Non-Church Religious Collectivities:
An Examination of the “Synagogue” Argument
By Tim Haile
Brethren are scrambling to find some passage or principle that justifies the use of secular businesses and other organic arrangements to engage in various types of evangelistic work. Some of the arguments are old, having been made by institutionalists for years. Others are new. In this article I will be addressing the synagogue argument. The argument is being made that Jesus’ use of synagogues implies that authority existed for their establishment and use. It is then argued that since the existence, purpose and use of the Old Testament Temple did not prohibit the use of synagogues, then the existence, purpose and use of the New Testament church does not prohibit the use of synagogue-like human institutions for the purpose of teaching and worship today. One brother wrote,
“Just as the men working together in the synagogue taught God’s Word without violating the pattern for the Temple, the men working together in the Truth Magazine lectures teach God’s Word without violating the pattern for the church.”
Another brother wrote,
“Both Jesus before the establishment of the church and Paul (and others) after the establishment of the church taught the Bible in the synagogue (Acts 17:1-3). The synagogue was a human institution not mentioned in the Old Testament that was begun in the intertestament period. The earliest evidence of a synagogue is from the third century B.C. in Egypt. The synagogue was supported by individual contributions, used some of its resources for benevolence, and had prayer and taught the Bible. It had organization, being overseen by the rulers of the synagogue (archon and archisunagogos). Jesus participated in the synagogues while on earth (Luke 4:16 – ‘As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day’) and Paul participated in them after the church was established. If the church is the only collectivity which can have singing, prayer, and teach the Bible, what was Paul doing praying and teaching the Bible in the synagogue? Yet, Acts 17:2 says that his custom or manner was to teach the Bible in the synagogue. This teaching of the Bible by this human institution occurred after the church was established and an inspired apostle participated in it. Did he sin? Can I follow an apostle’s example (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9)?”
This last quote uses the synagogue argument to defend the use of non-church collectivities to sing, pray, teach, take up contributions and perform benevolence. An institution like this gets dangerously close to the function of the New Testament church. Combine these elements with the view that Christians can take the Lord’s Supper wherever “two or three are gathered” on a Sunday and the human institution does supplant the Lord’s church!
There are several oversights and misconceptions in this argument that need to be considered. Of course, faulty premises always result in faulty conclusions, so one must be careful where such a premise takes him.
Synagogue worship sprang up some time before the coming of Christ. Some believe that it was as long ago as the Babylonian captivity. It is thought that the Jewish captives used the synagogue in place of the Temple which they had been taken from, and which was destroyed by the Babylonians. Others, as the brother indicated in the above, believe that the synagogue concept originated some time later. What we do know is that synagogue worship was very common by the time of Christ and His apostles.
The word for synagogue (sunagoge) means an assembly of persons. However, synecdoche is frequently employed in the use of this word, so that the word often refers to a place or building of some sort. Jewish elders spoke highly of the centurion of Luke 7 because he had “built” them a synagogue (Lk. 7:5). Jesus and the apostles frequently taught in synagogues (Matt. 4:23; Lk. 4:15; 6:6; 13:10; Acts 6:9; 9:2; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4). It should be noted, however, that Jesus did use synagogues to teach against Jewish traditions and misconceptions about the Law. In one of the more notable of these passages the Jews became so angry over what Jesus taught in the Synagogue that they tried to kill Him (Luke 4:16-29). Luke 13:10-17 also records an occasion on which Jesus taught in a synagogue, but people were also upset with Him there. In fact, this passage shows that Jesus debated in the synagogue. This passage contains all of the necessary components of a religious debate: a proposition, disputants and an audience. Furthermore, synagogue members were excommunicated for believing that Jesus was the Messiah (Jn. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). These familiar passages show that one must be careful to avoid reading too much into Jesus’ use of synagogue facilities.
Major Fallacies of the Synagogue Argument
Brethren are using the Jewish synagogue arrangement
for their authority for businesses to conduct Bible lectureships. The
synagogue was not a business. Defenders of business Bible lectureships
need to find a passage or principle that speaks of a business teaching and worshipping, which passage they cannot find.
Jesus, Stephen, Paul and others taught in
synagogues as long as synagogue rulers permitted them to do so. We see no
examples of synagogues conducting gospel meetings and inviting such men to be a
part of their preaching program. What these men did, they did on their own.
They did not function as a part of the synagogue organization.
Jesus lived and died under the Law of Moses. His
life and teaching were in perfect harmony with that law (Matt. 5:17, 18). Assuming
that the synagogue concept was divinely authorized by general precepts of
Mosaic Law, then Christ would have violated no Mosaic principle by
“participating” in synagogue activities. And
assuming that it was thusly authorized, it would have been authorized during
the reign of Mosaic Law and its authority would have ended with the
death of Christ (Col. 2:14, 15). In the second quote above, the brother argued
that we may establish synagogue-like missionary societies on the basis that
Paul “participated” in the practice. He asked, “Can I follow an apostle’s example?” Has our brother forgotten that
the Law of Moses had been abolished by the time of Paul’s preaching (2 Cor.
3:13; Eph. 2:15)? Paul preached against the use of the Law of Moses as a
system of justification (Gal. 2:16). He even said that he would become a transgressor
if he built again that which he had destroyed (Gal. 2:18). Paul did regularly
visit synagogues (Acts 17:1-3), but he used synagogues as a means of
teaching against the observance of the Law of Moses. Paul was not
in agreement with the synagogue. At Ephesus, Paul “entered into the
synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews” (Acts 18:19). This didn’t make Paul
a part of the synagogue system or organization. Various ones got
so angry with him that he and other disciples were forced to leave that
synagogue (Acts 19:9). It doesn’t sound like Paul was a part of the synagogue arrangement.
Paul and the other brethren used the “school” (lecture hall) of Tyrannus as
their new meeting place. The point here is that Paul merely used the synagogue
as a meeting facility. Paul’s use of that facility did not constitute
acceptance of the synagogue concept, its teaching or its organization. He
used the synagogue for a place. The
same is true of Paul’s use of the school of Tyrannus. His use of the school
does not imply that he approved of the school and/or its projects and purposes.
He used the facility. If Jesus’ and Paul’s use of the synagogue is tacit
approval of the synagogue organization and function, would it not follow that
Paul approved of the existence, philosophy and function of Tyrannus’ school?
What proves too much proves nothing. There is no reasonable way for brethren to
use these synagogue passages as authority for them to join together in
religious collectives and conduct gospel meetings. These passages do not
authorize what some brethren need for them to authorize. In fact, post-church
synagogue passages show the preachers preaching against the things that
were accepted and done by synagogue members and leaders. Assuming that
synagogues were authorized by the law of Moses, they ceased to be authorized
upon the death of Christ.
Scripture says that Jesus “entered” or “went
into” their synagogues (Matt. 4:23; Mk. 1:21; 6:2; Lk. 6:6; 13:10; Jn.
6:59; 18:20). Jesus didn’t “enter” into some business arrangement with
the synagogue. He entered into the synagogue.
Once there, His teaching was not always pleasing to synagogue members and
officials (Lk. 4:16-29; 13:10-17). Passages show Jesus using a synagogue as a
forum for instructing people in the true meaning of Old Testament Scriptures,
and to expose the hypocrisy of religious leaders. The word “synagogue” does not
necessarily imply religious organism. Consequently, Jesus’ use of the
synagogue does not necessarily imply authorization of the synagogue concept.
Even if His participation did show approval for Jewish synagogues, we
are not under that law today! And there is absolutely no way to find New
Testament authority for business Bible lectureships by citing post-church-establishment
Those who make the synagogue argument make it to
defend the activities of teaching,
praying and singing. Some use the
word “worship.” I find it
particularly interesting that the only thing that we actually see Jesus doing
in the synagogues was teaching,
which, like Paul, was His custom to do (cp. Lk. 4:16 and Acts 17:2).
The Bible consistently states that Jesus and Paul taught in Jewish
synagogues, but institution defenders add singing,
praying and worship. What other
items do men get to add that are not mentioned in these passages?
A teacher’s use of a particular worship facility or
arrangement does not necessarily imply agreement with that worship arrangement
or with the things that are practiced at that facility. I may preach the gospel
in a church of Satan. That doesn’t mean that I endorse their actions or worship
arrangement! It means that I am taking advantage of that facility and of
an opportunity to teach that gathering of hearers. I agree with the
above, that Jesus and Paul did teach in Jewish synagogues (Lk. 4:16-21), but
this does not necessarily imply endorsement of everything that was done by
7. The synagogue argument is an argument from the silence of the Scriptures. It defends the establishment and operation of human religious institutions on the basis that God didn’t tell the Jews not to build synagogues! By this they reason that even though Jesus built the church and gave it a mission and a work to perform, yet He did not tell us not to build other similar religious organizations of joint function with the same mission and work! Is that how Bible authority is now determined?
Good brethren are so determined to find justification for their pet religious projects and programs that they are losing sight of the most elementary principles of determining biblical authority. Like the Jesus-group argument, the synagogue argument is just another in a series of ill-conceived arguments that prove only that some men are becoming dangerously desperate in their desire to defend what they want to do through their organizations. Jesus said, “They shall put you out of their synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God a service.” First century synagogues thought that they were doing God a service by their actions. They were not. Do some 21st century self-styled “synagogues” think they are “doing God a service” today? Good works are defined by God in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:17). Those who introduce a religious practice are obligated to defend it by Scripture. Synagogue passages do not authorize business Bible lectureships, nor do they authorize the establishment and operation of non-church religious organizations. Men must look elsewhere for that authority.