Sunday, September 13, 2015

Early Christian Worship

     When Christ returned to the Father after his passion, he left no mandate for a church order. Rather, he promised to send the Holy Spirit who would direct the disciples and remind them of all he had taught them (Jn. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 13-15). Hence, leadership in the early Christian communities evolved by a process guided by God. Tracing this development is a matter of piecing together small hints and incidental mentions that are scattered throughout the New Testament.

     While Jesus left no mandate for church order, the disciples of Jesus were not without patterns of religious leadership from their Jewish background. Such leadership was to be found in four primary areas, the temple, the Sanhedrin, the synagogue and the less formally structured special interest groups and community settings. The temple was regulated by the priesthood. The office of high priest theoretically was supposed to be inherited (Nu. 25:10-13), but during the Hellenistic period, and later, during the Roman period, this office was often achieved by simony or political favor so that dissident Jewish groups considered the high priesthood to be corrupt. In addition to the high priest and the large numbers of ordinary priests there were “chief priests,” either the permanent staff of priestly officials in Jerusalem or the aggregate of former high priests and their family members.

     The Sanhedrin was the supreme religious, political and legal council in Jerusalem. Its roots went back to the post-exilic period when Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, ruled the community along with a council of priestly nobility (Ezr. 3:8; Hg. 1:1; Zec. 3-4; Ne. 2:16; 5:7). Seventy in number, the council was presided over by the high priest, making the total number seventy-one. Most of its members were priests, though it also included scribes (copyists of Scripture) and elders (powerful laypersons and dignitaries).

     The synagogue was the place of prayer and assembly for local Jewish communities. It was the center of community life, both religious and social, and it served as a school, a place of worship, a site for general assembly, and a venue for community discipline. Wherever there were a minimum of ten Jewish males, a synagogue could be started, and within the synagogue, any Jewish male could read Scripture, translate, preach or lead prayers. Women were restricted, however. They were allowed to attend the synagogue service, but lattice barriers or galleries were constructed to segregate the women from the men. They, along with children and slaves, were forbidden to teach or to publicly read the Torah. During the service, they could only listen. Leadership in the synagogue consisted of a ruler or head of the assembly, who presided over services and designated those to perform the functions of the liturgy. Scholars called rabbis (= teachers) were often associated with synagogues, though they also functioned independently as they drew on the ancient traditions and modified or reshaped them for contemporary relevance.

     Besides the more familiar religious structures of temple, Sanhedrin and synagogue, local Jewish communities had various forms of authority that belonged to the assembly of men of the city. Older males served as a council of leaders called “the elders,” a kind of local Sanhedrin with general oversight for community affairs. Also, there were special interest groups, like the Qumran community or the various zealot groups, with their own indigenous leaders. At Qumran, for instance, there was a supreme council and an overseer who examined candidates for membership, directed the treasury and divided the labor. Members were examined annually and assigned a rank in accord with their spiritual progress.

     It is not apparent that the disciples of Jesus followed completely any one of these preexisting structures. The temple hierarchy had limited application to church life, since the Christians looked back to the older ideal that the entire community was a priesthood (He. 10:19-22; 1 Pe. 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:6). The function of high priestly service, at least in a sacerdotal way, had been performed once and for all by Christ Jesus (He. 9:23-26; 10:11-14, 18; 1 Ti. 2:5-6). The Sanhedrin, likewise, had little to offer as a model for Christian church government.

     The synagogue, however, was more fruitful for leadership paradigms, and there were both similarities and dissimilarities to the Christian churches. Titles like “elder” and descriptions like “synagogue” were used by the Christians (Ja. 2:2). The general pattern of Christian worship, with Scripture reading, prayers and a homily, was generally similar to the Jewish synagogue liturgy. When Paul and Barnabas took a gift from Antioch, Syria to the Jerusalem church and presented it to the “elders” (Ac. 11:30), there seems little doubt that the title functioned for the Christians more or less like it did in the broader Jewish communities. Later, Paul and Barnabas would appoint “elders” in all the new Christian congregations in Asia Minor (Ac. 14:23).

     There were some marked differences, however, especially for slaves and women, who were welcomed as full members of the Christian assemblies and allowed to publicly participate (1 Co. 11:5) and engage in theological dialogue (Ac. 18:26). The distinction of carrying a church letter, which generally included reading the letter publicly and explaining its contents, was a high honor indeed that Paul conferred upon Phoebe (Ro. 16:1-2). Quartus and Tertius, both probably slaves, are reckoned with the Christian brothers as fully as Erastus, the Director of Public Works in Corinth, and Tertius served as Paul’s amanuensis (Ro. 16:22-23b). Paul had no hesitation in recommending the slave Onesimus as a full brother in Christ (Philmn 15-16). Thus, it is to be expected that the early Christians drew some of their ideas about leadership from familiar patterns in the Jewish community. At the same time, because they were a new community bound to the teachings and ethics of Jesus, they were free to reshape these traditions to conform to Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit.


  1. I have found this subject area to be one of great personal fascination. I would very much like to hear more along such lines. One would also wonder how much of the early church worship and structure were as a result of the intense persecution.

  2. Bryan, you raise an important point. One thing for certain, after AD 70 when it became clear that Christians were not simply a subset of Judaism, and farther, that they now had passed from being a legal religion to being an illegal religion, this change in circumstances to greater or lesser degrees was bound to affect their worship. For one thing, they now had to worship in secret. According to Pliny, Governor of Bithynia (who writes in the early 100s), they met before daylight. At the same time, they could no longer easily attend the synagogues, as Paul had regularly done, since after the Jewish revolt, the rabbis inserted into the synagogue liturgy a curse upon Christians (the Birkat ha-minim). That being said, all our meager references to early Christian worship in this nascent period beyond AD 70 seem to suggest that the general pattern of the synagogue style of worship continued, with prayers, sermon and the distinctively Christian celebration of the Eucharist. It may be an irony, particularly in light of contemporary worship forms, that the early Christians stayed with the synagogue pattern of singing without instrumental music. The temple used instruments; the synagogues did not. It would be some time before instrumental music was allowed in the churches.

  3. While I agree that the processes that gave us an organized Christian church were “God-guided”, it is equally important to remember that these changes were necessitated by practicality and demanded by extremes (persecution and heresy).

    Robert Jewett—in his article “Tenement Churches and Communal Meals in the Early Church” and his commentary on Romans in the Hermeneia series—points out another aspect of early Christian organization. From a close reading of II Thessalonians 3 and Romans 16, Jewett argues that the Pauline churches were organized as either “house churches”—which met in the private home of a more affluent Christian patron with the patron acting as the recognized leader of the group—or “tenement churches”—which met in the crowded apartment buildings that were home to many less affluent inhabitants of Roman cities. Jewett proposes—perhaps stretching the biblical evidence—that these tenement churches were more egalitarian in organization without a clear, singular leader. (Jerome Murphey-O’Conner speculates that the house churches could hold 30 to 40 members at most; whereas the tenement churches could bring together no more than 10 or 20 individuals.)

    Along with this insight from Jewett, it is important to remember that the earliest Christian mission followed the path of the Jewish diaspora through the Mediterranean basin. The Pauline “pattern” involved differing levels of interaction with the synagogues in the Roman cities. Apparently the exchange between these synagogues and the emerging Christians varied from place-to-place. In some areas, Christians were fully integrated into the life of the Jewish diaspora synagogue. (Only later did the “parting of the ways” place these groups on different trajectories.) In other areas, the Christians probably worshiped more independently in houses and tenements with little influence from the local synagogue. Most likely is the scenario that the earliest Christians of the Mediterranean mission worshiped both with Jews in the local synagogues and in more private, closed groups in houses and tenements.

    Whatever the processes that led to an organized, independent Christian church—and whatever the motivations behind these processes—it is important to remember that first-century Christianity in very few ways resembled the structure, organization, and practices of contemporary American Christian worship. If we look at the New Testament as a mirror and see a perfect reflection of ourselves, we can rest assured that we are deceived.