Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part V

This is the fifth part of a series against Bojidar Marinov’s articles against local church membership. The links to the previous series are below. In this section, we’re going to be looking at the synagogue and its relevance to the New Testament church.

The origin of the synagogue in Old Testament Israel is somewhat clouded in the fog of history as far as modern scholarship is concerned. Many scholars today treat the synagogue as appearing after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile. The reason for this has more to do with the way modern scholarship works in treating only explicit or extant evidence from the Second Temple Period (530 BC to 70 AD) either available from history/archaelogy or in the biblical text. Modern scholarship wouldn’t typically treat the relationship of Leviticus 23:3 with passages like Acts 15:21 except in the isolated twin towers of Old and New Testament studies.

For our purposes, we assume with Burtchaell that the synagogue in one form or another existed very early on in Israel’s settlement of the land, was put in place again after the Babylonian Exile, and was highly developed by Jesus’ day sufficient to offer itself as a paradigm for local church membership. Much of this post is going to borrow from Burtchaell’s book titled, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Other good general sources to consult on synagogues remain Lee Levine’s The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Whatever your opinion as to the origin of the synagogue, the local New Testament church is clearly and originally based off the more developed first century synagogue that existed during the time of Apostles and later grew into its own. The word “synagogue” simply means an assembly and the Jews both nationally and locally called themselves an assembly in the Scriptures as we discussed to some degree in the last post.

Synagogue comes from the Greek term synagoge and is represented by Hebrew terms in the Old Testament where the assembly or congregation is specified as the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 23:3-4; Proverbs 5:13-14; Nehemiah 7:66; Micah 2:5). Philo himself calls the origin of the synagogue the assembly of God’s people at Sinai (as quoted in Burtchaell, p. 209). As we discussed in the last post, the assembly of the congregation–in Greek synagoge or ekklesia–was seen in the Old Testament as the gathering of the called-out ones for a variety of national and local events or convocations. The list provided by Burtchaell is instructive (p. 209-210):

1) Corporate military decisions (Judges 20:2; Judges 21:5, 8)
2) Ratifying the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:10; Ezra 10:1)
3) Acclaiming rulers (1 Chronicles 28:2; 2 Chronicles 10:3; 2 Chronicles 23:3)
4) For hallowing/making holy (1 Chronicles 13:2-4; 1 Kings 18:24; 2 Chronicles 30:2-4)
5) For receiving communications (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Jeremiah 25)
6) For bestowing official honors (1 Chronicles 29:20)
7) For judgment, including capital crimes (Ezekiel 23:46; Numbers 15:32-36; Proverbs 5:14)

The synagogue, however, was not just the national gathering of the Jewish people but also constituted the weekly local gathering for worship in cities/towns and villages. And, in fact, the presence of Jewish towns and villages had a hierarchical design often spoken of as “cities with their villages” (Joshua 15:32; Joshua 15:36; Numbers 21:25; 1 Chronicles 7:28-29). The Mishnah helps clarify that people in villages that were too small for synagogues would regularly go to the town associated with them in order to attend synagogue services and other important events (Burtchaell, p. 216).

To be clear, the local synagogue during the first century was not merely an incidental part of Jewish life but served as the center of public life. The synagogue was the public seat of leadership, community, and regular worship for the Jewish people. The synagogue was where the elders resided and judged aberrant members of the community (including punishment of offenses), where the Scriptures were read and exposited on the Sabbath, where the Scriptures were presented to the people in their own languages, where children were instructed, where charity to the poor was dispensed, it remained the house of prayer for the local people, and where business and commerce even took place (cf. Levine, pp. 135-173). This is so much the case that the Romans themselves recognized the judicial character of the synagogue and had little problem allowing the Jews to manage their own affairs (Levine, p. 136).

The primary difference between membership in a synagogue and membership in a church was that for most early Christians, membership was a matter of voluntary conversion to Christianity whereas membership in the synagogue was by birth and through circumcision. The grace of God was chiefly offered in a particular way to the Jewish people by birth and the advent of the New Covenant extended that grace to all people everywhere provided they repent and join the church in her worship of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Typically, very few Gentiles ever converted to Judaism because of the physical barrier of circumcision. The New Testament clearly identifies God-fearing Gentiles as friends of the synagogue that were believers in the God of Israel but not natively Jewish (Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26). These God-fearers too were called to a higher standard of local church membership in Christ’s church than they enjoyed in befriending the synagogues and that fact alone should register huge doubt as to the claim Bojidar makes that membership was unnecessary for local Christian churches.  For them, unlike Bojidar, becoming a Christian and joining the local church was a matter of rejoicing because it meant going from a mere friend of the faithful to a real member of the faithful (Acts 13:48).

If you were part of a community and Jewish or Christian, you’d be part of the local synagogue or church respectively. This is so much the case that early Christian churches very much resembled Jewish synagogues and only very gradually moved to distinct entities as history progressed. All of the essential qualities of local synagogues were transferred in one way or another to Christian churches including local punitive discipline, the reading/study of the word, prayer, weekly worship, the exposition of the word, and the like. To say that local church membership was not required of Christians in this sort of social setting is simply to deny the reality of what it meant to be Jewish or Christian. In fact, this is so much the case that eventually the Christians were formally barred from membership in synagogues and suffered persecution due to their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah (John 9:34; John 16:2; Acts 13:44-52). If there was no such thing as local synagogual membership, how could one be put out of the synagogue or driven from the community? The same ability to be put out of the Christian church through excommunication was also a feature of first century local churches as 1 Corinthians 5 makes quite clear.

Regardless, nowhere do we find the sort of independence from local churches and elders that Bojidar Marinov has maintained when we look at the every day synagogue life of Jewish towns, villages, and homes as they practiced it as outlined in the Scriptures and in the pages of history. Regular weekly Sabbath worship was a vital part of being Jewish and that transferred directly to the Christian world upon the advent of the New Covenant. The local institutional presence of the Lord’s people, her elders, the word, sacraments, prayer, and praise have been around for several millenia and to say that it doesn’t mark the fundamental identity of God’s people is to ignore vast sections of church history and what the Bible puts forward in both the Old and New Testaments.

Before we examine the New Testament in more detail, the next installment of this series will review the early history of the church in terms of discipleship and baptism–what it meant to become a Christian in a local church even before the Middle Ages and the Reformation.

[[ Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV ]]