When You Come Together: An Examination of First Century Corporate Christian Practice
Since at least the 1970s, there has been a slowly growing stream of people becoming involved in what some observers have termed the “house church movement.” With such an exodus toward a different form of corporate Christian practice, normative questions have been raised about the form and function of such gatherings. People involved in house churches often “go back to the Bible” as their source of authority, finding a resource mostly in the book of Acts in their attempt to find out how the first century Christians “did church.” With the dubiousness regarding the historicity of the book of Acts, however, and recognizing several books in the Pauline corpus as pseudepigraphical, there doesn’t seem to be many resources that give accounts as to what the first century Jesus followers actually did with regard to corporate practices. One of the only passages firmly agreed to be from the first century that also records corporate practice is 1 Corinthians 14: 26-33, and 37-40. In it, Paul discusses what the Corinthian body does, and what he thinks they should do. It is to this passage we turn to examine an authentic record of first century corporate Christian practice, as well as the corrective advice the apostle Paul gave regarding their practice. In addition, several other passages in 1 Corinthians, most notably 1 Cor 11:17-34 and 1 Cor 12:27-31, must be considered when examining congregational practices and organization in the first century. Additionally, the Didache, uncovered in 1873, speaks plainly of baptismal procedures, blessings at meals, a supper ceremony, and appointing bishops and deacons. Perhaps with an examination of these first century sources, we may find that new or revived forms of corporate Christian practice will be categorically different from the forms that existed in the first century, due primarily to current views about organization, leadership, participation, and homogeneity of corporate practice. Unlike current prevailing forms of corporate Christian practice, first century corporate Christian practice had no overt organizational structure; no leadership system participation by most, if not all, members of the gathering community; and no homogenous format that was specified for congregations in all places.
The Gathering: I Corinthians 14:26-33, 37-40
We have very little record of how first century Christians practiced their faith communally. In 1 Cor 14:26ff, however, we have what seems to be a fairly detailed description of what elements made up such a gathering, as well as Paul’s advice to the Corinthians on what they should be doing regarding those practices. This passage is often overshadowed by Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14, or by the often-quoted and dearly loved chapter 13. These directions for corporate worship, though, are written to a congregation wracked with division and debate over a number of issues, and in this passage Paul is applying all of his previous instruction on those problems to how they gather and what they do. Paul indicates that the precise makeup of their congregational gatherings is unimportant; what is important is that their practices build each other up in love.
Historical and Literary Contexts
History. Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C.E, and had been refounded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 46 C.E., with poorer Romans from Rome relocated to help repopulate the developing colony. However, by the time of the New Testament, Corinth was the largest and most prosperous city in southern Greece, a major center for trade and industry, and functioned as the provincial capital of the Roman Province of Achaea. It was home to the biennial Isthmian Games, the most prestigious sporting event second only to the Olympic Games, which included athletic, equestrian, and musical competitions. During the Isthmian games, the sea god Poseidon was specifically honored, and Corinth was also home to temples dedicated to Apollo and Aphrodite.
The Corinthian Community. The chief characteristic of the Corinthian congregations seems to be their social status. A few members of the congregations seem to be of higher economic and social status. However, most of the Corinthians in the congregations were likely just scraping by or below subsistence. Many of the problems addressed by Paul seem to be related to the differing socioeconomic levels of the Christian communities (1:26; 7:20-24; 11:17-34; 12:13). The women of Corinth seemed to possess remarkable freedom by first century standards, even holding positions of leadership in Pauline congregations. Regarding the population of Corinth as a whole, the poet Aristophanes coined the verb “Corinthianize,” which meant to participate in sexually promiscuous activities. Considering their history and community, the Corinthians seem to be fairly cosmopolitan, although predominantly lower class.
Beliefs and Practices. The organizational model used for corporate first century Christian practice seems to be the house church model. We see evidence that, in the cities mentioned in the New Testament, multiple small congregations meet in different households that seemed to cooperate with one another. Wealthier Christians who possessed larger houses and more financial resources would naturally host such house churches.
Occasion and Purpose. The Corinthian congregations seem to be divided over issues of including marriage (7:1-16), congregational practices (11:2-34), spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40), and sexual misconduct (5:1-13). Scholars agree that 1 Corinthians was certainly written by Paul, and most agree there has been little change to the letter over time. Paul writes from Ephesus (16:8) between 52 and 57 C.E., addressing the issues of the Corinthian congregations. He corresponds not for the first time (5:9), responding to reports he has received (1:11; 5:1; 11:18) and their letter to him (7:1), hoping to unify the congregations (1:10).
Previous Context. 1 Corinthians is an epistle, and as such, it conforms to the pattern of exordium (1:4-9), narratio (1:10-17), probatio in four sections (1:18-4:21; 5:1-11:1; 11:2-14:40; 15:1-57), and peroratio (15:58), followed by the letter closing (16:1-24). I Cor 14:26ff appears at the end of a fairly long section responding to how the Corinthians gather corporately. In this section, Paul discusses head coverings, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual gifts, with love (chapter 13) being the rule for how all of these practices work. It seems the Corinthians used their gifts to elevate themselves rather than each other; in chapters 12-14, Paul is attempting to correct that misuse. This section specifically deals with how the gifts of prophecy and tongues are to be used “when [they] come together” (12:26).
Following Context. I Cor 15 seemingly begins a completely new topic: Resurrection. However, Ehrman believes that, following the rhetorical style of his day, Paul provides at the end of the letter the key to understanding what comes before. If Ehrman is correct, the basic message underlying the entire letter is that the problems experienced by the Corinthian congregations is related to their failure to recognize the dangers and limitations of living a Christian existence before the end. This understanding of the resurrection body was to greatly impact what the Corinthians did with their bodies before the end.
Form, Structure, and Movement
As previously mentioned, this text is part of an epistle, specifically one in which Paul addresses a number of problems occurring in the Corinthian congregations. In 14:26ff, Paul is at the end of his address to these problems, and has moved from discussing the theology behind spiritual gifts (12:1-14:25) to practical application of spiritual gifts in their communal gatherings. As such, 14:26ff contains straightforward instructions about how Paul believes the Corinthians should behave and interact for corporate gatherings.
This passage contains an inclusio that neatly sets it apart from the surrounding context. Verse 26 begins with the words “should be done” and “friends.”  Verse 39 also uses the word “friends,” and verse 40 concludes with the words “should be done.” In addition to this handy bookending, several words and related words are repeated throughout this short passage. The words “tongue” and “prophecy,” their related words “interpretation” and “revelation,” and their cognates are found in every verse except 38. While the previous passage also uses these words often, it does not use them as often as this passage. Also, the following eleven verses in chapter 15 do not contain “tongues,” “prophecy,” or any related words. In addition to the theme of tongues and prophecy, the word “order” and its related words appear six times.
The structure of 14:26ff is quite orderly, corresponding to the advice it contains for the Corinthians’ interaction:
Main Point: When You Come Together, Let It Be to Build Each Other Up (26)
Tongues: Only Two or Three, One Interpret (27)
If No Interpreter, No Tongues (28)
Prophecy: Two or Three Prophets, Others Weigh (29)
If Another Revelation, First is Silent (30)
Main Point Reiterated: God is Not a God of Disorder but of Peace (31-33)
Recognition of Advice: Prophets and Tongue-Speakers Must Acknowledge (37)
If They Don’t, Don’t Recognize Them (38)
Main Point Reiterated: Prophecy’s Great, Tongues are Okay, Order is Paramount (39-40)
The Complete "Christian Gatherings in the First Century" Series:
Part 1 - Introduction, Historical Context of Corinth, and Literary Context of 1 Corinthians
Part 2 - Detailed Analysis of 1 Cor 14:26ff
Part 3 - The Meal in 1 Cor 11:17ff
Part 4 - Leadership(?) in 1 Cor 12:27ff
Part 5 - An Extra-Canonical Source: The Didache
Part 6 - Conclusion
 See the work of Wayne Jacobsen (http://www.lifestream.org) and Frank Viola (http://www.ptmin.org/), both authors of several books, as two diverse views on the nature of the house church movement. Both claim to have been involved in non-traditional corporate Christian practice since the 1970s, although they jokingly claim there were a lot fewer of them in those days.
 The go-to passage seems to be Acts 2:42-47, with emphasis on verse 42. Less attention is given to Acts 4:32-37.
 This seems to be an assumption Robbins has in The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1996), and the reason he is excited about the possibilities of socio-rhetorical criticism for “writing a new account of first-century Christianity” (237).
 The letters considered almost universally to be authentic are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The remaining six letters fall into two categories: Deutero-Pauline (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians) and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). This is generally regarded scholastic knowledge, but helpful discussion on the formation of the Pauline corpus can be found in Richard Pervo’s book, The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010). Especially helpful is the chart on page 21 depicting the authenticity and integrity of each of the letters.
 Some scholars believe verses 34-36 are authentically Pauline, while others believe they are an interpolation (see Pervo, 46-48). I am considering them to be the latter and will not deal with them in this paper. For a full treatment of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, see Kate Graul, unpublished manuscript.
 It is probably a fallacy to term these people “Christians,” as if they saw themselves as completely distinct from Judaism. Mark D. Nanos certainly makes the case that Paul made no such break with Judaism in his article “Paul and Judaism: Why Not Paul and Judaism?” in Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle, edited by Mark D. Given (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010).
 While some scholars deem the Didache a second century document, many date it to the first century, perhaps even predating much of the New Testament. If this is the case, what the Didache says about corporate Christian practice will be of great importance to our study. See Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 78.
 Lawrence J. Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources, vol. 1. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009), 31-41.
 For the complete text of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, 37-40, see appendix 1.
 James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament:Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 262.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 314-317. See also Jeffers, 116. Other authors, such as Gordon Fee in The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987), 1, and Ben Witherington III in Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 6, place the date of refoundation at 44 C.E.
 Jeffers, 262.
 Ehrman, 314. See also Jeffers, 112.
 Jeffers, 31-32.
 F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians (London: Oliphants, 1971), 18.
 Jeffers, 93; Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 22-23.
 Bruce, 18; Thiselton, 6-7.
 Jeffers, 194-196. According to Jeffers, Erastus was probably a decurion and the city treasurer fo Corinth; Giaus must have been wealthy since he had a house large enough to accommodate all of the Christian groups in Corinth; Crispus was the head of the synagogues in Corinth; Aquila and Prisca were evidently not poor due to their propensity to travel, maintain multiple sizable households, and act as patrons for Christian house churches; and Titius Justus had a house next to the synagogue in Corinth, and his name suggests he possessed Roman citizenship.
 Steven J. Friesen, “Paul and Economics: The Jerusalem Collection as an Alternative to Patronage” in Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle ed. by Mark D. Given (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 44. It is also interesting to note that Friesen’s estimations put the “rich” of Corinth only as high as “moderate surplus,” 35-45.
 Ehrman, 318; Fee, 5.
 Jeffers, 252. Jeffers notes the Corinthian women Priscilla and Chloe as “fellow workers with Paul.”
 Ehrman, 317; Fee, 2.
 Jeffers, 84. Jeffers specifically mentions the households of Stephanus, Aquila and Prisca, Titius Justice, and Crispus, citing 1 Cor 1:16 and Acts 18:2, 7, 8.
 Ibid, 83. Jeffers cites Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:14-15) and Prisca and Aquila in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus (Rom 16, Acts 18).
 For a handy chart comparing the authenticity and integrity of all letters once considered Pauline, see Pervo, 21.
 Jerome Murphy-O'Conner, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary vol. 49, ed. by Raymond E. Brown (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Prentice-Hall, 1999), 799.
 James D. G. Dunn, 1 Corinthians (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 24-25. Given, agreeing substantially with Margaret Mitchell, also uses a similar outline for the book: exordium (1:1-9), propositio (1:10), argumentatio in four parts (1:11-4:21; 5:1-11:1; 11:2-14:40; 15:1-57), peroratio (15:58) and closing (16:1-24) – Mark D. Given, “Paul and Rhetoric: A Sophos in the Kingdom of God” in Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle ed. by Mark D. Given (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 184-185. Another interesting outline makes the letter less formal, viewing the structure as Paul responding to reports and letters one at a time: Chloe’s people (1:10-4:21), futher reports (5:1-6:20), and the letter from the Corinthians (7:1-16:4). See Bruce, 25-27.
 Ehrman, 324.
 Ibid, 322.
 Ibid, 326.
 All Biblical quotations are from The HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Harold W. Attridge et al, eds. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1989).
 For instance, in the previous passage, verses 15-17, 20, and 25 do not contain “tongues,” “prophecy,” or any related words.
 “Each in turn” (27); “one by one” (31); “not of disorder” (33); “peace” (33); “decently” (40); “in order” (40). All but one of these occurs within the main point or its reiteration (see below).