To understand the organizational structure of the early Church, we must examine the two institutions that had the greatest effect on it: the Jewish home, and the synagogue.
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
In those days, much religious activity rotated around the second temple. Yet, despite the fervor surrounding temple worship, the Jewish home had always been the most important center of spiritual life. Following the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the role of the home as a “small temple” or “sanctuary” (miqdash me’at – cf. Ezk. 11:16) became even more important. Dr. Marvin Wilson writes, “Foundational to all theory on the biblical concept of the family is the Jewish teaching that the home is more important than the synagogue. In Jewish tradition, the center of religious life has always been the home. The Church has yet to grapple seriously with this crucial concept” (Our Father Abraham, p. 216, emphasis mine).
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).
Let’s look more closely at the home as a religious institution.
The Meaning of “Parent”
The Hebrew word for parent is horeh. Like torah, it is believed to have been derived from the verb yarah, which means to “cast,” “shoot,” “throw,” or “direct.”
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 it’s 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.
Within traditional Judaism, the laws relating to family rest upon the following foundations (as outlined by Rabbi Donin, p. 121):
- Respect for the integrity, individuality, and feeling of each member of the family as a human being.
- The development of a peaceful and harmonious relationship among all members of the household (this is called shalom bayit).
- Maintaining spiritual purity and a wholesome attitude in the sexual relationship between husband and wife and in particular between men and women in general.
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. It’s “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. That’s 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.
Rabbi Donin continues, “Grown children whose parents are aged and needy, have a responsibility to clothe, feed, shelter and care for them. Whatever is done for parents must be done graciously and not grudgingly” (ibid. p. 129).
Furthermore, “One is duty bound to honor one’s 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
There is a misconception going around in Christians circles that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, women were considered inferiors — even mere chattel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A. Cohen writes, “The basis of Jewish social life is the family, and the Talmud is ever watchful to conserve its purity and stability. Recognizing the all-important place which a woman occupies in the life of the family, it accords her a most dignified position…In no way is she looked upon as a being inferior to man. Here sphere of activity is different from man’s, but of no less significance to the welfare of the community” (Everyman’s Talmud, p. 159, emphasis mine).
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 woman’s 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 God’s 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
The Jewish home was a place of hospitality. In fact, hospitality was a considered a religious duty.
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 one’s 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 Paul’s comment to Timothy that an overseer must be “hospitable” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Overview of the Jewish Home
To sum up, the typical Jewish home of Jesus’ day was a center of religious activity, teaching and worship for the family. It contained religious objects such as the menorah (seven-branched candlestick) and other permitted items. The woman of the house was a spiritual leader, setting the tone for the entire family. She was a counselor to both her husband and her children. She lit the Sabbath candles and went round the table pronouncing a blessing upon each of her children. The home was full of joy, praise and prayer. During meals, the family would often sing Zimrot — songs — in praise of the Holy One. Frequent blessings, up to a hundred a day, were pronounced on, and by, various family members. The husband was a priest to his family, patiently and lovingly teaching them at every opportunity. He and his wife together modeled exemplary religious behavior.
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 (mikva’ot), which later became Christian baptismal pools.
Jewish homes were often clustered around synagogues so as not to violate the rule of the “Sabbath day’s journey” (approx. 3/5-mile). Yet, synagogue attendance by all members of the family was not mandatory.
Origin of House Churches
Jewish homes like those described above became the basis for the house churches of the early Christian community (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15 etc.). Each member, and each guest, contributed something to the religious atmosphere. Even the children had special religious duties as we learn from the Passover Seder. Everyone’s opinion counted, and was considered. Though the husband was the “head” and priest of the home, he was by no means a tyrant. His wife’s counsel was taken seriously, and decisions were often reversed on the basis of her input. At no time was her dignity ever denigrated — especially in front of the children. Family members treated each other with deep respect and care. The typical Jewish home was a place for prayers, collective praise, and the worship of God.
Modern Ageism Contrasted
In our time, we are experiencing the tyranny of youth. Ageism is pervasive. Our major corporations are rapidly “re-engineering” middle-aged executives out of jobs as fast as they can. In the Jewish home, the aged members were given preferential treatment, no matter their physical state. Rabbi Morris Kertzer writes of the traditional Jewish view on aging: “Out of our millennia of human experience, then, stems the realization that the mellow wisdom of old age is precious. In Hebrew the words ‘old man’ are almost synonymous with ‘wise man.’ ‘He who learns from the old is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine,’ says the Talmud, and, ‘The older scholars grow, the greater their wisdom.’” (What is a Jew?, p. 51).
Continues Kertzer, “Courtesy to the elderly was part of the fabric of Jewish living. One always stood in the presence of the aged. A parent’s 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 women’s 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
Since the earliest Christians were Jews, the institution of the synagogue played a crucial role in the structuring of the first believing communities. Before we examine the synagogue more closely, let’s first establish something basic about the nature of Jesus’ movement.
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
This meaning is played out in Jesus’ words to the Church recorded in Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
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
When persecution from non-believing Jews erupted, believing Jews sometimes separated themselves into their own synagogues. In such cases, nothing changed about the order of synagogue services, except that the teachings of, and about, yet another rabbi — Jesus the Messiah — were permitted. Jewish believers still thought of themselves as part of the larger Jewish community (haburah).
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, it’s 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 let’s examine more closely the nature of the synagogue, for that issue is germane to our discussion about the organizational structure of the early Church.
Most scholars believe the institution of the synagogue originated in Babylon during the time of the captivity of the southern House of Judah. “Synagogue” is merely the Anglicization of a Greek word. The Hebrew term for the synagogue is the beth knesset — house of assembly. It was common to find attached to first-century synagogues a second building, the beth midrash — a house of study. The house of study often contained copies of Jewish midrashim, or commentaries on Scripture. The beth midrash enjoyed higher status in the Jewish community than the synagogue because study was viewed as the highest form of worship.
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 couldn’t 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 synagogues were made up of three different kinds of people: Jews, proselytes, and “God-worshipers.” Proselytes were non-Jews who were in transition to becoming Jews, or those for whom the process was complete. God-worshipers were non-Jews who had chosen to fellowship with the Jews, but were not willing to make a total commitment to Judaism for themselves. The “gentile” churches of Paul’s day were often formed with a core of believing Jews, some proselytes, and a majority of God-worshipers. After that, other “standard issue” gentiles were converted and brought in from the pagan world.
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
Jewish synagogues were, and are, both democratic and autonomous. They were not governed by a centralized, monolithic authority in Jerusalem or anyplace else. Rabbi Donin explains: “Synagogues are autonomous institutions. They are established, organized, maintained and controlled locally by any group of Jews who wish to have a synagogue in their midst. Each synagogue is independent of the other and is governed by an elected group of officers and a Board of Directors. Although each synagogue is essentially bound by the Codes of Jewish Law in its ritual practices, there is nothing to prevent any synagogue from establishing its own politicos and its own procedures both in ritual as well as general matters. There are national synagogue bodies with which most synagogues are identified, but these associations are purely voluntary and have no power of enforcing decisions on the local congregation” (To Be a Jew, p.186).
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
Most of the titles attached to synagogue functions are not intended to convey hierarchical authority, but rather responsibility for specific divisions of labor within the community. This mentality stood in sharp contrast to gentile religious forms where top-down, authoritarian, pecking orders were stressed. The apostle Peter, being a Jew, emphasized the non-authoritarian approach to church government. He focused attention on the importance of example, rather than the exercise of authority for its own sake: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
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).
Peter’s 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
On one occasion, there was a sharp dissension among Jesus’ rabbinical students (disciples) about who should have the pre-eminence among them. Jesus set the matter straight by reiterating the standard of service as opposed to authority for its own sake: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). The road to leadership within any godly congregation is through service, not some militaristic, authoritarian, pecking order.
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
A little qualification is needed here. Those who are oriented to modern authoritarian Church structures will tend to dismiss all of the foregoing and fixate on certain New Testament passages that are commonly used to justify the authoritarian approach, especially sections in the pastoral epistles and some of Paul’s other writings. Yet Paul makes it plain that the spirit of the ministry is to be one of gentleness: “…a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth…” (II Timothy 2:24-25).
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
A modern example comes to mind. Some years ago, the pastor of a growing Christian congregation was having a hard time keeping up with the demand for prayers for healing. He simply couldn’t get to everyone. So he asked for volunteers to pray for the sick. A small group of elderly ladies approached him. They believed they had the faith to get people healed, and they wanted to be useful in the Church. The pastor gratefully gave them his blessing. Before long, these powerful prayer warriors were having a major impact on the congregation. People were getting healed through their prayers left, right and center. God had backed up the authority of their believing prayers with many dramatic healings. Yet these ladies held no hierarchical position within the congregation. The people soon learned where God’s Spirit was at work! When it came to praying for the sick, and general intercession, these female “elders” had real authority.
Now back to our subject: the influence of the synagogue on early Church structures.
The Nature of the Synagogue
The passage from Ezekiel, earlier quoted, is also used to explain the nature of the synagogue. Like the home, it too is a “little temple” (Ezk. 11:17). At the time of the destruction of the temple (70 A.D.), there may have been as many as 480 synagogues in Jerusalem alone (according to the Talmud, TJ,Meg. 3:1). Another talmudic reference puts the number at a precise 394 (Ket. 105a). There is even evidence of a synagogue on the Temple Mount itself (Sot. 7:7-8,Yoma 7:1)!
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.”
In Jesus’ day, the office of “rabbi” was an honorary one. Ordination was not attached to it until later. Nor did the rabbi “preside over” a synagogue congregation in those times. That came later. In those days, the words rab or rabbi or rebbe, were used informally to recognize Judaism’s great teachers. According to Solomon Grayzel, “The word Rab originally meant ‘great one,’ and Rabbi is ‘my superior’…Before long it came to mean ‘my teacher,’ and after a while became a title of honor granted, as we shall see, upon the attainment of a certain degree of knowledge. Members of the Bet Din especially had to possess this degree. The head, or Nasi, of the Bet Din was addressed by the title Rabban” (A History of the Jews, p. 186).
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
After his crucifixion, death and resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples for 40 of the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost, before ascending to Heaven. At that time, He empowered his disciples — now apostles — and entrusted His movement to their care and direction. “Apostle” was not originally a rank in a ministerial hierarchy. The word comes from the Greek apostolos, meaning “one sent, delegate, envoy, messenger” (BAG). Under the heading “apostle” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, we read the following: “The rabbin term for such agents was shaliah[from the root “to send”]. Such persons might represent individuals or corporate bodies such as courts and synagogues, their duties depending upon the terms of their commission — to serve legal documents, collect moneys, convey instructions, particularly with regard to the calendar or festivals. In the synagogues the shaliah might be the leader of the congregation in prayer. The rabbinical principle that ‘a man’s shaliah is like to himself’ (M. Ber. 5.5) states the obvious truth that the person who follows his instructions points the responsibilities for his actions to his authorizing agent. It does not define the status of the shaliah so much as his function.” The apostles were the emissaries of Jesus the Messiah. They represented Him, His message, His values, His vision. As Paul later wrote, “We are ambassadors for Christ” (II Cor. 5:2)).
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.” Kittel’s 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. Kittel’s 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” (Kittel’s, 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 apostle’s 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 Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says of both Mark and Luke’s 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 Paul’s 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 God’s 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. That’s 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
The apostle Paul, for example, was quite unconcerned about the authority of those in Jerusalem, especially when he believed they were wrong on a point. While he respected their seniority and experience, he did not consider himself “under” their apostolic authority. The eminent New Testament scholar James Dunn says this, “…the relationship between Paul and the mother church seems to have become very strained. The polemic in such passages as Gal. 1:6-9; 5:2-12; 2 Cor. 11:4; 12-15; and Phil. 3:2 was certainly against preachers and “apostles of Christ,” who were almost certainly Jewish-Christian missionaries from Palestine anxious to ensure that new believers in Jesus went the whole way in becoming full members of the people of God (by receiving circumcision and undertaking other ‘works of the law’). And these polemic passages are among the fiercest ever written in inter-Christian dispute” (Romans by James D.G. Dunn, pp. xlii – xliii.).
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.
The apostle Paul wrote, “And He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). These functions are often collectively described as the “five-fold ministry.” We also read of “deacons” (Acts 6; 1 Tim. 3:8 etc.) and “elders” (1 Tim. 5:17). In Romans 12:6-8, we also find Paul referring to the natural giftings of individuals within congregations.
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
The city of Antioch later became Paul’s base. There, we see how God, wishing to edify or build up, that congregational staging area, provides other ministerial functions: “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, they laid hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
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 God’s 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 Baptist’s 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.]
Once the apostles had worked the “missionary field” in an area, congregations were created. Often — especially in areas of heavy persecution as in today’s China — they were forced to meet as smaller, less visible, house churches. Sometimes they formed synagogues.
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, he’d 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).
Pastors were appointed once a congregation became large enough to need one. In the synagogue system, a pastor was a zaken. He was a man — or woman — of stature, an elder. He was mature in wisdom. He was an overseer of the believing community in the area. The Greek word for pastor means “shepherd,” one who oversees, and cares for, the flock.
The great teachers of the early Church were often rabbis. As mentioned earlier, in those days this was not an ordained, formal, office. Rabbis were usually itinerant, moving from place to place, living of the charity and hospitality of those they taught. Larger congregations supported their own “teaching ministries.”
Teachers were also called batlanim. The singular is batlan.
Solomon Grayzel explains two of the major offices of the synagogue: “…at their head stood the most respected man in the community [“…having a good report from them that are without…”]: Rosh haKneset or Archsynagogus. A paid official, called Hazzan, was the director of the service…any Jew was eligible to lead the congregation in prayer. Other officials of the community, who did their work as an act of piety, were the overseers of charity. In most instances there was no difference between the community administration and the synagogue administration. The same set of officials was responsible for both” A History of the Jews, p. 121 ff.
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 — it’s 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
Some have erroneously characterized the five-fold ministry functions of Ephesians 4:11 as “ranks” of ministry. They have interpreted the word “first” in this verse to mean first in rank or authority. The result is a militaristic pecking order with authority vested in these ranks in descending order of appearance. This has created an unfortunate distortion in “church government.” It has resulted in a toxic form of authoritarianism that has hurt many. It has also turned these God-ordained roles into unfortunate characatures of what they were intended to be.
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. That’s 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
This is an overview of the first-century Church. It is generalized and incomplete, but it should provide some sense of how things were done in apostolic days.
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 God’s “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, allbelievers 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
The Church today is in dire need of revival. It is spiritually constipated and largely powerless. It has more hangups than Judge Roy Bean. It has a rationalization for all occasions. It can “explain” doctrinally, exegetically, apologetically, dispensationally, and ridiculously, why it doesn’t manifest the signs of apostles, the gifts of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit, the manifested power of God, and the miracles that should follow it.
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-changer’s 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 that’s 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
It is time for the Body to return to the “faith once and for all delivered” — to restore to the Church the functions that once rendered it effective. It is time to restore both Spirit and Truth to the Body. To borrow Jesus’ words, “The time comes when no man can work.” Persecution of the Church is growing and the Body is in internal disarray. We need new kinds of congregations — house churches and congregations based more closely on the synagogue model, and less closely on autocratic, Gentile, patterns. We need to restore the full and authentic expression of the so-called “five-fold ministry” to the Body of Christ. We need to understand the giftings described in Romans 12:6-8 and the roles they play in the Church (see my article in the April 1987 edition of the ACD Newsletterentitled, “How to Find Your Rightful Place in the Body of Christ.”).
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 we’ve 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” God’s 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 congregation’s 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 Church’s 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 isn’t 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 itself was not created — so far as we know — by direct command of God (as was the tabernacle). It was born, probably in Babylon, of the need of the dispersed Jewish people to congregate as Jews. It was created out of practical considerations. Yet Jesus endorsed the synagogue and participated in its services (Luke 4:16). Jesus also participated in the celebration of Purim in honor of the dedication of the temple (Esther 9:26-32; John 10:22-23). Yet nowhere do we find God commanding the observance of Purim.
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. That’s 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. Everyone’s 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 congregation’s faith. They are not to be tyrants, dictators and authoritarian banty roosters revelling in their sense of pre-eminence over God’s 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.