Today, churches come in all shapes and sizes. There are mega-churches and tiny country churches. There are newly planted churches and well-established churches. There are churches that meet in church buildings and churches that meet in homes, re-purposed school cafeterias, and other locations. Some meet once a week, others meet two or three times a week. Some have paid pastors and staff, others have volunteers. Some sing acapella, others sing with a myriad of instruments.
With the great diversity we see in churches today, I wonder if it would be helpful to examine the origins of the church. In this article, I aim to uncover an origin of the church that you may not be familiar with.
Many scholars believe that the New Testament church finds its roots in the Jewish synagogue. This means that the church’s form, structure, leadership, etc. was borrowed from the synagogue. There is no denying that the church has similarities with the synagogue, but is there another option? Some would say no, but I believe there is.
Borrowing from Rome
The events of the New Testament, including the founding of the earliest churches, did not take place in a vacuum. The New Testament is set in the middle of the vast and powerful Roman Empire, which surely had an influence on Christianity and the church. For example, New Testament authors frequently use the term “gospel” (Greek euangelion) to describe the good news of Jesus Christ. But euangelion is not first and foremost a biblical or theological word. It was a word used in first-century Rome to describe the good news of a military victory or the birth of a royal son. It was then borrowed by New Testament authors to describe the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus, and it is still borrowed by us today in the church.
Many other examples abound of Roman words and phrases borrowed and adapted by Christianity. This leads one to wonder: if words were borrowed, were practices borrowed as well?
A staple of Roman society under the rulership of the Caesars were voluntary associations. Associations were groups of like-minded and same-status people that met together on a regular basis to share a meal and have a good time. Some were purely for entertainment, and others had benefits such as providing one with a respectable burial upon death. Some associations were religious, others were not. A standard association meeting involved two parts: the deipnon (supper) and the symposion (symposium; a time of entertainment, discussion, and debate).
When you read the New Testament, especially its epistles, you pick up on many association themes. When individuals met together as a church, they did so because of their like-minded belief in Jesus Christ. Also, when the church gathered, there was often a meal shared. After the meal, the church would enter a symposium-like time in which they would worship their risen Lord through music, prayer, prophecy, Scripture reading, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Also, if a church had received a letter from Paul or Peter or one of the other apostles, it would be read aloud during this portion of the gathering.
Another connection between churches and associations is the leadership structure. Both churches and associations had officers, and some of them used the same title: episkopos (“overseer”). Association documents and inscriptions also indicate the presence of diakonos (“deacons”) during association meetings.
As a post simply introducing this concept, I have been broad and not included any references from either Scripture or academia. If you would like to read more about the concept of associations and the church, check out these sources:
- Philip A. Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
- R. Alan Streett, Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).
- Richard S. Ascough, Philip A. Harland, and John S. Kloppenborg, Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).
Also, as you read through the pages of the New Testament, be on the lookout for association-like language and practices.