Early Church Worship

The church which meets us in the pages of the NT is a worshiping community of believing men and women. This is clear from the descriptions in the Acts of the Apostles (1:14; 2:42,46; 4:31; 5:12,42; 13:1-3; 20:7-12) and from the statements of Paul in his letters (notably 1 Cor. 10-14). By an application of the methods of form-criticism* to the NT epistles it is possible to gain a further access to the worshiping life of the Christian communities as liturgical passages (containing putative hymns, creeds, and confessions of faith) are exposed to view, and these sections are tentatively placed in a Sitz im Leben of the corporate life of the early Christians as they engaged in the worship of God.

From these data it is a reasonable deduction to conclude that, while Christian worship arose directly out of the matrix of the Jewish traditions in the Temple and synagogue, some distinctively new elements were added from the beginning. Many of the Jewish forms (such as the blessing of God as Creator and sustainer of life, the so-called berakah) were taken over and can be seen clearly in NT statements which open with “Blessed be God” (2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3 KJV), and in responses such as the familiar “Amen” (Cor. 14:16) are found. But these forms were filled with a new content which belongs to the new situation in the history of God's saving purposes for the world. Christians of the apostolic era were conscious of living in days of eschatological fulfillment which flowed from the Incarnation and redeeming achievement of Jesus of Nazareth in whom they recognized Israel's Messiah and the world's Savior. It was this conviction which stamped itself on their worship in every aspect and gave it a distinctiveness which is unique.

Tokens of that distinctively Christian pattern may be set down. Standing high in the list of features which marked out Christian worship from its antecedents in the OT and rabbinic Judaism and from the contemporary world of Greco-Roman religion is the christological reality of the risen Jesus whose promise to be with His people who assembled in His name (Matt. 18:20) was claimed and known. While there is a verbal parallel to this thought of worshipers meeting together in accord and being promised the divine presence (Pirqe Aboth 3:6 in the Mishnah, based on Mal. 3:16), the personal presence of the living Lord speaks of a dimension which is quite new. Several parts of what we may judge to be the structure of early Christian assemblies are explained only on the basis of Christ's coming to meet His people.

(1) Prayers were offered in His name (Acts 4:24; Eph. 5:20; Heb. 13:15) and hymns sung in His honor. The great christological declarations of the epistles (Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16) most probably had their origin in gatherings for worship since they retain many of the poetic and hieratic features which enable us to classify them as hymnic in form and strophic in arrangement. Independent evidence from Pliny from a post-NT decade confirms this view of hymns offered to the cosmic Christ who as risen and exalted is now world Ruler. Ignatius appeals for church unity on the ground that a worship service is like a choir which sings hymns to Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4); and Tertullian alludes to the passage from Pliny in his description of Christian worship.

(2) The characteristic Christian liturgical act is the solemn meal of bread and wine which are taken “in remembrance of” Jesus Christ. Scholarly discussion has reached no consensus as to the historical origin of this meal, whose rubric was taken from the last supper which Jesus held with His disciples before His death. Both the setting of the last meal and the precise transition by which the “last supper” became the “Lord's Supper” are subjects of debate. The simplest view is that Jesus' meal was set in the framework of the Jewish Passover meal, and that the followers of Jesus continued to observe a breaking-of-bread service in thanksgiving for what Jesus had accomplished as the counterpart of the Paschal sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7,8) and the new life which they had come to share as the Israel of the new covenant. By the eschatological significance thus given to historical events, the Christian Communion* was practiced neither as a cult observance of a dead leader nor as a Christianized version of a Hellenistic mystery-religion, but it was a sacramental “re-presentation” of Jesus Christ, once crucified now alive, who came to greet His church and to extend His living presence to them. Only thus can we understand Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:16; and fit the invocation Maranatha, “Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22) into a meaningful pattern. See Didache 10 for a eucharistic setting which places in central position an invitation to the risen Lord to come to His people.

The history of the origin of the Lord's Day may be seen in this light. The shift from the Jewish holy day (Sabbath*) to the “eighth day” (Barnabas 15:8,9) of the new creation was made in recognition that Jesus “rose from the dead” and appeared to His own at a meal (so Luke 24; Acts 10:41). The thesis that the Lord's day was hailed as the first day of the week in remembrance of the appearance of the risen Lord in the context of the holy Supper is ably maintained by W. Rordorf, Sunday (ET 1968).

(3) It is not otherwise with the practice of baptism.* Again there are antecedent practices within Judaism,* both mainline and sectarian, which attest the influence of rites of washing as preparatory for a new spiritual experience. But the most decisive fact to leave its impress on Christian baptism was Jesus' use of the term to prepare for His impending death and vindication (Luke 12:50; 13:32,33). In Pauline teaching the roles of death-baptism are exchanged, so that whereas Jesus saw His death as a baptism, Paul describes the Christian's baptism as a death to sin (Rom. 6:4ff.; Col. 2:12). In both cases baptism was seen as an event which lacks meaning unless Christ is risen. It is not surprising therefore that baptism as initiation into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12,13) became a badge of Christian profession under the image of a “seal” (cf. Abercius's inscription, c. a.d. 182).

Attempts to find traces of a “church order” in the NT are not conspicuously successful, though parts of Ephesians and 1 John have been appealed to. The latter is supposed to contain allusions to confirmation and a confessional system. The early church is known, in its canonical literature, more for its spontaneity, improvised forms of worship (as in 1 Cor. 14:26f.), vivid awareness of the Spirit in His charismatic gifts (1 Cor. 12:4ff.; 14:1ff.; Rom. 12:6ff.) and rudimentary ministerial offices (Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11f.; 1 Tim. 3:1ff.; 5:17ff.; Heb. 13:17). Nothing resembling the Ignatian bishop's authority (see Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 8) is found, and there is no suggestion that worship is to be conducted only by a clerical elite. Signs of development in the direction of a standardizing of worship, both in structure and personnel, are seen in the Didache (c. a.d. 100) and 1 Clement (a.d. 96) as well as Ignatius; and with these changes from spontaneous “congregationalism” of the earlier letters of Paul to a more ordered pattern with the use of rubrics for hymns and Scripture readings (in the later Pauline books) the ground is prepared for a decisive step toward a fixed form of worship in which the sacraments* play a vital role, church officers exercise full authority, and the Sunday* worship follows a set pattern (so, in Justin, a.d. 150).

L. Duchesne, Christian Worship, its Origin and Evolution (1920); A.B. Macdonald, Christian Worship in the Primitive Church (1934); W.D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship (1936); J.H. Srawley, The Early History of the Liturgy (2nd ed., 1947); R.P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (1964), pp.135ff.