Chapter Four: Requirements for Membership
It goes without saying that one must be a Jew, part of the nation of Israel, before one is qualified for inclusion as a constituent member of the synagogue. However, this did not absolutely ban Gentiles either from attendance at the weekly Sabbath meetings, or from becoming a part of the congregation through the conversion process. Acts is replete with example after example of interested Gentiles, whether proselytes or not, in attendance, often in great numbers, at the Sabbath synagogue service (see, e.g., Acts 13:44; 14:1).
In the NT, we commonly find Gentiles, whether described as “proselytes” (proselutos) or “God-fearing” (sebomenos, lit. pious or reverent), associated with the synagogues. Philo (d. ca. A.D. 50) explains the term “proselyte” and the status of such people:
And he [viz., God(?)] receives all persons of a similar character and disposition, whether they were originally born so [i.e. Jews by birth], or whether they have become so through any change of conduct, having become better people, and as such entitled to be ranked in a superior class; approving of the one body because they have not defaced their nobility of birth, and of the other because they have thought fit to alter their lives so as to come over to nobleness of conduct. And these last he calls proselytes (proselutous), from the fact of their having come over (proselepsteenai) to a new and God-fearing constitution, learning to disregard the fabulous inventions of the nations, and clinging to unalloyed truth. Accordingly, having given equal rank and honour to all those who come over, and having granted them the same favours that were bestowed on the native Jews, he recommends those who are ennobled by truth not only to treat them with respect, but even with especial friendship and excessive benevolence.1
Tractate Yebamoth in the Babylonian Talmud describes the process of “making” a proselyte:
The Rabbis say: If anyone comes nowadays, and desires to become a proselyte, they say to him: ‘Why do you want to become a proselyte? Do you not know that the Israelites nowadays are harried, driven about, persecuted and harassed, and that sufferings befall them?’ If he says, ‘I know it, and I am not worthy,’ they receive him at once, and they explain to him some of the lighter and some of the heavier commandments, and they tell him the sins connected with the laws of gleaning, the forgotten sheaf, the corner of the field and the tithe of the poor; and they tell him the punishments for the transgressions of the commandments, and they say to him, ‘Know that up till now you could eat forbidden fat without being liable to the punishment of “being cut of” (Lev. VII, 23); you could violate the Sabbath without being liable to the punishment of death by stoning; but from now you will be liable.’ And even as they tell him of the punishments, they tell him also of the rewards, and they say to him, ‘Know that the world to come was created only for the righteous.’ They do not, however, tell him too much, or enter into too many details. If he assents to all, they, circumcise him at once, and when he is healed, they baptise him, and two scholars stand by, and tell him of some of the light and of some of the heavy laws. When he has been baptised, he is regarded in all respects as an Israelite.2
Is it significant that the process of conversion is stated in a way as to encompass only men? The Mishnah does discuss female proselytes in several places.3 On the question of female membership in the synagogue, see below.
Whether a baptism was in fact part of the process by which a Gentile become a proselyte to Judaism in the first century A.D. is very much in dispute. John Gill has treated the subject in very great detail.4 He demonstrates with great persuasiveness that proselyte baptism is not mentioned in connection with the conversion process, at least as far as the evidence of extant Rabbinic literature goes, until the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (ca. A.D. 350 and A.D. 500, respectively). The various ritual washings of the Jews, whether prescribed in the Law or based in Rabbinic tradition (or even practiced at Qumran), are much beside the point, since they were not peculiar to the conversion process. Of course, if there was no first century proselyte baptism, then it necessarily follows that neither John’s baptism nor that supervised by Christ or practiced by the Apostles both before and after Pentecost could have been based on, inspired by, or in any way linked to proselyte baptism. Indeed, the inverse seems to be much more probable.
In the two centuries-plus since Gill wrote his treatise, nothing has come to light to subvert his basic position, namely, that NT baptism precedes and is independent of proselyte baptism. Stuehrenberg affirms that the requirement of baptism in the conversion process for proselytes is not attested before the end of the first century A.D.5
The NT mentions proselytes to Judaism on several occasions. Jesus remarked on the strenuous efforts of the scribes and Pharisees to make a single proselyte (Matthew 23:15). The multitude in Jerusalem for Pentecost included “the dwellers at Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10, 11). Among the first six deacons was one “Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5).6 In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul addressed “many of the Jews and pious proselytes” (Acts 13:43). In no case is the term “proselyte” clearly applied to women in the NT. When women are considered, the term is “pious” (sebomenos): “The Jews provoked the influential pious women” in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), after proselytes had already been mentioned (v. 43, modified by the word sebomenos!). Lydia is described as a “worshipper of God” (sebomene ton theon).
Other uses of “pious” with reference to Gentiles include those at Thessalonica in Acts 17. After Paul spoke three weeks in the synagogue, “some of them [i.e., Jews, v. 2] were convinced and associated themselves with Paul and Silas, and a great multitude of the pious Greeks [sebomemon ‘Ellenon], and not a few of the pre-eminent women” (Acts 17:4). All these converts were drawn from the synagogue attendees. One would surmise that by definition, “the pious” would naturally be assumed to be Greeks, so the epithet “Greek” seems redundant. And what about these women? Were they not “pious” also, just as one assumes that they were also Greeks? The question cannot be answered with complete confidence, but it certainly seems so. Then when Paul went to Athens, “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the ‘pious’ ones” (Acts 17:17; Greek, tois sebomenois).
There are two other NT terms of similar semantic range with sebomenos, namely phoboumenos and eusebes, both of which are applied to Cornelius who is said to be “reverent and fearing God” (Acts 10:2; Greek, eusebes kai phoboumenos ton theon). Eusebes is also used of one of Cornelius’ subordinate soldiers (Acts 10:7). Cornelius’ own messengers to Peter describe him as “righteous and fearing God” (dikaios kai phoboumenos ton theon, 10:22). Peter picks up the same phraseology in his remarks to Cornelius: “In every nation he who fears Him and works righteousness (Greek, ho phoboumenos auton kai ergazomenos dikaiosunen) is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35). Cornelius obviously was not a full-fledged proselyte, a fact which may help clarify the usage of the terminology applied to him.
In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul addresses the two constituent groups in his audience, “Israelites and those who fear God” (hoi phoboumenoi ton theon, Acts 13:16), meaning the Jews (including the full proselytes?) on the one hand, and the interested (but not fully converted?) Gentiles on the other; and again, Paul addresses them as “Sons of the race of Abraham, and those among you who fear God” (hoi en humin phoboumenoi ton theon, v. 26).
In analyzing the relationship of these terms sebomenos and phoboumenos, F. F. Bruce takes them as essentially synonymous in Acts and referring to Gentiles who had adopted Judaism in its monotheism, rejection of idolatry, Sabbath observance and dietary practices, but had stopped short of becoming full proselytes (which required circumcision, proselyte baptism, and offering a sacrifice).7 BAGD also differentiates between proselutos, a full-convert to Judaism, and sebomenos, an incomplete convert.8 In light of NT usage, especially Acts 13:43, it seems better to understand sebomenos as being synonymous with proselutos, that is, a term applied to full converts to Judaism from among the Gentiles, while phoboumenos ton theon is the term for Gentiles who adopted most of Judaism, but without actually undergoing the conversion rituals. E. H. Plumptre writes:
The phrases hoi sebomenoi proselutoi (Acts xii. 43), hoi sebomenoi (xvii. 4, 17; Joseph. Ant. xiv. 7. para. 2), andres eulabeis (Acts ii. 5, vii. 2) are often, but inaccurately supposed to describe the same class—the Proselytes of the Gate [that is, incomplete converts]. The probability is, either that the terms were used generally of all converts, or, if with a specific meaning, were applied to the full Proselytes of Righteousness…. The words “proselytes,” and hoi sebomenoi ton theon, were, however, in all probability limited to the circumcised.9
Schaff notes the two kinds of Gentile converts to Judaism.
The thorough converts, called “proselytes of righteousness,” were commonly still more bigoted and fanatical than the native Jews. The half-converts, “proselytes of the gate” or “fearers of God,” who adopted only the monotheism, the principal moral laws, and the Messianic hopes of the Jews, without being circumcised, appear in the New Testament as the most susceptible hearers of the gospel, and formed the nucleus of many of the first Christian churches.10
Simply because a person was a Jew by birth or a complete proselyte did not automatically guarantee him permanent membership in the synagogue. Conditions were established for maintaining membership, and, when necessary, for punishing or even excluding what were deemed to be seriously errant members.
The NT gives some examples of synagogue discipline. The most notable is the man born blind whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath, as recorded in John 9. According to v. 22, “The Jews had agreed that if anyone confessed Him [to be] the Messiah, he would be excluded from the synagogue.” When the man refused to budge from his testimony about Jesus, the infuriated Jews, “cast him out” (9:34). The threat of exclusion from the synagogue intimidated many believers in Jesus. John 12:42 records, “Even so, many from among the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees, they were not confessing [it], so that they would not be excluded from the synagogue.” Jesus forewarned the Apostles, “They will exclude you from the synagogues” (John 16:2). He may have had this in mind when He said, “Contented are you whenever men hate you and whenever they exclude you and rebuke [you] and reject your name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22; emphasis added). Since much of the charity for the aged, widows, orphans and strangers was channeled through synagogues, to say nothing of the social problems caused by excommunication, to be excluded from the synagogue had potentially very serious implications.
Another form of synagogue discipline involved scourging, which apparently was a lesser (!) punishment than exclusion or excommunication. Jesus forewarns His disciples of such treatment: “But beware of men. For they will betray you to the counsel and they will whip you in the synagogues” (Matthew 10:17). In His scathing denunciation of the hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus said, “Because of this, see, I am about to send to you prophets and wise men and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will whip in your synagogues and harry from city to city” (Matthew 23:34). Paul, who had persecuted (“disciplined” is probably the word he would have used in his pre-conversion days) Christians, was himself the object of this brutal treatment in the synagogues: “Five times I received from the Jews ‘forty [lashes] minus one’ ” (2 Corinthians 11:24).
Kohler delineates six levels of synagogue discipline, as described in rabbinic literature:
- Herem or anathema, which meant absolute exclusion from the congregation, which he equates with aposunagogos in John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2.
- Nidduy, a conditional or temporary exclusion (chiefly a Mishnaic term), which he says corresponds to aforizein in Luke 6:22, and parallels ekballein ek tes ekklesias, III John 10 (on which, see below).
- Neziphah, a severe public reprimand which probably carried a required seven day seclusion.
- Shammata, a handing over to “desolation,” which he equates with paradounai toi Satana in I Corinthians 5:5 (on which, see below).
- Lut (literally, execration), a milder form of shammata employed by the Talmudic leader in Babylon.
- Corporal punishments, such as the thirty-nine lashes of Deuteronomy 25:3 (which actually specifies a maximum of forty). This of course is to be identified with Paul’s experience described in 2 Corinthians 11:24, but also, he alleges, with the beating with rods mentioned in the next verse.11
Requirements for Membership
The requirements for membership in a NT church are rather straight forward. First, “repentance directed toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). This was a pre-requisite for the second requirement, public immersion as a testimony to one’s faith in Christ (Acts 2:41; Romans 6:3-5). Third, a life consistent with one’s profession of repentance and faith (see I Corinthians 5:5). Both men and women were admitted into membership. Rather than prove in detail these conditions as pre-requisites for membership, the writer directs the reader to standard Baptist treatments.12
As in the synagogue, the NT churches had a practice of discipline of errant members. The first mention of such discipline is in the instruction Jesus gave the disciples about how to deal with a brother who commits an offense. The climax of the sequence is “But if he ignores them [i.e., the two or three witnesses], speak to the congregation, but if he ignores the congregation, treat him as a Gentile or a tax-collector” (Matthew 18:17), which means as one who is unregenerate and therefore disqualified for membership in the congregation.
Paul’s letters have several actual examples of church discipline. The best-known of these is in I Corinthians 5, involving a man guilty of sexual immorality. Paul instructs the church (“when you are gathered together,” v. 4) to “hand over the [unrepentant perpetrator] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit would be saved in the day of the Lord” (v. 5). The exact meaning of the Apostle is in dispute (and need not be entered into here), but Paul certainly expected the man to be expelled from membership in the congregation. Paul tells them that rather than boasting, as they had done, they should have removed the offender from their midst (v. 2). Likewise, with the individual thus excluded (and others excluded for various enumerated offenses), they were not to eat (v. 11), which may be either social meals, or a reference to the Lord’s supper, the one a personal, the other an ecclesiastical disassociation.
In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes of the need to restore a brother who had been punished by the church, in light of his apparent repentance (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). This may be “the rest of the story” first presented in I Corinthians 5, or it may involve a different individual in a separate case. Under either circumstance, the church discipline had its intended effect: restoration through repentance and forgiveness.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians also contains instructions about the exercise of discipline against an erring brother in the church. “If anyone does not obey our message through this letter, note him. Do not associate with him, so that he may be ashamed” (II Thessalonians 3:14).
John records in one of his letters what is an apparent attempt by a self-willed individual to impose his idea of church discipline on the rest of the congregation. III John speaks of one Diotrephes:
I wrote something to the congregation, but he who loves to have pre-eminence among them—Diotrephes—does not accept us. Because of this, whenever I come, I will cause his actions to be remembered, which he does with evil words, speaking foolishly against us. And not being satisfied with these things, he himself does not accept the brothers and those who wish to do so he hinders, and tries to cast them out of the congregation. (vv. 9, 10)
One hopes that Diotrephes himself was soon subjected to proper church discipline.
The churches, then, like the synagogue, had and exercised a variety of forms of discipline, including isolation and excommunication. The NT, however, knows of no corporal punishment inflicted by the congregation, whether whipping or beating. The desired goal of all discipline was restoration rather than simply punishment.
(Next: “The Public Service in the Synagogue and the Church”)
1 Philo Judaeus, The Special Laws, Book 1, paragraphs 51, 52, in The Works of Philo, translated by C. D. Yonge, p. 538.
2 Yebamoth, 47a-b, quoted in C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, pp. 578-579.
3 Danby, The Mishnah, Yebamoth 2:8 (p. 220); 6:5 (p. 227); 8:2 (p. 229); etc.
4 John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, pp. 995-1,023.
5 Paul F. Stuehrenberg, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by David Noel Freedman, 5:504. For some additional authors and their opinions, see the digest in Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, pp. 931-932.
6 He could well have the distinction of being in a very literal sense, the first “anabaptist” known by name. If he had undergone proselyte baptism in his conversion to Judaism, when he became a Christian he would have undergone a “rebaptism,” this time in obedience to the command of Christ. Of course, any unnamed proselytes at Pentecost (Acts 2:11) who became believers would have been first to have this distinction, if in fact proselyte baptism was practiced this early.
7 F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 215, 85.
8 William F. Arnt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 715.
9 E. H. Plumtre, Dictionary of the Bible ed. by William Smith, vol. 3, pp. 2605, 2606.
10 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. I, p. 87.
11 Kaufmann Kohler, A Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. by James Hastings, vol. II, p. 545.
12 See John Gill, A Body of Divinity, pp. 855-856; Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, pp. 61-82; W. T. Conner, Christian Doctrine, pp. 259-262. Some today challenge the very concept of “church membership,” ignoring some very basic matters both Biblical and legal. First, the power to exclude someone from the church necessarily presumes the power to include someone in the church, which, whatever it is called is de facto church membership. And who is qualified to select the pastor and other officers? Just anybody who happens to show up for the election? Second, who has the right to purchase, hold, and dispose of the church’s property (and potentially receive a distribution of a portion of its assets) unless there is an established listing of qualified persons, again, a de facto membership list?
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.