The modern Christian movement has enveloped itself in a battle over worship. Unfortunately, the primary issue is style, proving today’s impression of worship; starts and ends with “singing.” However, singing is not the end all of worship, but a single component. Our worship today often resembles a cultural shift based upon our demographic or target group, and I do not think it is safe. The second-generation disciples painted a picture of worship that I think can help us. They lived shortly after the original NT organization. After all, the New Testament church was a recapitulation of what we see in the Old Testament, not the invention of something new!
Could we stand to look into the worship practices of the early church and glean? I think so, and I hope this post will help us to discover some areas in our American Christian worship that could use some reform!
The early church met early on Sunday. This tradition continued from the book of Acts. Justo Gonzalez says, “The reason for gathering on the first day of the week was that this was the day of the resurrection of the Lord” (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, 107). The practice of Sunday worship still continues. We generally meet on Sunday mornings, albeit a little “later,” but do our people know why we meet on Sunday morning? Maybe we could educate them on the purpose for Sunday worship as day of rest, which we do not observe, as we PACK the entire day with activities. While we pack the day, do we even know why we do the activities, do they have a strategic purpose, do they fit into the big picture of the Kingdom? For the early church, Sunday morning was not about convenience of the week, but about celebrating the resurrection of Christ. The physical day had meaning.
The early church worshiped on Sunday and the central event was the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. This event was originally the Passover, but with the initiation of Christ’s death, He put forward a different approach. Until Christ the meal was celebrated because of lamb’s blood, then it celebrated the final, official sacrifice of the Lamb of God. His body broken, representing the bread, and His blood poured out, representing the wine. Gonzalez tells us, “. . . the main purpose of this service of worship was not to call the faithful to repentance, or to make them aware of the magnitude of their sins, but rather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the promises of which that resurrection was the seal.” (107). The time was celebratory and full of joy. What a TOTAL difference from today!
Involved in the celebration each Sunday morning were readings from the prophets and apostles. A “canon” of sorts already existed in the second-century, although not in its final form. The presbyter, elder, or bishop presented Scripture and expounded. The records do not reflect expositional times resulting in funny stories or hermeneutical dog-and-pony shows. The men read straight from the text and explained the contents, and then exhorted the believers to imitate. That brings me to another critical element of early worship, IT EXISTED FOR BELIEVERS ONLY. Worship was not the time for sharing one’s faith. It was not the time to “evangelize” the lost. It was a time for the believers to unite and celebrate Christ. How can unregenerate people celebrate Christ? In fact, the Scripture clearly teaches they are in full rebellion and opposition to God! Yet we openly invite them to attend a “service” that we have allowed to be centered around them. However, in their blindness they would not be able to comprehend the contents of our worship.
The Eucharist was reserved for regenerate baptized believers. The Didache says, “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs’” (Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English, 169). We are pretty good about reserving the Lord’s Supper for only regenerate persons, but what about this baptism issue? In fact, the early church displayed long periods of training and waiting before baptism. The individual, known as a catechumen, was instructed for up to three years before baptism. The Didache gives unique early interpretations of the baptismal procedure. So much so it might raise eyebrows of folks today.
Baptism in the early church was not a simple decision. It was a lengthy process of training and growth. A catechumen went through an extensive process to show longevity in genuine evidence of Christ. Some evidence exists that leads us to think they did a mass baptism on Easter Sunday morning for all those who had gone through the catechism. Again, the Didache shows a varied approach to baptism. Based upon certain availabilities, baptism could be performed in various methods. What was always sure was meaning. Baptism was a serious event in the life of a young believer. Identifying with the church in a Trinitarian baptism meant exposure to the Roman authorities. In Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp he said, “. . . let your baptism serve as a shield . . .” reflecting a strong sense of the meaning behind baptism. The church today has dwindled the purpose of baptism to such a symbolic measure that it no longer holds its identifying character. Why not put individuals through a catechism class and make sure they are truly repentant and ready to identify with Christ? Would that help solve some of the church related issues we have today?
Prayer brought together the elements of the worship time. Prayer began and ended the time of worship. After the reading and exposition of the Scriptures, prayer was uttered, urging the people to follow and imitate the truths. Prayer was lifted during the Eucharist as a strong plea to remember the sacrifice of Christ. Gonzalez records, “In this prayer, often lengthy, the saving acts of God were usually recounted, and the power of the Holy Spirit was invoked over the bread and wine” (109). Once the Eucharist was concluded a final element of worship took place.
The service was an occasion to give, for those who were able, to the needy. In the second-century the church still functioned like that of Acts 2. Why would they not? After all, the leaders were disciples of the original Apostles and Paul. These small house churches met in secret for fear of the Empire, and yet gave sacrificially in order to help others. The contribution does not resemble the tenth we insist upon today. It appears to refer to an offering flowing directly from one’s heart. Evidently they needed each other, in more ways than one. How unique would it be to be a part of a fellowship like that?
Listen to the words of Justin Martyr from the second-century in his I Apology, 67.3-6:
The day that is commonly called Sunday all those (believers) who live in the cities or in the country gather, and in their meetings as much as time allows is read from the memoirs of the apostles or from the writings of the prophets. Then, the reader ceases, and the president speaks, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples. Then we arise all together and offer prayers, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings with all his might; and the people assent with Amen; and there is the distribution and partaking by all of the Eucharist elements; and to them that are not present they are sent by the hand of the deacons. And they that are prosperous and wish to do so give what they will, each after his choice. What is collected is deposited with the president, who gives aid to orphans and widows and such as are in what by reason or sickness or other cause; and to those also that are in prison, and to strangers abroad . . . (Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 73).
How far have we strayed? Our music is loud and theologically weak. We have the Smartboard sound systems, and digital media. Our choirs belt out and randomly raise their hands during songs. Soloist seek to evoke an arousing applause and standing ovations just before the pastor gets up to share a heartfelt story. The pulpits contain watered down, topical sermons, that do not even come close to being exegetical. What did they do in the early church?
This is a snippet of the early church and their practices, and I pray the twenty-first century American church would get back to the simplistic basics and quit trying to appeal to the masses.