It is clear in the New Testament that the word church never referred to a building or place, but rather church refers to the believers that gathered together. So in Acts 11:22
, ‘The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem…’ A building doesn’t have ears, but believers do have ears. Jesus used this language also in Matthew 18:17
, ‘…tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen to the church.’ Acts 12:5
, ‘…but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.’ Buildings don’t pray! Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:9
, ‘I persecuted the church of God.’ It was the believers that Paul persecuted. Just a few of the many places that are clear that church always refers to the believers, not a building or a place.
Reference to the Passover
We read of Jesus celebrating the Passover with the 12 disciples in Luke 22:7-23
. The Passover was an Old Testament feast that had its beginning when the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt (all of the Old Testament law, feasts, and sacrifices were a shadow of the new covenant (Col 2:7
; Heb 8:5
)). They were to eat a lamb with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the house. God would see the blood and so no plague would befall those in that house. The Passover was to be observed in a home – as many people as could eat a lamb (Ex 12:3-4
). So as many people as could eat a lamb, gathered in a home and ate all of the lambs with the blood of the lamb around the door. Jesus and his disciples were still observing that commandment of keeping the Passover in a home. Jesus is the fulfillment of that lamb – the Lamb of God. We read that there were 600,000 men, plus women and children that were delivered out of Egypt, too many to fit in one home. But with more people, there were more homes, so in many houses of the Israelites that night they gathered together to eat a lamb with the blood around the door. So it was in a home that Jesus instituted the bread and the cup that were to be reminders of him, the Lamb of God who gave his life and blood to redeem us. It was a house in which Jesus was considered the Master (Lk 22:11
). In the Passover we have an Old Testament figure of the home-based church.
Paul continued with this example in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8
, ‘Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you are really unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’ In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
, Paul makes it clear that it wasn’t to be a meal when the church gathered together, but rather it was to partake of the bread and the cup in remembrance of Jesus, his body broken for us and the new covenant in his blood. He also wrote that we are to examine ourselves before partaking, which some were not doing there in Corinth and for that reason, some were weak and sick spiritually. Then in chapter 14, Paul wrote some more about what they should do when they gathered together – singing, praying, and prophesying. He wrote specifically that ‘the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation’(1 Cor 14:3
). In verses 24, 25 he wrote if all prophesy in the church then an unbeliever will be convicted that God is among you. Verse 26, ‘What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, …’ Then in 31, ‘For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.’ This limits the size of the group gathering together if everyone there is going to have a part (the OT example – as many as could eat a lamb). It wasn’t one preaching to the rest but all sharing with one another – a much more intimate communion.
It helps us to understand why we always read of house churches or home-based churches in the New Testament. It wasn’t because they didn’t have the opportunity to build buildings specifically for worship; rather, it wasn’t suitable for what they were following and practicing. We are thankful for the opportunity to prove that today this model works well in many cultures around the world.