by Robert Brow
We shall begin with local churches. These are the basic units of organic church life, the irreducible minimum necessary in order for Christianity to exist. We are not speaking of buildings, since Christians have often done without them. Nor do we mean elaborate organizations with hundreds of members. Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ, there he is. Christians might meet in a concentration camp; and they could lack hymnbooks and account books, even Bibles, sacraments, and any formal connection with other churches, but they would be recognized by Jesus Christ as a local church meeting in his name.
The root origin of these local churches is best seen in the transition from Jewish synagogues to Christian congregations. At first all Christians were Jews, and they belonged to synagogues. Within these synagogue congregations, the Christians began to declare that Jesus was the Christ. Inevitably there were soon synagogues that recognized Jesus as the Christ, organized alongside those where the question was still open. Gradually it dawned on these Jewish Christians that their Lord was the one who had been promised as the light to the Gentiles, and so they found themselves taking non-Jews into their membership. The book of Acts and the epistles of Paul illustrate the tremendous struggles that took- place as Christian and non-Christian Jews discussed this matter.
Forty years later the break was complete, and men had to choose between being Christian or Jewish, since they could no longer be both. Today the wheel has come a full circle. Churches can easily cease to be Christian, while some synagogues conic remarkably close to being churches.
Synagogues were ideally suited for the momentous New Testament decisions concerning the Messiah. Dating back to the exile five hundred years earlier, they are the first example of the modern concept of the freedom of religion. Every Jew was free to belong or not to belong to a synagogue. In any large city he would have a choice of several organizations with a rich variety of Pharisee, Sadducee, Zealot, and Essene emphases. Synagogue government was by elected elders, and there was no need of priests or even of a theologically trained rabbi. If no existing synagogue suited him, a Jew had only to find nine oilier men over thirteen years of age who would join with him to organize a new one.
We know that Jesus attended synagogues regularly. Although he was not a qualified rabbi, he was often given the freedom to preach (Luke 4:15f., 31, 33, 44; John 18:20). On his missionary journeys Paul always attended one of the local synagogues on the Sabbath day, and he too was usually asked if he had a word of exhortation to present (cf. Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14, 43; 14: 1; 17:1, 2, 10, 17; 18:4). There were thus ready-made preaching centers in all the major cities to give a first hearing to the preaching of Jesus. Since these were free democratic institutions, there could of course be opposition to the message; and freedom to preach could be terminated, as was often the case with Paul. The point was that each synagogue and every individual in it had an opportunity to make an informed decision concerning the Messiah.
In the case of the Bereans of Macedonia (Acts 17:10-12) we find a whole synagogue convinced by Paul's preaching and by their own careful study of the Scriptures. This may have been the first case of an entire synagogue that moved over to a Christ-believing theology. In most places, however, the time soon came when a separate Christian synagogue had to be formed. This happened in Corinth, where the new church began meeting right next to the synagogue, and one of the first converts was Crispus, who had been its leader (Acts 18:1-18). In Ephesus Aquila and Priscilla had attended the synagogue as a kind of Christian advance party. When Paul returned, the new Christ-believing synagogue was organized within three months in a rented hall (Acts 18:19f.; 19:1-9).
There are only a few examples in the book of Acts, but obviously this movement of Christian synagogues forming in each city went on in waves across the Roman world and far to the cast along the trade routes to India and China. The fact that only ten male adult members were needed meant that churches could mushroom as new believers were added. As Roland Allen pointed out in his writings, ciders could begin functioning immediately, no foreign priests or organizers had to be imported to stifle their growth, and there was no need to send off promising young men for college and seminary training before a native ministry could be ordained.
The first Christian synagogues were naturally organized in the same way as those that preceded them. In Jerusalem the apostles did not wish to be involved in the responsibilities of local eldership, so they asked the Church to elect elders to deal with their own administrative problems. It is usually assumed that Stephen and the others appointed for this were "deacons," but Luke does not say this, and the functions performed by these men are typical of synagogue elders. In any case by the time of the Council of Jerusalem reported in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Church was governed by elders in the usual way. As Paul and Barnabas founded new churches in Galatia, they immediately organized them as self-governing synagogues under the leadership of their own elders (Acts 14:23). This method of government was so natural that Luke does not even mention the appointment of elders in Ephesus, although they were obviously functioning a few months later when Paul called them to Miletus for a final briefing (Acts 20:17). After a major evangelistic campaign in Crete, Titus was left behind to make certain that every town had a properly functioning church with suitable elders (Titus 1:5).
In addition to elders for its government, a synagogue might have one or more paid or unpaid servants (Greek, diakonos) to help with maintenance and other duties. As churches grew in size they had deacons for the same purposes. As we shall see later, the distinction between elders and deacons is that the former constitute the governing board, while the latter execute the secretarial and domestic duties of the society.
In Jewish synagogues one of the elders often became the leader or president of the board of elders. He provided a center of administration, a postal address for communications, and the leadership continuity that a committee cannot give. Luke mentions Jairus (Luke 8:49), Crispus (Acts 1 8: 8 ), and Sosthenes (Acts 18:17), as men who had this function. Similarly in Christian synagogues there was a natural development of the Bishop from among the elder bishops. Particularly when persecution devastated the churches, it was essential to have one man with executive responsibility. At first he was only one of the elders, who was asked to act by the others when they could not meet as a committee. As we shall see in the next chapter, his power increased; and the leader of a city church eventually became bishop for a whole group of churches in the surrounding district.
The greatest difference from Jewish synagogues was the admission of women to Christian synagogue membership. Whereas first-century Jewish synagogues had no place for women - even as members - Christian women were from the first accepted into full membership. Some of them became deaconesses, like Phoebe of Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1 ). Paul gives Timothy the qualifications of women to serve the churches right after describing the kind of Men who should be appointed (I Tim. 3: 11
There were also prophetesses like Philip's four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9), though it appears that Paul did not consider that a woman should continue to prophesy or teach or lead in public prayer after marriage (I Cor. 14:33-36; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). This may explain why women were not elected to eldership. Elders were, as their name indicates, older, experienced, respected men in the community; and since most women were married at an early age, few could qualify. The church is still discussing how the new place of women in twentieth century society relates to the question of ordination in the church. We can note in passing that ordination as we discuss it today was not the question. Laying on of hands was then used for a wide variety of appointments, whereas we limit it today to a particular kind of minister. it is function, not ordination, that is the real question, but a discussion of this is better postponed until after a detailed study of functions in the church (see Ch. XV).
We conclude this brief look at the synagogue organization of local churches by seeing how it relates to the growth of our denominations. A rudimentary Jewish synagogue could be an informal weekly meeting of ten men to read the Law and the Prophets, to sing or say the Psalms, and to pray. A fully developed synagogue would have a board of elders with the equivalent of a managing director, paid servants, a properly qualified teaching rabbi, a large community day school, and the elaborate buildings that were required. In time synagogues naturally grouped themselves with like-minded meetings in other cities. The grouping might be a loose fellowship or a rigidly organized international body. Some of these groupings are mentioned by Luke: "Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Atexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen" (Acts 6:9). Similarly Christian churches were bound to associate together in various national, sociological, or ecclesiastical patterns.
Once churches begin to organize groups and conferences, strong differences of opinion arise. A grouping may become so large that it genuinely feels that it must be the original depository of the truth. Its rules of operation, its hierarchical structure, and its stability tend to make other newer groupings look spurious. This happened in the congregations connected with the empire's capital church in Rome. In terms of numbers there were equally impressive groupings around the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the Nestorian and Jacobite patriarchs of the Syriac-speaking churches of the east.
Other Christians are temperamentally suspicious of such vast power structures, or they may need to form new organizations to stress what God has taught them. There will always be Montanists, Waldensians, Lollards, Hussites, Friends, Brethren, and their successors to rebuke and teach the institutional church. Other groupings will associate for geographical and social reasons. As the uprooted immigrants from Europe arrived in the United States and Canada they integrated best where the first generation could worship in their own ethnic churches. Their grandchildren were sufficiently acclimated to branch out and choose a congregation for other reasons.
It is time that Christians learned that their brethren in a feudal state or a tribal culture or in Communist countries are unlikely to organize themselves in the same way as in a fast-moving laissez-faire republic. Even within one country it seems unreasonable to enforce musical conformity, for example. Let every Christian feel at home whether he prefers the organ or the saxophone, whether he wants to clap his hands or beat his drum or sit stiffly in bourgeois decorum. Obviously there has to be a wide range of church forms to provide for the variety of human preferences. Ideally one might like to see one single united church, but it would have to be big enough to allow every type of Christian the full freedom to express his faith in whatever way best suited him. This quality of bigness is unlikely to be found this side of the City of God. Meanwhile Christian maturity must be evidenced by a recognition of variety, a genuine respect for differences, and the deliberate avoidance of pressure to make others conform to one's own denominational Pattern. Conformity to Christ by all means, but this has nothing whatever to do with one's own particular tradition.
If we believe in truth and in the freedom to decide, we must also allow the freedom so evident in the first-century Jewish synagogues: freedom for an unlettered man to be heard, freedom to reject a teacher who does not conform to God's Word, freedom to form a new synagogue if necessary, freedom to associate or not to associate with other groupings, freedom for men to be different and to be themselves, freedom to argue and to disagree.