Gathered worship in the early church

When the church met.
It seems that the early church began meeting daily (acts 2:46, 5:42). This may have continued, but as time moved on, Sunday, the first day of the week became the day for the main gathering (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2, Rev 1:10). This was not seen as a Sabbath, for the time for keeping special days was passed (Col 2:16-17).[1] It was simply judged the most apt day to get together, being the day of Jesus’ resurrection and so a reminder of the salvation and new-creation the believers had received.

What went on.

In terms of what comprised these gatherings, the testimony of the NT is remarkably consistent. In short, the church adopted the general structure of the synagogue service which comprised: (1) Praise in a “call to worship.” There is apparently no record of singing. However as this was central to temple worship in the OT, we might consider it likely.[2] (2) Prayer that recalls God as creator and covenant maker, followed by the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 as an affirmation of faith, and then a litany[3] of praise and petition. (3) Instruction, beginning with readings from the law and prophets, and then a sermon. This was given by someone in the congregation who was deemed suitable and who was invited to give it.[4]

So it is that we consistently find the elements of praise, prayer and instruction dominating the gatherings of the early church. This is seen in verses that explicitly record these assemblies (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Cor 14:26-28, Col 3:15-17 cf. Eph 5:18-19). Yet this praise-prayer-instruction structure also seems so ingrained in the life of Paul that it provides the structure to sub-sections of his letters (Phil 4:4-9, 1 Thess 4:16-22, 1 Tim 2:1-15) and even the entire structure of the majority of them (Romans, Ephesians-2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy)! This is particularly fascinating as the letters could almost be used as a service outline. Consider Ephesians: Greeting (1:1-2), Praise (1:3-14), Prayer (1:15-23), Instruction (2:1-6:22), Blessing (6:23-24).

At the very least we surely see here the wisdom of generally maintaining the structure (though without legalism), and beginning and ending gatherings with similar greetings and blessings to those of Paul’s letters. However an examination of all these passages and the wider NT suggests a number of other developments and innovations on the traditional synagogue service.

The Holy Spirit, praise and prayer.
First, consistent with the arrival of the new covenant, the work of the Spirit in worship is paramount. Joy (the second fruit of the Spirit) and song is therefore expected as the overflow of hearts convicted by the Spirit of God’s word (Eph 5:19-20). So a number of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” were commonly sung (Col 3:19, 1 Cor 14:26). The terms suggest some of these were OT psalms, perhaps sung antiphonally as they originally were. But others seem to have been Christian compositions. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 14:26 may suggest it was common for those who were musically gifted to write a hymn and perform it when the church met. Many are convinced we find examples of some favourites within the letters themselves (Eph 1:1-14, Col1:13-23, Phil 2:6-11, Heb 1:1-4).

All this suggests that the NT church expected heart-felt devotion to God to be expressed in its gatherings rather than any dry formalism. Even prayer was to always be “in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). This didn’t necessarily mean that it shouldn’t be according to a set form. Records suggest that Christians were encouraged to recite the Lord’s Prayer as early as 80-100AD. What it meant was that whether spontaneous or liturgical, prayer was to be sincere and made with a heart-felt concern for God’s concerns expressed in his word (note the context of verse 17 to Eph 6:18), and for society as well as for the church and its mission (1 Tim 2:1-7).

We might include under prayer the place of tongues. This seems to have been a supernatural language in which praise or prayer was expressed to God. Paul was happy for it to occur when the church gathered, but only two to three times and if interpreted (1 Cor 14:1-18). The gathering was to be ordered, and was for corporate not individual worship. Nothing should take place that others cannot understand or say “Amen” to.

The Holy Spirit as the spirit of truth.
Second, life in the Spirit of truth meant that the centrality of preaching is undeniable. Within the synagogue, as much OT scripture was read “as time allowed.” And just as the synagogue service was a service of the word, so was that of the early church. Consider the quarter of the day spent in God’s word in Nehemiah 8-9. Consider Paul preaching so long at church that someone fell out of the window (Acts 20:7-11)! Consider too that after 13 chapters of some of the most dense theology, the writer of the Hebrews declares “I have written you only a short letter” (Heb 13:22)!

So it was that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching” (Acts 2:42). And where there was no apostle present, it seems that they read out the OT scriptures and followed Jesus’ example in commenting on how they are fulfilled in him (Luke 4:16-21, Acts 18:28, 2 Tim 3:16-4:5). As the apostolic writings spread however, they began to be read too (1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16). Indeed, in line with Jesus’ promise that his apostles would be inspired to write God’s word accurately (John 14:26, 16:13), the apostles’ writings were seen as holding divine authority (1 Pet 1:12, 1 Cor 2:13, 1 Thess 4:2, 15; 2 Thess 3:5, 12), and accepted as scripture (1 Tim 5:18, 2 Pet 3:16).

So it is that early church records speak of weekly readings from the OT and the apostles (ie. the embryonic NT). Paul’s earlier letters suggest that as with the synagogue, everyday members of the congregation took opportunity to “teach and admonish” the church from these writings (Col 3:16). 1 Corinthians 14:26 pictures those with the appropriate gifts (12:1-11) bringing a “teaching” (probably the word/message of wisdom or knowledge) or up to three “revelations” (probably prophecies). In the wider chapter both were for the strengthening, edification, comfort and instruction of the church. The difference was probably that the former was a spontaneous (or perhaps prepared) comment on the readings, whereas the latter was a message directly revealed from God (v29-32).

The nature of prophecy is much debated. In my view that mentioned here was probably the revealing of gospel truth and its implication for matters at hand, and by means of a vision.[5] There are hints that the practice was for someone to teach or prophesy, and for others then to weigh this by discussion that included questions and comments (1 Cor 14:29-35). It should be noted again that not everyone taught or prophesied, but only those with suitable gifting. And it seems that it was this that led to the rise of the office of “teacher” testified to in Paul’s later letters.

This was a role people aspired to (1 Tim 1:7, 3:1), it was one people were expected to be qualified for by their reliability (2 Tim 2:2), and it was authoritative in guarding God’s people against heresy by “correcting, rebuking and encouraging” (2 Tim 4:1-5). This authority meant it was not a role for women (1 Tim 2:11-12). Nevertheless, it was to be Christlike authority, so exercised with patience, gentleness and careful instruction (2 Tim 4:2).

Such teaching was also the province predominantly of elders (Tit 1:5-9, 1 Tim 3:2). It seems then that due perhaps to the rise of heresy in the congregations, to the realisation that Jesus may not return for some time, to the decline in prophecy and the death of the apostles who were the original official teachers (Acts 2:42), the bulk of teaching was taken over by those who were able teachers, sound in doctrine and prepared not just to encourage but to confront (Tit 1:9). Having said this, there is still suggestion that such teaching was followed by opportunity for questions and comments (2 Tim 2:11). And this of course has precedent in Jesus’ own example.

The Holy Spirit and fellowship.
Third, alongside joy, love (the first fruit of the Spirit) was the defining mark of the early Christians. The gathering was not simply about engaging with God, but engaging with one-another. The early believers would have been horrified at the idea that we can come and go on a Sunday morning with just a few words to each other. They were not just devoted to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread and prayer, but to “the fellowship.”

This is undeniably why communion took the form of a meal together (see below). Songs were to be sung to one-another as a means of mutual exhortation (Col 3:16). Believers were to meet together in order to “encourage one-another to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24-25). “In view of God’s mercy” that they would have been reminded of in the gathering (Rom 12:1-2), they were to “offer their bodies as living sacrifices” which meant not only lives of love, godliness and mission in society, but of mutual service (Rom 12:3-8). So it was that the giving of money took place at the weekly gathering (1 Cor 16:1-2), and history records how designated members would later distribute this to the poor whilst others would take communion to the infirm.

A lack of ritual.
Fourth, it is noteworthy in this, that Paul uses the language of priesthood and sacrifice to refer to all these acts of service (Rom 121ff, Heb 13:16, 2 Cor 8:5, Phil 4:8, Heb 13:15, Phil 2:17, 1:24, Rom 14:16, Phil 2:15, 30, Rom 15:27, 2 Cor 9:12). There really are no grounds at all for the concept of specific Christian priesthood set-apart from others by its dress. Christ is now our Great High Priest, and all believers priests in him, whose call above all is to represent God to the world in evangelism, and the world to God in prayer (1 Pet 2:9, 1 Tim 2:1-14).

As the book of Hebrews relates, the rituals of the OT were shadows pointing to the realities now present in Christ. The early church was therefore surprisingly unritualistic.

The Lord’s Supper.
Fifth, the Lord’s Supper was probably the most significant addition to the old synagogue service. The phrase “breaking bread” alongside mere “eating together” in Acts 2:46 suggests the former term referred to what we call communion (Lk 22:19), and that it probably came in the context of a meal. The suggestion is that it was celebrated every week (Acts 20:7 1 Cor 11:20), and the major passage in 1 Corinthians 11 highlights that it is to be a time of thanksgiving, remembrance, of proclaiming the Lord’s death (v23-26), and partaking of his body and blood through faith (10v14-22).

It was not therefore a re-sacrifice offered to God, but a re-calling and re-partaking of the sacrifice provided by God and offered by his Son. Nevertheless, the supper should not be received without self-examination to ensure one eats and drinks worthily (11v27-34). Moreover, because the Lord’s Supper came in the context of a church family meal, just as the Passover it fulfils was a family meal, it should be enjoyed with feelings of love and peace towards other Christians (v17-22).

The church today.
Though we see no suggestion of a formal communion liturgy within the early church, we do therefore see the elements of our modern service: Confession, the peace where believers are encouraged to ensure they are reconciled to one-another, the thanksgiving prayer, the words taken from 1 Corinthians 11v23-26, and the time of confession. We might note that many other elements of services today were also present: Song, prayer, the saying of the Lord’s prayer, sermons (though with opportunity for interaction).

We might comment that because the Lord’s Supper was celebrated every week we see no example of confession without it. Nevertheless, the stress of the gospel on repentance and faith together with the model of God’s word leading to confession in Nehemiah 8-9 would make this wise.

The NT even suggests mini-creeds (1 Cor 15:3-7) and “trustworthy sayings” (1 Tim 1:15, 3:16, 4:9-10, 2 Tim 2:11-13, Tit 3:3-8) were also circulating in the churches. The former may have only been used on occasion, and the latter may have been little more than common catchphrase. However it is equally possible that they were spoken in a liturgical manner during services. Add in the official welcome and final blessings modelled by Paul and we have most of what we now include.

There is method behind Anglican liturgy after all. What then are the major differences today? We have mentioned the danger of formalism already. But one thing that protected against this in the early church was the stress on participation. Everyone played a part making the gathering inevitably different every week, and putting limits on any set liturgy used: Some brought a hymn, others a word, others commented on it or asked questions, others brought a prayer.

We should be cautious about unlimited extras being included in services. But there is certainly scope today for further contributions that might enhance the key stages of praise, prayer and instruction: The playing of instruments, the sharing of a written poem or prayer, or its projection using technology, the acting out of a drama of the bible reading, a work of art that brings its truth home. It would seem all these would be permissible as long as they are understandable by all and are not individualistic, but can bring an “amen” from all (1 Cor 14).

Our other great lack today is in the area of fellowship. How much we need to spend social time together, on Sundays and mid-week; time to eat together, have coffee, laugh and play. How much we need the instinct of hospitality, generosity, service and encouragement displayed by the early believers. Whether organising homegroups, service groups or interest groups, or informal getting together of musicians or sports enthusiasts, whatever it might be, Christians should be encouraged to be spending time together mid-week and on Sundays, and include those who would be left out by the world or those who are not yet Christians.

Above all, groups might simply arrange to meet to informally to eat together, chat over the scriptures, and sing and pray together. Such things don’t need organising by the church before they can be done.

One can imagine the NT church. Forty or so people arrive at the large house of a believer, and people greet one-another with a holy kiss as they arrive (Rom 16:16). There is a buzz as people catch up with one-another, until at an appropriate time an elder or mature congregation member starts the meeting, perhaps with a “grace, mercy and peace” as in one of Paul’s letters.

A call to worship might then be shared from a psalm or a prayer of praise and thanksgiving said. The believers might then sing some songs together, or an individual share one they had written. A time of open praise and prayer might follow. The catalyst for this might be an opportunity for individuals to share encouragements they want to glorify God for or needs they would value prayer for. But particular prayers for society and the church would also be said.

Where any of this brought one to mind, someone might quote a trustworthy saying to a hearty “amen” from the congregation. Someone would then be asked to read from the OT and from an apostolic letter or gospel. One of the elders or teachers would then teach from it. This might be followed by additional comments and questions of clarification from the congregation. Perhaps in this context a trustworthy saying might be mentioned, and the time followed by the reciting of a relevant creed.

In response more songs might then be requested and/or prayers of praise and petition made. Finally, when it was felt appropriate a final prayer of blessing might conclude everything.

Early church history records that it was common then for the unbaptised to leave, whilst the baptised would congregate for the Lord’s Supper (this may not have always been the case). The congregation might be then encouraged to examine themselves and confess their sins, especially with respect to the teaching. A song might also be sung and an elder or other congregation member then pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the cross/resurrection and repeat Christ’s words from the night before his death. The bread and wine would then be passed round, and after everyone had partaken, the meal start.

During it people would chat about the sermon, marvel together at God and his goodness, encourage those in need of encouragement, offer to serve where service is needed, arrange perhaps to meet mid-week for all sorts of social and spiritual reasons, and generally just enjoy friendship before departing.

Of course, although the key elements of praise-prayer-instruction are commanded of the church. The exact format by which they take place is not. Here the early church is simply a useful model. Nevertheless, we would do well to note what we lack by not adopting this model in a general sense, and what would be gained if we did.

The church is intended to be an embassy of God’s kingdom, a place where its values are lived out and from where its ambassadors are sent to call people to take up citizenship through faith in Christ. It is to be a holy temple where God is present amongst his people, building them up and shining through them (Eph 2:21-22). In particular, it is to be a place where those people join the joyful assembly of heaven in their time of praise, yet worship with reverence and awe in the seriousness with which they take their time of instruction (see Heb 12:22-29).

It is this sort of fellowship, filled with joy, awe, love and truth, that is essential if the church’s calling is ever to be fulfilled. In a day of suspicion at formalism, a longing for authentic spirituality, and in which relationships are incredibly superficial, nothing could be more attractive to the watching world.

Appendix : Justin Martyr’s record of early Christian assemblies around 150 AD[6]
The following is his description of the Christian Eucharist, subsequently to the baptism of a convert:

"Afterwards we conduct him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled together to offer earnestly our united prayers for ourselves and for the enlightened one [the newly baptized convert], and for all others every where, that we, having learned the truth, may be thought worthy to be found in our deeds good livers, and keepers of the commandments, that we may be saved with the everlasting salvation. Having ceased from prayers, we salute each other with a kiss; and then bread is brought to him who presides over the brethren, and a cup of water and wine; and he taking it, sends up prayer and praise to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit; and offers much thanksgiving for our being thought by him worthy of these things. When he has finished the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present respond, saying, 'Amen.' Now, Amen in the Hebrew tongue means, 'So be it.' And when the presider has given thanks, and all the people have responded, those who are called Deacons among us give to every one present to partake of the bread and wine and water that has been blessed, and take some away for those who were not present." [Sect. 65. p. 82.] The following is Justin's account of their worship on the Lord's day: "In all our oblations we bless the Creator of all things, through his Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. And upon the day called Sunday, there is an assembly of all who dwell in the several cities or in the country, in one place where the records of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets are read, as time allows. When the reader has ceased, the presider makes a discourse for the edification of the people, and to animate them to the practice of such excellent things [or the imitation of such excellent persons]. At the conclusion we all rise up together and pray; and, as we have said, when we have ceased from prayer, the bread and wine and water are brought forward, and the presider sends up prayer and thanksgiving alike, to the utmost of his power. And the people respond, saying, Amen. And then is made to each the distribution and participation of the consecrated elements ([Greek: eucharistauthenton]). And of those who have the means and will, each according to his disposition gives what he will; and the collected sum is deposited with the presider, and he aids the orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or other cause are in need, and those in bonds, and strangers; and, in a word, he becomes the reliever of all who are in want." [Sect. 67. p. 83.]
Things to note:
1. Communion prayers seem to be spontaneous, but with a fixed or agreed theme. 2. Blessing and consecrating is present. 3. Communion is received every Sunday. 4. Reading from the scriptures is long ie. as time allows. 5. Preaching centres on ethical response. 6. Intercessions seem to be made as all stand suggesting spontaneous open time of prayer. 7. Money is given primarily for the poor and needy, not for the building etc.

[1] Whereas all Israel were able to rest on the Sabbath due to the law, only free and wealthy people would have been able to exempt themselves from work in NT times anyway. It seems that the church therefore met from Saturday night into early Sunday morning (Acts 20:7-11). This is instructive. The church still stuck to Sunday for meeting, but found the time when most could attend. The current tendency to meet on another day cannot be said to be wrong. However we should note that by sideling the apostolic and historic choice of Sunday we loose both a sense of continuity with the church of history and with the significance of the resurrection for the life of the kingdom community.
[2] Edersheim, Alfred. “Synagogue Worship,”
[3] A litany is a list of short set prayers.
[4] This structure is outlined by Martin, Ralph P. Worship in the early church, (Greand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1974), p.24-27
[5] This is suggested by its parallel to preaching, and by the fact that in chapter 13 it is to “fathom mysteries and knowledge” which in the wider letter is language used to describe knowledge of God and the gospel (see 13v9-12). So this form of prophecy comprised the sort of truth and application we find in the NT letters and was much needed during the period in which they were not in full circulation. It was therefore the foundational form mentioned in Ephesians 3:4-6, that gradually ceased as the NT was compiled. It is revelation of more circumstantial matters such as the choice of leaders, an event to prepare for or the direction of a church that may continue today (Acts 11:27-28, 13:2, 21:10-11). I might also add that as far as I can see, in every instance where we are actually told how such prophecies are received in scripture, we are told that it is through some powerful and direct visionary or audible experience—whether an angelic visitation, the appearance of Christ himself, or a vision, dream or voice that comes with the same clarity to our senses as something actually seen or heard (Numbers 12:1-8, 1 Kings 13:18, 2 Kings 1:15, Hebrews 1:1 cf. 2:2, Luke 1:67-79 cf. v5-20, Acts 2:17, 10:9-16, Gal 1:12 cf. Acts 26:12-18, Revelation 1:1-2 cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1, 7, 1 Corinthians 13:12 cf. Numbers 12:6-8).
[6] accessed 20/3/08