The Extraordinary Hospitality of the Early Church

Gander embraced the world.” “An oasis of kindness.” “Welcome to casserole city.” These are some of the ways Gander, Newfoundland, was described in the media following 9/11. USA Today said, “Their simple hospitality to the unexpected house guests drew worldwide accolades.”[1] Hospitality is common – it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. But there was something compellingly different about the selfless response of Ganderites: opening their homes, emptying their pantries, and forming enduring friendships with strangers from around the world.

History tells us the same was true of the early Church. Although hospitality was widely practiced and promoted among the Jews and in Greco-Roman society, there was a powerful uniqueness about what happened in the homes of believers during the first few centuries A.D. Even Christian-hater Julian the Apostate, the Roman Emperor during A.D. 361-363, noted:

“These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes …. 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]

What made the welcome mats of the “impious Galilean” distinct? Why did they have such an impact? Dr. Andrew Arterbury, who studied early Christian hospitality, identifies three reasons.[3] I’ll summarize them in the three sections that follow,[4] focusing on how they are seen practically in Acts. My prayer is that you will be challenged, as I have been, to follow their example. So, pull up a chair and let’s dig in together.

Unexpected Guests

When the New Testament was written, Jewish travelers were almost exclusively the guests of Jewish hosts.[5] At the same time, the Greco-Roman norm was to extend hospitality to those within or above one’s own social status.[6] Knowing these practices makes the guest lists in Acts quite shocking! Take, for example, Peter staying “in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner” (Act 9:43).[7] Tanning was a reprehensible trade to most Jews because of defilement from the carcases.[8] So it seems, of the “many [who] believed in the Lord” (v42), Peter accepted an invite to the most unlikely home among them. Have I turned down invitations because I thought there might be a “better” or “more comfortable” option?

Lydia and the Jailer at Philippi, both heads of their respective households, also broke all social norms when they had Paul and Silas sign their guest books (16:15,34). Wealthy Gentile merchants, like Lydia, didn’t invite travelling Jewish preachers to stay in their homes. And prison guards didn’t lay out their best towels and facecloths so prisoners could spend the night with their families. But salvation changed everything. Nationalities, cultural backgrounds and social standings no longer mattered in Christian hospitality. Have any of these kept me from having someone into my home?

Unexpected Hosts

A second uniqueness Dr. Arterbury identifies in early-Church hospitality is how often women are named as hosts.[9] In Acts we find Mary (the mother of John Mark), Priscilla and Lydia – quite possibly a widow, a wife and a single woman, respectively. Clearly, hospitality is something we can all practice. Now, speaking to husbands, do we support our wives’ spiritual desire to have people into our homes? Speaking to those who are single, is your table being used for God? Be encouraged; the Lord used unlikely hosts, men and women, in the early Church to greatly bless and further His work.

Unexpected Motives

What motivated Greco-Roman hospitality? For some it was fear, believing the gods avenged mistreated travellers.[10] But for most it was selfish ambition. Hospitality initiated a series of reciprocal obligations, including public recognition and the exchange of gifts, and was typically used to try to gain power and influence.[11] Hopefully neither of these motivate our hospitality. In stark contrast, the hospitality of the early Church was motivated by love and characterized by self-sacrifice. No wonder it stood out!

We see this in action throughout Acts, as we find believers opening their homes to show love one to another (2:46), to share the gospel privately (18:24-28; 28:30-31), and to support those engaged in evangelism and teaching (16:13-34; 21:1-17). Their motives were clearly love for the Lord, His people and the lost all around them. And their manner was self-sacrificial. Yet, in these homes we also see God graciously working to their own blessing: family members trusted Christ (16:34), children went on to serve the Lord (12:12), and saints were united in heart and soul (2:46; 4:32). There are many blessings to be experienced while blessing others in our homes.

Unexpected Discrepancies?

What do people say about us? Is our home “an oasis of kindness”? Do we make casseroles to share the gospel? Do I truly “embrace the world”? We say the gospel is for whosoever. We claim we are one in Christ with all believers. Now, are these true at our kitchen tables – the way they were in the early Church?

[1] Katharine Lackey, “An oasis of kindness on 9/11,” USA Today, September 8, 2017.

[2] Charles Schmidt, The Social Results of Early Christianity (London: Wm. Isbister, 1889), 328.

[3] Andrew E. Arterbury, Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in Its Mediterranean Setting, New Testament Monographs 8 (University of Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005), 96-97.

[4] I am indebted to Paige Gutacker for my three section divisions, which parallel three main points in her article “Early Christian Hospitality in Context: Three Christian Distinctives that Extended and Transformed Contemporary Mediterranean Hospitality,” Summit Alumni Network, February 27, 2016.

[5] Arterbury, Entertaining Angels, 91.

[6] Arterbury, Entertaining Angels, 96.

[7] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[8] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1612.

[9] Arterbury, Entertaining Angels, 97.

[10] Andrew E. Arterbury, “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts,” Christian Reflection, Published by The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University (2007), 21.

[11] Gutacker, “Early Christian Hospitality in Context.”