Seditious Households: How Holy Kisses, Tables, and House(hold) Church Habits Subverted Oppression and Slavery (Part 2a)
The Leveling Story: Relistening to Narrative Choices that Formed the Gathered-Church
The hermeneutical and interpretive value of narrative choices made by NT authors are often overlooked in forming our understanding of “church.” Such choices, particularly Luke’s in Acts, speak to the church’s formation and of its habitus (i.e., behaviors) that described who they were as a gathered-people (i.e., their social definition, associations among each other, and boundaries). Here, I am selective, noting only a few narratives choices that highlight the formation of the household gathered-church as the gospel spread into the Gentile world.
The Acts-House Movement, Day of Pentecost, and the case-study of Cornelius’ conversion. We should consider the hermeneutical and instructive nature of the church as a house movement. Although some early Christian witness occurred in the temple and synagogues, the NT is clear that the household-venue was the primary space of the local gathered-church. There are a number of texts indicating a gathered-church in someone’s house: . . . greet the church that is in their house (Rom 16:5); Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus (Rom 16:10); Greet . . . the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord (Rom 16:11); Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house (1 Cor 16:19); Greet . . . Nympha and the church that is in her house (Col 4:15); To Philemon . . . and to the church in your house (Phlm 1:1–2). Additionally, other texts affirm and indicate the formation of “household” as church (e.g., Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 4:17; 1 Cor 1:16; 16:15; Gal 6:10; 1 Tim 3:15; cf., 2 Tim 1:16; 3:6; 4:19; 1 Pet 2:5; cf. Acts 12:12; 14:27; 15:30; 20:7–8).
Furthermore, the gathered-church, depicted in NT narrative and biographical texts, did not invent, but adapted the typical Greco-Roman banquet-meal for their own household gathered-church venue (form). The banquet-meal typically divided into two-parts: first, a full meal (deipnon, supper) and, then, an after-meal symposium. The second component, among the Greeks and Romans, tended to be a prolonged time of drinking and entertainment, including speeches with discussion among the guests. The two components were bridged by a cup raised (or poured libation) of wine in honor of the Emperor with added praise or blessing of household deities, temple gods, and/or the benefactor or honored guest of the evening’s banquet. The gathered-church, as it spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, celebrated the Lord’s Supper by breaking bread at the start to indicate the (broken) body of Christ now gathered, by enjoying a meal to which all were welcome (to recline at table), and, then, by lifting a cup of blessing in treasonous celebration of the risen (traitor, criminal, yet risen) messiah-king Jesus.
Some imagine and describe the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 as spectacular, more in keeping with a concert or stadium sporting event, than simply akin to someone’s family or dining upper-room. We speculate on the details, but we do know it started in a house (2:2c) and was evident to those who had gathered near, around, and outside that upper room (2:6). Greco-Roman banquet meals would have been somewhat public events, where non-guests, a ring of on-lookers as it were, could easily observe the banquet event. So, it makes sense that onlookers would have observed the after-effects of the Spirit (cf., Acts 2:8–11). Amid non-guest reactions, some mocked, “They are full of sweet wine” (2:13). The reference to “sweet wine” was neither strange nor culturally unfitting. The gathering in the house’s upper-room would have been a household deipnon celebration (it was Pentecost after all) and potential drunkenness would not have been an incongruous assumption. Peter offered, however, an explanation (at the symposium?) by drawing on Joel’s promise of the Spirit.
There was a plethora of OT Spirit-promises available to Peter, yet Joel 2 was chosen. Moreover, given the nature of speeches at that time, no doubt Peter was more verbose and quoted from elsewhere as well in his full Pentecost sermon. Still, these words are Luke’s narrative choice and should be seen as having hermeneutical and interpretive influence on our understanding of “church”:
‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says,
Albeit eschatological, the use of Joel 2 highlights a trajectory application meaningful for Luke’s formation of “church.” The issue of “tongues” (here known languages, Acts 2:6c) is intimately related to the redemptive turn that now all will hear of this gospel in their own language and the distribution of the Spirit would be on all demographics, social caste, gender, and age. In fact, Peter’s ending (Luke’s choice of ending) affirms this: And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (v. 21).
After Peter’s message, the narrative, then, directs our attention (2:43–7) to the “added” believers (v. 47b) among households (i.e., house to house, 2:46b). The mention of “breaking bread” (v. 46b) and “meals together” (v. 46c) suggests the first gatherings took place at a household deipnon. The “added” that were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching (v. 42a) suggests the after-meal symposium was the venue for apostolic teaching. Thus, the first habitus of the newly formed gathered-church was shaped by the promised distribution of the Spirit across demographics, class, gender, and age within household-venues amid the celebration of food (a deipnon) and instruction (a symposium).
The narrative choice of the Cornelius story, one of the longest in Acts (10-11), should be considered a second-Pentecost, for Luke records Peter’s explanation that the Spirit fell “just as He did at the beginning” (11:15; cf. 10:44–45). This repeat Pentecost affirms a trajectory application of the first (Acts 2). The Spirit falls, again, in a house (10:22; 11:12, 14), yet specifically a Gentile’s house. Typically, commentary follows Peter, that is, the apostolic reach into the Gentile world, in which when he preaches and the Spirit falls upon new believers outside of Jerusalem. However, it is Peter (i.e., and, thus, the reader) that is being taught something about the gospel and the church as they spread into the Gentile world. Luke’s telling of the story affirms this: When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
 A local, gathered-church is assumed rather than a universal or invisible notion of “ekklesia.” When NT authors refer to a church they ordinarily mean a church gathered in a space, i.e., a venue, mostly a house.å
 Other texts, although not using the word “church” imply a house-church (e.g., 2 John 1:10, . . . do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; Romans 14–15).
 R. Alan Street, Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century (Eugene, OR: Picwick, 2013), 10.
 The typical Greco-Roman banquet-meal and symposium was not open invitation, however, given the times, the gatherings would have been attended, yet not reclined at table, by outsiders who had gathered to observe.
This is a thread consisting of parts of a a recent paper presented at the 2017 Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting in Providence, RI. The goal is to develop an anthology of essays (by various authors) on the subject, Christian Responses to Tyranny.
Part 1 | Part 2a | Part 2b | Part 2c | Part 3 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5
For the entire thread (remember to scroll backwards for previous posts) << Gathered-church >>
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.