the weblog of Alan Knox

Early church gatherings

Posted by on Sep 25, 2008 in books, church history, gathering | 9 comments

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?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-25-2008

    Alan you asked:

    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?

    1. Yes I do.

    2. Yes, the sending out of apostolic type workers (church planters and the funding of such endavors)

    3. Yes we should. I said in a previous comment that we should at least attempt to model the traditions of the apostles as much as we can and pray for wisdom to fill in the blanks. We should say “here is what I can deduce from scripture, and this is what we will practice”, I think a couple of things were cultural but I think many are transcedent practices that would be more faithful to the making of disciples and the encouragment of the saints.

  2. 9-25-2008


    That’s a good idea about sending out apostles. I agree that this was part of early church meetings. I think we especially see this in the first few verses of Acts 13.


  3. 5-1-2012

    Teaching and instruction, fellowship and encouragement, worship and remembrance, communal prayer – it seems to me these are the essential structure of the Christian community in which believers are to be nurtured and to grow. Like coals in a fire, the closer together they are positioned the warmer and the longer they glow. The Apostle’s teaching was most certainly focused on Christological readings from the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). Just as Christ taught the Apostles to see him in the Old Testament Scriptures, they most certainly taught their disciples in the same way.

  4. 5-1-2012


    I’m not certain we can conclude that Luke 24:44 includes the content (or even a majority of the content) of what the apostles and others taught. From the NT, it seems the apostles and other authors in the NT were just as concerned with people learning to live in the presence of Christ within them. The OT is one witness of the coming of Christ, but the presence and power of the Holy Spirit – and practically living in him daily – was surely part of their teaching, if we are to follow what is explicitly taught in the NT. This is why there is no plan or structure laid out for how believers are to meet together – the Spirit controls it.


  5. 5-26-2012

    Hebrews 10:25 , While multitudes of clergy have made common use of this text to stress the importance of “attending church” , they have blissfully ignored the rest of the passage . The passage says that mutual exhortation (not hearing a pulpit sermon) is the primary purpose of the church gathering . (Exhorting One Another) !

  6. 5-27-2012


    Yes, that’s an important passage (Hebrews 10:19-25) because we see that our interaction with one another with the purpose of exhorting one another to love and good works comes directly from the finished work of Jesus Christ in providing direct access to God.


  7. 4-16-2013

    I don’t see how true believers can grow spiritually under the traditional “One Man Show” style of Church Service . Where the “pastor” has “usurp” the authority of Christ . For unless we hold the “Head” (Christ) , in His proper place , how can the Body grow ? Each member should be allowed to function for a healthy body .

    Harold Brown

  8. 7-10-2013

    Romans 9:21 , One day while busy at work, God made Himself known to me . This evil spirit came over me . And as I drew back in horro , the evil spirit was quickly lifted off of me . And it was like God said to me, You see that ? I have complete control over the Devil ! I can let the Devil take you over and make you into a vessel of unrighteousness . Or , I can choose to make you into a vessel of Righteousness . I never believed in “free will” again ! For who ever heard of the clay (man) making the decision what kind of vessel the Potter (God) makes of it ? That is the Potter’s choice alone . God taught this same simple lesson to Jeremiah . (See Jeremiah 18:1–6) . And this Revelation came to me “unexpected” and “unsought” for . (See Romans 10:20)

  9. 7-12-2013


    We’ve enjoyed studying Romans together recently. I love the part about God being the potter, and the clay not telling the potter what to do. I also love the parts where Paul tells the Romans how to respond to God, such as presenting themselves like a sacrifice and renewing their minds and serving each other in the gifts that God provides. It’s a wonderful, mysterious balance, isn’t it?