The Synagogue as Model for the Christian Church: Samuel Miller and T.D. Witherspoon

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Samuel Miller once wrote that the Christian Church was modeled after the Jewish Synagogue rather than the Jewish Temple. This was a Presbyterian position, he argued, which was consistent with not only the historic Continental Divines, but also with leading Anglican Divines.

…I have given you a very brief sketch of the evidence that Christian Churches were organized by the Apostles, after the model of the Jewish Synagogues. I have shown that the mode of worship adopted in the Church, the titles of her officers, their powers, duties, and mode of ordination, were all copied from the Synagogue. This evidence might be pursued much further, did the limits which I have prescribed to myself admit of details. It might easily be shown, that in all those respects in which the service of the Synagogue differed from the Temple, the Christian Church followed the former. The Temple service was confined to Jerusalem; the Synagogue worship might exist, and did exist wherever there was a sufficient number of Jews to form a congregation. The temple service was restricted with regard to the vestments of its officers; while in the Synagogue there was little or no regulation on this subject. And, finally, it is remarkable, that the mode in which the Bishops and Elders of each Synagogue were seated during the public service, was exactly copied into the Christian assemblies. With regard to these and many other particulars which might be mentioned, the Christian Churches in primitive times, it is well known, departed from the ceremonial splendour of the Temple, and followed the simplicity of the Synagogue. In fact, there is ample proof, that the similarity between the primitive Christian Churches, and the Jewish Synagogues was so great, that they were often considered and represented by the persecuting Pagans as the same.

In support of the foregoing statements, it would be easy to produce authorities of the highest character. The general fact, that the Christian church was organized by the inspired apostles, not on the plan of the Temple service, but after the Synagogue model, is amply shown, by the celebrated John Selden, in his work, De Synedriis; by Dr. [John] Lightfoot, a learned Episcopal divine, in his Horae Hebraicae; by the very learned [Hugo] Grotius, in several parts of his Commentary; by Dr. (afterwards) [Edward] Stillingfleet, in his Irenicum: and, above all by [Cornelius] Vitringa [Sr.], in his profound and able work, De Synagoga Vetere — to which the author has given given this bold title — “Three books on the ancient Synagogue; in which it is demonstrated, that the form of government, and of the ministry in the Synagogue was transferred to the Christian Church.” If there be any points concerning the history and polity of the Church, which may be considered as indubitably established, this, unquestionably, is among the number (Letters Concerning the Constitution and Order of the Christian Minister, pp. 40-41).

Thomas Dwight Witherspoon concurred, as he has stated in his classic works Children of the Covenant, and The Five Points of Presbyterianism: The Distinctives of Presbyterian Church Government.

"When our Saviour appeared, therefore, He found, in every city of the Jews, a synagogue, with its bench of Elders, its ordinances of worship, and its provisions for the poor, as we have them in our congregations at the present day. When He went from city to city, He entered into their synagogues on the Sabbath day, and taught the people. He instructed his disciples to submit questions of discipline to the Church; that is, to these officers, who were its representatives. It is true that these church-sessions, if I may so call them, did not recognize, in most instances, the authority of our Saviour. ''He came to His own, and His own received Him not." The Elders joined with the Scribes and the Priests in putting him to death. But after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, there were many of these Jewish congregations, in which great numbers were converted to Christianity, so that the congregation was, in faith, no longer Jewish, but Christian. In these cases the synagogue became a church edifice. The Elders of the synagogue became Elders of the Christian Church. The rite of Baptism took the place of the rite of Circumcision. The Lord's Supper came in the room of the Passover. The day of the week took the place of the Jewish Sabbath. Hymns to Christ as God mingled with the old synagogue anthems to Jehovah. The epistles of inspired Apostles were read along with the Old Testament Scriptures; and thus, by a transition as natural as it was impressive, the Jewish church became Christian, with all its essential features unchanged.

That this is no mere theory, or special pleading on the part of the advocates of Presbyterianism, will be evident to every attentive reader of the following extracts from the works of one of the most learned and eminent prelates of the Episcopal Church. The late Archbishop "[Richard] Whately, of Dublin, as distinguished for his learning as for his integrity and piety, in his work, entitled "The Kingdom of Christ Delineated, in which he traces the origin of the first Christian churches planted by apostolic hands, uses the following language. (See Ed. of Carter & Bros., New York, 1864, p. 29.)

"It appears highly probable — I might say morally certain — that wherever a Jewish synagogue existed, that was brought, the whole or the chief part of it, to embrace the gospel, the Apostles did not there so much form a Christian church (or congregation: Ecclesia,) as make an existing congregation Christian" (the italics are his own,) "by introducing the Christian sacraments and worship, and establishing whatever regulations were requisite for the newly adopted faith, leaving the machinery (if I may so speak,) of government unchanged; the rulers of synagogues, elders and other officers, (whether spiritual or ecclesiastical, or both,) being already provided in the existing institutions." "And," he continues, "it is likely that several of the earliest Christian churches did originate in this way; that is, that they were converted synagogues, which became Christian churches as soon as the members, or the main part of the members, acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. * * * And when they founded a church in any of those cities in which (and such were probably a very large majority,) there was no Jewish synagogue that received the gospel, it is likely that they would conform, in a great measure, to the same model."

Here, then, is a statement from one of the highest functionaries, and most learned writers of the Episcopal Church, that the primitive Church was built upon the model of the Jewish synagogue, the government of which, as we have already seen, was distinctively Presbyterian, A careful study of the Acts and Epistles will lead us also to the conclusion that the Church of the Apostles was essentially Presbyterian. On their missionary voyages they "ordained Elders in every city." As in many of these cities there was only a small congregation of believers, the Elders ordained in them must have been Ruling Elders, as the language implies that there were several in one city. These Elders ruled in councils, or courts, that were distinctly Presbyterian. Timothy was ordained by "the laying on of the hands of the Presbytery." The Synod which met at Jerusalem, (Acts, chap. 15.) was a Synod composed of the Apostles and Elders (Children of the Covenant, pp. 156-160; see also The Five Points of Presbyterianism [LCP edition], p. 17).

Thus, in these two writers we see what representative leading 19th century American Presbyterians believed, in agreement with leading historic European Calvinists, that the Christian Church is modeled after the Jewish Synagogue.