the weblog of Alan Knox

Homogeneity in the early church? No… and yes

Posted by on May 6, 2010 in church history, gathering | 4 comments

As I’ve mentioned in several posts previously, the early believers took much of their understanding of meeting together from the early synagogue. (see “Why should we study the first century synagogue?” and “Points of comparison between the early synagogue and early church” for example) Besides a focus on community and certain activities, we should also consider another similarity between the early synagogue and the early church… they were not homogeneous… that is, the synagogues differed from one to another and those early gatherings of believers probably differed from one another as well.

First, consider what two authors say about those first century synagogue gatherings:

The ancient synagogue may have held a significant place in common Judaism, but the institution was not a monolithic entity, nor should it be treated as such. (Susan Haber, “Common Judaism, Common Synagogue? Purity, Holiness, and Sacred Space at the Turn of the Common Era,” in Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism (eds. Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 64)

The Second Temple synagogue was a heterogeneous institution in its size and plan and in its function and role within the Jewish community. (Lee I. Levine, “The Second Temple Synagogue: The Formative Years,” in The Synagogue in Late Antiquity (ed. Lee I. Levine; Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1987), 10)

Those early synagogue meetings were different. A synagogue meeting in Nazareth would look different than a synagogue meeting in Alexandria, both of which would look different than a synagogue meeting in Rome. Why? Because, at this time, the synagogue was still primarily focused on community support. Since the needs of the Jews in each city would be different, then the synagogue meetings would look different as well.

Now, carry this over to the early church. As the Christians gathered together from city to city, it also seems that they were focused on community development – not what we call “community development” today, but helping each other growing in maturity in Christ and live as citizens of the kingdom of God. Since the communities were different, their meetings would look different. Since the communities needs were different, their activities would be different from other meetings of other believers with other needs.

So, just as it would be incorrect to talk of a certain form of synagogue meeting, it would be incorrect to talk of a certain form of church meeting. The early church meetings were heterogeneous…as different as the people who were gathered together.

On the other hand, there were homogeneous facets of early synagogue and church meetings. In fact, when NT authors mentions their church meetings, they rarely prescribe certain activities. But, they often described how the believers should interact with one another, regardless of what activities were taking place (i.e., love one another, forgive one another, serve one another, care for one another, consider one another as more important).

In fact, this seems to be Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 14. For Paul, both prophesy and tongues were manifestations of the Spirit, but he was not as concerned with the activities themselves; he was concerned with the motivation (love) and result (edification) of those activities. If the activities could not be carried out in love and if the activities did not edify the people, then those activities should not be performed (even if those activities were the results of manifestations of the Spirit!).

I’ve mentioned two of the “homogeneous” concerns of the NT writers for church meetings: love and edification. But, I think there are a few others. For example, I think that the NT authors indicate that mutuality (i.e. “one anothering”) was necessary for church meetings. They do not command that teaching occur at every meeting, or that prophesy occur at every meeting, but they do indicate that the believers should work together (speaking and serving together) for the benefit of each other and the community as a whole, whatever activities take place.

I think this idea of heterogeneity of activities but homogeneity of motive/purpose/etc. is very important, and often missing the church today. What do you think?


4 Comments

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  1. 5-7-2010

    Could you not, in some ways, make the same arguments for Baptist churches today? They are alike in many ways, yet unique in others.

    Also, I’m not sure what the contrast is when you say the S was “still focused on community support.” As opposed to what? And how is that contrast (whatever it is) evident in the studies you’ve cited? I’m not sure I’m getting the point.

    Just some questions, for argument’s sake…

  2. 5-8-2010

    Bill,

    I think the activities in the early synagogue and early church were much more varied than in Baptist churches today. While I haven’t visited all of the Baptist churches, then ones that I’ve met with and the ones that I’ve heard about all have extremely similar activities.

    When I say “still focused on community support”, I’m contrasting the early synagogue to the synagogue that developed after the destruction of the temple in AD 70, when the activities and purpose of the synagogue became worship. However, before AD 70, the synagogue was much more like today’s community center.

    -Alan

  3. 5-8-2010

    Yes, the S b4 70 was indeed ‘more like today’s community center’. It also had Sabbath meetings, the liturgies of which Josephus summed up fairly simply. If you mean the differences among *those* gatherings (from town to town) was due to the unique contributions of ‘audience participation’, then I’ll agree. But if that was your point, it may not have been clear. (?)

    Just trying to offer some feedback…

  4. 5-8-2010

    Bill,

    Yes, that was my point… sorry that it wasn’t clear. I do appreciate the feedback.

    -Alan