Did Early Christians *Do* Church the Same Way We Do?
By Pastor Mike
Social media can be a funny thing, but one of it's potential strength's is the conversations it can create between people - people who either are not physcally close enough to one another to have a face to face talk or who, if together, might not raise the same topics for conversation that they (for some strange reason) are willing to have in cyberspace.
As just one example, I am in a Facebook group called "Assemblies of God Ministers Under 40," or "u40." It is a group for younger credentialed ministers and missionaries in our denomination to create community and compare ideas. Today I wound up in a conversation about corporate worship. Many younger ministers in our fellowship understandably get exasperated, and even jaded, over the showiness of many of our churches. Since the American church tends to hold up the biggest churches, the "megachurches," as the shining examples of a successful Christian community, many churches (including our own at times) can fall prey to the idea that a good church service is essentially a show and the congregation is essentially a gathering of spectators/consumers. This raised the issue of what New Testament and early "church" looked like.
This is a particular passion for me. I believe deeply in the corporate gathering of believers to worship and sit underneath the preaching of the Word - and not just because I am a pastor! Weekly worship has always been important to me. But the question often arises as to what exactly early worship looked like. Corporate worship was of course not the only activity of the early church and it has been rightly pointed out that the book of Acts does not really focus on the early Christians "going to church" so much as the early Christians "being the church" (a phrase I have a problem with, but that is for another post). And I agree, corporate worship is not the only activity of the church, and most of our lives and callings mean that our personal focus (and even ministry) takes place outside the weekly church service. But does this mean that the way we do church is wrong? A totally modern invention? Let me point out three things...
1) The early church gathered regularly to eat together (which likely included the Lord's Supper, or communion), pray together, and learn the Word of God together. We see this in Acts 2:42-47, for example.
2) When the early church gathered to worship, it was a time during which people with spiritual gifts such as teaching, prophecy, tongues, and even singing, could participate and share their gifts. These early church gatherings were presumably rather small most of the time and were a far cry from the concert atmosphere of today's larger church gatherings. But when one reads the apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, you see that potentially "everyone" could share what God had given them during any early church gathering, while at the same time the actual exercising of gifts (for the sake of time and order) was limited to "two or at the most three." So early church worship was both participatory and orderly. Orderliness could not have happened without respect for the leadership and participation could not have happened without generosity and humility on the part of the leadership.
3) When you get to the later books of the New Testament, and in this case I am thinking of 1 Timothy, you get the sense that the central feature of corporate worship has shifted away from the spontaneous use of spiritual gifts towards the public reading (and probably explanation/teaching) of the Scriptures. This does not mean that the exercise of miraculous gifts ceased or was expected to cease among believers, but it does point to the reality that, once the apostles had all passed away, the central authority in the church passed to the biblical writings of the apostles (and also of the Old Testament prophets, of course). This means, to me, that the central place of the worship service became what we today call the sermon, not because the pastor is the most important person in the room but because the Bible has become the most authoritative voice in the room. (One way of thinking about this would be to recognize that, even in churches like Corinth where everyone had a dramatic spiritual gift, if Paul or one of his letters showed up, hearing from the apostle would become the central event of that week's gathering. We now have all of the apostles and prophets at our disposal, thanks to the Bibles in our hands.)
Summing all of this up, when the early church gathered for worship, they gathered to pray, take communion, care for one another, share what God was doing in their lives, and sit underneath the exposition of Scripture. That sounds a lot like what we do today (though granted that we tend to sing a lot of our prayers, but so did the early church - ever hear of chanting the psalms?). For me the clincher is this description from Justin Martyr, an early Christian from the generation immediately following the apostles, who described how the early Christians "did church." I have to say, it sounds a lot like what we do, all the way down to taking an offering!
And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.
Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected is deposited with the president, and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need.
We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them these things which I have passed on to you also for your serious consideration. (Source)
So next time you roll out of bed on a Sunday morning and ask yourself if getting dressed and heading off to church is really something the early believers would have done, now you know that the answer is Yes,