Digression 10: The Size Of The Early Church

The Acts and epistles (and Revelation?) focus on the period AD33-AD70; it is easy to imagine that the early church was markedly different from our present set up in terms of size, organization and details like the instruction of candidates for baptism. However, closer examination reveals that this was not so. Prior to this study I had the impression that the Christian community in those days was vast compared to our own, with the Roman empire littered with large ecclesias so that Christians were a household name due to their numbers alone, as Anglicans, for example, are today. Once the small size (relatively) of the early community is appreciated, it becomes easier to relate to their situation and to see that there is indeed a close bond between those days and our own due to these similarities. Not only so, but if a community of 20,000 people (at a reasoned guess) could " turn the world upside down" by their preaching, what of us with our infinite advantages?

There is a strong emphasis on the existence of house churches throughout the New Testament: Acts 2:46; 5:42; 16:34,40; 18:8; 20:20; 21:8; Rom.16:6; 1 Cor.1:11; 16:19; Col.4:15; 2 Tim.3:6; Philemon 2; Titus 1:11; 2 Jn.10. This list is impressive. It would seem likely that most New Testament ecclesias could fit into a domestic 'house' with the exception of Jerusalem. The remarkable lack of archaeological discoveries of big Christian meeting places pre AD70- and that not for want of trying- would confirm this. Thus the whole Corinth ecclesia could fit inside one house (Paul wrote Rom.16:23 from Corinth). It is worth noting the evidence for household baptisms being quite frequent: 2 Tim.4:19; 1 Cor.1:16; Rom.16:10,11; Acts 16:15 (these probably refer more to the domestic servants and employees rather than the children). It is conceivable that the salvation of Noah and his adult household by baptism (1 Pet.3:20 cp. Heb.11:7) was the prototype for these household baptisms. There is good reason to think that most baptisms in this period were mainly done by the apostles- if the ecclesias continued growing at the rate they did when Paul was among them then there would be hints of a far bigger community. For example, Acts 16:5 speaks of the congregations growing in number daily- implying baptisms were being done daily, immediately a candidate was ready (not left to the weekend for convenience!). Thus these household groups would develop into the house churches which seem to have been the typical first century ecclesia. It is worth sidestepping to Matt.10:35,36: "A man's foes shall be they of his own household" in the holocaust of AD70 and that to come; i.e. brother betrayed brother (spiritually and naturally) within the household ecclesias.

There seems no reason to suspect that there were many other ecclesias apart from those mentioned in the New Testament, apart from Crete having ecclesias in "every city" (i.e. not many), and a number of ecclesias in Galilee and Judea, presumably pockets of the disciples' relatives and some who remembered the Lord's miracles. We know that generally the Jews rejected the Gospel; if a few thousand were converted around the time of the first Pentecost (out of a Jewish population of about 2.5 million in the land, deducible from Josephus), it is unlikely that there was a continuation of that pattern of mass conversion. It may be that Paul's equation of the Jewish believers of the first century with the seven thousand who refused to worship Baal has a literal application (Rom.11:4) in that there were about 7,000 Jewish believers. By the time of Acts 4:4 "the number of the men (that believed) had come to be (Greek- not as AV) about five thousand". The only verse that seems to contradict this impression is Acts 21:20: "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe". However, the Greek word translated "many" is nowhere else translated like this. The sense really is 'You know what thousands believe'- i.e. 'you know the number of Jewish believers, it's in the thousands'. The same word is translated "what" in 2 Cor.7:11 in the sense of 'how much'. It is significant that Acts 9:31 describes the churches Paul persecuted as being in the provinces of Judaea, Galilee and Samaria; every house church between Jerusalem and Tarsus had personally been entered by Paul (Acts 8:3). This in itself suggests reasonably small numbers, and in passing reminds us of how familiar Paul would have become with the areas in which our Lord lived, probably entering the very houses of believers in towns like Bethany and Capernaum. Doubtless his conscience for Christ grew at great speed in that period. The other provinces such as Idumea, Decapolis, Iturea, Trachonitis etc. do not appear to have had any ecclesias in. In a short space of time after his conversion, Paul was able to introduce himself to all the ecclesias in Judea in person (Gal.1:22 cp. v.24). The 5,000 Jewish converts made at Jerusalem would have largely returned to their original homes in the Roman world (Acts 2:9,10) or been driven to similar places by the persecution. This significant Jewish presence in probably all the ecclesias of the Roman world would account for the epistles nearly all warning against the Judaizers, and their frequent references back to Old Testament incidents and passages which would have been largely unknown to the new, ex-pagan Gentile converts.

Outside Israel numbers also seem to have been small- there were only seven ecclesias ("the seven churches") in the province of Asia (Rev.1:11), the elders of whom all turned away from Paul (2 Tim.1:15; there is evidence that Timothy and some other faithful brethren were still in the area). Indeed by the time Peter wrote to this area just prior to AD70 he seems to address himself only to scattered individuals holding the Truth throughout the whole of Asia Minor (1 Pet.1:1). John's letters give a similar impression. Philippi seems to have been a house church based on Lydia's household at the time Paul wrote to them. He says he had enjoyed fellowship with the whole ecclesia "From the first day until now" (Phil.1:5)- i.e. from the time of the first visit there which resulted in Lydia's baptism. Thus the whole ecclesia knew Paul personally- "Those things, which ye have...seen in me, do" (Phil.3:17; 4:9). This indicates that there had been no new baptisms since his visit. Again, note the similarity with present missionary policy of dissuading new converts from doing their own baptisms until there is another visit by mature brethren. Paul's evident affection for this ecclesia is understandable if they were a small, united family unit whom he had initially taught and baptized.

Similarly Paul could constantly remind the Thessalonians of his personal example which they had witnessed, again implying that there had been no new baptisms since his visits. The emphasis cannot be missed: "Ye know what manner of men we were...our Gospel came unto you...in power, and in the Holy Spirit (i.e. they all heard it at the same time)...ye became followers of us...what manner of entering in we had unto you...ye turned to God from idols (Paul's entering in by the Gospel had been to the whole ecclesia at the same time)...yourselves...know our entrance in unto you...after we...were shamefully entreated as ye (all) know at Philippi, we were bold to speak unto you the Gospel (i.e. the whole ecclesia heard it all at that one time)..ye remember, brethren, our labour...ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every (each) one of you (personally)...as a father doth his children"- i.e. Paul had personally fathered each of them by preaching to them. Seeing he was only in Thessalonica "three Sabbath days" the numbers involved could not have been great (1 Thess.1:5,6,9; 2:1,2,9,10,11- there are many others). Paul's great knowledge of the ecclesia and theirs of him also suggests small numbers (2 Thess.1:4; 3:7). Every ecclesia knowing about the Thessalonians (1 Thess.1:8) even quite soon after their conversion (when the letter was probably written) suggests a small number of ecclesias world-wide, notwithstanding a highly efficient grape vine based on the 'messengers of the ecclesias' (cp. Rom.1:8; Col.4:7,8; 2 Pet.3:15) resulting in epistles and news spreading fast. Similarly the faith of the Rome ecclesia was "spoken of throughout the whole world" (Rom.1:8).

1 Cor.4:17 implies Paul had visited most of the ecclesias: "...as I teach every where, in every church". Thus would account for Paul being able to say what the customs of all churches were concerning head coverings (1 Cor.11:16), and his personal knowledge of so many of the individuals and ecclesias to which he wrote. He could tell the Romans that "the churches of Christ salute you" (Rom.16:16)- i.e. he had personally seen that their faith was spoken of in all the ecclesial world (Rom.1:8). His personal knowledge of the Rome (house?) ecclesia is beautifully shown by him asking them to give each other a holy kiss from him (Rom.16:16), surely implying close personal knowledge of all of them. Paul's great personal involvement with all the ecclesias and often all their members individually resulted in the pressure of caring for all the churches that was upon him (2 Cor.11:28). His courage under imprisonment led to "the majority of the brotherhood" (Phil.1:14 Moffat) being encouraged to preach more boldly, suggesting most of them knew him well. His pain because of the Corinth ecclesia's mistakes becomes more real when we appreciate that they all knew him personally, having all had the ordinances delivered to them by Paul at the same time (1 Cor.11:2), all having been begotten by Paul's preaching (1 Cor.4:15,16).

Thus we have good reason to think that the average ecclesia of the first century was probably the same size as the average U.K. ecclesia today, although often based around a family unit and with a group of Jewish believers either fleeing persecution or who had broken away from the local synagogue, perhaps under the influence of one of those who was converted at Pentecost. Thus they would have been close-knit units, making it easier for us to appreciate how in such an household ecclesia the brother who was the head of the house could easily abuse the brethren who worked for him as labourers (James 5:4), and sheds more light on the commands concerning how believing employers should treat their brother-employees. A spirit of loving co-operation in the daily round would have been vital if ecclesial life was to prosper.

The large numbers converted around Pentecost can lead us to think that first century preaching was totally unrelated to our experience; however, it seems that this was a special, one-off occurrence. The statement that "many" believed as a result of the various preaching campaigns can also mislead us; the Greek for "many" used on those occasions probably means a figure under 50 in Acts 8:25; 16:23; 24:10; Lk.1:1; 12:19; Mk.5:9,26. Remember how the first 'overseas' preaching mission in Cyprus failed to produce a single convert until their tour reached the end of the island. Hopefully this study will help us relate better to those early days, seeing a very similar community to our own in the U.K. in terms of size, in which the active brethren could manage to have a knowledge of all the ecclesias and many of their members, based around a hub of activity in Jerusalem (or was Antioch the real seed-bed of the work?), as our own community grew around Birmingham. We too have the same kind of grapevine, the same kind of news travelling on it, the same problems, the same glorious Hope that could motivate men to leave all for the sake of Christ and His Gospel.

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