Patiently and persistingly digging around in old ruins and unearthing remains of civilizations long gone might at first thought be seen as a boring and unexciting assignment. But those who have had a hand in it claim that patience and persistence are rewarded now and then by astonishing finds, some of which shed interpretive light on the Bible and make it come alive.
For example, at one time some scholars tended to date the writing of the Gospel of John well down into the second century, thus rejecting apostolic authorship. But eventually authentic fragments of this book were found in Egypt, fragments that could be dated confidently somewhat earlier, thus requiring a rethinking of positions once held. This alone did not settle all the problems of the authorship and place of writing and date of that Gospel; but it did restore an option that, as far as date is concerned, it could have been written as early as 90 to 100.
But another example is closer to the main content and intent of this article. I refer to the unearthing of sufficient ruins of ancient Christian dwellings to authenticate New Testament references to congregations meeting in homes before the erecting of special meeting places was either practical or possible. Portions of homes have been found and excavated that had one large room obviously intended as a place of Christian worship—indicated, for example, by the presence of worship symbols typical of early Christian worship.
A Recent Experience
For the first time in all the years that the Phillips family have lived in Anderson (more than forty now), the rigors of the recent winter made it impossible to meet as usual for worship one Sunday morning. Parking lots lay buried in five- and six-foot drifts of snow, roads were impassable, there was an erie [sic] silence outdoors, broken only by the bellowing of rescue vehicles and National Guard half-track vehicles battering through those towering snowdrifts on errands of mercy. Even the snowplows were stuck and helpless.
Announcements of church closings came thick and fast over the air on Saturday evening. The thought came—Why not experience a “house church” ? That’s the way early Christians commonly worshiped. So we got on the phone and called the neighbors around us, and everyone responded enthusiastically. At 10:30 on that wintry Sunday morning twenty-six neighbors sat in a circle in the Phillips’ living room. We did the usual things—we had an invocation, we sang familiar songs, we prayed together, we shared reminiscences of what the unusual circumstances brought to mind about churches meeting in houses. Then we looked into the Word and found a verse that well suited the occasion, and provided opportunity to think about several matters of current interest and concern.
The Apostle Paul commonly closed his letters to churches with some words of personal greeting to those whom he knew and with whom he had labored in the exciting assignment of spreading the good news in the world. An excellent example of this can be seen in Colossians 4:7-18. This passage contains warm greetings, admonitions, and encouragement. Buried in that passage is an interesting reference to “Nympha and the church in her house” (v. 15). “Give my greetings,” writes Paul, “to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” (NIV).
Don’t get shook up over that fact that not all translations refer to Nympha as a woman. Most of the current translations do, and for sound reasons too lengthy to go into here. Just take my word for it that the translation as given here was not the result of some feminist tampering with the Word of God!
Other Women’s “House Churches”
But if you would rather back up to a verse about which there is no possible translation dispute, try Acts 12:12 where a prayer meeting is going on in the house of Mary, the mother of young John Mark. Or read in Acts 16 about the conversion of Lydia and how her home became a place where the brothers assembled for mutual encouragement. Many references could be cited that would indicate the prominence of women in the ministry of Jesus and in the early beginnings of the church. It was in the home of Mary and Martha that Jesus found rest from the pressures of his ministry. “Martha opened her home to him,” the account reads (Luke 10:38).
Specific names of women who helped Jesus are listed in the Gospel records. Note, for example, that when Jesus “traveled about from one city and village to another, proclaiming the good news,” The Twelve traveled with him. But also there were “some women,” among them “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household [in this case a woman of considerable prominence as well as means]; Susanna; and many others” (See Luke 8:1-3). And here is the punch line that concludes this reference: “These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Women Leaders in the Church of God
So that wintry morning, sitting in an informal circle, we were reminded of how Christians met in homes before they had church buildings and how frequently the New Testament credits women converts with major roles in the life and work in the church. We recalled that this had been quite true in the life and work of the Church of God reformation movement, too. The list could be quite long—Allie Fisher, who mothered the little Trumpet family in Grand Junction in the early beginnings of our publishing work; Celia Kilpatrick and Rhoda Keagy, young women among the early Trumpet workers; Mary Cole, a fiery evangelist; women such as Nannie Kigar and Frankie Miller in Warner’s evangelistic company, and on and on.
Clara McAlister Brooks was one of our early songwriters and four of her pieces are in the current hymnal. From the earliest days of the movement we have had women prominent in all forms of our ministry—missionaries, evangelists, teachers, pastors, and God has honored their sacrificial labors. For that reason we can stand in amazement when here, in the 1970s, such old- line denominations as the Episcopal church are being racked with controversy over whether the ordination of women is permissible. But before we gather Pharisaic robes about ourselves, perhaps we need to look candidly at the way in which we, too, succumbed to some of the cultural and prejudicial patterns of later decades!
The Church Is People
On that Sunday morning we did rejoice in the closeness of the fellowship we felt. We were reminded again that the church is people, a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2;5), and that women as well as men have been prophets and servants of God, and that in our times they are finding more opportunities for outreach and service, a status which is rightfully theirs.
In the closing moments of that informal “house church” gathering we were reminded that all of us need to place whatever resources we have in the service of the Kingdom. There we were—male and female, black and white, children as well as grandfathers and grandmothers, and as we joined hands in a parting song we were the church in microcosm. We exemplified Paul’s pronouncement concerning fellowship in the body of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
But the main focus had been on how a woman named Nympha had made her home available as a place of worship for a congregation of Christians in the early days of the church. Women, mothers, take your bow and know for sure that in God’s kingdom you are not second- class citizens!
Phillips, H. L. (May, 1978). The church in her house . . . Vital Christianity, 12–14.