Early Christian worship

What was done in the assemblies of the early Christians? In what did their meetings consist? In what manner did they worship? So far as we know, no single pattern was followed. There was much spontaneity, and the Holy Spirit was believed to be impelling and guiding. Here and there we have hints of what took place, but nowhere do we have a complete picture. We are told that in the first days of the Church in Jerusalem the initial large influx of converts, those who came out of the stirring events of Pentecost, "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers." Here were instruction, presumably a rehearsal of the sayings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Christ; fellowship or community, the "breaking of bread," which was the Supper which had been instituted by Christ; and prayers. In the church in Antioch in its earliest days there were prophets and teachers, and this may have implied gatherings at which they spoke.

From Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth we have as nearly a detailed picture of the assemblies of a church of the first generation of Christians as has come down to us. Apparently there were meetings in which both men and women spoke, although Paul declared that in all the churches it was the rule that women should keep silent. Paul implies that the assemblies were open to non-Christians as well as Christians, and that they were often noisy and confusing. Several might simultaneously "speak with tongues." At the same time two or more might be "prophesying," that is, voicing a message which they believed had been given them by the Spirit, perhaps in the form of a "revelation." There were some who were gifted with the ability to "interpret tongues," or to put into the common speech the meaning of what had been spoken in an unknown tongue. There were those who broke out in spontaneous prayer in a "tongue" or in the vernacular. Apparently it was the custom for the hearers to say "Amen" — "so be it" — a sign of emphatic agreement, at the end of a prayer, especially if that were one of thanksgiving. There was singing, perhaps at times in a "tongue," at other times with a psalm. Paul strove to bring some kind of order into these gatherings. Although he himself had the gift of "tongues," he held it to be far inferior to speaking in a fashion which others could understand, so that all might profit. He would limit these speeches in a "tongue" to two or three, and one at a time, with some one on hand to interpret. It there was no one to interpret he who felt impelled to use an unknown tongue was to keep silence. He commanded the "prophets" to speak one at a time, and only two or three at one meeting.

At Corinth the Supper of the Lord was prominent in the common life of the church. It seems to have been associated with a meal, the agape, or "love feast." To Paul's distress, to this meal each brought his own food and drink and the better supplied did not share their provisions with those who had little or nothing, with the result that some became drunk and others went away hungry. Paul recounted the original institution of the Lord's Supper as he declared that he had "received" it "of the Lord," presumably by direct revelation, and insisted that he who partook of the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner was guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, as though he were among those who had crucified Christ. Paul believed that in some real sense, while the bread was eaten and the wine was drunk in memory of Christ, the wine and the bread were also the blood and the body of Christ. Said he; "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in [or participation in] the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a commun ion in [or participation in] the body of Christ." The meaning of the Lord's Supper and the character of the presence in it of Christ were eventually to become two of the most controversial questions among Christians.

From the beginning the example and forms of worship of the Jewish synagogue had a marked influence upon Christian worship. The Christians were familiar with the Jewish scriptures, presumably in part because they were read in their services. The Trisagion. "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of His glory. Blessed be He for ever," was used in Christian worship, probably from a very early date, and was a direct contribution from the synagogue. So, too, was the congregational response, "Amen."

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