The Demise of the House Church

Church Leadership


by Joel Comiskey

This chapter is taken from chapter 2 of Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”

On October 28, 312, Constantine faced Maxentius, who was then in control of Rome. Constantine was convinced that he needed more powerful aid than his military forces could provide, especially since soldiers in the armies of Maxentius outnumbered his own four to one. He looked for divine help but struggled to select which god to choose from among the wide variety of Greek and Roman gods.

It occurred to him that, of the many emperors who had preceded him, those who had put their hope in a multitude of gods and served them with sacrifices and offerings had been deceived by flattering predictions and oracles that did not come true.

While he was pondering this dilemma, an extraordinary sign appeared to him from heaven. Constantine reported having seen a cross of light, bearing the inscription, “By this symbol you will conquer.” He was struck with amazement by the sight, and while he pondered this, night came. In his sleep, Christ appeared to him with the same cross and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.

He was amazed at the vision and resolved to worship no other God than the one who had appeared to him. He sent for the followers of Jesus to explain to him what the vision meant. They told Constantine that the cross which had appeared was Christ’s victory over death. They told him about Christ’s birth and incarnation. Constantine was in awe of the divine manifestation he had seen.

The next day, the two armies clashed, and Constantine won a decisive victory, even though he was greatly outnumbered. This event changed Constantine’s life. From that time forth, he promoted Christianity as the one true religion.

While historians still debate whether he was devoted to Christianity for political purposes or from heartfelt conviction, we do know that Constantine’s promotion of Christianity changed the course of history. He made the priests his advisers and invited God’s ministers to spend time with him. He showered them with every possible honor, treating them as dignitaries and allowing certain Christians to join him at his table. They accompanied him on his travels, believing that the God they served would help him in battle. He gave vast amounts of money from his own personal treasury to build churches and to decorate their sanctuaries.

Legalization of Christianity

Until Constantine rose to power (312 AD), the Christian church faced periods of fiery persecution. The first documented case began with Nero (37–68 AD), who blamed the 64 AD fire in Rome on the Christians. By the mid-second century, mobs would often stone Christians.

The first empire-wide persecution took place under Maximinus Thrax (173–238 AD), which targeted the clergy. Under the emperor Decius (201–251 AD), a persecution of Christian lay people spread across the empire. Everyone had to offer a public sacrifice to the emperor as the only true god and then receive written certificates of doing it. Decius then authorized roving commissions to ensure his decrees were carried out. Those who didn’t obey faced arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even execution.

The persecutions culminated in what is known as the great persecution in the third and fourth century. It began with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy. The persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution. Over twenty thousand Christians died during Diocletian’s reign (245–311 AD).

But then Constantine came to power in 312 AD and legalized Christianity. Constantine promised to forgo persecution and make Christianity the state religion. The old order was suddenly reversed. Christianity became the favored, dominant religion. Those who were not Christians were expected to submit to the savior and the state. In a very group-oriented society, it was the norm to conform, and so people did.

While many truly converted, others conformed in name only. They said yes with their mouths, but not with their hearts. Historian Joseph Lynch writes,

The conversion of the Emperor Constantine was a major turning point in the history of Christianity. In one lifetime, the Christian church moved from a position of illegality and ferocious persecution to one of favor. The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–339) had been imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian and had seen friends, including his beloved teacher, killed. Yet, in his later years he was a personal acquaintance and occasional guest of the Emperor Constantine. The church moved rapidly from being an association of outsiders to taking a central position in Roman society.1

Constantine hoped Christianity would be a unifying force, so he rewarded those who joined the church and ensured that the Roman Empire became intimately entwined with its affairs. As a result, the church inherited great sums of wealth and had a privileged position in society. Constantine built impressive churches at the holy sites of Christianity.2 Large, sacred buildings became more esteemed than intimate home fellowships.3 Constantine publicly acknowledged and recompensed certain leaders who could trace their lineage back to the

apostles. The church began to esteem this type of inheritance more than spiritual gifting and piety. In major cities, bishops began to grow in power. Their word was respected and obeyed.

From Simple to Ritualistic

With the rise of Constantine, house churches were no longer the primary meeting place for believers. There was little interaction between the priests and the people, and the church became progressively ritualistic. The Eucharist replaced the individual sharing, so common in the early house churches. The early New Testament believers celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a meal, but by the second century it had become a ritual. Rather than exercising spiritual gifts in an atmosphere conducive to ministry, people came to the mass, performed Christian rituals, and left without the spiritual and emotional intimacy they once had with other believers in the house churches.

When Christianity was a despised, foreign religion, only the true believers participated in the affairs of the church. Now, everyone embraced Christianity. Whole armies were baptized. People converted from the pagan religions to Christianity because it was the culturally, acceptable thing to do. The world became part of the church, and the church became part of the world. Before in the lowly house churches, everyone was expected to become a disciple and live out the Christian faith. With the rise of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, the church eroded from the inside out.

Small Groups among the Clergy

Although there is no record that small group structures were established to care for the burgeoning needs of the growing congregations, we do know that there were small groups among the clergy. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (339–397 AD) lived during the time of Constantine, and he and his colleagues resorted to small groups to fill their own spiritual needs.

Apparently, several early church fathers, like Ambrose, found a tremendous amount of strength in small community interaction. St. Augustine of Hippo, for example, was significantly influenced by these small groups under Ambrose. These small groups did not extend to the laity because lay participation was not encouraged at that time. As Herbert T. Mayer writes, “This was the common pattern for centuries: the real strength and vitality of the church lay in the small groups of clergy gathered around a cathedral and the bishop or in the small group of monks gathered around a strong and influential leader.”4

Hierarchical Leadership

In the New Testament letters, leadership hierarchy does not exist. The words bishop, pastor, and elder are interchangeable and point to the same role. A bishop/overseer was also called a pastor/shepherd and a presbyter/elder, since all three terms in the Greek address the same group of people in Acts 20:17, 28 and 1 Peter 5:1–5. Most likely these titles represented house church leaders or overseers of various house churches. Writing about these leadership roles, Gehring says,

Everything seems to indicate that they were overseers of the churches that met in their homes, much like Stephanas in Corinth; in other words, they were leaders of individual house churches. Together as a group such overseers could have formed the leadership team or council for the whole local church in that city.5

The house churches were the breeding ground for leadership in the early church, and the early bishops led local house churches and also functioned in the role of supervisors. Arthur G. Patzia writes, “Bishops were overseers of local house churches and were assisted by a group of individuals identified as deacons.”6 But everything changed with Constantine. He placed priests on government salary and encouraged a hierarchical view of leadership. The people looked to the clergy and special saints for revelation and direction.

A Gradual Drift

Although the change from simple house church leadership to the vast-reaching authority of the bishops culminated in the rise of Constantine, the actual shift was very gradual and almost imperceptible. This shift began in the second century when the people were clamoring for authority because of false religions and cults. With the growing heresy of Gnosticism and numerous cults spreading rapidly, people looked for an authoritative Christian voice. Those who appeared to have more authority were those who could demonstrate that their lineage was directly linked to the apostle Peter. This linkage gave certain people unprecedented authority and credibility. Irenaeus (130–202 AD) was one of the first Church fathers to promote the succession of certain apostles. The church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette explains,

He [Irenaeus] . . . was emphatic that the apostles had appointed as successors bishops to whom they had committed the churches. . . . These bishops had been followed by others in unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He hints that he could, if there were space, give the lists of the bishops of all the churches, but he singles out that of the Church of Rome . . .7

Because only a few could actually trace their lineage to the apostle Peter, those who could became responsible for larger and larger groups of believers.8 Gérald Vallée writes:

Gradually the bishop became the chief officer of the local congregation and was called “priest,” while the elders were seen to share in the bishop’s ministry and to conduct the liturgy with a teaching/preaching function; later they were also to be called priests. The bishop appointed or ordained deacons and elders by the laying on of hands, signifying the bestowing of a spiritual power in a hierarchical society.

Some early church fathers, like Tertullian (160–220 AD), resisted the idea of giving special authority to those who could show their linkage with past apostles. Tertullian promoted the priesthood of all believers and opposed the

growing tendency toward hierarchical authority.9 Yet, his voice was drowned out as the people clamored for leadership.

By the third century, this line of succession, along with the distinct church offices, had become quite developed in the Church.10 In major cities, bishops grew in power, evolving into patriarchs and popes. Their word became the word of God. They were the ones who established correct doctrine and condemned those who did not agree. By the fourth century celibacy became a requirement for priests and bishops to demonstrate dedication to their task. The church progressed from the family of God meeting in homes to institutionalized religion. The Church turned from simplicity and grew in complexity. The authors of Home Cell Groups and House Churches write,

For generations after the apostles, the church continued its spontaneous lay (people of God) witness in the cities and along the great trade routes of the empire. However, some ideological changes were taking place, which were altering the New Testament theology of the church. The plurality and equality of leadership was giving way to a hierarchical arrangement with bishops becoming the central figure followed by the presbyters (who later became priests) and deacons. Later such roles as exorcists and acolytes were added. It appears that after the apostles, the bishops, who were at first pastors, assumed a role of authority as well as leadership. The bishop would have been pastor of a house church; but in time his congregation came to be the central one, and the other house congregations in a given city would then be pastored by presbyters under the authority of the bishop. In a given city, certainly in the Western church, only one pastor in a city could be a bishop.11

The Church moved from bishop as a servant-shepherd caring for a house church or group of house churches to an administrative ruler. The spontaneity that was once so present in the local house churches came under strict control of the elected bishops.12

Passivity Encouraged

Passivity became the norm as the years went passed. Historian Richard Vallée writes, “The distinction between clergy (bishops and priests) and laity became strongly emphasized, whereby exclusive authority was given to the office of the bishop (all at once priest, prophet, and teacher), the laity being reduced to a passive role.”13 William Brown writes about this passivity,

. . . the reversion to an “official” priesthood or ministry . . . cast the laity chiefly into the role of hearers of the Law and spectators of the mysterious tableau of the sacrifices. This passive role in worship became once more the normal experience of the people of God as the church developed.14

The church’s outward structure reflected the civil administrative geography, often using the very same terminology for its organization (e.g., dioceses, vicars).15 Ministry became the exclusive, personal role of select ministers and the rest were reduced to the hearer role. The normal Christian was expected to obey. The Bible was taken from the hands of the people and given to those learned men who would study it and offer their judgments. This cast system of hierarchy killed lay initiative. Personal innovation and freedom were discouraged. Submission and obedience were encouraged. As the hierarchy grew in strength, torturous methods were used to prevent lay people from expounding on their biblical ideas.

When the house church structure was functioning properly, there was liberty for the laity to minister. The priesthood of all believers was in full force and the needs of the church were being met. Yet as Church history continued, the rights of particular office-holders usurped those of the common lay ministers.16 Many lay people, however, were so dissatisfied by the church structures and hierarchy that they decided to reform the church by creating a new structure of their own, as we will see in the next chapter.

Lessons Learned

  • Beginning in the second century, there was a gradual tendency toward hierarchy, which blossomed into its fullest expression under Constantine. The shift toward placing authority in the hands of a few was a slow, gradual change.
  • Constantine created the first state church that honored those who could trace their lineage to Peter. During the time of Constantine, religious rituals, symbols, and elaborate cathedrals were common.
  • The hierarchical view of the church separated the work of the clergy from the laity, which resulted in passivity among the laity
  • Early church history shows a tendency to remove ministry from ordinary lay people and place it in the hands of a few—which ultimately stunts the development of the priesthood of all believers and the free-flow of the gifts of the Spirit.


  1. Joseph Lynch, The Medieval Church: A Brief History (London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992), p. 10.
  2. Ibid., p. 16.
  3. Jim and Carol Plueddemann, Pilgrims in Progress (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1990), p. 4.
  4. Herbert T. Mayer, “Pastoral Roles and Mission Goals,” Currents in Theology and Missions, Vol. 3 (Chicago, IL: Lutheran School of Theology, 1976), p. 298.
  5. Gehring, p. 206.
  6. Patzia, p. 171.
  7. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vols. 1 and 2 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), p. 131.
  8. Osiek and Balch, p. 35.
  9. George Huntston Williams, Frank Forrester Church, Timothy Francis George, Continuity and Discontinuity in Church History: Essays Presented to George Huntston Williams on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (Boston, MA: Brill Publishing: 1979) pp. 59–60.
  10. Some of the background material used in this chapter was derived from the lectures of Dr. Rosell, 1995 lecturer at Columbia International University. Rosell’s course on early church history covered the time period from the birth of the Church to Luther and the Reformation.
  11. C. Kirk Hadaway, Francis M. DuBose, Stuart A. Wright, Home Cell Groups and House Churches (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), pp. 69–70.
  12. Garth Rosell, Birth of the Church to the Reformation, graduate level series of 24 tapes & notes (Columbia, South Carolina, Columbia International University, 1995), tape 5.
  13. Gérard Valleé, The Shaping of Christianity: The History and Literature of Its Formative Centuries (100–800) (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999), p. 132.
  14. William Brown, Growing the Church through Small Groups in the Australian Context, D.Min. dissertation, (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1992), p. 37.
  15. Valleé, p. 132.
  16. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum Press, 1976), p. 81