Sunday, October 3, 2010

Church in the First Century

I have written in the past about early church organization...but I fear that I got sidetracked into some details and missed what had originally inspired me to write. (Not for the first time: My wife says sometimes that if you ask me what time it is, I will tell you how to build a clock.) At any rate, what I truly wanted to do was give you a feel for what it was like to attend a first century church. (Note: I am not saying everything in here is required for church, or even that it is good or godly! Just that this is what the first century churches were like.)

So, let us imagine that you are a first-century Christian convert. You are (like most early Christians) a Jew who came to believe that Yeshua bar Joseph bar David was in fact the Christ prophesied in the Scriptures.

On Sunday morning at first light, you assemble for the service. (You meet at Sunday dawn to remind you of Jesus' resurrection, which was first discovered at dawn Sunday.) You and your family enter the synagogue building.

Your wife and young children go over to the left, to sit with the other women and children. All are veiled and dressed in very modest robes, without physical adornment. It is rare for a woman to try to be beautiful; indeed, beauty is as much a curse as it is a blessing for a young Jewish or Christian woman, for it is nearly impossible to maintain the extremely strict first-century requirements for modesty and still have noteworthy beauty.

Neither of your two sons is yet old enough to be examined for acceptance into manhood. Generally it occurs around 12; they are quizzed on the Scriptures (Torah and the Prophets) to determine if they are ready for manhood. At any rate, this means that you sit without your family on Sunday morning. Rather, you sit with all of the men, on the right side of the building.

The elders of the church sit near the front. And they are truly elders: gray and white headed, they have lived through a lot and have great perspective to offer. When they stand to speak, people listen--for they are chosen and respected for their wisdom and experience.

At the start of the service, the Bishop enters. The bishop is the pastor of the church--many (like yours) simply having been Jewish rabbis before their conversions. The pastor earns his keep by serving the town all week. In this particular town, the bishop is one of only three scribes, and thus takes dictation for letters as well as reading received letters for the residents. Also, he serves as a judge on Christian matters; when two Christians disagree, they do not go to civil courts but to the pastor to decide what is right. He is, in general, heavily involved in his parishioners' lives. He is there when they are married or baptized or die or are sick. He gives advice (whether asked or not) over the decisions they make. He is their shepherd, and they are his sheep: he cares for their needs--physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

The service is now full--about fifty people in all. A Christian church rarely meets with less than twenty or more than seventy people. The service begins with a prayer from the bishop. The congregation then sings some of the Psalms from Scripture, praising God for His grace. They also likely recite a creed, stating what it is that you believe as Christians.

After the singing, the crowd quiets and the bishop reads this week's message. On most Sundays, he reads from the Scripture--the Torah or the Prophets probably. On some Sundays, however, he will read a letter from abroad...either some new news from other Christians in the Empire, or perhaps even a writing from one of the Apostles. These writings (such as Paul's letters to specific churches, or Peter's letters to be circulated among all churches) are particularly interesting, for these are men who specifically had worked with the Lord Jesus Himself. These letters are particularly useful for understanding the new revelation that Jesus brought to the Scriptures, so that we can understanding living under Grace rather than Law.

After reading the letter or Scriptures, the bishop will share a few thoughts on it. He may have a fully-prepared sermon to give, or it may just be a few general comments.

At this point, the bulk of the service begins--the discussion. Service is not a passive thing, but an active one. The people all stand and discuss what they have heard, or things which affect their community. The bishop stands at the front and facilites the discussion--commenting when appropriate, hushing someone when appropriate, quieting the crowd to hear an elder with a fading voice, etc. The Scripture is debated, discussed. The bishop does not always do the reading or facilitation; as someone who works all week too, he may at times be sick or tired and ask one of the church elders or key helpers (deacons) to lead the service some weeks.

The debaters are only the males in the crowd. The women no doubt have passionate opinions as well (and, of course, talk amongst themselves somewhat, as long as it is not distracting). But only the men are allowed to speak or teach in church. All the men are able to contribute to the discussion, too. True, many are uneducated or illiterate. But recall that all good Jewish boys spent a few hours a day at the synagogue learning the Scriptures, and all had to be examined at age 12 to ensure that they understood the Scriptures. By the time they are grown men, they are quite knowledgable about the stories and interpretations of the Law and Prophets. So the debate is generally quite detailed and useful (and, no doubt, generally focuses on how to apply the Scriptures to what their community is facing).

At the conclusion of the discussion, more prayer is had. Everyone dismisses singing psalms. If they have money they can spare, they leave it in one of the offering-boxes by the door. They then gather together and share in a meal, having fellowship over bread, wine, meat, fruits, and vegetables (probably mostly kosher, though they do not pay as much attention to that as they did when they were Jewish).

So there you are...a brief snapshot of a typical early Christian church. Obviously it different from area to area--for example, we know that Philemon (a wealthy slaveowner) hosted his church likely in his home, whereas the church of Rome met in catacombs under the guise of a funeral club. But this is a good example of a typical Judeo-Christian country church.

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