If free-church Christians are interested in worship renewal, surely we must go back to the scriptural roots of Christian worship rather than any post-apostolic era, no matter how venerable. I am by training a New Testament scholar, and indeed I began looking at early patristic worship with an eye toward better understanding worship in the time of the apostles. There are many unanswered questions about what worship was actually like in the first century, and when (and how) the pattern that I will be describing actually came about.
New Testament Worship
The problem is that there is little we can say with certainty about worship in the apostolic era. While the New Testament is tantalizing in what it leaves unsaid, we may at least make certain generalizations. There is, for example, evidence for a spontaneous, charismatic style of worship with a high degree of congregational involvement. Among this evidence should be noted at least the following:
- The Holy Spirit had “permission” to interrupt a worship service and send it in an unexpected direction (Ac 13:1-3).
- The “one another” commandments of the New Testament (for example, Gal 6:2; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25; Jas 5:16; 1 Pe 4:10-11) assume a Christian gathering in which worshipers were not passive spectators but active participants.
- All believers—not just the “preacher”—were encouraged to prophesy, and are depicted as doing so at Christian gatherings (1 Co 14:1, 3, 29; see also Ac 2:17-18).
- Each worshiper was expected to come to the meeting ready to make a contribution to the service (1 Co 14:26).
- 1 Corinthians 14:27-33 allows for two or three spontaneous contributions before moving on to something else. Others were to give immediate input about what someone has contributed (either interpretation of a tongue or judgment on a prophecy).
- 1 Corinthians 14:30-31 gives instruction for how to handle the situation of an “over-eager” participant. This type of situation would never arise in a strictly regimented, clergy-focused worship style.
Some have taken this evidence to the extreme of asserting that there was no structure at all in early Christian gatherings. But such an assertion runs counter to additional evidence pointing to Christian worship of a more liturgical, stylized nature:
- Jesus and the apostles observed Jewish temple, synagogue, and domestic rituals. These were of a liturgical nature, although admitting greater flexibility in the apostolic age than in later centuries. These observances included fixed prayers, litanies, chanted psalms, and ritual actions (Luke 4:16-21; 21:43; John 2:13; 18:20; Acts 2:46; 3:1).
- The book of Revelation (especially chapters 4-5, 7, and 15) depicts the worship of heaven. It includes elements such as elders in special garments, chanting of fixed prayers before an altar, bowing down, incense, and burning lamps. There are two options for interpreting these data. Either (1) such worship patterns somehow reflect the actual worship in heaven — and if so, what better reason for adopting them? — or (2) such worship patterns somehow reflect the actual worship experiences of the first century church, or at the very least, the way the first Christians wanted to worship, despite what may have been currently available to them.
- The Last Supper fits what is known of the general structure of domestic Jewish liturgy around the table, with fixed prayers and ritual acts.
- The singing of psalms was taken up into Christian tradition (Col 3:16). The psalms were chanted in the synagogue according to a fixed traditional schedule.
- The first Christians preserved Hebrew and Aramaic liturgical acclamations and used them without translation, even where the common language was Greek: “Alleluia” (Rev 19:1, 2, 6), “Amen” (1 Co 14:16; Rev 5:14), “Hosanna” (Mt 21:9 et par.), “Maranatha” (1 Co 16:22).
- Paul composed and used berakot, i.e., Jewish liturgical benedictions (2 Co 1:3-4; Eph 1:3-4). There is also evidence in Paul’s letters for stylized opening and closing formulas (Ro 1:7; 1 Co 1:3; 16:23; 2 Co 13:13).
- The apostles observed Jewish traditional “hours of prayer” (Ac 3:1).
- Acts 1:14 says those in the upper room devoted themselves literally to”the prayers.” The presence of the article (not just “prayer” but “the prayers”) would suggest more or less fixed prayer forms: prayers from Scripture, traditional Jewish prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, etc.
What we have, then, is a form of worship that defies all stereotypes. Is it liturgical? Definitely, although many in liturgical traditions may find it difficult to cope with some of the more freewheeling elements. Is it spontaneous? Yes, but the spontaneity exists within established limits. Early Christian worship was at the same time liturgical and spontaneous, fixed and free. As such, it represented a faithful continuation of Jewish patterns of worship, which sought to find a healthy balance between what in Hebrew are called keva, regularity and fixity of form, and kavvanah, intention or intensity of prayer. In describing Jewish worship, Wolf offers a rather fitting description of what the earliest forms of Christian worship may have been like:
Thus, Jewish prayer is guided by two opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity, uniformity and individuality, law and freedom, a duty and a prerogative, empathy and self-expression, insight and sensitivity, creed and faith, the word and that which is beyond words. These principles are two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves.
Jewish worship presupposes the existence of keva: fixed prayer texts, ritual gestures, a liturgical calendar, rules of decorum, etc. These routine elements are not, however, the point of Jewish worship. Rather, they are considered merely the framework. These elements give the worshiper a sense of familiarity that many Jews experience as an aid to heartfelt worship (kavvanah), not an impediment. The regular routine allows the worshiper to move past concentrating on the mechanics of the worship experience and focus on inner devotion. The process may be compared to ballroom dancing, which may seem terribly awkward and artificial when one is first learning the steps, but with time and effort can become a graceful, creative mode of expression.
The idealist may want to believe that it is possible to have kavvanah without reference to keva. History would suggest that this is an elusive dream. New cultural or spiritual realities will always usher in periods of experimentation in which the strictures of past forms are loosened. This certainly happened at several points in Jewish history, most notably in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. The birth of Christianity itself was no doubt a period of widespread liturgical experimentation, as the apostles and their successors hammered out ways of worshiping that took into account the world-changing realities surrounding the coming of Jesus Christ. Eventually, however, new patterns emerged and a new fixed form was the result. The alternative would have been a movement that soon wore itself out by continuously re-inventing the liturgical wheel. The pre-Constantinian evidence suggests that Christian worship quickly made peace with fixed liturgical forms while at the same time guarding the Spirit’s freedom to intervene.
The Christian keva remained a rather loose-leaf arrangement for several centuries. Still, the development of liturgy was a continuous, relatively seamless development that certainly accelerated in the time of Constantine, but did not at that point entirely diverge from earlier traditions. During the first three centuries, a pattern of Christian worship developed in which believers:
- Sang, prayed, and shouted spontaneously—and participated in familiar set prayer forms and liturgical dialogues.
- Brought their own questions and comments to the study of Scripture—and were led and taught by duly-appointed leaders.
- Chanted the psalms—and sang “in the Spirit.”
- Celebrated weekly Communion.
- Observed a rudimentary liturgical year.
These data expose what is often presented as a false dichotomy in the study of the roots of Christian worship. It is often the unspoken assumption that first-century worship was either “free-form” or “liturgical.” The early documents in fact give evidence that somehow it was both at the same time.
To the question, “How were free-form and liturgical elements blended in early Christian worship?” the answer must be, “In different ways, according to the particular setting of each congregation.” It is reasonable to assume that some congregations leaned more toward the free-form style while others had more affinity with the liturgical style. As a corollary, we must conclude that one simply cannot speak about “the” New Testament pattern of worship. There were undoubtedly many (or at least several) patterns at work in the first century, building from the same raw material of the apostolic teaching and example, and eventually coming to a synthesis in the patristic age.
Next: The Gathering