Most Bibles translate Paul’s words at Acts 20:20 (and similar words in Acts 5:42) as saying that he taught ‘from house to house.’ Yet, that is a mistranslation. The Greek words were actually, ‘kat oikous,’ literally, ‘according/to house.’
There is actually no mention in the Greek source text of moving between houses. The ancient Aramaic translation of Acts also makes no mention of it, simply saying ‘in houses’.
Therefore, The New Living Translation says, ‘in your homes.’ The Bible in Basic English says ‘and privately.’
We agree. Our translation of Acts 20:20 puts it this way:
‘Yet I didn’t fail to remind you and teach you both in public and in [your] homes’
You can see the rightness of this by looking at the entire setting, as laid out in verses 17 to 21:
‘However, [while he was] in Miletus, he [Paul] sent word to Ephesus to call the elders of the congregation to him.
And when they arrived, he told them:
You know very well that from the first day I stepped into Asia, I was with you all along, humbly slaving for the Lord.
And [you know] of all the tears and trials I endured because of the plots of the Jews.
Yet, I didn’t fail to remind you and teach you both in public and in [your] homes; For I gave a thorough witness to both Jews and Greeks about [the need to] repent before God and [to have] faith in our Lord Jesus.’
As you can see, Paul was speaking to Christian elders and reminding them of how he had preached to them! This is not a description of an organized preaching campaign to strangers in which Christians would call at their homes.
Then, does this mean that Paul never searched for new converts by preaching from house to house? No, we’re not saying that. It’s hard to know everything about how the early Christians preached.
We’re also not saying that calling at people’s homes is wrong or forbidden, for the scriptures do not imply that either.
The only records in the Bible (in Acts and Paul’s letters) are of speaking in public places like synagogues, auditoriums, and in local markets. Further, ancient sources outside of the Bible, such as the 1st century Didache, or early 2nd century Apology of Aristides and The Preaching of Peter, make no mention of house-to-house preaching campaigns.
Yet, we do know that when Jesus sent his Apostles out to do preaching, they went to nearby cities and spoke to strangers, and they usually stayed overnight in the homes of those who welcomed their message. At Luke 10:5-7 Jesus told them:
‘Then, as you enter each house you should say,
May this house have peace.
And if a son of peace lives there, your peace will rest upon him; But if not, it will return to you.
So, stay in that house and eat and drink the things they provide, because a worker deserves his wages… Don’t keep moving from one house to another.’
These latter words probably do not imply that house-to-house preaching is forbidden, for one has to understand the culture at the time. It likely implies that these preachers were to use one home as a base for preaching to the rest of the city, and that they should not move from home to home to take hospitality from different ones.
The Apostles likely used one home as a base from which to preach in public places, as described elsewhere in the Christian Bible.
So while the modern practice of house-to-house preaching (such as done by the Latter-Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses) is not forbidden, as translators we are unaware of any part of the Bible that describes it or commands it.
Our Bible uses older manuscripts than most Bibles do. Check us out!