In his Corinthian correspondence, Paul addresses at length the free participation of worshippers in offering expressions of verbal spiritual gifts. While he mentions in passing a short list of possibilities (“a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation”, cf. 1 Co. 14:26), his larger discussion focuses upon the gifts of tongues-speaking, the interpretation of tongues-speaking and prophecy. Whether or not such free offerings were typical or atypical of 1st century churches is not immediately clear, since such expressions are not described in any of his other letters. However, there are indications by Luke that such expressions may have been more widespread than generally acknowledged (cf. Ac. 10:44-46; 11:27-28; 19:6; 20:23; 21:10-11). This subject, of course, has been a lightning rod since the birth of Pentecostalism more than a century ago. Pentecostals and charismatics, working against a perceived formalism in the traditional churches, tend to argue that such expressions were normal and should be regularly expected in public worship. Non-Pentecostals and non-charismatics, reacting against what they perceive to be extremism, tend to argue that such expressions were more exceptional. While the outcome of this debate will probably never be settled, among the Corinthians, the gift of tongues-speaking seems to have been elevated as the supreme gift, and Paul is at some pains to show that it is only one among a number of spiritual gifts, not better than the others (1 Co. 12:4-31). Further, he points out that in public worship tongues-speaking requires special guidelines, since it is a gift that may not immediately be understood by the listeners (1 Co. 14:1-5). His guidelines proceed from the basic premise that what is unintelligible can hardly be edifying to the church (1 Co. 14:6-12, 14-19). Hence, any public use of tongues must be accompanied by an interpretation for the edification of the assembly (1 Co. 14:13, 27); otherwise, the one so gifted is required to remain silent in public. Further, there are limits for such expressions in a given worship service, “two—or at the most three” (1 Co. 14:27, 29). Also, under the rubric that things should be done “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Co. 14:32-33, 40), Paul does not allow two people to be speaking at the same time, whether in intelligible or unintelligible language (1 Co. 14:27, 30). Speakers must be “one at a time” and “in turn”. The basic rule that there should be no more than one person speaking at a time extends even to those who are not speaking in tongues, since Paul forbids women to interrupt the service of worship by calling out to their husbands (1 Co. 14:34-35). Presumably, this basic approach also would apply to any other verbal expressions in the worship service other than those parts that may have been spoken collectively in unison (i.e., the Amen, etc.).
If the evidence of the New Testament letters is any indication, then the apostolic church was a preaching, teaching, believing and confessing community, that is to say, its very center was the content of its faith. It is likely that the reference to Timothy’s “good confession in the presence of many witnesses” refers to his confession of faith at the time of his baptism (1 Ti. 6:12), and Paul’s reference to the Corinthians’ confession of the gospel may be analogous (2 Co. 9:13). The documents of the New Testament are filled with such confessions. Typical in this regard is the introductory clause of 1 Timothy 3:16, “And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness…” (NASB). Many such confessions are short:
Jesus is Lord! (1 Co. 12:3; Romans 10:9)
There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Co. 8:6).
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, [and] he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures… (1 Co. 15:3-4)
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Ro. 5:8b)
Such confessions define what it meant to be Christian, for as Paul said, “This is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Co. 15:11). Peter spoke for them all when he declared the unique and exclusive Christian message: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Ac. 4:12). The “truth of the gospel” was a standard consciously upheld and protected (Ro. 16:17; Ga. 1:8-9; 2:14; 1 Th. 2:13). Those who departed from this standard were sharply rebuked (2 Co. 11:3-4; Ga. 1:6-7; 1 Ti. 6:3-5), and those who touted another message were cut off (1 Co. 5:3-5; 2 Th. 3:6; 1 Ti. 1:19-20; 2 Jn. 9-11).
This is not to say, of course, that there was no diversity among Christians. Rather, it is to say that the early Christians had a core of faith, they knew what it was, and they refused to allow it to be altered. Some Christians were Torah observant, while other Christians were not—and this diversity was permitted. Liberty was granted over various scruples concerning diet and the observance of holy days (Ro. 14). Paul could say that he “became all things to all men”, whether they were Jews under the Torah or others not under Torah (1 Co. 9:19-23), but these areas were never the core. The core itself, on the other hand, had to remain intact, and there was a sacred duty to preserve it without change. It was the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Ti. 1:13), “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). It was what was “received” and “passed on” (1 Co. 11:23; 15:1, 3; 2 Th. 2:15).
How was this core passed on? Primarily through the public reading of Scripture and through preaching, forms that passed from the synagogue into the churches.
Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (1 Ti. 4:13)
The elders who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Ti. 5:17)
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodecia. (Col. 4:16)
I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. (1 Th. 5:27)
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it… (Rv. 1:3, ESV)
Preaching could take the form of evangelism, where people were called to repent and believe the good news (Ac. 2:38; 3:19; 5:21, 42; 13:1; 1 Ti. 3:2). It could take the form of prophecy, that is, words for “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Co. 14:3). It could take the form of teaching, which doubtless included exposition, instruction and exhortation (Ac. 2:42; 18:11; 20:7, 11; Col. 1:28; 1 Ti. 4:13; 2 Ti. 3:16; Tit. 2:7-8). Behind apostles and prophets, teachers are ranked as the third most important leadership gift in the church (1 Co. 12:28).
Finally, there is the collection of freewill gifts. While the Jewish system provided for a tithing structure to support the temple, the Levites and priests, and various charitable concerns, Christians had no such structure. Still, they were concerned to be stewards of their God-given resources. On more than one occasion, Christians helped support Paul in his missionary endeavors (Phil. 4:15-16), and other church leaders were supported as well (1 Co. 9:5-12a). Paul was not averse to tactfully asking for such support (Ro. 15:24, 28-29). Beyond this, relief efforts, especially during times of economic distress, were undertaken by Christians to help each other (Ac. 11:27-30). Paul urged his constituent churches to participate in such relief work (Ro. 15:25-27; Ac. 24:17; Ga. 2:10; 2 Co. 8-9). His advice to the Corinthians was probably typical in this regard:
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Co. 16:1-3)
Obviously, Paul could assume that the Corinthian Christians would be meeting together on Sunday, and during their worship service, a collection of funds would be made. His ethic was that Christians with means should be “generous and willing to share” (1 Ti. 6:18; Ga. 6:10).
In summary, the central elements of Christian worship that come to us from the New Testament are these: the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist; public reading of Scripture, teaching and preaching; hymn-singing; communal prayer; opportunity for free expression of spiritual gifts; liturgical elements like the Thanksgiving, the Amen, the Maranatha, doxologies and blessings; the confession of faith; the collection of offerings. What did a 1st century worship service look like and how was it ordered? With no biblical description, it would be presumptuous to attempt precision or to assume that Christian worship in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and Palestine was identical. Nonetheless, the above elements seem to be widely attested.