I recently had the privilege of spending several days in Rome. Among many important sites, the most interesting to me was the ruins of Rome’s ancient harbor city, Ostia (you can take a virtual visit here: http://www.ostia-antica.org/). One standard feature of Greco-Roman cities which is plainly visible at Ostia is the domus, the home of an upper-class household (Gordon Fee has a helpful description of such households in Priscilla Papers, see http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/cultural-context-ephesians-5:18-6:9). When we read about house churches in Paul’s letters, “church” = the worshippers and “house” = the domus.
It was by design that Paul guided congregations to meet in a domus. One part of this design was to bring together Christians from different social and economic strata. Many of Paul’s converts would have lived in insulae, multi-story and sometimes structurally-suspect apartments. These believers would rarely have had the opportunity to spend time in a domus, much less to be considered a guest and treated as an equal. Paul’s church-planting policies, however, resulted in poor people worshipping alongside the wealthy.
Another part of Paul’s design can be glimpsed when we are reminded that women were in charge of the household. While men roamed and ruled in the public sphere, women oversaw the home. For upper-class women this home was the domus. And so, by locating congregations in homes, Paul was introducing women’s leadership into these congregations. Women would have been in charge of such details as when to meet, how long to meet, what to eat, and where to sit (which was especially important). In some situations, the matron of the domus would have had authority over who could address the group. It is no coincidence that house churches in the New Testament are mentioned in conjunction with women. Though the letter of Philemon is to the man Philemon, it is addressed also to Apphia and to “the church that meets in your house.” In Romans 16:5 Paul greets Prisca and Aquila and “the church that meets in their house.” 1 Corinthians seems to be a response to a letter from Chloe (see 1:11), who likely hosted a house church. (For a full and excellent treatment of this topic, see A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity by Carolyn Osiek, Margaret MacDonald, and Janet Tulloch.)
I knew these basic facts before visiting Ostia. What occurred to me as I walked the streets of this ancient ghost town is that Paul didn’t have to adopt the domus. There were plenty of places where a small group of Christians could gather. They could have met in a shop, perhaps the shop where Paul sold his wares. They could have followed Lydia’s lead and headed out of town to a nice spot by the river. They could have crowded into an insula. In some situations, they could have met in the synagogue. But Paul intentionally chose the domus. And by doing so he both brought together the rich and the poor and planted the seeds of women’s leadership in the church.
Paul didn’t have to..He chose to.