When we introspect on how we should behave as believers, prudent Christians should take note of how the early church did things – not because their ways were perfect or infallible, but because they can teach us a lot about what Jesus directed the apostles to do. Of course, the early followers of Christ were limited in their resources and cultural understandings. Generations of Christianity have learned more about what it means to believe and how to apply that practically, so we shouldn’t focus on emulating everything the early church did in a literal sense. Nevertheless, we can infer a lot about Jesus’ plan based on how the apostles led the church.

So, what did that look like? Where did the church meet and why?

Firstly, they met in the Temple, at least until it was destroyed (Acts 2:46). They also rented locations and rooms from property owners (Luke 22:10-12; Acts 1:12-13). And, of course, they met in each other’s homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Philemon 2). The concept of a church as a building does not seem to have existed for biblical Christians, nor did they seem to have made any attempts to build dedicated meeting places. How did we get from those humble gatherings to where we are today?

Church buildings with many of the functions we know today were common in the 4th century as the church developed its routines and codified its practices in writing. By the 12th century, the church had evolved its philosophy so that the building itself became a sacred symbol of what it meant to be a Christian. Cathedrals built in the 12th century and onward were intentionally ornate wonders meant to inspire awe and display a reverence for God’s majesty. These were almost unimaginable feats of engineering and took many decades to build with the combined resources of nations. They also represented a thematic shift in how the church operated: the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word for seat and referred to the significance of the bishop or archbishop’s literal and figurative seat of power. By this era, the church in Europe had reached a height of political and economic influence, and the hierarchy was well-defined and rigidly structured.

Of course, the Protestant Reformation was a major shift in how much of the body of Christ viewed the hierarchy of the church. While early Protestants still retained the infrastructure built by generations of European Christians, Christianity continued to morph as it grew in the other continents. Now, of course, there’s a huge diversity in expressions of the Christian faith, with denominations and regional cultures all prioritizing different elements. There are modern megachurches that fulfill some of the intents of classical cathedrals, with impressive architecture and awe-inspiring stained glass. Likewise, there are plenty of small local churches built with nothing but pragmatic usefulness in mind.

Every so often through Christian history, there have been movements to decentralize church structure and return to meeting in homes like the first Christians did – community-based models rather than models based on institutional organization. To some, the apostles’ lack of clear instruction on this matter means that whatever other practices and traditions the church has added are unbiblical and frivolous (and, to be clear, many of them are unbiblical in the sense that they are not literally found in Scripture, but not necessarily unbiblical in the sense of contradicting Scripture). It may be tempting to fall back into following the early church out of a desire to adhere to Scriptural truth. “Those believers were following Paul’s example, after all,” you might hear some people say.

And yet, the apostles’ lack of instruction on church buildings and day-to-day praxis can also be read the opposite way – as a liberating approval for us to do what fits our needs! If a physical space helps us fulfill our role as the body of Christ, then why wouldn’t we want one? While the followers of Jesus did not have church buildings or pipe organs or board meetings, they were also never prohibited from those things.

What we should take from the early church is their focus and their attitude. They were unconcerned about what location they met in because they were there to worship, to fellowship, and to refill themselves so they could go out into their communities and spread Christ’s Gospel to others.

Want to learn more about early church history? Consider starting with ISOW’s course on What Happened to the Twelve Disciples After The Ascension, or any of our many in-depth online Bible studies. Visit www.ISOW.org today to get started on an affordable online biblical education!

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