Where Did Early Christians Worship?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Roman prefect interrogated Justin Martyr and his associates: “What sort of life do you lead? What are your doctrines? You admit that you are a Christian?”

To each question, the Christian philosopher made a direct reply.

Then the prefect, Rusticus, demanded: “Where do you meet?”

“Wherever it is each one’s preference or opportunity,” said Justin. “In any case, do you suppose we can all meet in the same place?”

Rusticus pressed him, no doubt for information that might compromise others: “Tell me, where do you meet? In what place?”

Justin said, “I have been living above the baths of [text corrupt] for the entire period of my sojourn at Rome . . . and I have known no other meeting place but here. Anyone who desired could come to my residence, and I would give to him the words of truth.”

At the close of this interrogation, Rusticus passed sentence on Justin and his companions, obtaining for Justin his appellation: Martyr.

The proceedings of Justin’s trial, just prior to A.D. 168, reveal some things about the location of early Christian worship and teaching.

Atriums and Dining Rooms

In the Rome of Justin’s day, Christian meetings were still being conducted in private residences, in much the same way as over a century earlier, during the ministry of Paul. This is remarkable in light of Justin’s depiction of Christian worship, which included baptism, common prayers, preaching, and Communion. Though baptism played a prominent role in the Christian community, formal baptisteries were as yet undeveloped. Justin’s only comment is that the candidates “are brought by us where there is water.”

Justin’s defense before Rusticus also suggests that although the Christians in Rome were becoming fairly numerous, they did not abandon meeting in homes, even if that meant the Christian community could no longer assemble in one place. Thus, the house-church pattern, first articulated in the New Testament, continued for the first generations of the church’s expansion in the Roman world.

The Acts of the Apostles portrays the first Christian community in Jerusalem as gathering in the temple colonnades and “breaking bread in their homes.” As the Christian message gained a wider hearing in eastern Mediterranean cities, early believers commonly met in the homes of the community’s more prominent members: Gaius, Titius Justus, and Stephanas at Corinth, Phoebe at Cenchcrea, Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila at Ephesus, Nympha at Laodicea.

Though houses came in various styles and sizes, an atrium in a Roman villa (or a spacious dining room of a Greek house) would accommodate the needs of the small Christian communities. The account of Eutychus’ late-night plunge from his window seat suggests that, in Troas, the Christians met in the third-story dining room of a Greek house.

Local circumstances sometimes dictated other arrangements. While in Ephesus, Paul preached daily in the Roman prefect the lecture hall of Tyrannus for two years, and apocryphal stories hint that a warehouse for grain functioned in the same way when Paul went to Rome. Nonetheless, house churches seem to be the principal setting for Christian worship, at least through the time of Justin Martyr.