 2.13-3.7 according to editors Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development." The Peter household teaching in 1 Peter 2.13-17 calls for submission to the government authorities, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good, you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor." A general attitude of respect toward those in authority is found in Titus 3.1, "Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good." Romans 13.1-4 is similar in tone to Romans 13.6-7 in the act of paying taxes and offering prayers on behalf of civic leaders. The rationale of Peter's household teaching is that God ordains the civil government, and such behavior would disprove the false accusations of outsiders who slander Christian households as being disloyal to the city-state. This kind of charge is a current problem; the implication from the letter is that even exemplary behavior in this regard might not stop the abuse from unbelievers.

Peter's Husband Teaching

Jewish Marriage CeremonyPeter's husband teaching explains the roles of the Christian husband and wife in terms of the Jewish marriage ceremony. 1 Peter 3.7-8 closes the household code with Peter's husband teaching addressing husbands primarily but also wives. Saint Peter writes, "Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble." Christian husbands are not to treat their wives harshly. Wives are also to be submissive in this context of love to husbands. Saint Peter writes, "Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." Saint Peter considers two possible scenarios of mixed faith and a Christian marriage where one partner is an unbeliever. A Christian wife whose husband is an unbeliever might experience harsh treatment for insubordination because of her strange devotion to Jesus. Peter, however, believes that exemplary behavior might win over the unbelieving mate to Christ.✞

Unfading Beauty of a Gentle Spirit

Outer adornment is another specific aspect of proper conduct. Saint Peter writes in 1 Peter 3.3-6, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornments, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight, for this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear." Sarah's demeanor provides a pattern for the modern wife. Spiritual inner adornment is commendable as a gentle and quiet spirit. Saint Peter urges above all else that Christians live godly lives in a pagan society. He writes in 1 Peter 2.11-12, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." Husbands and wives are fellow heirs of eternal life, and failure to treat each other with respect affects their relationship with God. Love and respect between husbands and wives are two marks of belonging to a New Testament household.

"Gentile House Churches"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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