What should corporate worship look like?

A couple of years prior to becoming a christian (and while still attending a mainline, liturgical church), I remember asking myself, “Where do the robes come from?” I had been reading the New Testament, and it struck me that I didn’t find anything there about pastors wearing special garments or vestments. The answer is tradition. When we approach the question of worship, the things we do when we gather corporately, tradition has assumed immense importance. One of the chief reason for this may be that the New Testament is in many areas non-specific about what is done, and and how it is done. Into this perceived void, tradition purports to offer the guidance we need to organize corporate worship.

When we examine the New Testament, there we find only two ordinances, or sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And there is plenty of argument about the form and meaning of just these two. But the other conspicuous absence is any form of order of worship, any liturgy of any kind. What did the first Christian gatherings look like? How were they organized? We can’t say with certainty, though a few things can be drawn from the record in Acts.

1) It is likely that gatherings were on Sunday evenings, because Sunday was a work day. Acts 20 has Paul speaking late into the evening.

2) When the church gathered for worship each Lord’s day, the Lord’s Supper was a part of what they did. It has become tradition in protestantism to celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly in many churches, but an honest look at the biblical record shows this practice doesn’t rest on anything there. I am not commenting on the meaning behind the Supper, but only on the frequency. However, the frequency can inform a bit of our understanding that remembering the Lord’s death was not something tacked on to the end of their meetings, rather it was a vital and central feature of the gathered church.

3) Any kind of ‘order of worship’ is very difficult if not impossible to discern. The evidence is simply too thin to say what the first gatherings of Christians looked like in terms of details.

The point in all of this is to say while we don’t have detail, we do have major elements and principles. Acts 2:42 is a key verse for this. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Instruction in the apostle’s doctrine is still an important part of a christian gathering. Indeed, the careful exposition of scripture is vital to growth in the knowledge of God. Secondly, they were devoted to fellowship, to sharing together. Fellowship means sharing together, and the thing Christians have in common is that they all belong to Christ. There can’t be fellowship if this isn’t the case. It also argues against the idea that one doesn’t need to gather with other believers corporately to be a christian. Indeed, you don’t have to be in a crowd to accept Christ, to enter into new life in Him. But having become a believer, you do need to join with others. It is the apostolic model and admonition to not forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Breaking of bread was quite likely a meal that the believers took together, which at some point included the bread and wine taken in remembrance of Jesus’ death. In Acts 20:7 we read that “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day..”  Here, too, one gets the impression that the Lord’s Supper was always a part of the weekly gathering of the church. Finally, they prayed. In Acts 2:42, it is in the plural, which likely means that they were offering the customary Jewish prayers in the temple, but it is also clear that Acts is a transitional book. The apostles themselves take some time to fully move away from the patterns and habits of their Jewish life. Later, in the epistles, it is obvious that prayer is encouraged, commanded, and valuable in the life of the church.

At the distance of some 20 centuries, when we look at our own gatherings for worship, many of these look very different than what we read in Acts. Is this to be expected? Are we to understand that with the passage of time it is only natural that things should change, develop and evolve? That there has been change is evident, but the question to ask is, is that change legitimate? This becomes particularly important when the changes are imperious to the point of displacing what we clearly find in the New Testament. Paul F. Bradshaw’s The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship makes interesting contributions to this question. I assume Mr. Bradshaw is a Roman Catholic, (though it is not stated in his book), due to his faculty position at Notre Dame University, but if he is not, no matter – his book is a fair-minded and nonpartisan presentation of the early evidence for various rites and liturgies. The most interesting part to me is chapter 3, “Ten principles for interpreting early christian liturgical evidence.” Bradshaw puts forth guidelines that are as much cautionary as anything. A sampling:

1. What is most common is not necessarily most ancient, and what is least common is not necessarily least ancient.
3. Authoritative statements are not always genuinely authoritative.
5. When a variety of explanation is advanced for the origin of a liturgical custom, its true source has almost certainly been forgotten.
6. Ancient church orders are not what they seem.

The Gershwin brothers may provide the most apt paraphrase of what Bradshaw posits with early liturgical sources: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

This becomes important when faced with authoritative sounding statements about what the church “has always” believed or practiced. Bradshaw’s caveats remind us what an elusive task it is to find the true source of some practice.  But the other point is this: Secondary sources, sub-apostolic documents are just that; they are not Scripture, and therefore they may provide some descriptive value, but they do not provide prescriptive (or proscriptive) information on how Christian worship is done. For example, the Didache presents a brief outline of how the Lord’s Supper is to be done. Departing from other evidence, it has the giving of thanks for the cup before that for the bread. I have never heard of, nor witnessed a communion celebration where the cup was passed before the bread. Despite the early date of the Didache, no one follows this outline.

When a gathering of Christians assembles for worship, the essential elements of what Acts 2:42 outlines should be present, but beyond this, it isn’t necessary to have any sort of liturgical uniformity or homogeneity. Differences in culture find expression in the body of Christ, and corporate worship is one of the chief places where such differences appear. This is not disunity or problematic. Indeed, what is problematic is when local Christian gatherings are forced to conform to some imposed formula that finds no basis in scripture.

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