A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies (4th of 4): Early Christians Adapted the Synagogue and Hevrah to Organize Congregations and Missionary Bands

A church is like a lighthouse, but a missionary carries a flint to start new fires far away. You can read about “Lighthouse and Flint” here. But before there were churches, there were Jewish synagogues, and before there were Christian mission societies there were Jews who organized themselves into missionary societies. These societies were called hevrah. The first Christians adapted synagogues to form a “Christian version” of the synagogue, the ekklesia, or what we commonly call a church. Christians also adapted the Jewish hevrah in order to form a Christian version, the missionary bands.

The Pharisees were the most well-known hevrah of the first century. We wrote about the Pharisees here. I would not have known about the hevrahs except by talking with Jews and reading Jewish books. It was Dr. Ralph Winter who told me to read what the Jews wrote about hevrahs. Ralph Winter wrote:

Very few Christians, casually reading the New Testament, and with only the New Testament available to them, would surmise the degree to which there had been Jewish evangelists who went before Paul all over the Empire, people whom Jesus himself described as “traversing land and sea to make a single proselyte.” Paul followed their path; he built on their efforts and went beyond them with the new gospel he preached.[2]

When occasion demanded, Winter writes, “Paul established brand new synagogue-type fellowships of believers as the basic unit of his missionary activity. The first structure in the New Testament scene is thus what is often called the New Testament church. It was essentially built along Jewish synagogue lines [emphasis is in original].”[3] The defining characteristic of this structure “is that it included old and young, male and female.”[4] Then Winter describes a second, “quite different” Jewish structure active in the first century:

While we know very little about the structure of the evangelistic outreach within which pre-Pauline Jewish proselytizers worked, we do know that they operated all over the Roman Empire. It would be surprising if Paul didn’t follow somewhat the same procedures.[5]

Paul’s team “may certainly be considered a structure,” Winter asserts.[6] “While its design and form is not made concrete for us on the basis of remaining documents, neither, of course, is the New Testament church so defined concretely for us in the pages of the New Testament.”[7] Thus, two kinds of Jewish structures existed, both of which were adapted by Christians. “The structure we call the New Testament church,” Winter wrote, “is a prototype of all subsequent Christian fellowships where old and young, male and female are gathered together as normal biological families in aggregate.”[8] On the other hand, Paul’s missionary band “can be considered a prototype of all subsequent missionary endeavors organized out of committed, experienced workers who affiliated themselves by making a second decision beyond membership in the first structure.”[9] These two structures “have continuously appeared across the centuries”:

The New Testament is trying to show us how to borrow effective patterns; it is trying to free all future missionaries from the need to follow the precise forms of the Jewish synagogue and Jewish missionary band, and yet to allow them to choose comparable indigenous structures in the countless new situations across history and around the world—structures which will correspond faithfully to the function of the patterns Paul employed. As Charles Kraft has said, we seek dynamic equivalence not formal replication [emphasis is in original].[10]

Next: Jewish Voluntary Associations Today. Organizing for Good Works in the 21st Century.

Here are links to the four blogs on the topic “A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies.”

Jewish Mission Societies in the New Testament

Jesus Christ and His Missionary Band as a Type of Jewish Hevrah

Pharisees were a Type of Jewish Hevrah

Early Christians Adapted the Synagogue and Hevrah to Organize Congregations and Missionary Bands

[1] Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” 122.

[2] Ibid., 121.

[3] Latourette wrote that “the synagogue . . . was to have a profound effect upon the nascent Christian Church . . . Both in Palestine and among the Jews of the ‘dispersion’ scattered through much of the Mediterranean world and Western Asia, the synagogues were the places where most of the Jews worshipped and taught.“ Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Revised ed., 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 13-14. Winter wrote that the Christian church model was “obviously borrowed“ from the synagogue. Ralph D. Winter, “The Anatomy of the Christian Mission,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 5:74-89 (1969): 75.

[4] “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jewish women and children were members of synagogues, a convention first practiced in ancient Greece, where “all members of the family take part in the συναγωγή.” Wolfgang Schrage, “Synagogue,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 800.

[9] Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” 122.

[10] Ibid. Winter is referencing Charles H. Kraft, A Hausa Reader; Cultural Materials with Helps for Use in Teaching Intermediate and Advanced Hausa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973).