Maybe God is treating us like petulant toddlers in his preschool, putting all of us in a time-out called COVID-19. If so, then, as with any time-out, we’re supposed to come out of this irksome experience both wiser and better behaved.
Is it working? What behavioral lessons have we learned?
First we have learned a new appreciation of proximity—the joyful power of just being together, face to face, in hugging range. We’ve discovered how much we miss this, and therefore, how much we need it.
Second, we have been been discovering how situationally and financially vulnerable our spiritual communities are. Some of our synagogues have had to vacate their buildings because income is down and we can’t pay our bills. Others of us are realizing how much our programs and activities have been driven by gaining and maintaining a certain level of income. COVID-19 is teaching us that income stability is fragile. Perhaps we need a communal income model more easily maintained!
If there is a cure for this malaise, it will have to be something beyond a vaccination. Fortunately, our historical experience supplies us with a remedy for the problems we have identified: the chavurah.
The chavurah is a model developed by the Pharisees, employed by the Essenes, and perfected by Yeshua’s followers for whom it was the only model of communal association for three hundred years! It is a model built on household gatherings, usually of no more than fifteen people.
While we are here in God’s time out, let’s consider three reasons why exploring the chavurah is a behavior whose time has come . . . again.
But will the rebirth of this model be life-giving for us? Yes it will!
The first reason to consider the rebirth of chavurot is theological. Yeshua identified two great commandments that summarize God’s priorities for our communities: loving the LORD our God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
He also gave us a new commandment, which is not really new, when he told us that we should love one another as he had loved us. These spheres of relationship are meant to interlock as foundations of our religious communities. By Divine design these relationships incubate and mature best in familial gatherings. In chavurot.
The second reason to consider the rebirth of chavurah gatherings is evangelistic. We have been called to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. But our task goes beyond sharing a message to sharing a life in all its diversity, power, and love. Our Creator designed humanity so that life-sharing happens in a familial context.
Finally, the third reason for the rebirth of chavurot is ecclesiological – The home is and has always been foundational to Jewish religious life—the mikdash m’at (ittle sanctuary), and familial home groups were also the foundation of Yeshua's communities, for the apostles, and for all Yeshua believers for the first three centuries. The model has been an arena employed for discipleship and renewal ever since.
Now maybe you’re not convinced. After the pandemic, you just want to go back to synagogue meetings as you have known them. Fine. There is of course a place for these!
We know that the early Yeshua believers met daily in the Temple. And in the diaspora, many Yeshua belevers met not only in their homes, but also as part of synagogue communities in their locales. These larger Temple and synagogue gatherings served five purposes that endure to this day. (More about that at a later date).
Still, this alone was not enough. The Book of Acts reminds us that the earliest Yeshua believers met daily house to house.
It was in these house to house meetings that people integrated and grew in their Yeshua-faith, where relationships developed and people matured in love for God and each other. If the big meeting wasn’t enough for the early Yeshua believers, should it be enough for us?
For them, small was beautiful. It should be the same for us.
Next time we’ll look at more reasons why the chavurah meeting is the backbone of the Body of Messiah.
For now consider this comment by German missologist, Wolfgang Simson. What do you think?
In the Bible we find two . . . structures or levels, the cell and the celebration. In The New Testament we read of the church regularly meeting in houses, that is in cell-sized units, and meeting in Solomon’s Temple court, or in the open air, in large numbers. Of those two, the cell that is the house-based church, was the natural habitat, the normal and most common form of Christians meeting together.
. . . During the first three centuries after Christ, church historians tell us, the house church remained the normal, natural way of Christians sharing their new lives together. Only after Emperor Constantine in the fourth century was there a radical shift in church structure. The congregation-type church was introduced, the church became an audience, house churches were marginalized and ultimately forbidden.
Find out more about reborn chavurot by contacting us CHAI: The CHavurah Action Initiative at firstname.lastname@example.org
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If we consider Rav Yeshua's assemblage, of twelve Jewish men as disciples, as a prototype of the sort of 'havurah you're citing, Stuart, we may note two outstanding characteristics: One is that it could guarantee a minyan for traditional prayers. The other is that a house fellowship based on such a number is likely to include more than fifteen members, as wives and children are likely also to be present.
Currently, pandemic restrictions would prohibit even that small number, though likely it would be easier to hide as an underground civilly-disobedient entity than an entire synagogue-sized group. It would also be more manageable as an epidemiologically-isolated entity in which its members could be more certainly assured that every one of them remains healthy and unlikely to carry infection to the others. It should be obvious that when members of a controlled group are all known to be healthy, they cannot endanger one another by their social contact, including traditional hugging, kissing, et al.
There is thus a strong motivation for each one to guard carefully the procedures for interacting with contacts outside the group, in order to remain healthy and protect the social liberties of the group. If an entire synagogue community consists of such guarded cells, then even the larger group could safely gather without the onerous restrictions applied to those outsider their "covenant of health preservation". However, it seems to me that such restrictions would have to, by nature, limit and inhibit any sort of "evangelistic" activity among the "unclean" outsiders. Entry into one of the cells by an outsider would thus require a more demanding analog of the "mikveh", including a period of isolation and perhaps virological testing to verify their "cleansing". These procedures are also logical elaborations of the lessons learned from the pandemic.
I appreciate your rational approach to which I would respond in a number of ways.
First, while speaking foundationally of the Jerusalem context, we are not speaking solely of that context, but of the context of the entire Roman world, and beyond the first century to the second and third centuries. The majority of Yeshua’s disciplies in these contexts were slaves, and lived in apartments called insulae, which were very small. A very wealthy believer, such as Erastus in Rome, could have a home called a domus, which MIGHT seat forty people in the atrium area in the center of the house. But for the domus, as for the insula/insulae this would require moving furniture around and cramming them in.
Here is what one scholar says on the matter:
“According to Robert Jewett, in addition to the ‘traditional’ house churches, there is evidence for the existence of ‘tenement churches,’ which gathered in the work and living space of insulae without the assistance of householders or patrons. He also claims to be able to demonstrate that it led to a different leadership structure and community life-style in the groups that gathered in such space. [Less formal and more communitarian].
In support of his thesis, Jewett points out that only very few Christians lived in their own houses. In accordance with the structure of Roman society in general, the overwhelming majority of Christians found housing in small urban insulae, that is, in tenement houses—rented, very small, barracks like apartments. This leads to the question whether the Pauline Christians conducted their services within the insulae itself, either using one of the workshop areas on the ground floor or using space rented by Christian neighbors in upper floors, clearing away the temporary partitions between cubicles to create room for the meeting. In either case, the church would not be meeting in a space provided by a patron but rather in rented or shared space provided by the members themselves. The results of archaeological research supposedly demonstrate that Christians gathered in such rooms in later periods. There is also evidence, according to Jewett, for ‘tenement churches’ in the Pauline Epistles, particularly in Rome.”
So again, your suggestion is rational, but not archaeologically supported in many cases.
As for your second paragraph concerning spreading of epidemiologically contagion, and also the danger of infiltration by hostile forces, agreed! Sadly, and as you know from experience in the Land, the second factor, infiltration by hostile forces, is not theoretical, and in some areas of the world, it is a constant concern.
I think however, that the measure you discuss in your third paragraph are too severe and utterly at variance with our calling to be contagious for the Kingdom. We cannot claim to be disciples and live a risk-free existence. The two are completely antithetical.
Finally, I would encourage you to consider the difference between seeing the behaviors of the first generation Jerusalem disciples as determinative and definitive for the entire Yeshua movement. This is just not so, because it was the will of HaShem that the nations should come to His light as gentiles and not imitation Jews. While without any doubt the cultural patterns of the Jerusalem congregation were foundational, they were not meant ot be determinative. That this bent many observant Messianic believers out of shape, is easy to see in Acts 15 and 21. But that this was so is undeniably true.
I agree with your assessment of God's time out. My prayer is that we learn from Him. Continue walking forward and follow the Lord and the model. Small is not bad, it is different. God's best, N and L