Early Church Worship

Early Christian worship set the benchmark for believers and denominations to love and follow Christ in act, word, and deed. No other century had a greater impact than first-century Christians. These included the Apostles and our first ecclesia, or faith-based communities. From here we are given the initial examples of worship from Jesus Christ, his Apostles, and their followers. First-century worship was a spectacular and mysterious time of vast expansion and explosion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

First-century history is very difficult to explore and most of that record comes straight from the biblical text. “Our knowledge of the daily worship of the earliest Christians is meager. A variety of Jewish customs with set prayers at set times had a strong appeal.”[1] I find it very hard to think of early first-century worship and not associate it with Jewish worship. After all, Jesus and the disciples were practicing Jews. Their forms of worship coincided with Jewish forms of worship, and we see this throughout the New Testament. Christ and the Apostles attended synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), they celebrated Passover (Mark 14:12), and after Christ’s death and resurrection, we know the Apostles continued to attend temple (Acts 2:46-47). From here we saw Paul admonish and correct the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians ten and eleven. From this inference, we can surmise that first-century Christians were steeped in Jewish ritualistic style, faith, and liturgy.

We know that the first Christian sacraments apart from Jewish traditions were the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Late in the first century, the Sabbath was switched from Saturday to the day of the resurrection, Sunday.[2] What is apparent is that first-century Christians used the Old Testament to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Considering that the New Testament canon wasn’t around until the post-second century[3], the apostles (and Christ, for that matter) preached from the Old Testament, much like rabbis did during Temple worship or Synagogue. This early combining the Jewish tradition with the new Christina faith ignited a spiritual revelation that made Christianity what it is today.

We see that early Christian orthodoxy was birthed from Jewish-style worship and many liturgical traditions still mirror that from Synagogue worship. As we examine early Jewish worship and contrast that of early Orthodox tradition, we see that the early Christian worship practices came from Jewish worship practices.

1st Century Synagogue Worship Order:

  • Shema – Call to Worship
  • Prayers – 18 benedictions and petitions
  • Torah readings
  • Readings from the Prophets/Histories
  • A Sermon
  • Psalms, prayers, and the Benedictions of Aaron. (From Numbers 6:23-27)[4]

The Shema, in the Orthodox faith, is a chant we sing: “Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, now and to forever and ever, amen”[5] During the Episcopal services, we have a reading from the Old Testament and New Testament every service. Our prayers and benedictions come from our Common Book of Prayer that Catholics share. Every service contains a sermon. Many times, within Synagogue worship they recite Kaddish[6], what many in traditional Churches recite (from a modified version) “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory”[7] Synagogue worship closed, primarily with the Aaronic blessing in the book of Numbers. Every service in traditional services ends with a blessing of dismissal, most of the time including a procession of the clergy, symbolizing that of the Aaronic priesthood.

Depending on the particular faith tradition or denomination, specific ordinances may vary but the basics are still there. In the Catholic faith, Orthodox traditions, and the Anglican Church, this aforementioned worship order can be mirrored except for the Lord’s Supper, which could not have taken place in Jewish worship, due to the Messianic undertone. They did, however, practice Seder, in which Christians practiced the breaking of the bread and drinking from the cup.

In early 155 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius in defense of Christianity. He explains how early Christians worship when they gather together. In his apology, he describes the use of various sacraments and worship that copied that of Jewish worship[8]. He included “The Triune God was also to be invoked along with the washing of the water. Correlated with the washing of the water, a citation from the prophet Isaiah was quoted (Isaiah 1:18) regarding the washing away of sins.” [9]In a recent reprint, writing the introduction Leslie William Bernard wrote: “Christianity was born within a Jewish cradle and it was natural that the earliest attempts at a theological formation of its doctrines should have been expressed in Jewish terms.”[10]

This particular period resonates with me because I consider myself a traditionalist. I take this stance for one main reason, I desire the truth. Christianity seems to have veered from the truth, in many ways. If this is how Jesus Christ and his disciples worshiped our Lord, then that is how I desire to worship. If I am to follow in the footsteps of Christ, I want to do as he did, live as closely as he lived (concerning his nature, not his cultural history), and love God as he loved Abba, the Father. Much of this may not be so pragmatic in the twenty-first century but I do believe most Christians have no idea how the early Church practiced worship. If we can gel modern-day Christianity with first and second temple worship, much like the early ecclesia did, I think we can have a better respect for what true worship is.

As we compare the parallels of early Christian practice and Jewish worship, we see where the traditions were handed down, generation to generation, and denomination to denomination. This begs one big question: why has modern Christian worship evolved so far from how the early Church worshiped? We know that Christ worshipped as a Jew, so did his followers. How has our form of worship changed so drastically? Many Christians view Judaism as heresy, let alone practice some of its ceremonies. We have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and separated the Christian faith from the Jewish faith dramatically. The definition of Christian is Christlikeness. We claim to be disciples of Christ, but why don’t we worship as Christ did? I truly feel the modern-day Christian worship is heavily missing the ritualistic, ceremonial, and Jewish traditions of the first and second-century Christian faith.

Bibliography

Barnard, Leslie W., and Iustinus. St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies. Paulist Press, 1997.

“Biblical Canon.” Wikipedia, 30 Apr. 2018, http://www.wikipedia.com/. Accessed 10 May 2018.

DEMBITZ, LEWIS NAPHTALI. JEWISH SERVICES IN SYNAGOGUE AND HOME. HANSEBOOKS, 2016.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England: with the Psalter and Psalms of David. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Matthews, Dr. Steven. “Early Christian Worship.” History of Christianity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw56BWL2cn4&t=2653s. Accessed 10 May 2018.

White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. Abingdon Press, 2010.

“Worship and Early Christians.” Worship and Early Christians. myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/27988/viewContent/739281/View. Accessed 10 May 2018.

Footnotes:

[1] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 2010).

[2] Dr. Steven Matthews, “Early Christian Worship” (lecture), February 18, 2014, accessed May 10, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw56BWL2cn4&t=2653s.

[3] “Biblical Canon,” Wikipedia, April 30, 2018, Latin Fathers, accessed May 10, 2018, http://www.wikipedia.com/.

[4] Dr. Steven Matthews, “Early Christian Worship” (lecture), February 18, 2014, accessed May 10, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw56BWL2cn4&t=2653s.

[5] Ibid.

[6] LEWIS NAPHTALI. DEMBITZ, JEWISH SERVICES IN SYNAGOGUE AND HOME (S.l.: HANSEBOOKS, 2016), 115. (Footnote entries should not be all capitalized.)

[7] The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England: With the Psalter and Psalms of David (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 367.

[8] Leslie W. Barnard and Justinus, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).

[9] “Worship and Early Christians” (reading), 2016, accessed May 10, 2018, https://myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/27988/viewContent/739281/View.

[10] Leslie W. Barnard and Iustinus, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), Introduction page.

 

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