How did the early Christians worship? Did they worship the way that we do today? Did they watch priests perform rituals, as in the liturgical churches? Did they sit quietly listening to a lecture, as in Protestant and Evangelical churches? Was the meeting centered around a priest, pastor, or another clerical figure, while the laity remained passive? What was the New Testament pattern?
The New Testament is filled with glimpses of early church worship. One of the most suggestive comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“What then, brothers and sisters? Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
What does that passage imply to you about the nature of the New Testament church meeting? Doesn’t that verse mean that Paul expected anyone could participate in the meeting? Doesn’t it mean contributing through a variety of gifts?
Am I delusional?
I checked every commentary I own on 1 Corinthians. Some commentators avoided the issue. The ones who addressed it agreed that in the early church, anyone could contribute to the meeting—it was fully participational. That was the conclusion across denominational affiliations. Here are the relevant quotes.
William Barclay (Church of Scotland):
“Paul comes near to the end of this section with some very practical advice. He is determined that anyone who possesses a gift should receive every chance to exercise it; but he is equally determined that the services of the Church should not become a kind of competitive disorder…There is no more interesting section in the whole letter than this, for it sheds a flood of light on what an early church service was like. There was obviously great freedom and an informality about it. From this passage two great questions emerge…It was open to anyone who had a gift to use it…There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early Church. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message to give to give it….The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it. A man did not come with the sole intention of being a passive listener; he came not only to receive but to give. Obviously this had its dangers, for it is clear that in Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices; but nonetheless the Church must have been in those days much more the real possession of the ordinary Christian.”[i]
William Beardslee (N/A):
“Now Paul sketches a picture of worship, a very flexible procedure where anyone may offer ‘a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation’ (verse 26). Speaking in worship is to be open to anyone, but each is to be attentive to the good of all, to ‘building up.’ If any speak in tongues, it is to be only a few, and only if someone can interpret. A speaker is to give place to another who has something given to him or her to say….What a revealing glimpse of a vital community, whose worship was in good measure unstructured, open to participation by all, and guided not by a pre-set program, but by the Spirit! No wonder that the meetings were often boisterous and no wonder that several voices were heard at once. Apparently there was no one who regularly presided, in contrast to the almost universal practice of the later church. Paul’s plan for a more sober worship is not an administrative reform, but a plea for mutual consideration, so that the whole group may be ‘built up.’”[ii]
Craig Blomberg (Evangelical Covenant Church):
“The differences between most contemporary church services and the picture of Corinthian worship in verse 26 makes application of this verse difficult…As in chapter 12, Paul strongly encourages every member’s participation or use of his or her gifts. Little wonder that the church historically has usually grown the fastest, and evangelism has proved the most effective, in small, informal fellowships. These may be fledgling ‘church plants,’ or small groups within larger, more established congregations. Even the exceptions to this trend, as with mass response to large crusades, tend not to bear lasting fruit unless newly converted individuals are linked up with local congregations for ongoing nurture and discipleship. Crucial to that nurture is involving new believers in the exercise of their gifts…God gives gifts to prepare all church members to contribute to the growth of the body (v 12).”[iii]
F.F. Bruce (Plymouth Brethren):
“The upshot of all this is that, when the church meets, it is perfectly proper for each member to contribute to the worship, provided that all things be done for edification.”[iv]
Michael Eaton (Chrisco Fellowship of Churches):
“‘Each one’ should be participating. Several different kinds of ministry should be taking place. Someone leads in singing a psalm. Another person gives some teaching. Another one speaks of something that has been revealed to him which he gives as a prophecy, containing ‘revelation.’
These verses are not an ‘order of service’! Obviously the entire time is left fairly free. The description is not intended to be complete. There is no mention of any leader! Presumably, the church has some elders but they are not so prominent that they have to be specially mentioned. The Holy Spirit is the leader. Paul himself is a lesser leader, giving instructions in these sentences. Some elders would be present but their leadership would, it seems, be even less conspicuous.”[v]
Gordon Fee (Assemblies of God):
“The first sentence, which offers a description of what should be happening at their gatherings, echoes his earlier concerns (chap. 12) that each one has opportunity to participate in the corporate ministry of the body. The second sentence, the exhortation that all of the various expressions of ministry described in the first sentence be for edification…The community appears to be left to itself and the Holy Spirit. What is mandatory is that everything aim at edification.”[vi]
Leon Morris (Anglican):
“Come together means come together for worship. We need not press everyone (or ‘each’, hekastos), as though it meant that every member of the congregation always had something to contribute. But it does mean that any of them might be expected to take part in the service.”[vii]
Anthony Palma (Assemblies of God):
“In these verses Paul gives an insight into worship in the Corinthian church. Even though what he says is corrective and restrictive, he wishes to emphasize the general ideas of variety and spontaneity. No one gift should predominate (Lim, 164). When the church gathers for worship, it is proper, and expected, that each member will manifest a gift if prompted by the Spirit to do so (v 26). “Everyone has” does not mean that everyone must or will manifest a gift, but it does not underscore that each member, potentially, may.”[viii]
J. Paul Sampley (United Church of Christ):
“Nowhere in Paul’s undisputed letters do we find information on leadership patterns in worship. Clearly, Paul supposes the worshipers to be the significant participants (11:4-5, 26-33a). The Spirit as the giver of the gifts, is understood as the source of inspiration to the participants…Paul’s suggestion regarding worship (14:26-33a) are not themselves to be confused with a structure or order of worship per se; his comments are very specifically aimed at the particular circumstances at Corinth where tongues have played a disproportionate role. Within his comments, however, are some abiding Pauline themes: Each one participates and contributes; all things are to be done for edification; deference to others is appropriate and fundamental in worship as in all of life; and all should learn and be encouraged.”[ix]
Kenneth Schenck (Wesleyan):
“We can see from this comment how apparently unstructured and participatory the worship at Corinth was conducted. It was a truly “charismatic” styled church rather than one with a clear cut order of worship or sermon time. Surely it stands at one end of the spectrum in terms of its worship style, for Paul had to instruct a church like Thessalonica not to despise prophecy (1 Thess. 5:20). A slightly better translation of 14:26 is “let everything be for edification.” In other words, Paul was not saying that all these things needed to take place but that whatever they did in worship, it should edify the body.”[x]
Dennis Smith (Disciples of Christ):
“Furthermore, the form taken by the worship activities in 1 Corinthians 14 is that of an unstructured, undisciplined affair in which everyone is free to take part (as in, e.g., 14:27-33). In addition, the members are described as bringing contributions to the worship…This is reminiscent of the philosophical banquets attended by Aulus Gellius where each guest brought a topic for discussion at the symposium.”[xi]
Graydon Snyder (Church of the Brethren):
“In terms of the democracy of worship, or the priesthood of all believers, obviously everyone present participated, or could participate. Even with the smallest estimated average number of a house church, the amount of material to be shared could have been enormous, to say nothing of the potential confusion. Obviously, the sharing by everyone was accomplished by two or three speaking at once (vv 27, 30, 31, 33). Paul asks that these parts of the worship be done only by a few (two or three) and that they be done seriatum without interruption, rather than simultaneously.”[xii]
Michael G. Vanlaningham (Evangelical, Non-Denominational):
“Verse 26 gives evidence of a free-flowing church meeting with wide participation. The objective for all who shared was the edification of others.”[xiii]
There you have it.
Back in 1952, Emil Brunner, the great Swiss theologian, wrote:
“In the last 50 or 100 years New Testament research has unremittingly and successfully addressed itself to the task of elucidating for us what was known as the Ecclesia in primitive Christianity—so very different from what is to-day called the Church both in the Roman and Protestant camps. It is, however, a well-known fact that dogmatists and Church leaders often pay but small attention to the results of New Testament research, and are only too ready to bridge the gulf between then and now by a handy formula such as that of development, or by appealing to the distinction between the visible and invisible Church, and thus to give a false solution to this grave a distressing problem. But while many theologians and Church leaders are able to quieten their consciences by such formulae, others are so much more painfully aware of the disparity between the Christian fellowship of the apostolic age and our own ‘churches,’ and cannot escape the impression that there may perhaps be something wrong with what we now call the Church.”[xiv]
It’s been seventy-one years since Brunner wrote those words. The quotes I provided show that his remarks still apply—i.e., modern New Testament scholars still know that the early church worshipped one way, while we worship in a completely different way. Nevertheless, despite this “open secret” among scholars, most churches have proceeded with business as usual—and more churches are closing than opening.
If Free Grace people pride themselves on going by the Book, not by tradition, this is definitely an area that requires your prayerful consideration of Scripture.
[i] Barclay, ed., The Letters to the Corinthians, 133–35.
[ii] Beardslee, First Corinthians, 137.
[iii] Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 283.
[iv] Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 134.
[v] Eaton, The Branch Exposition of the Bible. Volume 1, 584.
[vi] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 764–65.
[vii] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 194.
[viii] Palma, “1 Corinthians,” 885.
[ix] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” 967.
[x] Kenneth Schenck, 1 & 2 Corinthians: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2006), 199.
[xi] Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, 201.
[xii] Snyder, First Corinthians, 183.
[xiii] Vanlaningham, “1 Corinthians,” 1798.
[xiv] Brunner, Misunderstanding, 5–6.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.
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