The Earliest Church Gatherings: I Voluntary Associations 


Or: “How to find meaning when your world has collapsed and the Empire has taken over.”

by the Rev. Bud Tillinghast    This is the initial article on the historical and Biblical background of the Dinner Church. (first draft)

You’ve seen them so many times that your eyes may not catch it. It is a sign posted near when you enter almost any town in the U S. It’s probably just before the city limit sign that announces the name of the town its population, and its elevation. I remember my home town of Sebastopol, California. The city limit sign gave the town name, Sebastopol, the population, in those days, was 3,601 and the elevation was 81 feet.

But the sign I’m referring to was just before it, made of wood stained dark. And on it were recorded all the town’s clubs and service organizations, Masons, Odd Fellows, Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, and the like, with their locations and meeting times. Some towns, in a similar way list the churches to be found there.

We take for granted these voluntary organizations and non-profits, the many more that are part of our social structure landscape: Red Cross, A. A., S.P.C.A., the Grange, Portuguese Holy Ghost Society…. There are hundreds, no, thousands of them. But we take them for granted because they have always been there.

On the other hand, I remember my brother reporting back in the midst of spending several years in post-USSR in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Stan is a physician and was seconded by the Kaiser Health system, for which he worked, to help the Russian health system make the transition from the Communist to the post-Communist world. One of the realities he encountered was discovering that, other than the Communist Party, with all its substructures, there were simply no voluntary organizations in the country. So when the Party collapsed, the people were left with no social net of protection, no free hospitals to care for you, no Odd Fellows lodge to help with funeral expenses, no A. A. to help the despairing turn from alcohol, few churches because they had been suppressed under an atheist government. He discovered that his medical colleagues in Russia had a salary the equivalent of $100. per month. That is, when they were paid, which wasn’t a certain thing.

All that supportive network that we take for granted just wasn’t there.

Go back 2500 years and you find a situation very similar in the Mediterranean world. There had been a similar collapse, but it was the opposite from that experienced in the USSR. The Soviet Empire had provided the social, economic, and cultural web for people. Now they had to figure out how to survive, how to raise their families, without that web.

For those in the ancient world the movement had been in the opposite direction. After millennia of living in what had been the default social structures, they had to face the realities of living in an empire. From Burton Mack’s “The Lost Gospel”:

“The Greco-Roman age also brought to an end the civilizations of the ancient near east that had been in place for three millennia or more. The social system basic to these cultures was what we now call the temple-state, a model that had been honed to perfection and replicated over and over again, whether in a more stable elaboration such as Egypt enjoyed, or as the more vulnerable near eastern kingdom.

The temple-state centered, defined, and maintained the society’s myths, rituals, codes of recognition, patterns of thought and behavior, social hierarchies, national boundaries, system of education, round of festivals, social ethics, laws, and the meaning of a people’s labor, production, and exchange. In the wake of Alexander, temple-states crumbled and the social structure supporting these cultures was destroyed.” (page 65)

So we have an interesting parallel in two opposing situations. In the case of Russia, they had to deal with the collapse of an empire and its structures that had provided the social glue. In the case of the Mediterranean world, we have a collapse of social structure because of the new situation of the imposition of empire and the collapse of the social structures that had served humans for several millennia.

What happened to provide the new glue for our Mediterranean ancestors? Evidently, there weren’t too many options available. My knowledge is too limited to know what these other options were. My research has made me aware only of what they turned to.

Present in the Hellenic world (ancient Greece) which preceded the Hellenistic world (post- Alexander the Great) was a social structure, but its use was limited to the elite, the wealthy, and the educated. Anyone who has read Plato’s “The Symposium” has encountered that structure. But because we encountered The Symposium in our college philosophy class, we know more about what was said than we do about what was done in the social context in which the conversation took place.

So while you are reminiscing about those days long ago when you mused about the good, the true, and the beautiful, let me break in to describe a bit of that social setting. For that is what was adapted to fill the social/cultural void caused by first the Greek and then the Roman empires.

With the gift of adaptability that has served the human race so well, over years of time, the social meeting which as first used by the elite of society became the means by which the ordinary person was able to find a replacement for the social system that had been destroyed by the empires.

What did that social structure look like? Though it was used by all kinds of people (as I will show in the next blog posting) there was a common pattern which included two features. It began with a leisurely meal, during which the attendees reclined on couches. It was followed by what was called, from Plato’s days, the symposium. This latter took different forms. It could be informal with simply drinking and conversation. It could be a scholarly discussion led by a teacher. Again, more in the next blog.

This social structure is referred to with different terms. Some current scholars call it a voluntary association; others use the term the Greco-Roman Meal. You could call it a ‘supper club’ or a banquet. But within its two-fold pattern, people struggling to find meaning in a new day- while trying to hold on to some old traditions- were able to make sense of their lives.

More relevant for our day, this is posited by Biblical scholars as the earliest form of meeting and worship for the earliest followers of Jesus. For those who say that the earliest Christian gatherings were influenced by the synagogue I have a question for you. How do you know what the first century synagogue looked like? You are in for a surprise- the first century Jews borrowed the same Greco-Roman meal/symposium pattern that was used by Jesus’ followers. (See: “Meals in Early Judaism: Social Formation at the Table” by Marks)

For further reading:
“Voluntary associations in the Graeco-Roman world” John Kloppenborg
“Associations in the Greco-Roman World” Richard Ascough

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