Today I read some of Philip Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church.” It saddened me to see his account of the migration of congregations from meeting in each other’s homes to the building of temples that were clearly inspired by the same designs used to worship Saturn or Zeus or Dianna:
Let us glance first at the places of public worship. Until about the close of the second century the Christians held their worship mostly in private houses, or in desert places, at the graves of martyrs, and in the crypts of the catacombs. This arose from their poverty, their oppressed and outlawed condition, their love of silence and solitude, and their aversion to all heathen art. The apologists frequently assert, that their brethren had neither temples nor altars (in the pagan sense of these words), and that their worship was spiritual and independent of place and ritual. Heathens, like Celsus, cast this up to them as a reproach; but Origen admirably replied: The humanity of Christ is the highest temple and the most beautiful image of God, and true Christians are living statues of the Holy Spirit, with which no Jupiter of Phidias can compare. Justin Martyr said to the Roman prefect: The Christians assemble wherever it is convenient, because their God is not, like the gods of the heathen, inclosed in space, but is invisibly present everywhere. Clement of Alexandria refutes the superstition, that religion is bound to any building.
The shift to the basilicas was described like this by Schaff:
The description of a church in the Apostolic Constitutions, implies that the clergy occupy the space at the cast end of the church (in the choir), and the people the nave, but mentions no barrier between them. Such a barrier, however, existed as early as the fourth century, when the laity were forbidden to enter the enclosure of the altar.