House Churches and Sacred Space

Sacred Ritual, Profane Space: The Roman House as Early Christian Meeting Place

by Jenn Cianca
2018 McGill-Queen's University Press, 248 pages, $34.95 paperback
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This engaging book offers a fresh perspective on how Christians understood and embodied their liturgical worship in the first three centuries. The author questions the conventional narrative that the early Church identified itself exclusively as an eschatological body of believers that rejected ideas of sacred space prevalent both in Second Temple Judaism and in the pagan environment, and saw no need for places dedicated specifically to ritual and worship.

The first generations of Christians did not have buildings set apart for liturgical celebrations, but assembled in domestic settings. Such “house churches” are the focus of this study, and Cianca defines them as unrenovated, private living space used for Christian worship. The author, who teaches classical studies at Bishop’s University in Canada, distinguishes early house churches from the later domus ecclesiae, buildings that were renovated and adapted in a more enduring fashion for liturgy and sacraments.

The mixed social structure of early Christian communities was reflected in the different types of housing where they met. These ranged from the domus and country estates of the upper classes to apartments of different sizes, as well as shops used for commercial and residential purposes. These varied forms of urban dwelling provided the setting for the daily life of the familia, the Roman household that could include extended family members, slaves, and visitors.

Cianca elucidates cultic and ritual practices in these domestic spaces, for which there is ample literary and archaeological documentation, including portable altars and shrines. The worship of household deities, such as the Lares and Penates, was an integral part of Roman family life. In the earliest stages, Christian communities would by necessity have met in inhabited spaces where pagan domestic cults had a visible presence. She is aware that much of her argument is hypothetical, and she is careful in making her claims.

According to Cianca, many Christian households, including those that hosted meetings for prayer and worship, would have continued to practise at least elements of Roman domestic cult. This claim is surprising, given that a stream of Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and Arnobius of Sicca, unequivocally reject pagan worship (both public and domestic) and exhort Christians not to take part in it. 

Cianca muddles the waters by arguing that in earliest Christianity “attitudes toward the domestic gods were not always consistent.” While some authors considered these deities harmless and others saw in them a real threat, all condemned their worship. Cianca observes that domestic cults could not easily be set aside, because they were so essential to what being Roman meant. However, the same can be said of public sacrifices, from which Christians were bound to abstain.

The material evidence the author cites for the enduring adherence to, or perhaps rather tolerance of, pagan domestic cults in Christian settings is very slight: a bacchic frieze in the assembly room of the building in Dura Europos, commonly identified as a mid-third century domus ecclesiae, and material remnants of ancestor cult in the chapel complex of the villa at Lullingstone in Kent from the second half of the fourth century. Both cases, coming from the peripheries of the empire, are later than the period of house-church Christianity under scrutiny in this book. 

The paucity and ambiguity of the available data does not support the weight of Cianca’s argument. Many believers made some compromise in times of persecution, and it is quite likely that even in Christian households, vestiges of Roman domestic cult continued. This may also be concluded from the fact that Christian authors continued to rail against it. In general, however, Cianca seems to underestimate the distinct self-identity of early Christians and their consciousness of being separated from the outside world.

At the center of this study is the thesis that, “despite a lack of materially articulated or physically separate space, the house-church Christians were indeed meeting in sacred space.” This sacred space was, by practical necessity, temporal not permanent, and it was constituted through and in ritual performed by the body of believers, especially the Eucharist.

Here Cianca draws on the insights of social anthropology and ritual studies, including the contributions of Arnold Van Gennep, Jonathan Z. Smith and Catherine Bell. The study would benefit from a more in-depth consideration of Victor Turner’s work on liminality and communitas, where he offers a complex description of the sacred that accounts for the important role of ritual.


Cianca’s non-theological perspective offers new insights into a field often obscured by denominational controversies, but also falls short of an adequate analysis of, above all, the meaning of the Eucharist for early Christians. The choice of endnotes makes the scholarly use of the book more difficult. For this reviewer, the significant contribution of this relatively short study lies in its conception of ritually constructed sacrality, which “allows for an organic, slower-moving development of early Christian sacred space, rather than reading a sea change into the building of the Lateran in Rome.”