A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome

     The popular stereotype of the "early church" as a loosely organized fellowship with rowdy worship services, is more fiction than fact. That unrealistic stereotype might be overlooked if it did not affect worship in the church today. However, when, in the name of imitating the early church, worship is perverted into entertainment, singers perform for money, and devotion is turned into a carnal display of emotion Christians have a responsibility to speak out. Early Christian congregations were not only organized along the lines of the Jewish synagogue, but their worship services were patterned after those in the synagogue.


    In a synagogue, prayer is the primary mode of worship, the routine that is followed is fixed (or formal) and many parts of it come from the Old Testament. There are introductory prayers, prayers surrounding the creed or "Shema", prayers relating to the reading of the Torah (law), and so forth. Moreover, this pattern of worship is based upon the routine followed in the temple and before that in the tabernacle, and the two most essential elements of it are the Word of God and prayer. Other elements passed down from the Jews include the use of psalms, preaching, and the singing of hymns. To these the Christian church added, the offering, preaching and praise of Christ by name, the Lord's Supper, and readings from the Gospels and Epistles. (See "The Faithful Word", winter 1991)


    During their exile in Babylon, the Jews found it necessary to establish places where their children could be instructed in the laws and customs of Israel, and where they could come for prayer and fellowship. Since those meeting places quickly became places of worship, the pattern of the temple was followed in their design. In the front (sometimes in a niche concealed by a curtain) was a box representing the Ark of the Covenant. The books of Scripture (scrolls) were kept in that box, and a speakers stand was in front of it (Exodus 25:21, Hebrews 9:4, Exodus 26:31-34, Leviticus 16:2).

    With minor variations, many churches still follow that pattern. Although the box is no longer hidden by a curtain, is not always shaped like a box, and has come to be called an altar rather than an ark, it is still present. A cross (denoting the mercy seat) is in the front, and the pulpit may be moved to one side so that the place of worship will take the form of a cross. [The center isle corresponding to the upright portion of the cross, the isle in front of the first pew corresponding to the horizontal portion.]


    Although formality was once esteemed as a mark of precision and correctness, today it is often seen as cold or insincere. As a result, some churches have carried informality to absurd extremes. Church services have been turned into a mockery of worship by, "dancing in the Spirit," preachers dressed as clowns, puppet shows, "holy barks," skits, and so forth. Therefore, while I enjoy worshiping in a friendly relaxed atmosphere, I can also see that there needs to be a balance. We should never lose sight of the fact that worship is to be a time of devotion to God, not a time for entertainment. We also need to remember that Christ attended formal worship services and said nothing against them (Luke 4:16). In fact, the Bible encourages order in worship (1Corinthians 14:40). That being the case let us examine the Biblical roots of worship.


    Since the Bible says, "enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise," worship usually begins with a song of praise and thanksgiving unto God (Psalm 100:4). From a practical point of view, that song is useful in getting everyone's attention, and setting the mood for worship.


    Because Christ said, "where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them," an invocation follows the opening song (Matthew 18:20). A prayer of invocation is customary, and in more traditional churches, the words, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" are spoken. The invocation is then followed by a second hymn.


    Since the Bible says, "If I regard sin in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." (Psalm 66:18), those present prepare for worship by confessing their sin to God, and calling upon Him for mercy and forgiveness (Romans 10:13, Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32). In a less formal setting, the pastor might simply ask everyone to close their eyes, bow their head and confess their sins to God. Although the pastor would not want to talk during this time, or otherwise disturb anyone's concentration, he might insert brief comments (preceded and followed by silence) aimed at helping the worshipers to see their sins. Comments such as: "Remember that even our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God." (Isaiah 64:6); or, "Remember that David called upon God to cleanse him of those sins that he was not even aware of" (Psalm 19:12). Other comments might be found in such verses as Matthew 5:28 and 5:48, James 4:17, Jeremiah 17:9, 1John 1:8, Romans 3:23, Proverbs 24:9, 1Corinthians 11:31, 1John 3:15 and 4:20, Matthew 5:22, and so forth.


    Because God has said, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people," the confession of sin is followed by God's Word of forgiveness in Christ (Isaiah 40:1). Here the pastor, acting as God's spokesman, assures all who have confessed their sin that they have forgiveness in Christ. This is to be a brief Word of forgiveness, not a sermon. Therefore, the pastor might simply say, "God's Word to all who repent is 'be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.' For the Bible tells us that 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' and assures us that 'the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin'" (1 John 1:7,9, Matthew 9:2, Luke 7:48).


    After receiving God's Word of forgiveness, the congregation responds by singing a hymn of praise and glory to God. After this hymn the pastor leads the congregation in prayer. Any prayer requests are also taken before the throne of God at this time, and prayer is made for the rulers of the nation, the conversion of the heathen, and for God's help in every need. At the end of this prayer the entire congregation responds by saying "amen" for it is their prayer (Matthew 18:19). [John 16:23, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, James 5:16, Luke 11:1]


    The reading of God's Word follows the general prayer. This practice began with Ezra, and it was a regular part of the worship services that Christ attended (Nehemiah 8:2-4, Luke 4:16-17). While it was customary for the Jews to have one reading from the Law and a second from the other books of Scripture, Christians take one reading from the Gospels and a second from the Epistles (an Old Testament reading being optional).
    In the synagogue those lessons were read by one of the men of the congregation, and the reader would often add brief comments (Nehemiah 8:2). Christian congregations later eliminated the comments, because members complained that they could not tell what was the Word of God and what was not. I personally prefer to have the congregation read the section of Scripture responsively.


    The creed is to be the congregation's response to the Word of God (Romans 10:10). Among the Jews, the words, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD" became the creed (Deuteronomy 6:4). However, since Christians were asking candidates for baptism if they believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost the words, "I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost" replaced the Shema in the Apostolic church (Matthew 28:19).
    During the first century, followers of the Gnostic heresy were undermining the gospel by claiming that Christ had a phantom body, which only appeared to suffer and die. To counter that heresy, Christians added statements affirming Christ's virgin birth, suffering, death, and resurrection to the baptismal creed, thereby producing the "Apostle's Creed." The creed is followed by a hymn of faith, which is usually chosen to correspond to the theme of the sermon.


    Like the Bible readings, preaching has its roots in the exposition of Scripture begun by Ezra (Nehemiah 8:2-4). While preaching in the synagogue sought to produce righteousness through the law, Christians replaced the emphasis on works righteousness with the good news of forgiveness in Christ. Among Christians, good works are not something we do to make ourselves righteous, but something we do because we love Jesus (Galatians 5:6). In fact, from a Christian point of view, preachers who seek to make people righteous through the law are not rightly dividing the Word of God, and are not approved by God (2Timothy 2:15, 1Timothy 1:7).
While a pastor should use the law to help people see their sin and need of forgiveness, the purpose of the law is not to make them righteous but to prepare them to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ (Romans 10:4). In fact, the liturgical church year was developed during the first centuries after Christ, as a way of keeping the focus on Christ. And when it is followed, the sermons preached between Christmas and Easter are drawn from the life of Christ, thus insuring that pastors preach Christ rather than just their pet topics.
The sermon concludes the ministry of the Word.


    The Jews did not take an offering during the worship service, but placed their tithes and offerings in a box which the Bible refers to as "the treasury" (Matthew 27:6, Mark 12:41, Luke 21:1). Since Christians are not under the Old Testament laws concerning tithing, their giving is to come as a response to the gospel, and as an expression of their faith in Christ (Romans 7:4, Acts 15:28-29, Galatians 5:1, 2Corinthians 9:7, 1Corinthians 16:2).


    While a call to repentance [altar call] might be appropriate at the close of special evangelistic service or rally, it can become tedious if it is done at the end of every service. Nevertheless, because the Word of God will be at work on men's hearts, the pastor needs to be available to talk with people after the worship service.

[Note: While many churches celebrate the Lord's Supper just prior to the close of worship, in the first century the communicant members remained to celebrate the Lord's Supper after the regular service had concluded and all others had been dismissed.]


    Since the Aaronic benediction goes back to the time of Moses, the practice of ending devotions with a benediction is one of the oldest aspects of worship (Numbers 6:22-27). A closing hymn follows the benediction after which the congregation is dismissed.


When Christ instituted the Lord's supper, He did not offer it to everyone. In fact, because the Bible stresses the importance of examining oneself, it should not be offered to unbelievers, unbaptized children, those under church discipline, or those too young to examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-30, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 18:15-17). Therefore, when it comes to the actual administration of the Lord's Supper, it better to have groups of people come to the front to receive it, than to pass the elements through the congregation.
    Since Christ said "This do" when He instituted the Lord's Supper, the pastor is to repeat Christ's words as he distributes the elements. In doing that he might say, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread and when He had given thanks, He brake it and gave it to His disciples saying, 'Take eat, this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.' After the same manner he took the cup when He had supped and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them saying, 'Drink ye all of it; this cup is the New Testament in My blood which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me'" Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 17:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. When those words are spoken, everyone who partakes receives Christ's own promise that His body was given for them, and his blood shed for them, for the remission of sins. When they are not spoken, the Lord's Supper has not been celebrated, no matter how much bread and wine has been consumed. Moreover, because those words convey a divine promise, everyone who believes what Christ said (namely that His body was given for them, and his blood shed for them) receives what is promised, for to believe those words is to believe that Christ died for your sins (2Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 3:22).


    Worship should not be thought of as a work, or something we do for God. Instead, we need to realize that God uses the worship service to bestow His gifts of repentance, faith, and forgiveness on all who receive His Word. Moreover, He not only works through His Word to bring us to faith, but continues to work through that Word to nourish us spiritually, strengthen our faith, and keep us in faith unto eternal life. [1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 10:17, John 21:15-17, Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 3:6, 1 Peter 1:5, Matthew 13:18-23, Ephesians 2:8-9]

The Holy Bible, Dr. Richard C. H. Lenski's Commentary On The New Testament, "The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah" by Alfred Edersheim, "The Faithful Word" (winter 1991) by Kenneth K. Miller, correspondence with a local rabbi.