Hospitality in the Early Church

Craig Kraft /Monday, June 1, 2020

 

This is the second blog in the series "Understanding Hospitality in a Western Context". The purpose of this series is to help us develop a better understanding of the theology of hospitality. The first blog looked at hospitality in the Bible.  Part two in this series takes a brief look at the importance of hospitality in the early church.Hospitality was one of the factors that led to the discipleship and rapid expansion of the early church.

Hospitality in the Early Church

There are several observable ways in which hospitality contributed to the birth and health of the early church.  A survey of the book of Acts and the epistles provides insights into the role of hospitality in early Christianity.

  • Early missionaries and church planters, like Paul and Peter, were welcomed as guests into people’s homes (Acts 21:1-16).  People’s homes were places of ministry and provided ministry hubs for missionaries and evangelists to be able to reach out to new communities (Acts 28:30).  Hospitality toward strangers provided a practical provision for the advance of the Gospel.
  • The early church met in people’s homes.  This was a demonstration of hospitality that extended to outsiders.  People opened their homes as places of prayer, worship and discipleship.  The Christian church was born in this intimate setting of love and openness to others (Acts 2:46, 12:12, 16:3-5, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1-2).
  • Personal hospitality toward strangers provided opportunities for the gospel to be displayed and shared with people outside of the faith (1 Cor. 16:19, Acts 18:24-28).

Consider that Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Iulianus (Julian the Apostate), in 361-363, referred to Christian charity as a model for the Roman philanthropic system.  “These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”[1]  Julian further confirms the practice of Christian hospitality.

Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.  See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent.  Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.[2]

Faith based hospitality was slowly replaced by institutional hospitality in the 4th Century with the advent of state funded hostels and hospitals to care for the needy.  Amy Oden traced the development of an institutionalized approach toward hospitality, which ultimately lead to a dereliction of personal hospitality.[3]  This continues to be the case through much of the western world today.

Andrew Arterbury identifies three significant ways in which Christian hospitality was distinct from other pagan forms of hospitality. 

  • First, he demonstrates from Acts that when Christians traveled, instead of seeking family and kinsmen to provide hospitality, they would seek out local believers, a recognition of the family of God aspect of the church. 
  • Second, he recognizes that it is primarily the poor, widows, and traveling missionaries who receive hospitality, people without the means of repaying the host.
  • Third, Arterbury recognizes that it is frequently women, widows, and bishops who are the hospitable hosts in the New Testament which seems unique to the Christian movement.[4]

Does Hospitality Matter Today?

In September 2019 I conducted a survey of 176 churches across Canada.  This research will be provided in its entirety in my doctoral dissertation but to summarize, yes, hospitality makes a significant and measurable difference in churches today.

Churches were asked to describe their practice of hospitality over the past five years.  Those who described their hospitality in terms of welcoming visitors and guests at the church were contrasted with those who were intentional about extending hospitality (love for strangers) to people outside of the church. 

When compared in this way, the churches with a more biblical understanding and practice of hospitality consistently described their churches as being healthier than those who were identified as less hospitable. 

Churches were asked to describe various attributes including leadership, spiritual vitality, use of spiritual gifts, outreach, community, growth, and engagement with “others.”  In each attribute, hospitable churches identified themselves significantly higher and stronger than churches that were less hospitable.  

Hospitality is Making a Difference.

A second part of my research included interviews with churches that had extended hospitality to refugee families. 

Again, every church interviewed indicated that their practice of hospitality toward strangers has had a significant impact on the spiritual vitality of their church.  Churches engaged in a variety of ways but, regardless of what they did, the act of extending love toward strangers had a profound impact on them.  They described their experiences as a lot of work and sometimes exhausting, but at the same time it was life giving and inspiring.  They recognized that by serving refugees they were participating in the mission of God and it was a blessing to them.

We are living in a time when Christianity is in decline in North America.  The percentage of people attending church is in decline and the number of individuals who identify as having no religion is on the rise. 

One way that the church can find new relevance in western society is to rediscover the ancient art of biblical hospitality. 

By extending love to strangers and reaching out to care for the needy in our communities, we are extending the hospitality of God. This is his mission and we are blessed to be able to participate in it. 

The greatest cost is our time.  Are we able to carve out some time in out lives for others? Perhaps one of the greatest sins of western society is our busyness. 

Spiritual revitalization will come when we apply God’s priorities to our schedules and create space in out lives to reach out in love to a stranger.

More Hospitality Resources

1. Hospitality in Scriptures: The first blog post in the series "Understanding Hospitality in a Western Context". Hospitality is a powerful practice with the potential to bring restoration and revitalization to souls in need.  It is a virtue, espoused in scripture, through God’s earliest interactions with the patriarchs right through the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Often misunderstood in our modern western context, hospitality rediscovered allows hosts and guests to experience a taste of God’s love and grace through their interactions with each other. 

2. Welcoming Strangers: Find all our hospitality articles & resources in one place.


Dr. Craig Kraft is the Executive Director of Outreach Canada.  Craig and his wife Heather have four adult sons.  They were involved in pastoral ministry in western Canada for fifteen years before becoming missionaries with OC.  Craig served with OC in southern Africa and now leads the ministry in Canada. After returning from Africa, Craig assisted with the formation of the OC Global Alliance, a partnership of over one thousand missionaries working around the world.  Craig is a graduate of Northwest Baptist Seminary at ACTS and has recently completed his Doctor of Intercultural Studies degree at the Asia Graduate School of Theology.  His study has focused on diaspora missiology in Canada.  His dissertation explores the potential for revitalizing Canadian churches through the practice of biblical hospitality with refugees and immigrants.

 

 


[1] “Julian the Apostate - New World Encyclopedia,” accessed June 15, 2017, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Julian_the_Apostate. - Quoted from Schmidt, Charles. The Social Results of Early Christianity. (London: Wm. Isbister, 1998), 328

[2] Ibid. – Quoted from Baluffi Gaetano and Denis Gargan.  The Charity of the Church, a Proof of Her Divinity. (Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son, 1885), 16

[3] Amy Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 215–275.

[4] Andrew E Arterbury, Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in Its Mediterranean Setting, New Testament monographs (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005), 96–97.



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