Early notes on liturgical worship

One encouraging sign from some Reformed communities is the return to (or movement towards) “Covenant Renewal Worship (CRW).” Like all young movements, it has its growing pains (of course; indeed, I was there), but it has a lot that is positive and with many roots in the ancient church. The best book on it is Jeff Meyers book by the same name: Covenant Renewal Worship.


When this movement was happening on the Presbyterian scene about ten years ago (and is showing fairly strong today; and fwiw I am sympathetic to the idea), a strange debate arose from both critics and defenders. The CRW was accused of “going back to temple worship” and the RPW (regulative principle) was accused of taking its cue, not from God but from 1st century Synagogue worship. Temple vs. Synagogue.

I then realized that the whole debate is wrong-headed. Neither charge is correct. First of all, we really don’t know what synagogue worship was truly like. You can’t seriously make the claim that First Pres Jackson is just like a 1st century synagogue, only with a new testament thrown in. And as much as you might not like the CRW guys, they aren’t sacrificing animals at the temple.

Secondly, in the 1st century Jewish world, would there even be an opposition between temple and synagogue? No, there wouldn’t. So it is wrong to say “we worship in the purity of synagogue style worship while you apostate to Temple worship.” No, this purity of synagogue worship had the exact same structure as the Temple, minus the dead cows and libations. Can I prove this? Well, I think there are some indicators.

The early church did spring from Old Testament Judaism (which is not the same as Judaism today). And among the legacy of OT Judaism it inherited was the “hours of the day” and the “liturgical calendar.” I am taking many of the following points from the guys at “our life in Christ” radio program.

  1. Acts 2:42 – continued in THE prayers (in the GreeK), were day by day IN THE TEMPLE…
  2. Acts 5:42, The apostles were continually in the Temple praying and teaching, 6:4 they appoint deacons so they can devote themselves to THE prayers (Greek) and ministry of the word
  3. Acts 10:2-3 Cornelius prayed continually, 9th hour., 10:9 Peter at the 6th hour went to the roof to pray. These were “liturgical hours of prayer”.
  4. Acts 13:2 While they were “ministering” to the Lord, literally in liturgy, the Holy Spirit spoke to them. The Spirit works in liturgy
  5. Acts 15:22, 18:8, 17: “leaders” of synagogue, ie., liturgical worship leaders.
  6. Acts 18:7 “Worshipper of God” house next to the synagogue.
  7. Acts 16:25 midnight praying and singing hymns of praise to God.
  8. Acts 20:6, 16 After the Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost are mentioned. Paul says in I Cor. 16:8 that he will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost. The early Church kept a liturgical “church calendar”.
  9. Hebrews 8:2 High Priest Jesus a “minister” (lit. “liturgist”) in the heavenly sanctuary
Whatever else early church worship was, and right now we are holding off judgment on icons, incense et al, it was structured. The CRW types (and when possible, I worship in a CRW church and like it) are absolutely right to point this out.

And as many know, structure is inevitable in worship. Even charismatic churches have a structure amidst the chaos (e.g., people start getting the spirit at the usual times).

The RPW guy says that we must worship God the way God commanded. On one level that’s not bad advice. The problem is no one really holds to that. Very few commands to worship are given in the Bible: rarely in New Covenant worship does God say, “Thou shalt do x.” We simply don’t have a New Testament version of Leviticus.

God may not have given us explicit commands, but he has given us patterns. Exodus and Hebrews make clear (as does Revelation) that there is a heavenly pattern of worship.

12 comments on “Early notes on liturgical worship

  1. Good post, friend.Interesting that you mention the Spirit works in Liturgy. This is, in fact, why the Scriptures are found in the Liturgy. The Scriptures are part of the worship of the Church, and not some separate entity or volume for us to dissect like scientists outside of that context.

  2. Good post, friend.Interesting that you mention the Spirit works in Liturgy. This is, in fact, why the Scriptures are found in the Liturgy. The Scriptures are part of the worship of the Church, and not some separate entity or volume for us to dissect like scientists outside of that context.

  3. Jacob,I was going to comment on your most recent post as well, but I couldn’t find the link to leave a comment. Are you limiting comments right now?I agree with much of what you have here. It is unfortunate that the discussion is so often rendered as a dichotomy – structure vs. spontaneity. But it is clear from 1 Cor 14 that Paul intended for his churches to experience a balance.Two nitpicks about your citations, however. Archisynagogi were defined not by formal training or vocation but rather by being wealthy benefactors. They were not primarily “religious” officials and did not necessarily function in a liturgist role. And it is strange to see Acts 15:22 in that list since the verse comes in the middle of the Jerusalem Council and is concerned neither with a synagogue nor liturgical worship as such.As for the existence of a formal church year in the apostolic era we have no evidence. The evidence we do have – conflicting lectionaries, Easter dates, and seasons of the liturgical year point to various local and temporal origins in the development of the Church as opposed to a unitary and original structure. Even the 5th-century church historian Socrates of Constantinople acknowledges Easter as a feast established after the time of Jesus and the Apostles. The references cited here are all part of the Jewish calendar which Paul would not have enjoined on his churches as a requirement. Now don’t get me wrong – you know I’m all in favor of the church year. But even this content, re-affirmed Protestant understands we don’t need to directly justify it with Scripture. Why do the “Our Life in Christ” boys, good Orthodox souls that they are, feel the need to stretch Scripture to find the church year in the 1st century?

  4. Jacob,I was going to comment on your most recent post as well, but I couldn't find the link to leave a comment. Are you limiting comments right now?I agree with much of what you have here. It is unfortunate that the discussion is so often rendered as a dichotomy – structure vs. spontaneity. But it is clear from 1 Cor 14 that Paul intended for his churches to experience a balance.Two nitpicks about your citations, however. Archisynagogi were defined not by formal training or vocation but rather by being wealthy benefactors. They were not primarily "religious" officials and did not necessarily function in a liturgist role. And it is strange to see Acts 15:22 in that list since the verse comes in the middle of the Jerusalem Council and is concerned neither with a synagogue nor liturgical worship as such.As for the existence of a formal church year in the apostolic era we have no evidence. The evidence we do have – conflicting lectionaries, Easter dates, and seasons of the liturgical year point to various local and temporal origins in the development of the Church as opposed to a unitary and original structure. Even the 5th-century church historian Socrates of Constantinople acknowledges Easter as a feast established after the time of Jesus and the Apostles. The references cited here are all part of the Jewish calendar which Paul would not have enjoined on his churches as a requirement. Now don't get me wrong – you know I'm all in favor of the church year. But even this content, re-affirmed Protestant understands we don't need to directly justify it with Scripture. Why do the "Our Life in Christ" boys, good Orthodox souls that they are, feel the need to stretch Scripture to find the church year in the 1st century?

  5. I am limiting comments right now for largely the same reason I left Facebook.As to the church calendar. It might be too strong to say that Paul kept “the new and improved church calendar,” but it remains obvious from Paul’s actions and from a few of his letters that he did keep *a* liturgical calendar.

  6. I am limiting comments right now for largely the same reason I left Facebook.As to the church calendar. It might be too strong to say that Paul kept "the new and improved church calendar," but it remains obvious from Paul's actions and from a few of his letters that he did keep *a* liturgical calendar.

  7. I’m limiting comments (at least for lent) because on FB things got out of control.The reference to the Church calendar was primarily to refute the idea that Paul hated all liturgical days and to honor any kind of liturgical day is to revert to Judaic heresies. The problem with that statement is that we know Paul did celebrate Pentecost.

  8. I'm limiting comments (at least for lent) because on FB things got out of control.The reference to the Church calendar was primarily to refute the idea that Paul hated all liturgical days and to honor any kind of liturgical day is to revert to Judaic heresies. The problem with that statement is that we know Paul did celebrate Pentecost.

  9. Sophocles says:

    Ahh, got my answer here about the comments being off.I just read your post, A new look at eschatological tables. I am of the same mind as you on this. My thinking is developing in this area and I think this is a key area of divergence between “Traditionalist” Orthodox and “neo-Orthodox”. I did this post and spoke at some length in the comments box about the teaching of the Anti Christ:http://molonlabe70.blogspot.com/2009/03/network-movie-of-books-music-and-movies.html

  10. Sophocles says:

    Ahh, got my answer here about the comments being off.I just read your post, A new look at eschatological tables. I am of the same mind as you on this. My thinking is developing in this area and I think this is a key area of divergence between "Traditionalist" Orthodox and "neo-Orthodox". I did this post and spoke at some length in the comments box about the teaching of the Anti Christ:http://molonlabe70.blogspot.com/2009/03/network-movie-of-books-music-and-movies.html

  11. Hi Sophocles,I changed my views on eschatology by reading a lot of the Orthodox guys. Fr Seraphim Rose’s works really challenged me. So far I’ve only read articles by him, but I hope to get *Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future* in the mail soon.

  12. Hi Sophocles,I changed my views on eschatology by reading a lot of the Orthodox guys. Fr Seraphim Rose's works really challenged me. So far I've only read articles by him, but I hope to get *Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future* in the mail soon.

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