Throughout ecclesiastical history, there have always existed those who sought purity in the church. The aim, of course, was to worship correctly, and in accord with scripture. Whenever the Church has veered off course, corrections were attempted to supposedly make things right. The Reformation, among other things, marked a return to the centrality of preaching in worship. The American Restoration Movement, which grew out of the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, sought to unify all Christians and return the Church to its New Testament form, especially in regard to worship.
If we want to know if we’ve corrupted worship in the Church, we need to return to the beginning. While the New Testament gives us bits and pieces of direction for worship, the scriptures are silent regarding a complete liturgy. Many would expand on this, discussing old covenant and new covenant comparisons; still others would point us to the belief that New Testament worship points to a lifestyle and less to a form (a view I would hold to). Regardless, while that discussion is beyond the scope of this history lesson, it serves us well to return to the early New Testament Church.
In A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, a defender of the Christian who lived during Christian persecutions and was himself persecuted by Roman authorities, gives us the earliest account of what the actually did when they gathered to worship. In his First Apology, he writes,
On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers.
When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the “Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.
Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need.
We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught these things, which we have offered for your consideration.
Dr. Everett Ferguson, professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University, gives us a line-by-line explanation of Justin Martyr’s account in How We Christians Worship (Christian History Institute, issue 37). It’s a thorough explanation of the practice of Christians not far removed from lives of the first Christians.
Has our worship strayed too far from the early Church? One thing is clear – the early Church was focused on several things: reading scripture, applying it to life, celebrating their salvation by remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus, and taking care of those in the church. The other thing is this: in today’s church, we may be more concerned about what we get from worship rather than what we give.