ON CHURCH ORGANIZATIONS. ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS COPYING, IN SUBSTANCE, THE MODEL OF THE JEWISH SYNAGOGUES.
IN my long experience in our own church concerns I have paid considerable attention to what is generally called church discipline in the general, rather than in the corrective sense of this term.
My main object, in all my inquiries into these matters, has been to ascertain as near as possible, without note or comment, the doings of Christ and the apostles, and of those who lived nearest to the apostolic age, as I consider this kind of information of much more importance than all the creeds and commentaries of after times. But still, in my historical pursuits in church affairs, I have attentively perused a large number of the most approved works by our own men, and those of other communities, pertaining to church building and management, preachers, preaching and pulpits, ministerial and pastoral duties, clerical manners, and other things of this kind, with a view to give our younger ministers my own experience and advice upon them.
I have not expected to give any new ideas to our reading men, but my object has been to present to some of our younger and less favored ministers the substance of many works, old and rare, with which they may not be acquainted.
But as a portion of my manuscript has disappeared from the hands of the publishers, now, at a late period, and in a hasty manner, I must reproduce most of the following articles in a greatly abridged form.
After I began in earnest my inquiries into the manner of forming churches by the early Christians, the first questions that occurred to me were, Did the church builders copy after any model? did Jesus Christ and the apostles lay down any rules for the prosecution of this business? or did the disciples collect together, without much formality, in private houses, in the synagogues, or wherever they found favorable places for their meetings, and thus commence church operations?
In looking over the list of the primitive churches, according to the New Testament records, I find the first one arose in Jerusalem, and that soon it became very large, and the new churches out of Palestine, it is natural to suppose, in the language of Giesler, formed themselves after the pattern of the mother church. Their presidents were the elders, officially of equal rank, although in many churches, individuals
among them had a personal authority over the others. Under the superintendence of these elders were the deacons and deaconesses. * * * The duty of teaching, as an office, was By no means incumbent on the elders, although the apostle wishes that they should be apt to teach. *
I infer that the whole membership of the Jerusalem church, at first, and for some years after it arose, consisted wholly of converted Jews, for as yet no conversions had been made among the Gentiles.
At Antioch arose the first church among the Gentiles, and this body also, at an early period, became very large, and was a center of operations for the Christians in that quarter. During the apostolic age, a large number of churches arose in Palestine, and in the surrounding countries, whose names appear in the New Testament narratives. But relative to the manner of their formation, in no one case is the least information given. All at once the names of these churches appear; some incident, or the name of some person or persons connected with them is given, but nothing in particular is said as to the time, or the circumstances of their origin. Although the foundations of many of the first Christian communities, were no doubt, laid in Christian houses, yet but three household churches are mentioned in the New Testament
*Ecclesiastical History, volume 1., pages 91, 92.
narratives, the most important of which I am inclined to think was that in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, whose praise was in all the churches of the Gentles. We also read of churches in the houses of Nymphas and Philemon. But of no others, then in being.
In only one case do I find mention made of the church in the wilderness, which evidently refers to the Old Testament economy.
As my object in my researches into this matter was to find out as nearly as possible just how the early Christians managed in getting up their churches, I laid aside all expositions and went for the plain matters of fact in their doings, and as I found them much in the synagogues, and joining in the services of these humble sanctuaries, and appeared, for the most part, to be as much at home in them as if they had been prepared for the use of Christians, this consideration led me to inquire into the history of these Jewish places of worship; their origin, the manner of conducting religious worship in them, their officers, their principles of government, and of the number of them in Judea and elsewhere. In pursuing these inquiries I examined the old Latin workof Vitringa, the title of which is De Vetere Synagoga, Concerning the Ancient Synagogue, Jahn's Archaeology, Neander, and other works on the subject. The result of my examinations was, that synagogues originated during the
Babylonish captivity as a substitute for the temple worship, of which the captive nation was wholly deprived; that in most cases these resorts of the pious Israelites were plain and humble edifices; that the reading of the law and the prophets, or the Old Testament Scriptures, with free speaking upon them and exhortations to the people, constituted the substance of the religious services performed in them, with the omission of the sacrifices of the tabernacle and the temple; that their officers and internal operations were in many respects like those of the easy Christians; and finally, that synagogues were found wherever there were Jews, in their own land, or in the nations in which they were dispersed.*
The abundance of synagogues among the Jewish people may be estimated from the fact that in the Saviour’s time there were thirteen in Tiberias, four hundred in Jerusalem, including prosauchas,+ or small chapels for prayer.
The few following passages show how frequently and freely the synagogues were used by Christ and his apostles and followers. When the high priest
* The Jewish people were by no means confined to Palestine. They were to be found in Babylon, in Arabia, in Egypt, and in almost all parts of the Roman empire.
+ These places of prayer were also built in mountains, fields and deserts, and some think our Lord entered into one of them when he continued all night in prayer to God.
asked Jesus of his disciples and of his doctrine, he answered him, “I spake openly to the world, I ever taught in the synagogues and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort, and in secret have I said nothing.” Paul at first persecuted the Christians in all the synagogues, in his way to Damascus, by the authority of the Jewish rulers, but after his conversion, while at Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews, "as his manner was, he went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, opening and alleging," etc.
This whole matter is well explained by Coleman in his work on Primitive Christianity. “The apostles and first disciples were Jews, who, after their conversion, retained all the prejudices and partialities of their nation, * * *
"With the temple service and the Mosaic ritual, however, Christianity had no affinity. The sacraficial offerings of the temple, and the Levitical priesthood it abolished. But in the synagogue worship, the followers of Christ found a more congenial institution. It invited them to the reading of the Scriptures and to prayer.* It gave them liberty of speech in exhortation, and in worshiping and praising God.
* The Old Testament, or the law and the prophets, was divided into fifty-two parts, one for each Sabbath in the year. The reading of the Scriptures constituted a large part of religious worship with the early Christians, and so it should be now.
The rules and government of the synagogue, while they offered little, comparatively, to excite the pride of office and of powers commended themselves the more to the humble believer in Christ. The synagoguewas endeared to the devout Jew by sacred associations and tender recollections. It was near at hand, and not, like the temple, afar off. He went but seldom up to Jerusalem, and only on great occasions joined in the rites of the temple service. But in the synagogue he paid his constant devotions to the God of his fathers It met his eye in every place. It was constantly before him, and from infancy to hoary age he was accustomed to repair to that hallowed place of worship to listen to the reading of his sacred books, to pray and sing praises unto the God of Israel. In accordance, therefore, with pious usage the apostles continued to frequent the synagogues of the Jews. Wherever they went they resorted to these places of worship, and strove to convert their brethren to faith in Christ, not as a new religion, but as a modification of their own.
"In their own religious assemblies they also conformed as far as was consistent with the spirit of the Christian religion, to the same rites, and gradually settled upon a church organization which harmonized in a remarkable manner with that of the Jewish synagogue. They even retained the same name as the appellation
of their Christian assemblies. 'If there come into your synagogue, assembly, a man with a gold ring' etc. Their modes of worship were the same as those of the synagogue. The titles of the officers they also borrowed from the same source. The titles Bishop, Presbyter, or Elder, etc., were all familiar terms, denoting the same class of officers in the synagogue. Their duties and prerogatives remained, in substance, the same in the Christian church as in that of the Jews.
"So great was the similarity between the primitive Christian churches, and the Jewish synagogues, that by the Pagan nations they were mistaken for the same institutions. Pagan historians uniformly treated the primitive Christians as Jews.* As such they suffered under the persecutions of their idolatrous rulers. * * *
"In support of the foregoing statements authorities to any extent, and of the highest character, might be adduced." Neander is here quoted on the subject:
"* * * The disciples had not yet attained a clear understanding of that call, which Christ had already given them by so many intimations, to form a church entirely separated from the existing Jewish economy; to that economy they adhered as much as possible. * * * Hence the establishment of a distinct
*Vitringa De Synago. Ver., Prolegom, pages 3, 4.
mode of worship was far from entering their thoughts. * * *
"As the believers, in opposition to the mass of the Jewish nation, who remained hardened in their unbelief, now formed a community internally bound together by the one faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and by the consciousness of the higher life received from him, it was necessary that this internal union should assume a certain external form. And a model for such a smaller community within the great national theocracy, already existed among the Jews, along with the temple worship, namely, the synagogues. The means of religious edification which they supplied took account of the religious welfare of all, and consisted of united prayers and the addresses of individuals, who applied themselves to the study of the Old Testament. These means of edification closely corresponded to the nature of the new Christian worship. This form of social worship, as it was copied in all the religious communities founded on Judaism, (such as the Essenes), was also adopted, to a certain extent, at the first formation of the Christian church."
Neander also shows that this organization of Christian churches was the most natural under existing circumstances, and the most acceptable, not only to the Jewish converts but to those who were gathered from the subjects of the Roman government.
"It is probable that one cause, humanly speaking, why we find in the Sacred Books less information concerning the Christian ministry, and the constitution of church governments than we otherwise might have found, is that these institutions had less of novelty than some would at first sight suppose, and that many portions of them did not wholly originate with the apostles. It appears highly probable, I might say morally certain, that wherever a Jewish synagogue existed, that was brought — the whole, or the chief part of it — to embrace the gospel, the apostles did not, there, so much form a Christian church (or congregation,*ecclesia,) as to make an existing congregation Christian, by introducing the Christian sacraments and worship, and establishing whatever regulations were requisite for the newly adopted faith, leaving the machinery, if I may so speak, of government unchanged, the rulers of synagogues, elders, and other officers, whether spiritual or ecclesiastical, or
* "The word 'congregation,' as it stands in our version of the Old Testament, (and it is one of very frequent occurrence in the Books of Moses), is found to correspond in the Septuagint, which was familiar to the New Testament writers, to ecclesia, the word which in our version of these last, is always rendered, not 'congregation' but 'church.' This, or its equivalent, 'kirk,' is probably, no other than 'circle,' i.e., assembly, ecclesia."
both, being already provided in the existing institutions. And it is likely that several of the earliest Christian churches did originate in this way, that is, that they were converted synagogues, which became Christian churches as soon as themembers, or the main part of the members, acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. “The attempt to effect the conversion of a Jewish synagogue, into a Christian church seems always to have been made in the first instance, in every place, where there was an opening for it. Even after the call of the idolatrous Gentiles, it appears plainly to have been the practice of the apostles Paul and Barnabas,* when they came to any city, in which there was a synagogue, to go thither first and deliver their sacred message to the Jews and devout Gentiles, and when they founded a church in any of those cities, in which there was no Jewish synagogue, that received
* These seem to have been the first preachers who were employed in converting the idolatrous Gentiles to Christianity, and their first considerable harvest among these, seems to have been at Antioch in Pisidia, as may be seen by any one who attentively reads the thirteenth chapter of Acts. Peter was sent to Cornelius, a devout Gentile, one of those who had renounced idolatry and frequented the synagogues. And these seem to have been regarded by him as in an especial manner his particular charge. His epistles appear to have been addressed to them, as may be seen, both by the general tenor of his expression, and especially, in the opening address, which is not, as would appear from our version, to the dispersed Jews, but to the sojourners of the dispersion, that is, the devout Gentiles living among the dispersion.
the gospel, it is likely they would still conform in a great measure to the same mode.*
"It is, then, an admitted fact, as clearly settled as any thing can be by human authority, that the primitive Christians, in the organization of their assemblies, formed them after the mode of the Jewish synagogues. They discarded the splendid ceremonials of the temple service, and retained the simple rites of the synagogue worship. They disowned the hereditary aristocracy of the Levitical priesthood,+ and adopted the popular government of the synagogue.x
"We are here presented with an important fact in the organization of the primitive churches, strongly illustrative of the popular character of their constitution and government. The synagogue was essentially a popular assembly, invested with the rights, and possessing the powers, which are essential to the enjoyment of religious liberty. Their government was voluntary, elective, free; and administered by rulers or elders elected by the people. The ruler of the synagogue was the moderator of the college of elders,
*Kingdom of Christ, pages 83-86.
+ The custom of comparing the Christian ministry to the Levitical priesthood has come down from Cyprian, who was a strenuous advocate for the doctrines of sacerdotal power and sacramental efficacy.
xTotum regimen ecclesiasticum conformatum fuit ad synagogarum exemplar. The whole ecclesiastical government was made to conform to the model of the synagogues.
but only primus inter pares,* holding no official rank above them. The people, as Vitringa has shown, appointed their own officers to rule over them. They exercised the natural right of freemen, to enact and execute their own laws, to admit proselytes, and to exclude, at pleasure, unworthy members from their communion. Theirs was 'a democratical form of government,' and is so described by one of the most able expounders of the constitution of the primitive churches.* Like their prototype, therefore, the primitive churches also embodied the principle of a popular government, and of an enlightened religious liberty."
From all the above statements, in the absence of any precept or example for the manner of constituting the New Testament churches, after mature deliberation I have settled down in the belief, that the ecclesiastical polity of the Jewish synagogues was very closely copied by the apostles and primitive Christians, in the organization of their assemblies.
On the Independence of the Primitive Churches
"The churches which were established by the apostles and their disciples, exhibit a remarkable degree
* First among his equals. — Vitringa.
*Rothe Antange der Christ. Kirch, page 14, as quoted by Coleman, page 46.
of unanimity, one towards another. One in faith and the fellowship of love, they were united in spirit as different members of one body, or as brethren of the same family."* The independence of the churches, one of another, is fully and dearly presented by Mosheim, as all who read his Church History will discover.
* Coleman's Church Without a Bishop. Primitive Church, pages 39-49.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 225-238. -- jrd]