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Worship in the Early Church

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Church worship varies greatly amongst the different branches of Christianity. Whilst Evangelical Christians pride themselves on providing their followers with a contemporary style of worship, centering on worship music and a spontaneous array of praises, the more traditional churches offer rigid worship practices that are liturgical in nature. So which of these communal styles is most representative of the worship that took place in the infancy of the church? To answer this question, we must look to the testimonies of the early Christians themselves.

In the 1st Century: There are several passages in the New Testament which describe the early church as being steadfast in worship practices such as the breaking of bread, prayer, singing praises and the reading of Scriptures.[1] This almost certainly was in response of Christ’s command in the Institution Narrative to keep the practice of the Last Supper.[2]

In the 2nd Century: In his First Apology written around 155 A.D., the Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote a complete account of the celebration of the Eucharist.[3] By that stage it appears as though an already existing framework of Christian worship was in practice. The framework consisted of [4]worship in the Early Church

  1. SYNAXIS (also known as the ‘liturgy of the Word’):
  • Greeting and response
  • Hymns, interspersed with
  • Readings from Scripture
  • The Homily
  • Dismissal of those not baptised in the faith
  1. EUCHARIST (the thanksgiving meal):
  • Intercessory Prayers
  • Offertory — of bread and wine
  • Consecration of Gifts
  • Communion
  • Giving of Thanks
  • Benediction

In addition, the Didache, possibly compiled earlier than the second century (as early as 70 A.D.) is a collection of instructions attributed to the twelve disciples.[5] The Didache offers the earliest description of the Eucharist outside of the New Testament, and provides several instructions regarding the correct practice of worship and partaking of the Eucharist.

In the 3rd Century: The Apostolic Tradition [6] of Hippolytus of Rome (200 A.D.) was written to confirm the framework of worship outlined by Justin. Perhaps the most crucial source of information regarding the liturgical worship form and structure of the liturgy prior to the Nicene Council. Written for the purpose of preserving the Apostolic Tradition, this structure of the liturgy forms the basis of the liturgies prayed today in many of the apostolic churches.

The first three centuries as well as the New Testament accounts therefore portray a unified view, rendering early church worship as sacramental and liturgical in nature. In fact it appears as though Christian worship was liturgical from the very start, which is very likely since many practices of the Early Church were based on Jewish practices. In fact, it is evident that early church worship centers on the celebration of the Eucharist and the reading of Scripture.

Disclaimer: This post is not intended to criticize different styles of worship in existence amongst the different denominational churches, rather to highlight how these styles compare to the worship of the Early Church.

Question:

How does your church worship? And how does your church worship compare with that of the early church believers?

 

 References:

[1] Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

[2] Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26, Luke 22:14-23, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

[3] Read more of Justin Martyr’s First Apology here.

[4] Becoming Orthodox-Fr Peter Gillquist.

[5] Read more of the Didache here

[6] Read more of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition here.

 

Further Reading:

Worship in the Early Church-by Richard C. Leonard

 

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