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.

"Not One Forgotten" - A sermon by T.D. Witherspoon

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The doctrine of Providence has its sceptics, and all too often even believers do not heartily embrace this doctrine as they should, despite the fact that it is as the comfort to them of a warm blanket in a cold, wide world. Thomas Dwight Witherspoon reminds us of these realities in a sermon titled “Not One Forgotten” (taken from Luke 7:6: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”), which is to found in that remarkable volume of sermons, The Southern Presbyterian Pulpit (1896).

Two things in particular mitigate against such an embrace, according to Witherspoon: 1) the apparent insignificance of this world, and especially the seemingly trivial and minor things of this world, in the great scheme of things. Why, after all, should the great God of the universe condescend himself to be concerned with the little things of our mortal life? and 2) The apparent unevenness and irregularity of the events and operations of this world., and the fact that all mortal life ends in death, whether for the righteous or the wicked (Eccl. 9:2).

Witherspoon examines each of these apparent obstacles to embracing the doctrine of Providence and, while granting there is some truth to them, as modern science has shown how big the universe is and how small the globe we inhabit is, and how seemingly disordered and chaotic, yet Witherspoon, with the eye of faith, tells us that they are, ultimately, untenable. And what a comfort that is to the believer!

But, amidst all the confusion and disorder incident to a state of things like this, it is the great joy of the Christian heart to rest in the doctrine of the overruling providence of God, which is so clearly taught in his holy word; to think of the little sparrows, five of which brought less than a cent in the markets of the world in our Lord's day, and to remember that "not one of them is forgotten before God.'

The vast expanse of the universe serves to magnify, not diminish, the power of God and the beauty of his magnificent providence. Out of disorder, he gives meaning and purpose to life. In the midst of great distances of time and space, he shows care and concern for the most minute aspects of his creation.

Many persons are willing to admit that the hand of God is in the great events of nature and of human history. When the pestilence is on the air and thousands are falling victims, when some great earthquake has engulphed cities, or some furious tempest at sea has carried down strong ships with their hardy seamen and their terror-stricken passengers, there are few who believe in a God at all who do not recognize his hand, and say, “Surely God is here.” But that the God who kindled the blaze of the sun supplies also the glow-worm's lamp; that he who ”rides upon the stormy wind” fans also the cheek of the invalid with the gentle zephyr's breath; that he who upholds the stars in their courses guides also the sparrow in its flight; these are the things reckoned incapable of belief. And yet the Scriptures do not more clearly teach the one than the other.

The minuteness of the Providence of God can be described thus:

As the whole machinery of a watch will come to a standstill if one of the almost-invisible jewels be dislodged, or if a grain of dust adhere to one of the thousand tiny cogs in its various attachments, so, if one of these minute events should go awry, the whole order and course of providence would be arrested or disturbed. I stood, not a great while ago, looking at a splendid locomotive about to be put upon its trial-trip. The engineer, proud of his beautiful engine, at a signal from the conductor, placed his hand upon the lever and applied the steam. But, though there was a quiver, as if every nerve of the iron horse w^ere strung to its utmost tension, there was no motion of the great wheels. A second time the lever was applied, but with the same result. Then the quick eye of the engineer detected the cause. A single thumb-screw had been insufficiently turned. There was but the light touch of the fingers upon it, and again the steam was applied, and the train moved gracefully away. These little things which men think beneath our heavenly Father's notice, what are they but the valve-screws of the great engine ? What but the cogs and jewels of that secret mechanism which causes the hands of all human destiny to move upon the dial-plate of time?

Witherspoon concludes with some practical observations and applications that will benefit readers in our day as much as they did in his.

…let me remind you what a sanctity it gives to the little things of life that God's eye is upon them, and that we can have fellowship with him in them. So much of our life is taken up with little things — things that do not seem to tell upon the great issues and interests of Christ's kingdom in the world — that we are likely to feel as if the time spent in them is lost from the service of God. The mother with her little brood about her, the housewife with her busy cares, the merchant with all the inventory of his active brain, the teacher with the tedious routine of the class-room — one and all with the daily throng of little duties, little vexations, little cares — let us remember that not one of all these is forgotten before God. There is a sanctity and a blessedness given to life when we can see God's hand in everything — in leaf and flower, in pebble and stone — and the dull monotony of the most humdrum life may be relieved by this thought of the ever-presence and sympathy of our heavenly Father.

Again, let me remind you that if not one of the least of these dumb creatures is forgotten before God, they should not fail of all due consideration and kindness from us. How much wanton cruelty, how much thoughtless neglect would be avoided, did we always keep before us the consideration that "not one of them is forgot- ten before God." How this thought of our heavenly Father's watchful oversight and tender care binds us, as with a band of gold, not only to the humblest and poorest of our kind, but to all that vaster family whom his loving arms enfold, and who rest upon the bosom of his care.

Thirdly, and lastly, while we know not what the changes or trials of coming life may be, there is one thing we do know, and that is, that not one of us in any of them shall be forgotten. However dark the pathway, God's eye will be upon us as we walk it; his infinite arm will be about us to protect us; his wing of love will overshadow us, and he will make good to us his precious promise, that "as our days so shall our strength be." And if at this hour there be in the sanctuary some child of adversity or bereavement, whose cup seems to be full to overflowing with sorrow, let me say there is comfort for you here. Thou, O child of affliction, art not forgotten. Forgotten before man thou mayest be, forsaken of kindred, deserted of friends, but not forgotten before God. His eye of love is upon thee. His pitying arms enfold thee. He will be with thee in all the way thou goest. “Fear not,” is his message, “I will help thee.” Say, O timid one, "I will trust and not be afraid"; for “the eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Sweet comfort indeed from a 19th century sermon, and worthy of meditation upon this Lord’s Day afternoon.

Thomas Dwight Witherspoon on the Importance of Building a Relationship with Your Children

Thomas Dwight Witherspoon was a 19th-century Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Oxford, MS, and Memphis, TN, among other places. We have published his summary of Presbyterian church government in the booklet The Five Points of Presbyterianism. But he also had much wisdom for Christian parents in his book Children of the Covenant. The following paragraphs come from a section in which he is unpacking several difficulties that he believes lie at the root of why we do not see more conversions among our covenant children:

But a third difficulty, and one far more subversive of the great end of the family relation, is found in the failure of Christian parents to cultivate perfect freedom of communication, and intimacy of relationship, with their children. Many parents never seem to win the confidence of their children at all. They never come into confidential relations with them. The most intimate thoughts of the child's mind, the most sacredly cherished emotions of its heart, are never communicated to the parent. Between father, or mother, and child, there is an unnatural barrier of reserve—a wall of mutual separation. The few communications as to its inner life, which the natural yearnings of the child lead it to make, are treated with indifference, or, perhaps, made the occasion of severe rebuke.

At all events, they do not meet with the proper encourageinent, and its timid nature recoils upon itself. Henceforth, these deep experiences are concealed from parental view. As the nature unfolds, and the confiding spirit of early childhood begins to give place to the reserve and coyness of youth, there comes a studied habit of concealment. The parent sees only the outer life of the child. Its inner nature is a hidden mystery. And there are now long constituted and strengthened barriers to intimate and confidential intercourse, which can never be overcome, however much the parent may strive to secure the end.

And yet, how miserably has that parent failed to secure the true end of the family relationship, whose child respects him, fears him, obeys him, and, it may be, loves him, with a kind of distant, reverential affection; but whose bosom has never become the repository of the joys and sorrows of his child; whose  heart never beats in conscious accord with the deep and yearning sympathies of its nature; to whom the most tender and sacred experiences of its young life are all a sealed book! How can such a parent exert over his child the influence which God designed him to exert? How can such a house, (for home it does not deserve to be called,) witness anything else than the growth into manhood and womanhood, of children who are virtually orphans in the world, and who, like waifs of the sea, are liable to be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine"—the easy sport of circumstances, the strong anchorage in the family circle being totally wanting? 

How easy it is in early childhood to gain this intimacy and confidence to which I have referred. The little child naturally seeks to confide everything to its parent. Let but the slightest encouragement be given; let the little one only feel that there is a loving heart ready to sympathize with it; to rejoice with it; to solve patiently its difficulties; to bear forgiveingly with its wrongs, and to lead it kindly by the hand through all the perplexities of its path; and how naturally, how unreservedly does it cast itself upon the bosom that seeks its confidence, and pour out there the very deepest and most sacred thoughts and feelings of its heart.

And who shall say what advantage such a parent will have, in the training of his child! He is like the physician who has had the full diagnosis of the disease he is to treat. He Is like the lawyer to whom the client has fully unburdened his case. He knows how to direct the mind and mould the character of his child; and at the same time, as the result of this loving intimacy, he acquires an influence over it — the influence of mind over mind, and of heart over heart — the blessed results of which it is impossible to estimate.

-- Thomas Dwight Witherspoon, Children of the Covenant, 198ff.

Does the 19th Century Have Anything to Teach Parents?

Thomas Dwight Witherspoon, a 19th century Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Oxford, MS, and Memphis, TN, among other places, had much to say to Christian parents in his book Children of the Covenant. The following paragraphs come from a section in which he is unpacking several difficulties that he believes lie at the root of why we do not see more conversions among our covenant children:

But a third difficulty, and one far more subversive of the great end of the family relation, is found in the failure of Christian parents to cultivate perfect freedom of communication, and intimacy of relationship, with their children. Many parents never seem to win the confidence of their children at all. They never come into confidential relations with them. The most intimate thoughts of the child's mind, the most sacredly cherished emotions of its heart, are never communicated to the parent. Between father, or mother, and child, there is an unnatural barrier of reserve—a wall of mutual separation. The few communications as to its inner life, which the natural yearnings of the child lead it to make, are treated with indifference, or, perhaps, made the occasion of severe rebuke.

At all events, they do not meet with the proper encourageinent, and its timid nature recoils upon itself. Henceforth, these deep experiences are concealed from parental view. As the nature unfolds, and the confiding spirit of early childhood begins to give place to the reserve and coyness of youth, there comes a studied habit of concealment. The parent sees only the outer life of the child. Its inner nature is a hidden mystery. And there are now long constituted and strengthened barriers to intimate and confidential intercourse, which can never be overcome, however much the parent may strive to secure the end.

And yet, how miserably has that parent failed to secure the true end of the family relationship, whose child respects him, fears him, obeys him, and, it may be, loves him, with a kind of distant, reverential affection; but whose bosom has never become the repository of the joys and sorrows of his child; whose  heart never beats in conscious accord with the deep and yearning sympathies of its nature; to whom the most tender and sacred experiences of its young life are all a sealed book! How can such a parent exert over his child the influence which God designed him to exert? How can such a house, (for home it does not deserve to be called,) witness anything else than the growth into manhood and womanhood, of children who are virtually orphans in the world, and who, like waifs of the sea, are liable to be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine"—the easy sport of circumstances, the strong anchorage in the family circle being totally wanting? 

How easy it is in early childhood to gain this intimacy and confidence to which I have referred. The little child naturally seeks to confide everything to its parent. Let but the slightest encouragement be given; let the little one only feel that there is a loving heart ready to sympathize with it; to rejoice with it; to solve patiently its difficulties; to bear forgiveingly with its wrongs, and to lead it kindly by the hand through all the perplexities of its path; and how naturally, how unreservedly does it cast itself upon the bosom that seeks its confidence, and pour out there the very deepest and most sacred thoughts and feelings of its heart.

And who shall say what advantage such a parent will have, in the training of his child! He is like the physician who has had the full diagnosis of the disease he is to treat. He Is like the lawyer to whom the client has fully unburdened his case. He knows how to direct the mind and mould the character of his child; and at the same time, as the result of this loving intimacy, he acquires an influence over it — the influence of mind over mind, and of heart over heart — the blessed results of which it is impossible to estimate.

-- Thomas Dwight Witherspoon, Children of the Covenant, 198ff.