|The Influence Of
The Home and The Synagogue On Early Church Structure
by Brian Knowles
Christianity began as a renewal movement within first century Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew. His original disciples were all Jews. The first believers were Jews. Initially, this movement operated entirely within Judaism, not outside of it. In that context, it was known as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5), in the same way we read of "the sect of the Pharisees" (Acts 15:5) and the "sect of the Sadducees" (Acts 5:17).
It was not until later, at gentile Antioch, that the name "Christian" caught on (Acts 11:26). Initially, it may have been an epithet, rather than a merely descriptive term.
What we now call Christianity was born in Judaism. It remained exclusively a Jewish movement for at least the first decade of its existence. During that period, its adherents gave no thought to giving up their Judaism as a consequence of embracing the teachings of Yeshua, their Jewish rabbi. What they believed and practiced fell squarely within normative Jewish tradition. Jesus even endorsed for Jews the doctrinal "package" of the sect of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-2), though He chided some of them for hypocrisy.
The Role of the Home
The traditional Jewish home reflected, in miniature, many of the functions of the tabernacle, and later of the temple. More on that later.
In our time, consistent church attendance is often used as a measure of spiritual stature. In traditional Judaism, it was theoretically possible for a person to miss synagogue services for a lifetime, and still have his or her part in the world to come.
In his book, What is a Jew? Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer gives this answer to the question, "Is it true that in Judaism the home is more important than the synagogue?": "Yes, definitely...the center of Jewish religious life is the home" (Kertzer, p. 64).
Lets look more closely at the home as a religious institution.
The Meaning of "Parent"
The word torah literally means to "cast forth," hence the sense of instruction, teaching, or providing direction for life. (To translate torah as "law" is to limit it to one of its narrowest meanings.)
As priest in the family, the parent (horeh) was to provide teaching (torah), or instruction, just as the priest expounded Torah in the temple. We can see this parental role expounded on in Deuteronomy 6:6-9.
Parents were expected to be sufficiently familiar with the tenets of Judaism that they could explain and pass them on to their children.
The importance of the role of the home and family in spiritual development cannot be sufficiently stressed. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, puts it this way: "The family is the core of Jewish society and a center of its religious life. If the home is strong in Jewish values, stable and healthy, then all of Jewish life and all of its institutions -- religious, educational, social, etc. -- will be alive and vibrant. And if the home is weak, emotionally, morally, and spiritually, all else will soon mirror that weakness. The religious laws pertaining to family life therefore occupy a major part of the Jewish religious codes" (To Be A Jew, p. 121).
This sense of familial transcendence can be traced to Moses time and beyond - indeed to Abraham himself. In Genesis 18:19, the Lord says of Abraham, "For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him."
The "way of the Lord" is passed on primarily through family relationships, not through church or synagogue.
The home was the place where parents both taught and, more importantly, modeled godly living for the children. Children will tend to relate to God as they see their parents relate to Him. If parents fail to pray, study, worship, or otherwise live a godly life, children will likewise fail to do these things. If parents bicker, argue and fight, children will ape this behavior. Its "monkey see, monkey do."
Whatever spiritual behavior is learned in the home will be exported to the synagogue, the church, or the community -- more so than vice versa. Thats why the home is so vital as a "little temple."
The family is the major resource throughout the entire life cycle -- from birth to death. It is the place where children are taught, nurtured and modeled for. It is the place where parents live out their religious values in the most exemplary way. It is the place where the command to "honor your father and your mother" is fully actualized.
Furthermore, "One is duty bound to honor ones parents even after their death....According to the Sages, engaging in the study of Torah and the performance of good deeds is the greatest honor one can bestow upon parents, living or dead, for then people will say, How praiseworthy are the father and mother who raised such a child." (ibid. p. 129).
In Judaism, the "home," or "household," included not only the so-called nuclear family of modern times, but the full extended family including aunts, uncles and cousins. All family members were expected to pitch in the meet the needs of its individuals. The burden of caring for children, the sick and aged parents did not fall on any one person, but upon the extended family unit as a whole. (Note: We see this strong sense of family responsibility in the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot.)
The Role of Women
Man and woman were created equally in the image of God. Jesus died for every woman as much as for every man. They are, in marriage, one equal flesh (Gen. 2:24).
The womans role in the spiritual development of the family is vital: "The mother sets the spiritual tone in family life; she is most responsible for the character development of her children; and she holds the family together in the face of adversity...she assumes full responsibility for the atmosphere of piety and reverence in the home and for the inculcation of Jewish ideals. She gathers her children around her on the eve of the Sabbath to hear her pronounce the blessing over the lights. She prepares the home for each festival and creates a mood of joyous expectancy in the household...But more important was her traditional role of counselor to the entire family. The Talmud says: No matter how short your wife is, lean down and take her advice." (What Is a Jew? by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer, p. 74).
Kertzer speaks of "the lights." This refers to the Sabbath candles -- menorah -- which the wife must light to usher in the "Sabbath Queen" (Shabbat Hamalkah). This was a beautiful, moving, ritual. Marvin Wilson explains the significance of this ceremony: "Just as the shekhinah (the abiding presence of God) filled the Temple, and as light, a symbol of the Divine, brightened the holy place through the menorah (the seven-branched lampstand), so each home was to reflect Gods glory through prayer and praise" (Our Father Abraham, p. 215).
To get some sense of the beauty of welcoming the Sabbath, readers might rent "Fiddler on the Roof" and take special note of the scene where Tevye and Golda perform this ritual together.
A Place of Hospitality
Marvin Wilson writes, "Hospitality is a fundamental function of the Jewish home. This practice is also central in the Hebraic heritage of the Church...the term used in rabbinical literature for hospitality is hakhnasat orhim, literally bringing in of guests or gathering in of travelers...First, the rabbis considered hospitality one of the most important functions of the home...one was not to discriminate in the showing of hospitality..." (Our Father Abraham, p. 219).
The tradition of hospitality goes back to early times. Even Job, apparently a Gentile contemporary of Abraham, said, "no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler" (Job 31:32).
In Isaiah 58:7, we read of the need to, "...share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter."
Itinerant teachers and rabbis, like Jesus, the original apostles, and Paul, relied heavily upon the hospitality of Jewish homes as they carried the Gospel throughout the first century world.
In Jesus day, it was considered a great honor to welcome a respected teacher into ones home. In the Mishnah, the Oral Law, we read, "Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst" (Mishnah, Aboth 1:4). We see many references in the four Gospels to this very thing. In other words, the great teachers and rabbis of the day made "house calls" and their material needs were always taken care of by grateful hosts. This explains Pauls comment to Timothy that an overseer must be "hospitable" (1 Timothy 3:2).
Overview of the Jewish Home
Rabbi Kertzer sums it up this way: "Jews regard their home as a religious sanctuary. The family is the fountainhead of Jewish worship, and our religious ritual is as much as a matter of the home as it is of the synagogue. The mother, lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday evenings; the father, blessing his children at the Sabbath table; the dozens of happy, meaningful rituals that surround the observance of every Jewish holiday; the scroll proclaiming the love of God (mezuzah) on the doorpost -- these are an integral part of the total Jewish ritual and ceremony" (ibid. p. 64).
Within the home, the laws of kasher were kept. Foods were selected from the "clean" lists of Deut. 11. Meat offered to idols was not permitted, even if it was selected from a clean list.
Strangers and great teachers were welcomed into the home and hospitality was shown with joy and impartiality. A constant flow of neighbors and friends came through the house.
Many Jewish homes had their own ritual immersion baths (mikvaot), which later became Christian baptismal pools.
Jewish homes were often clustered around synagogues so as not to violate the rule of the "Sabbath days journey" (approx. 3/5-mile). Yet, synagogue attendance by all members of the family was not mandatory.
Origin of House Churches
Modern Ageism Contrasted
Continues Kertzer, "Courtesy to the elderly was part of the fabric of Jewish living. One always stood in the presence of the aged. A parents seat at the dining table was never used in his absence. One did not contradict an older person, even if what he said was incorrect" (ibid. p. 51). The elders of these Jewish families -- husbands, wives and wise grandparents, often became the "elders" of the first house churches and the early congregations of the Christian community. It was not so much a matter of formal "rank" but of generally recognized spiritual status.
What a far cry from our day when the State seeks to usurp the natural role of parents; when divorce is ravaging the family structure; when womens need to work is removing them from their spiritual role in the home -- and when the aged are discounted, warehoused, and general discarded!
The Influence of the Synagogue
Matthew 16:18 is commonly quoted to show that Jesus came to start a monolithic ecclesiastical institution of some sort. Notice the text: "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." The Greek word here translated "church" is ekklesia.
What is not generally noted is that Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, probably did his teaching in Hebrew, not Greek or Aramaic. (This theory is controversial since it is only beginning to find its way in the mainstream.) If not, He certainly had Hebraic, or Jewish, concepts in mind when He used ekklesia.
It is possible that Jesus used, or had in mind, one of two Hebrew words for what He was building: edah or kahal. The late Dr. Robert L. Lindsey, a leading scholar in the Jerusalem School for Synoptic Studies, believed it was edah. Writes Dr. Lindsey, "Jesus must have smiled broadly when he responded to Peter as he added, Your name is Stone (Greek, petros), but ("and" in Hebrew is often "but") on this Boulder (petra) I am going to build my Edah and the gates of hell will not be able to resist it. We are translating back to Hebrew and ekklesia (Church) is surely edah, which in this case must mean a witnessing community." (Jesus Rabbi & Lord by Robert L. Lindsey, pp. 125-126).
Church a Witnessing Body
The Church Jesus "built," in other words, was not a monolithic, hierarchical, institution, but a dynamic, witnessing body, constantly on the move throughout the world. The Church, in its original form, was a Kingdom movement operating under the umbrella of Judaism and empowered by the Spirit of God to witness to the life and teachings of Jesus the Messiah. It was an integral part of Judaism, not an anti-Jewish, gentile, organization. Among Jews, it was commonly referred to as "the sect of the Nazarenes." This was not a pejorative term, but merely a descriptive one.
As the movement grew, a distinction was drawn between Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah, and those who did not. The Jews who believed continued to live as Jews. The teachings of Yeshuah were added to their existing learnings, they did not replace or supplant them. [And excellent book on Jesus teachings is a new one by Dr. Brad Young: Jesus the Jewish Theologian.]
So long as the movement remained exclusively Jewish, no new institutions were necessary. Jewish believers functioned fully within the Jewish temple, synagogue and family system. No new form of "church government" emerged, for none was needed.
Jewish Sense of Community
To Jews, the haburah is more than a community, it is a family (mishpahah). Furthermore, it is the congregation (qehillah) or assembly of God worldwide. As such, its members have a shared sense of meaning, responsibility and respect for the sacredness of life. Every Jew saw, and sees, himself as part of the larger "congregation" or community of Israel -- even throughout the Diaspora (Dispersion). The institutions and traditions of Judaism link the global community in a bond of shared responsibility and history. (Regarding the recent assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir, for example, many Jewish commentators remarked about the tragedy of what had taken place within the "family" -- i.e. Israel.)
This belief in shared Jewish identity remained undiluted for the followers of Jesus the Messiah. At no time did it occur to them that becoming Christians implied abandoning their Jewishness. In other words, Judaism and Christianity were not mutually exclusive.
This is not to say that controversies over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah did not erupt within the Jewish community. They did. This is evident both in the Gospel accounts and in the book of Acts.
Now lets examine more closely the nature of the synagogue, for that issue is germane to our discussion about the organizational structure of the early Church.
Attached to the synagogue was a ritual immersion bath -- a mikveh. It had to contain enough water for a person to walk down in it, squat, and be completely submerged with water. Furthermore, it couldnt be stagnant, still, water, but "living" or moving water. For this reason, many Jewish homes and synagogues sought sites along the river banks.
It is likely that the first Jewish believers were all attached to synagogues. Of the synagogue, Solomon Grayzel says, "...From the beginning of the Second Commonwealth the Jews had found it necessary to establish local gathering-places where public meetings were held and lawsuits pleaded before the local judges. There or in an adjoining building the scribes taught. There too, on Sabbaths and holidays, the people of the neighborhood gathered to hear the Torah and the Prophets read. The center of social life was here...from the time of Ezra down, the reading of portions of Torah and Prophets became the characteristic feature of a public meeting of Jews" (A History of the Jews by Solomon Grayzel, p. 120). As is evident throughout the Gospels, Jesus supported, and participated in, the institution of the synagogue.
The "house of meeting" served a utilitarian, and necessary, purpose in Jewish life. It was the place where Jesus read Scripture and taught those in His community of His own mission (Luke 4:16-21). It was often the first place Paul visited on his missionary journeys (Acts 13:5; 14;14:1 etc.).
The synagogue then, provided the basic model for the structure of early Church congregations. For Jews, it was the synagogue. For non-Jews who came in later, it was a slightly modified version of the synagogue. To understand how the early Church was organized, we must therefore understand the combined influence of the Jewish home and the synagogue.
The Jewish home provided the model for the early house churches, of which there were many. In some areas, where low visibility was mandated by persecution, house churches, as opposed to congregations, were the main vehicle for group worship, teaching and prayer. In other areas, synagogue-style congregations were added to the social mix.
Democratic and Autonomous
The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us, "The synagogue is owned by the congregation and those who contributed toward its construction."
This tradition of congregational autonomy goes back to early times. The Jews are believed to be the first people to democratize religion. As Marvin Wilson reminds us, "Like Israel of old, the Church is called the people of God (1 Peter 2:10) and is expected to function with communal self-awareness. Whenever the Church has forsaken this aspect of its Jewish roots -- the so-called democracy of the synagogue -- and become authoritarian and hierarchically centered, rather than lay- or people- centered, its social consciousness has been greatly blunted" (Our Father Abraham, p. 190).
While there were "offices" or functions within the synagogue structure, it is generally recognized that "...Judaism is a religion of laypeople. The Jewish faith has long taught that it is not to be viewed or to function merely as a religion with paid professionals called by congregations to perform religious duties and services. Indeed, even the rabbi is considered a layperson. Any member of the congregation may be called upon to read from the Torah, lead the congregational prayers, and preach from the pulpit" (Our Father Abraham, p. 216). Members of synagogues were expected to be well-informed on all aspects of Judaism and Torah. They were not, in other words, ignorant, passive, "sheep."
Functions, Not Pecking Orders
The whole congregation was viewed as a "chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people," (1 Peter 2:9), just as was the edah, or congregation, of Israel. Each individual was gifted in some way to contribute to the edification (building up) of the whole congregation: "As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10).
Peters mentality is very much in line with the traditional Jewish view of the synagogue. It also reflected Jesus own teaching about the approach to authority within the Body.
The Urge to Pre-eminence
Jesus set the tone for whatever Church structure was to emerge in the future. It should not be -- as were typical gentile forms -- authoritarian in nature. Status was to be based upon service, function, and the evident anointing of the Holy Spirit, not merely on structural authority for its own sake. As with Peter and John, the evident anointing of the Holy Spirit conveyed authority (Acts 4:33; 5:12-16).
A Word of Qualification
This patient, humble, gentle, approach is a far cry from the fire-breathing authoritarianism of some who love authority for its own sake.
Christ did place authority in His ministry -- but that authority comes mainly from the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual. An anointed person has more authority in the Lord than a person who wields mere hierarchical, or structural, authority. Witness the deacons Phillip and Stephen or some of the prophetesses of both testaments.
A Modern Example
Now back to our subject: the influence of the synagogue on early Church structures.
The Nature of the Synagogue
Synagogues have been found throughout the Diasporic regions of the world. Paul preached in synagogues in Damascus, Syria (Acts 9:20,22). He refers to synagogues in numerous cities where he spread the message about Jesus the Messiah (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 15:21; 17:1,10; 18:4,7).
The Jerusalem Conference recorded in Acts 15 records the teaching that non-Jewish believers who wished to learn more about Moses, and perhaps become proselytes of Judaism, could attend any of numerous local synagogues (Acts 15:21).
Indeed, the synagogue provided the model for the earliest Christian congregations. As we read in the Jewish Encyclopedia, article "Synagogue," "...the form of communal worship devised by them [the Jews] was adapted by Christianity..." Says this same source of the synagogue service, "The service, functions, and functionaries of the synagogue have remained remarkably consistent throughout the 2500 years of its history. The order of service laid down in the first chapters of the tractate Berakhot for daily and Sabbath service and Megillah (3-4-end) for festivals remains unchanged as the fundamental order of service, to which, in the course of the ages, additions have been made."
The "rabbis" of Jesus day functioned just like our Lord Himself did: they were itinerant teachers who moved throughout eretz Yisrael and the diasporic lands offering teaching to those who would listen. Each great rabbi had a following which "ate his dust" as he moved from place to place. Most rabbis sat to teach, and their disciples, or students, sat in the dust at their feet. They were provided for by the hospitality of their students.
Even some of the Pharisees called Jesus "Rabbi" (John 3:1-2), in the context of recognizing the godliness of His teaching. His own students respectfully referred to him as "Rabbi" (John 4:31; 6:25; 11:8). Jesus was a typical aggadic rabbi (as opposed to alachic. He used rabbinical methods of teaching. He was thoroughly familiar with Mishnah, the oral law of the Jews. As mentioned earlier, it is more likely that He taught in Hebrew (not Aramaic as is commonly supposed)* .
The Function of Apostle
The function of apostle did not originate in New Testament times. In the Old Testament, the word shaliah shows up many times. The prophet Ahijah announces himself to the wife of Jereboam as "one sent" (shaliah) from God with a message (1 Kings 14:6). The Septuagint (LXX) translates the word "apostle" here.
The word is also used to describe Moses, Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel (though not in the nominal form). All these were sent by God with messages for the people.
Anyone who is sent directly by God, the congregation, the leaders of the temple, to represent the sender is, in some sense, an "apostle." Kittels Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says "apostles" were usually sent out in pairs (i.e. Peter and John) as representatives of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to Jews of the Diaspora. Their messages often had to do with the calculation of the calendar, collecting the "temple tax" [not tithes] or support for the poor, or communicating rabbinical decisions and pronouncements. Kittels also says apostles were usually rabbis who were "specially set apart for their task by the laying on of hands in the name of the community which sent them" (Kittels, Vol. 1, p. 417).
In common usage, the term did not indicate exalted hierarchical status within a ministerial pecking order. There were no "papal" or administrative connotations to it. The apostles authority, "...is precisely defined and given for a limited term, and the character of his commission is more juridical than religious in quality" (ibid.).
Jesus Himself is called an "apostle" because He was sent by the Father (Hebrews 3:1). Jesus then sent out His own emissaries or apostles (Luke 10:1) in typical two-by-two fashion. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible says of both Mark and Lukes usage of apostolos, "On the face of it, the Markan and Lukan accounts present no inherent contradiction to the Jewish custom of shalia..."
The pattern of "sending out" representatives continued throughout the New Testament period. Note Acts 13:1-4 where the activities of Pauls base of operations are discussed: "Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia..."
It is likely the Holy Spirit revealed Gods specific, situational will through the "prophets" who were located at Antioch, for this was one of the functions of prophets in the early New Testament Church. (More on that later.) It is the apostles who were first sent out by the Lord to begin the process of forming the "witnessing body" following His resurrection. Thats why in 1 Cor. 12:28 it says, "...first apostles..." The apostles set the stage for all that follows afterward. They are the first emissaries to go out into virgin territory for the Gospel. They create the nuclei of the congregations to which the other ministerial functions apply.
The original 12 apostles were Jesus personal emissaries because they had been with Him, in training, for 3 1/2 years. They were "witnesses" to every aspect of His life and ministry. When it came to His teaching, they were "insiders." Therefore, they became the first "ambassadors" to spread the Good News throughout the Roman world. They operated in the ongoing anointing of the Holy Spirit, and it was this, not their position in a hierarchy, which gave them their authority in Christ.
Paul & Jerusalem
Paul operated in what he considered to be his anointing from the Lord. He did not compromise it for those who sought to make non-Jews "live like Jews." He clearly viewed Peter as going back on his word in the matter of the decree of Acts 15. Consequently, instead of kowtowing to "headquarters authority," he "withstood him to the face for he was to be blamed."
In short, we do not see operating in the early Church the kind of authoritarian, top-down, pyramidal form of militaristic Church government favored by some today. This mentality would be viewed as both "unJewish" and very Gentile in nature. Now let us examine the "offices" of the early Church and compare them with those of the synagogue.
Not surprisingly, all these functions and giftings were present and active in the synagogue. We have already seen that an apostle was one sent out by God, Christ, the temple authorities, the synagogue authorities, or by a congregation. Modern missionaries could legitimately be described as apostles. It is possible that at least one of the apostles of the early Church was a woman -- Junia (Romans 16:7).
The first apostles of the Church went out into the Roman world and raised up congregations from scratch. Once a group of believers was established in an area, God anointed individuals to carry out other needed functions, including that of personal and corporate prophecy.
The Role of Prophet
Once Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were "sent" out by the congregation, they became apostolos -- "those sent." They went out in an anointing from the Holy Spirit to perform a specific task.
The prophets in the congregations helped get Gods guidance for particular situations that arose on an ongoing basis. A prophet is a navi -- one who "speaks forth" for God into a specific situation. What a prophet, or prophetess, said may or may not have had anything to do with future forthtelling. Often the words of the New Testament prophet included encouragement and edification. Prophecies were common in the apostolic Church (1 Cor. 12:10). Paul told us not to despise them (1 Thes. 5:20). He taught that Christians ought to desire this gift, the purpose being "edification, exhortation, and comfort" (1 Cor. 14:1-3). Prophecies were for "learning and encouragement" and all could do it (1 Cor. 14:31). Those who had a strong gifting in this area were called "prophets."
The prophets of the early Church were not something new to the experience of the Jewish apostles. Jesus own birth and life were the fulfillment of myriad prophecies found throughout the Old Testament. John the Baptists father, Zacharias, prophesied (Luke 1:67). Included in his prophecy was the fact that his own son would be a prophet (v. 76). A man named Simeon was given a prophetic witness to Jesus Messiahship (Luke 2:25-34). God then provided a second witness in the person of an 84-year old Jewish lady named "Anna the prophetess" (Luke 2:36-38).
[An excellent book on the study of New Testament prophesying is The Voice of God by Cindy Jacobs. Regal Books, 1995.]
God often blessed the early Church with prophets to encourage or build them up -- sometimes to caution them. On occasion, prophets provided direction. Paul, for example, was warned through personal prophecies in the Church that if he went to Jerusalem, hed wind up being "bound" (Acts 21:4).
A prophet named Agabus, along with his four daughters, all prophesied. On one occasion, Agabus acted out a personal prophecy for Paul (Acts 21:10-14).
Once congregations were established in an area, they sent out evangelists to bring new converts into the congregation. They usually worked the local area, representing the congregation. In the Jewish synagogues, the evangelist was called a maggid. He was an orator, or a leader. The classic example of an evangelist in the New Testament is the Hellenistic Jew, Apollos (Acts 18:24-28).
Teachers were also called batlanim. The singular is batlan.
The lists of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2 reflect In the King James version, this office is sometimes referred to as the "ruler" of the synagogue (cf. Mark 5:36-38; Acts 18:8,17 etc.).
Typically, a synagogue president presided for a one-year term. If the congregation liked him, he could be given a permanent appointment.
Each synagogue had its own bet din -- its 3-man committee to rule on interpersonal disputes between congregation members. These were elders, those recognized as wise and fair in rendering judgments. If a bet din ruled that a person should be punished by beating, the hazan, or cantor, was the man who carried out the punishment. If deemed appropriate, he administered the "stripes" which were limited to no more than 39.
Later, the office of cantor evolved into something quite different. Today the cantor is selected for his desirable vocal qualities to sing and chant before the congregation.
The office of deacon in the modern church corresponds to the synagogue function of the gabah gabahim -- the collector of charitable funds. These individuals served the synagogue, or church congregation, in practical ways. They distributed the funds they collected to widows, orphans and otherwise disenfranchised, needy people. In Acts 6, the believing community selected democratically those they wished the apostles to formally appoint to this office.
The first century has provided us with ample evidence that both synagogue and church recognized the right of women to fully participate in the various functions of service to the body. There were prophetesses, women rabbis and teachers, deaconesses, and pastors. As with the women God raised up in Old Testament times, they were "mothers" to the congregation.
Because "biology is destiny," women serving in these roles was less common than men. For the most part, the domestic duties of women -- including their role as spiritual tone-setters for the home -- occupied most of their time. Being a homemaker was, in those days, much more labor intensive than it is today.
This pattern is reflected in the fact that God sent 40 prophets and only 7 prophetesses to Israel -- but the fact that He sent seven shows there is no restriction on women performing this function if the Lord wills it.
Acquilla and Priscilla both taught the evangelist Apollos "more perfectly" the way of God (Acts 18:26).
Roles Not Ranks
Clearly the original apostles had a unique kind of authority that came from being with the Lord for 3 1/2 years. They were His witnesses in a way no other apostle was. They had been personally taught and tutored by God incarnate. Paul too had been personally taught by Jesus, though he was one "born out of season." These apostles were empowered to do miracles. They performed "the signs of an apostle" (II Cor. 12:12) -- something we do not see most modern, self-proclaimed, "apostles" doing. The authority these apostles had was not so much administrative in nature as it was spiritual. Their authority came from who they were in the Lord, and from their special anointings.
Yet they were not tyrants. They did not head up militaristic ranks of lesser ministers. The original Church was not hierarchical. It was modeled after the Jewish home and the Jewish synagogue -- both institutions Jesus supported and participated in, and ones that were largely democratic in nature. Roles were generated to meet needs. Ephesians 4:11 does not describe a rank structure, but five roles designed to equip the saints, and "for the edifying of the body of Christ till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ..." (Ephesians 4:12-13).
These functions are to equip, build up, and unify, the Body so that it can carry out its collective commission. They are not intended to creaste a hierarchical system of ecclesiastical autocrats.
What qualifications, for example, does an "evangelist" have to administer hierarchical church organizations, budgets, or building programs? Evangelists should evangelize -- otherwise they are not evangelists, they are church administrators (Romans 12:8).
Since prophets are listed before evangelists, does that mean they are more qualified to "rule over" evangelists, pastors and teachers? Nonsense! Prophets speak forth for the Lord. Thats their function in the body. Prophets prophesy.
True apostles are essentially missionaries, not heads of vast, monolithic, church bodies. Apostles are sent out by the Body to preach the Gospel in areas that have never heard it. They are the first wave of the advancing Kingdom. They move out into the world in the power of God to advance the Gospel. If they are performing their function, they have little time to administer anything.
Pastors oversee congregations, looking out for their spiritual welfare. They tend, care for, and otherwise protect, the flock of God. They are "shepherds." Ezekiel 34 provides a good idea of what pastors should, and should not, be doing.
Teachers teach. They can teach apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or the congregation. Teachers teach because they study and know more, and because they are gifted as teachers -- both in the flesh and in the Spirit. They can be attached to a congregation, an area, or they can be itinerant as Jesus Himself was.
Individuals with multiple giftings or anointings can move around in these roles as the need demands.
The president of a congregation is the administrative CEO of that group. He doles out assignments within the corporate body. He invites speakers to speak, members of the congregation to pray, makes announcements, and generally organizes the activities of the church group.
What the Church is Not
The Church is a "witnessing Body." It is the chosen instrumentation of Jesus Christ to do His work in the world today. Collectively, we are Gods "priest," His ambassadors, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are representatives of the Kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). We should be manifesting the "powers of the world to come" (Hebrews 6:5). We function within our natural gifts (Romans 12:6-8), our ministerial gifts (Ephesians 4:11), and we bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galations 5:22 ff.). We are empowered by the Spirit of God whether we prophesy, speak in tongues, have visions, dreams, or command healing. When we cast out demons, we do so in the name of Jesus Christ and as representatives of His Kingdom.
Because we have been equipped by the five-fold ministry, all believers the empowerment and signs of God. As we read in Mark 16:17-18: "These signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents [inadvertently]; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
If you are among "them that believe," these same signs should follow you around. (Remember the "little old ladies" group I mentioned earlier. They were getting people healed!)
A Dead or Crippled Church
To a large degree, the Church has been undermined by ecclesiastical politics, pseudo-intellectualism, the world in general, Satan, and crass commercialism. The collective Temple of God has become a money-changers bazaar. Everyone has something to sell. Fund-raising is the most in-demand profession within the Body.
Yet the Church is largely impotent when it comes to the manifested, supernatural, powers of the Kingdom. It is weak in a world where the powers of the Dark Side are growing. Mankind stands on the brink of a new Dark Age thats not really new at all. Neo-paganism is set to engulf the world, and the only defense against it is the Body of Christ and authentic Judaism. Now, more than ever, the world needs an empowered Church to flood it with spiritual light. Even Christianity Today is referring to our time as the "post-Christian era." What a tragic commentary.
From the Presidency to the Press, the Christian community in the United States has been demonized as a bunch of "right wing wackos." We have lost our credibility through scandal, moral and ethical compromise, a mercenary spirit, lapses of fiscal integrity and ethics, and general impotence as a social force.
Call to Action
Perhaps most importantly, believers ought to be praying for the power of God to manifest itself in the Church in visible and dramatic ways. The Lord will let the Body know whose ministry He is blessing when He enables some to do even greater works than He did when He was on this earth in the flesh (John 14:12-13).
Let us pray for a revival of first-century supernatural power in the Church so that we can effectively witness to a dying world in what may well be the final days of this darkening age.
Must Christians Form Synagogues?
The purpose of the accompanying article was not to suggest that the synagogue model is the only acceptable way to organize a Christian congregation. It was to show how far weve come from the spirit of the first century model in structuring our church organizations. It was to contrast the democratic, participatory, community-based approach of government within Judaism to that of authoritarian, hierarchical, Christian models. Modern ecclesiastical dictatorships fly in the face of the plain teaching of Christ about not "lording it over" Gods people. Those who, like Diotrephes, "love to have pre-eminence," have created forms of church government that accommodate their own imperious urges.
The people of God should not be viewed by their leaders as "dumb sheep" to be controlled and dominated. Overseers have no right to claim the tithe or any fixed portion of the congregations income to fill their own war chests or support some opulent lifestyle.
Rather, the people of God should be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom in the things of God. They, as individuals, should be fully capable of giving an "answer" for the hope that lies within them. The purpose of organizations within the Church should be to further the Churchs various commissions like "equipping the saints" and preaching the Gospel. The right organizational structure is the one that works best -- the one that most effectively helps accomplish the designated goals.
People should operate within the Body according to their various giftings. Thus, it is the flow and work of the Holy Spirit that determines where someone should be be placed within the Church.
Jesus did not create an ecclesiastical corporation with a centralized, hierarchical, dictatorship that controls the money and the religious activities of the people. The Body of Christ is more like a living, spiritual organism, than an organization. It is dynamic, organic and ever on the move under the day-to-day leading of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 15:28; 16:6-10 etc.).
In other words, it has organizations, but it isnt one. The true Church cannot be organizationally identified. The Church, by Biblical definition, is the sum of all the people on Planet Earth who have "been reborn from above" through the action of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; John 3:3).
Jesus Supported the Synagogue
The synagogue, as an institution, evolved. Its practices and procedures were not once created, then set in concrete for all time. The synagogue is an institution in process. Yet, in many ways, modern, Orthodox, synagogues are much like their first century counterparts, especially in the order and general content of the service.
The Jews have always said, "There are many Judaisms." Within the general framework of Torah and Covenant, God has allowed for a wide range of creative, religious expression. Judaism has no "systematic theology" as do many of the myriad denominations of Christianity. In this sense, Judaism is more flexible. There is room for new learning. There is room for a range of traditions, from liberal to conservative. Many of the rabbinic discussions which have provided us with Mishnah and Talmudim are simply the result of practical issues -- how to apply a mitzvah to a given, perhaps new, situation. The great rabbis were more or less conservative in their interpretations. Thats how the agadic and alachic traditions arose. The alachic types were more rigid and legalistic in their approach. The agadic types -- like Jesus -- were more inclined to use parables, tell stories, and use illustrations to make their teaching points.
The beth ha knesset -- synagogue -- was a "house of meeting." It was a place where the Jewish community, and those gentiles who were associated with it, conducted their affairs throughout the Dispersion. To form a new synagogue, a quorum of no less than ten adult males was required.
Adjoining the synagogue was often a beth ha midrash -- a house of study, where scrolls and books were stored, read and studied. Even studying was a communal affair that was loud and participative. Everyones opinion counted in the discussion of a text. The house of study was viewed as more important than the synagogue. One "went up" to the house of study, and did not return "down" to the house of assembly until the next visit.
Non-Jewish Christians certainly have options when it comes to forming organizations and meeting places. There is no rigid, biblical, model for the creation of church structures. Throughout history, Protestant Christian churches have typically used one of three models, none of them truly based upon the synagogue structure.
The Roman Catholic Church structure is based largely upon old Roman, gentile, mentalities about government, with some Old Testament references thrown in. The Inquisition -- one of the ugliest periods of Church history -- was made possible by the establishment of an ecclesiastical tyranny.
The main point is this: no form of Church government created by Christians should violate the spirit of Jesus own teaching about "lording it over" the people of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation, "Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand" (II Cor. 1:24). The word translated "dominion" in this verse could also be translated "rule." In short, Christian leaders are not to be "rulers" or policemen over their congregations faith. They are not to be tyrants, dictators and authoritarian banty roosters revelling in their sense of pre-eminence over Gods heritage.
Ideally, a godly leader is of the congregation, for the congregation and accountable to the congregation. The congregation is only bound to follow him or her as he or she follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
The apostle Peter wrote to the elders of his day, "Shepherd the flock of God...not for dishonest gain but eagerly, nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2,3, excerpts).
Setting an example of godly morals and ethics, faith, humility, obedience to God, and wisdom, is the mandate of ministry. It is by far the toughest requirement for any who would be ministers. It demands accountability, both to God and to the congregation. (One of the motives of modern, ecclesiastical tyrannies is to avoid accountability.)
1. In Back to the Sources, professor Barry Holtz says this about the meaning of the word torah: Torah for the Jewish tradition is a multifaceted term. On one level it refers to the first five books of the Bible, the content of the scroll found in any synagogue. In another more expanded sense, Torah is the Hebrew Bible as a whole. But Torah stands for more than one text or one book. Torah is revelation, the entire revelation and the entire activity of Jewish study throughout the generations. When the rabbinical sages speak of the Written Torah and the "Oral Torah" (the Oral Torah being the commentaries and holy texts of later generations) as both having been given at Mount Sinai, they mean to suggest that all Jewish study is Torah and all Torah has the validity of revelation." (p. 12).
*"The spoken languages among the Jews of that period were Hebrew, Aramaic, and to an extent Greek. Until recently, it was believed by numerous scholars that the language spoken by Jesus disciples was Aramaic. It is possible that Jesus did, from time to time, make use of the Aramaic language. But during that period Hebrew was both the daily language and the language of study. The Gospel of Mark contains a few Aramaic words, and this is what has mislead scholars" Jewish Sources in Early Christianity by Prof. David Flusser, Hebrew University, p. 11.