1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Constitution of the Christian Community. Synagogue System.

Christianity
(Part 20)




The Constitution of the Christian Community

The organization of Christianity belongs more properly to the description of the church, but it is impossible to pass the subject without any allusion. Christianity, which has been described to be a new life which takes an organic form and grows like other living things, cannot help taking to itself an external form or organization which approaches perfection in the proportion in which it is adapted to express the life which it contains. On the one hand, the external form of Christianity must not be confounded with Christianity itself, and on the other it must be remembered that Christianity does, and must from its very nature, embody itself in an external organization And a two-fold danger arises from the neglect of this principle, when on the one hand the machinery of Christian worship and discipline is mistaken for Christianity itself, and when on the other it is mischievously imagined that the purity of Christianity depends on the realization of an impossible invisibility or absence of organization.

The Synagogue System

All the various modes of Christian organization or church government profess to imitate the apostolic model, and to be founded on and agreeable to the New Testament Scriptures, and the comparative scantiness of information therein supplied has led to violent controversies upon the subject into which we need not now enter. Many have supposed with great probability that the New Testament contains so few positive instructions on this subject, because the apostles did not invent a new organization for Christianity, but simply took over from Judaism that organization for worship and discipline which had no connection with the temple service -- the synagogue system -- and that the early Christian worship was simply a reproduction of the synagogue service. We may at all events believe that the early Christian organization, if not exactly the same, was modelled upon that of the synagogue, and that the reason why we have so few descriptions and instructions in the New Testament is that the apostles did not require to describe what was so very well known to the Jewish Christians who composed the apostolic church. At first the Christians seem to have shared in the common worship of the Jews and to have engaged at the same time in services which were peculiarly Christian (Acts ii.46); and in this way they appeared to be and were called a sect (hairesis [Gk.]) of the Jews. They do not seem to have had any ecclesiastical organization distinctive enough to separate them from the Jews. Founding on these and other facts Vitringa has derived the whole of the Christian machinery of worship and discipline from the Jewish synagogue. But this is going too far. Two influences, so far as we can gather, seem to have combined to modify the early state of matters which we see existing in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, and these were the hatred of the Jews and the entrance of Gentile Christians. These two circumstances led to the introduction of a new church organization distinct from the Jewish and more suited to the requirements of Christianity. This early Christian organization, whose growth can be obscurely traced in the New Testament, is characterized by two special features. It was evidently founded on and in many respects analogous to the Jewish religious community, and the constitution was thoroughly democratic.

When Christianity arose, Palestine, and indeed the whole of the civilized world where Jews had penetrated and settled, was covered with a network of synagogues in constant correspondence with each other. The synagogue system was an organization for public worship, but also had to do with the lives and conduct of the worshippers, and possessed quasi-judicial functions. The worship of the synagogue was not sacrificial, like that of the temple. It was simply devotional, consisting in prayer, praise, reading, and preaching, and was regulated by a fixed liturgy. The synagogues were ruled by a variety of office-bearers. In the first place, there was commonly a college of elders, with the chief of the synagogue at their head. These elders had .a variety of names -- almost all of the designations given in the New Testament to the Christian office-bearers are used to denote these Jewish Z'Kenim. These elders were the real rulers; they had the power of excommunication, and superintended the worship and charities of the synagogue. Besides these elders there was an officiating minister who was the delegate of the congregation; the rules which Paul laid down to be observed in the choice of a bishop almost exactly correspond to the conditions to be satisfied in the election of the Sheliaeh. The lowest class of office-bearers were the ordained servants or ministers of the synagogue, who are sometimes called the young men, and who like the Sheliaeh and the Z'Kenim were ordained by laying on of hands. In this synagogue system, with its simple devotional worship, its office-bearers to preserve discipline and encourage the exercise of charity, the early Christians found an organization ready to hand which they could at once take advantage of and either adopt or at least copy in important details.





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