A few days ago, in a post called “Sabbath and Synagogue and Church,” I quoted from a book called Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism by Heather A. McKay (Leiden: Brill, 1994). In that book,McKay concludes, based on archaeological and manuscript evidence, that the Jews did not consider their synagogue meetings to be “worship,” at least, not around the time that the New Testament was written.
In yesterday’s post “Eating Together,” I quoted from the book Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson). In his chapter “The Influence of Jewish Worship on Lukeâ€™s Presentation of the Early Church,” Brad Blue concludes that the early church acted as a Jewish synagogue in most respects.
However, he does not think that McKay’s conclusion concerning worship carries over to the church. He says:
McKay contends that the Jewish community did not worship in the synagogue… Reading, studying and explaining sacred texts, according to her argument, did not constitute worship… [Next, Blue lists several activities that coincide between the early church meetings and synagogue meetings.] The church, then, was a Christian synagogue.
This takes us back to McKay’s assessment of the Jewish material since she argues that the practices of the synagogue community do not constitute worship. Must we infer that the early Christians did not worship or is McKay’s definition wanting? According to our study the latter is the case provided that our understanding of worship incorporates the activities of the early community including God’s communication with his people. (pg 496-497)
Thus, Blue concludes that the early church did meet to worship, if in our definition of worship we include the church meeting or the activities that took place during the church meeting.
But, I think Blue’s argument misses the main point. In McKay’s research, she found that neither Jews nor others writing about the Jewish practices described their synagogue meetings as times of worship. They did not use worship language for these meetings. They used worship language to describe other aspects of their lives, but not synagogue meetings.
I’ve found the same to be true when the New Testament authors discussed church meetings. They did not use worship terminology.
There is another problem, however. Blue sets up a false dilemma when he asks, “Must we infer that the early Christians did not worship or is McKay’s definition wanting?” In fact, the answer to both of these questions is, “No.”
McKay’s “definition” is simply a description of what she found in her research. So, her findings that the Jewish synagogues were not described as time or places of “worship” is not lacking.
Similarly, the early Christians did worship, but they did not consider their church meetings (the times when they gathered together with other believers) to be a special type or kind or place or time of worship. Instead, they recognized that their entire life was lived as worship to God. Certainly this included the times they met with other believers. But, it also included other activities as well.
Certainly, reading and discussing Scripture can be worship. Certainly, sharing a meal together can be worship. Certainly, praying for or with someone can be worship.
But, in the same way, the early Christians could also say that going to the marketplace can be worship. Reading Scripture alone can be worship. Praying or singing alone can be worship. Preparing and eating a meal for your family can be worship. Working to earn support for your family can be worship.
The New Testament authors were consistent in writing that the early Christians gathered together as the church in order to edify, encourage, comfort, etc. one another. I think they recognized that as they served their brothers and sisters in this way, they worshiped God.
But, they did not use worship terminology to distinguish their times of meeting together from other times in their lives. Perhaps they recognized that doing so would have re-defined what it means to worship God.
I think the church is experiencing the ramifications of this type of re-definition today.