The church as we know it today started with Christianity. There were no meeting halls for the public gatherings we call “church” today before that. There were schools on the order of what we see as “Sunday School” rooms and buildings today, but those started out during the dispersion of Northern Israel, when the communities began building them for the common higher education of their children in the foreign lands in which they found themselves. This custom continued in America until 1945, when the Federal Government took over the task of educating all children, rich and poor, in the entire country, using the practice of discrimination on the part of the churches based on the parents’ ability to pay for that education, and sometimes the absolute refusal of churches to accept students whose parents were not members of that particular church or ethnic group as the stated reason for doing so. These schools still exist today among the Jews, who teach their young Rabbis in them. Sunday School is an effort on the part of the churches to provide the religious component forbidden to the state to teach.
The meeting halls we call the sanctuary of the church are straight out of the Phoenician temples to the lesser god Jehovah and his wife Asherah. “Common” people were forbidden to enter the temple in Jerusalem, and later the temples in Samaria and Dan, supposedly to the GREAT I AM, but denied by him as his. This is a fertile subject for home-church study groups to explore, as the GREAT I AM said that would be the name he would be known by forever when he spoke with Moses at the burning bush, and that name is still in the vernacular in Europe, especially Germany, and some parts of America in the form of the epithet, “Who do you think you are, the GREAT I AM?” when someone arrogates unwarranted powers to themselves.
Going all the way back to Moses, there were three levels of assembly, the heads of the 12 tribes – we would call that the Supreme Court today – The leaders of the divisions within the 12 tribes – we would call that the governors of the states today, and all the men of the assembly. Women and children were permitted to attend the last one, but not required. They were prohibited from attending the other two, unless they were in that office, which Deborah obviously was in later times.
The men were required to attend the annual meetings in Jerusalem three times in the year, not for worship services, but to plan the governing of the nation for the next period of time. The slaughter of animals and baking of bread was so that the men would be fed during that time without having to make private arrangements. This is described when David called a special assembly and provided food for the attendees. The practice carried over into Christianity with the loaves and fishes during the teaching sessions, which were decidedly not worship services featuring the GREAT I AM. That was intended to set the pattern for the teaching sessions that Christians were to attend after those events, not worship services, but teaching sessions. We see this pattern in practice when Paul got up and preached, after which a group went to the upper room and the young man fell out of the window.
So, the three national gatherings are covered, but what about all the other Sabbaths?
God intended them to be times of social gathering for each family. When the man went out to gather sticks to build a cooking fire, Moses ordered “every man to stay in his tent”. That means with his family. Once the people were in the land, the children married and established their own nuclear families, so the custom expanded with the families. The children would take their own children and “go to Grandma’s house” for the day. The men would find a quiet place where they could talk about the concerns of the day, the women gathered in the kitchen to talk about children, quilting patterns, cooking, and anything else that interested them. The children played out in the yard, and the “old folks” each claimed a rocking chair on the front porch in the Summer. Winter saw the “main room” with its fireplace crowded with clusters of people, each cluster having been driven indoors by the cold and (usually) rain. The houses were built with very large main rooms and dining rooms to accommodate this pattern, while the bedrooms were smaller, unheated, and sometimes located in lofts built over the main rooms that were relegated to the boys while the girls were assigned a room with a door that could be monitored by the parents as to who came and went through it.
The ability to read, write and do basic mathematics was expected of all the population. It was the job of the priests of both north and south to see that the public – all of them – were at least able to function sufficiently to embroider the family lineage on the hems of the new brides’ dresses – a man divorced his wife but cutting that panel off and sending her back to her family – calculate adequately to participate in the trade in the market place, and count into the thousands so they could keep track of their flocks and herds.
The Old Testament was not put into writing until Ezra returned from Babylon, and that changed the custom from debating the words and rules attributed to Moses from oral to written, when each family was expected to copy out at least a portion of the writings of Ezra, then exchange them during the weekly family gatherings until everyone knew all parts of them.
While not explicitly stated as a goal, these weekly gatherings caused the families to be bound tightly so that when war broke out, each family gathered their fighting men and sent them as a unit to their regional commander to be led by him into whatever battle may ensue. This pattern was still in effect in World Wars 1 and 2. The result was that many units were wiped out, leaving their families without male support. This led to the current practice where no two relatives can serve in the same unit. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” is a perfect example of this type of concern.
The modern practice of changing firms, or jobs, every 5 years makes keeping this pattern of Sabbath impossible, so the pattern of “home churches” has developed, where people meet in each other’s homes half-days on alternating Sabbaths to be able to socialize, discuss the affairs of the day, meet other people in a safe environment, and occasionally, but not necessarily, discuss the topics of religion that interest them. This fulfills the purpose and intent of the Sabbath, refreshes the mind and spirit, and expands the social network of all involved. When “God rested on the seventh day”, it was in order to be refreshed, not to engage in an exhausting ritual or theatrical presentation. To follow the pattern he set is to honor him, and to give him honor is what it’s all about.