In the mid-1990s, I relocated to Vancouver, B.C. to study with Gordon Fee so that I could develop the exegetical skills and a background in first century history in order to effectively teach and write about the nature and practices of the first century church. Well, I've yet to write that book, but I become well-versed in the best titles available on the subject.
In the exploration of the vast number of titles, I've found that most of the more accessible resources—some of which have become popular—have an "ax to grind." In other words, they grab hold of one or two aspects of historical research that supports the kind of church they want to see manifest today and they limit their presentation of the data on the first century church in such a way that it supports their preferred model of church life. For example, those who advocate for the house church model find all kinds of support for the house church and therefore determine that the house church is the intended universal model for all time. Then others who prefer emphasize large group worship admit that the house church was the primary model of the first century, but they argue that the house church was the model that fit the first century context the best and that the New Testament never commanded it as a fixed model.
While it is difficult to let the historical data stand for itself and inform us without being shaped by our biases, the best authors are honest about their biases, and they are disciplined enough to allow what they learn in their research to shape their conclusions. In this light, I'd like to suggest the following titles if you are interested in looking deeper into what actually transpired in the first century church's life:
If you can only read one title, start with:
When the Church was Family by Joseph Hellerman
Or if you want a more academic version of the above:
The Ancient Church as Family by Joseph Hellerman
The classic historical title on this subject:
Paul's Idea of Community by Robert Banks
A deeper look at the sociological and archeological evidence and the implications both exegetically and theologically:
House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity by Roger Gehring
A look into the family structures of the first century world:
Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches by Osiek and Balch
Biblical theology regarding what Jesus was trying to do through the early church:
Does God Need the Church? by Gerhard Lohfink
Answers the question of leadership in the first century church the best:
Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers by Andrew Clark
Excellent scholarship that applies first century history to a modern small group:
Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups by Reta Finger
A view of the first century through the eyes of a practical theologian who is trying to apply first century history to modern church structures:
Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church by Joel Comiskey
For my review of this title, click here.