I had a friend repeatedly charge certain branches of Christendom with “bringing paganism into the Church.” After repeatedly arguing for examples that would stand scholarly scrutiny (none were forthcoming), I had to wonder exactly how “pagan” the early church was.
It’s a fair question to ask, “Where do you see this physicality in worship in the early church?” The problem is that you do see it, but if you have Enlightenment sunglasses on, you will miss it.
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.
- Acts 2:42 – continued in THE prayers (in the GreeK), were day by day IN THE TEMPLE…
- 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
- 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”.
- Acts 13:2 While they were “ministering” to the Lord, literally in liturgy, the Holy Spirit spoke to them. The Spirit works in liturgy
- Acts 15:22, 18:8, 17: “leaders” of synagogue, ie., liturgical worship leaders.
- Acts 18:7 “Worshipper of God” house next to the synagogue.
- Acts 16:25 midnight praying and singing hymns of praise to God.
- 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”.
- 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, barking at the usual times, etc).
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. And in any case, this principle would have been useless to the early church, since they didn’t have a complete canon for several centuries. In fact, lacking that complete canon, and unable to know how to worship God as God commands, at any moment these people could have been guilty of offering “strange fire” unto God, yet no one seriously believes that. Therefore, we have good reason to reject that principle.
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.
And if we are to worship according to a heavenly patter per Revelation…