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What Worship Looked Like in the Early Church

There were many times during first ten years of my Christian life where I entertained a very popular notion (for Christians, that is) that the only real way to “do church” was to do so just like the believers did in the first three hundred years of Christianity.  I, along with my peers, believed that meant coming together as Christians in the home for spontaneous prayer, singing, fellowship and a time to talk about what the Bible said.   The assumption was any church order was unspiritual. It was also assumed that since around 325 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the Church had compromised, became like the world, and perverted Christian worship.  I could make those assumptions because I was woefully ignorant of history.

Nevertheless, I was pretty faithful to either a local church or a parachurch and their worship services; that is until 1976 when I was invited to a new church touting to be very biblical, and very much like the early Church.  They met in a home. They had a very simple order of service, trying to preserve the leading of the supposed serendipitous and random Spirit of God. Any man who had something to say could “preach.”  Anyone could pray or chose hymns (using a hymnal, though I’m pretty sure the early church did not have hymnals), which would be played by a very technical, but fairly competent pianist. The meeting could last twenty minutes or go as long as ninety minutes.  Afterwards, real unleavened bread and cheap wine was served.  I was convinced that I had finally arrived at a place where worship was just like the early church!

A few years later I decided to purchase and read Philip Schaff’s multi-volume The History of the Christian Church. That’s what you do when you are a history major and have an interest in all things Christian, right?  I’ll never forget that night – while lying in bed and coming upon Schaff’s accounts of worship in the early church.  Stunned would be the descriptive term for my emotional reaction.  I had to read it several times before it would sink in.  My understanding for how the pure, real, untainted Christians of the first couple centuries worshiped was shattered. From that night on the study of Christian worship has been a serious interest for me.

So what did worship look like in the early church?  During the first several decades, most of the Jews who had come to believe in Jesus Christ as their messiah and savior, when possible, continued to worship in their local synagogue and at the Temple.  This is what we see in the book of Acts.  However, first generation Christians easily realized that since synagogue worship neither practiced the two main rites or sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper established by Jesus, nor taught the story and words of Jesus, they had to have another day to do so.  Sunday was the obvious day, since it commemorated the light and life of Jesus Christ.  These early Jewish Christians would meet on the “day of the Lord” to pray, read Scripture, be taught by the apostles or elders, sing psalms and new hymns, and have the agape meal or “love feast”.  This meal was a regular meal that included bread and wine with the spiritual symbols invested in them, much like the Jewish Passover Meal.

For centuries there was debate about the order of a typical Jewish synagogue worship. Historians and students of worship had accepted some basic facts about their worship based upon extra-biblical materials. As historians and archaeologists have uncovered ancient synagogues in recent years, they have learned more about the buildings and all that was connected to them.

The synagogue, which faced east toward the rising of the sun and Jerusalem, was considered a place for the assembly; hence the name.  It was a multi-purpose center for Jews and God-fearers (people wanting to convert to Judaism). Hence, it would function much like old American town halls where court would take place, the city leaders or elders would conduct business, town meetings would be held, a school for boys would use it during the week, etc.

For some Jewish communities this multipurpose facility also served as a community food bank, a treasury (an early banking system), a hostel with a room or two for traveling guests, and/or a place for the wounded or infirm.

If the community did not build another facility, as some did, then the place would be turned into “the house of prayer” on the Sabbath.  For the Jewish people, the concept of prayer was much broader than merely petitioning God for things.  Prayer, especially in the context of the community, was a time for communion with God, which meant it was a time of worship.

We now know that the house of prayer was a place arranged to host the rabbis, elders and the congregation on their Sabbath days.  Often the exterior of the building itself was basic and bland, but the interior of the meeting hall was well decorated and furnished with items that reminded the worshipers of God’s holy Temple.  Therefore, they would have a special box for the scrolls of Scripture, a menorah or lampstand, baskets of grains and fruit to represent firstfruit offerings, a table with a basket or bowl of twelve loaves of bread, and so forth.

During the Sabbath, this house of prayer was a place that held prayer services morning, noon and night. Then there was a time when the general community would gather to engage God with praise, prayers, with the reading and the teaching of the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament), and then be dismissed by God with a closing blessing.  Interestingly enough, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is written in that order.

We also know that some synagogues allowed women, but they had to stand in the back or off to the side, while the boys and men sat in the front.  They used a liturgical calendar; systematically reading pre-selected Scriptures from the Law and the Prophets.  It is quite probable that when Jesus read and then interpreted the Scriptures, as we find him doing in the Gospels, he did so based upon those preselected passages.

The Scriptures, housed in a special box, were ceremoniously carried to the reading lectern. The official, sometimes called the president (since he presided over the service), would read the selected portions of God’s Word. All would stand during the reading out of reverence for God’s Word.  Other men, who were of age and recognized as priests or rabbis could also read Scripture and then explain what was meant. Evidence suggests that the readers and teachers would sit while teaching while the audience stood.  We see this practice in Ezra and Nehemiah.

From the research we can see what the order of worship looked like.  This order of worship was adopted and practiced by the early church:

The Greeting   – a more formal, biblical greeting or salutation.

A Response    – the attendees would respond, often with a Scripture that was recited in unison or chanted.

Readings and Psalmody –  Several passages of Scriptures would be read or chanted, interspersed with a responsive singing or chanting of a Psalm

Psalms   –  the Psalms, considered God’s hymnal, were sung or chanted, most of the time without instruments.

Message – an elder, rabbi or teacher would interpret and explain the relevant meaning of the Scripture(s) that were read.

Prayer – prayers would be offered on behalf of the people.  The Jews considered prayer as an act of sacrifice, and therefore pleasing to God.  It was common to weave various portions of Scripture into  the prayers.

Benediction     – this was a formal blessing from God by his Word upon his people.

 

As the membership of the early Church grew, more and more non-Jewish converts were swelling the ranks and outnumbering the Jewish believers.  At the same time, Jewish people and leadership were becoming hostile toward Christians, declaring them to be a blasphemous sect.  The opportunities for Christians to worship and to witness in the synagogues quickly diminished.

Believers understood the biblical mandate and the need to worship God in Christ on a weekly basis. The first generation Christians in Jerusalem and other Jewish epicenters naturally worshiped in synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and on Christ’s resurrection day (Sunday). God communicated through the apostles and prophets that Christ’s church was God’s new covenant people who lived in God’s new covenant era.  The old covenant, filled with the old biblical ceremonies and Sabbaths were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  He brought a revolutionary new day.  Worship would be rightly observed on Christ’s day (Sunday), in the Spirit and Truth.

Jewish believers practiced family worship, while their communities would gather for corporate worship in a public place, such as the synagogue.  Gentiles, influenced by Roman culture, worshiped in various settings and on a daily basis.  There were plenty of gods and goddesses to appease and pay tribute. The gods Roma (goddess of the culture of Rome) and Caesar (recognized as a man-god) were deities whom the all people had to pay tribute.  But, local villages, towns and cities had their own gods; and each family, (called “households,” who were composed of the patriarch-grandfather, his sons and families, and slaves) also worshiped at given times and places.  It was common for the households to pay tribute to their god or goddess in their homes during a mealtime.  In the absence of the patriarch, the matriarch would preside over the obligatory ceremony in the home.

In the first hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Church added more former gentiles than former Jews.  It was natural, being influenced by their cultural practices, to hold worship in the homes.  The common notion that Christians worshiping in homes is the God-ordained practice for worship is just plain silly.  Worshiping in houses was a cultural act, not a holy act.  It was an ingrained tradition, that Jesus neither condemned nor required. As the body of believers grew in a town or city, they would seek out homes of believers that could accommodate as many people as they could. Much like today, necessity or convenience would often drive the decision as to where to meet. Archaeologists have uncovered large house compounds that had dedicated room(s) for corporate worship.  They have also discovered former public buildings that were converted for worship and used as Christian teaching centers.  The idea that places of worship were sanctified by God, also grew out of the gentile and Jewish cultures; but the idea was never sanctioned by Christ and his New Testament.

Like the Jews who had a very special annual feast that a Hebrew family would observe (the Passover), and like the gentiles who worshiped while having their feasts or meals, it was natural for the first generation of Christians to celebrate Jesus during a common feast that incorporated Christ’s new Supper.  Whenever believers did so, it was called the Love (Agape) Feast.  With the understanding that believers were members of a new family in Christ, these feasts were not merely restricted to those related by blood, but to those related by faith in Jesus Christ.

Children, youth and slaves of their father or patriarch were obliged to have at least a formal commitment to the deity(ies) of the patriarch, so they also participated in the religious practices of the family. This practice did not change when heads of households became Christians. However, when an individual became a believer in Jesus Christ, sometimes they would continue their own family’s religious tradition, but also participate in the weekly worship with their new family in Christ.  The dynamics or conflicts that came about were different for each family.

As we have seen, when the Church gathered on Sundays for worship, they learned from the apostles and prophets an order of worship that was adopted from the Synagogue liturgy.  Yet, that worship, while focusing on God the Father, did not take into consideration Jesus Christ. The Love Feast ceremony (very simple and with a meal) fulfilled the need and obligation to worship Jesus.  When believers moved from two days of worship to one day of worship on Sunday, they blended the two services. Worship then was done in two parts.

For many reasons, Christians allowed anyone to participate with them during the first part of the service. This was known as “the assembly” and “the Service of the Word.”  However, because the second part was a special time and a religious feast reserved only for those who were confirmed members (catechized and baptized) of Christ’s family, the Church excluded non-members from participating.  An opportunity was given during the first part, often before the sermon, for inquirers and unbaptized new disciples (called catechumens) to leave.

It is said that sometime in the middle of the 200s that churches added a formal part of the liturgy called “The Peace.”  It followed the Service of the Word and prefaced the Service of Thanksgiving.  To some it appeared to be a time of intermission. Yet it was more than that. It was a brief period for people to greet one another, and for believers to reconcile with fellow believers if there had been some conflict between them.  They did so in obedience to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 10-14.

The believers would then give each other a “holy kiss,” from which the cultural practice of a brief hug with a quick kiss on both cheeks came. You find this “holy kiss” mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26). It is also mentioned many times by the early church fathers.  A time was given for all God’s people to kiss each other (even on the lips). It was to convey the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing strangers together into a holy family, in the bonds of grace, love and unity.  It symbolized the breaking down of those cultural barriers of race, nationality, culture, former religion, class, etc. and uniting a people as equal ones in Christ.  One can only imagine how counter-cultural and revolutionary this was.

So important was this that the ceremonies of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was considered incomplete without the exchange of the holy kiss.

During The Peace those who were not formally part of the church were greeted and then escorted out by the deacons. Sadly, because of a misunderstanding or because people were offended by their exclusion, this gave rise to the rumor that Christians were eating literal flesh and drinking literal blood.  Many times leaders of churches were arrested by local authorities for supposedly performing cannibalistic rites.

The second part of the worship was called the eucharist, which meant “the thanksgiving.”  One could rightly say the early church (and the Church for centuries) celebrated a weekly thanksgiving. The simple order of this part of worship often looked like this:

 

A greeting –   Normally a salutation taken from Scripture

Response –  The congregation would recite a biblical verse they had memorized that acknowledged the wonders and works of an awesome God.

Offering –  Sometimes a special time during worship was taken to collect funds in order to support the pastors, teachers and/or evangelists, widows, orphans, and the poor of God’s people.  Priority was given to Christians who were members of the local church; but money was also collected to support other churches in different cities. Any additional funds were occasionally used to serve the needy within the local community.

Eucharist Prayer – The president (the elder who presided over the worship) would offer thanks to God for Jesus Christ, and ask God to bless the bread and wine in order to spiritually nourish God’s people in the faith.

Communion –  This would begin by offering prayers and then offering the elements to God, and ceremoniously breaking the bread. The people would then receive the bread and wine.

Benediction –   When all had eaten the bread and drunk the wine, an elder (more often the president) would pronounce a biblical blessing upon God’s people.

They were then dismissed.

 

As time went on the worship service became more and more elaborate and sophisticated.  Trying to teach (usually illiterate) believers about the life and work of Jesus Christ, and about true worship, many church leaders incorporated symbols borrowed from culture and/or from the Old Testament.

The point of this little history lesson on church worship is that from the founding of the New Testament Church, worship has been structured, orderly and sensible. Reading from the early church fathers one gets the clear sense that, for the most part, worship in the first couple generations had a complete and formal liturgy that was filled with reverence and affection for God in Christ. Ideally, it was also an expression of who this new people of God were: Christ-worshipers united together in Spirit and Truth, expressed through grace, love, peace and joy.

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