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Saturday, June 14, 2014

How did the early Christian Church worship God?

Today, a typical Christian religious gathering takes place on Sunday (or Saturday). It is also usually held in a building that is owned by the congregants or the organization to which they belong. In most instances, there are rows of seating facing a central place of focus where those in leadership positions direct the service. The service itself usually incorporates Scripture readings, some kind of message (homily or sermon), singing, prayers and a ceremony commemorating the death of Jesus Christ (referred to as Communion, Passover or the Lord's Supper). The order, frequency and length of each one of these elements varies greatly depending on the particular group that is holding the service; but agreement is almost universal within the Christian community that these are the essential components of a Christian worship service. So we ask: How do these elements compare to how early Christians worshiped God?

First, it should be noted that the earliest Christians were all Jewish so there was a tendency among them to continue to congregate with other Jews in their temple and synagogues on the Sabbath. (Acts 2:46; 3:1, 8, 11; 4:1; 5:12, 21; 9:1-2, 20; 13:5, 14, 42; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19, 26; 19:8; 22:19 and 26:11) This is certainly understandable in light of the fact that Christ himself was a Jew who was accustomed to teaching in the temple and synagogues on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:9, 13:54; Mark 1:21, 3:1, 6:2, 12:35; Luke 4:16, 6:6, 19:47, 20:1; John 6:59, 7:28, 8:2, 20 and 18:20) In this connection, it is also interesting to note that Scripture readings were an important part of the synagogue service. (Luke 4:16-20; Acts 13:27 and 15:21) Hence, we can clearly see from these scriptures that the earliest Christian worship services were very Jewish in character.

Nevertheless, the continuation of Christian worship within the temple and synagogues quickly became untenable. The Jews who rejected the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah began to persecute the Christians in their midst and eventually began to eject them from their places of worship. (Acts 4:1-3; 5:17-18, 26; 13:50; 14:2, 4-5, 19; 17:5; 18:6, 12-16; 19:8-10; 21-26 and 26:21) This led to Christians gathering together for worship outside, in whatever edifice was available and in private homes. (Acts 16:13, 19:9, 28:30-31, Romans 16:5 and I Corinthians 16:19) Thus the practice of gathering together in their own building was a much later development in Church history that would have been entirely foreign to early Christians.

As has already been indicated, the book of Acts gives us many insights into the religious practices of the early church. We read that this was the condition of the church immediately following its establishment on Pentecost following Peter's first sermon: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers...And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people." (Acts 2:42-47) This situation is reaffirmed by this passage from chapter four: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." (4:32) This concept is certainly foreign to the Capitalist countries of today's Christendom.

In similar fashion, the simplicity of the original communion/Lord's Supper/Passover service would be foreign to many of today's Christians. Paul wrote to the saints of Corinth: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come." (I Corinthians 11:23-26)

As has already been indicated in a previous post on this blog, Christians began meeting together on Sunday as a way to distinguish themselves from the Jews. This happened as a response to the fact that some of the more Orthodox Jews pushed them out of their temples and synagogues, and as a consequence of the fact that the Jews were singled out by their Roman overlords for intense hatred and persecution with which Christians did not want to be associated. Thus, by the end of the First Century, a Christian tradition that would be recognizable to most of the Christians of today began to emerge.

In his first Apology, Justin Martyr talked about the observance of the communion/Lord's Supper/Passover and then proceeded to describe the way that Christians of the early Second Century worshiped God. He wrote: "And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need." (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm)

In looking at these practices of the earliest Christians, it should quickly become apparent to all of us that we have placed way too much emphasis on the rituals and procedures of worship. Although the outlines of current practices are readily observable in the accounts that we have studied of early worship services, it is also clear that we have formalized these practices and given them a structure and rigidity that would have been alien to our early brothers and sisters in Christ. Shouldn't we all be more concerned with the spiritual significance of what we are doing every week than with the forms and rituals associated with it? What do you think?

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