In his book From Synagogue to Church: Public services and offices in the earliest Christian communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), James Tunstead Burtchaell discusses the synagogue and the church in the first and early second century. In this book, Burtchaell discusses the history, development, practices, and officers of the synagogue and compares and contrasts these with the church as described in the New Testament and the writings of the apostolic fathers.
(By the way, for those who were interested in the previous post about meals in the synagogue – see, “Sacred Meals in the Synagogue” – Burtchaell also suggests that meals were shared as part of synagogue meetings, but he doesn’t go into detail.)
In his discussion of church meetings, Burtchaell begins with synagogue meetings. Why? Because he says that we can only understand what happened when the church met by studying what happened when the synagogue met, because early Christians came out of the synagogue. For example, he says:
We lack evidence that the first Christians assembled to read and consider the scriptures. Yet scholars without exception accept that they did. On what grounds? Because we can assume that the practice attested later can be projected backwards into the first century documentation? No. It is because this practice was established in the Jewish synagogue from which Christians emerged, and later reappeared, after a hiatus in specific information, in the churches of later years. (pg. 272)
Now, I disagree that we “lack evidence” that the early church read Scripture during their meetings. Paul seemed to think that they would read his letters (for example, Col. 4:16), and he specifically instructed Timothy to be devoted to reading, exhortation, and teaching. While the instruction to Timothy is not necessarily concerning Scripture, I think it makes sense.
Either way, Burtchaell’s statement is thought-provoking to say the least. How much of our understanding about early church practices should we take from the synagogue. Certainly, some things changed – and there were some major changes. But, what about the things that may not have changed?
Furthermore, Burtchaell gathered evidence from various NT books and early Christian writers to develop the following list of practices during the meeting of the early church:
Locally they would gather for various community undertakings: to deliberate and adopt common policy (Galatians, Acts, Barnabas); to read and discuss the scriptures (this we can only infer) and correspondence with the churches (1 Thessalonians, Colossians, Acts, Polycarp); to pray in common (1 Corinthians, Acts); to break bread (1 Corinthians, Acts, Didache, Ignatius, Diognetus); to exhort one another to walk morally before the Lord (1 Corinthians, Acts, 1 Timothy) and to discipline those who defaulted (Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 John); to designate and empower officers (Acts, 1 Timothy, Polycarp, Hermas); to arrange for collections for the indigent (1 Corinthians, Hebrews). As we have noted already, this goes far to justifying Acts 2:42 as a summary of early Christian assemblies: “These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers”. (pg. 287)
A couple of years ago, I put together a similar list from only the NT authors. Do you agree with Burtchaell’s list of early church meeting practices? Do you think something should be added or removed? Should the church continue these same practices when they meet together?