Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been recurring attempts to try to rediscover and go back to the way the early church did things. This impulse is commonly connected to renewal movements, suggesting there is a dissatisfaction with how things are being done in the Church in
Unfortunately, this is naive, overly idealizing the realities of the early church. If you read the letters given to Christians by Paul, James, or even from Jesus to the churches in Revelation, you realize something; the early churches can make just as much of a mess of things as anyone else can. Secondly, this reflects a problematic theological assumption: that faithfulness rests primarily in us getting the right pattern down. But if we reflect on the nature of what the new covenant is like that Jeremiah spoke of in chapter 31, faithfulness doesn’t rest simply in how people teach each other, but it is grounded upon the work that God does in the people. True faithfulness does not occur by getting the teachings “right,” but rather in God giving us a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Nevertheless, there is no indication that the New Testament conceives of this work of God as simply a unilateral monergism that happens in spite of anything and everything we do or don’t do. Rather, there is a role of human activity in the forming of human hearts, but human action is not sufficient. By itself and in and of itself, human action doesn’t lead to anything particularly special or holy; in fact, it can actually make the whole situation a lot worse. But, especially for Paul, when our faith is rightly directed towards God as disclosed through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, there is the possibility of overcoming the flesh and being the people God call us to be. For Paul, therefore, when one is rightly trusting in and worshiping God as He makes Himself known, one finds the power in Christ and the Spirit to be newly formed and fashioned.
So, while the impulse to recreate the original pattern of the early church is fraught with unrealistic and problematic assumptions, trying to reconstruct the nature of early worship can perhaps provide a window towards the rediscovery of God’s power in our lives. If worship is the expression of and the directing of faith in God as disclosed in Christ and the Spirit and it is this faith that plays a roles in the transformation of our hearts and minds, the grasping with the original nature of Christian worship can prove fruitful when other attempts at restoring the original pattern can fall short and misdirect us.
In Acts 2:42, the thousands of people who accept Peter’s preaching and were baptized were said to devote themselves “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.” What is particularly striking about this verse is that there is no conjunction, such as καί, between “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” This suggests that Luke (or whoever the author of Luke-Acts was) wasn’t intended to describe four separate parts or actions of worship which we would to today as preaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Rather, it is more likely in my mind that the two sets are synonymous with each other, with the second set of “to the breaking of bread and prayers” stands in an appositional relationship to the first set of “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship,” describing the generic labels of the first set with concrete actions that are referring to in the second set. In other words, the apostle’s teachings and fellowship were to be characterized as happening in the actions of the breaking of bread and prayers.
If we look to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians, we can possibly even infer that the teaching of the apostle’s were tightly connected to the breaking of bread. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-9, Paul describes the traditions that he relayed to the Corinthians, which placed the death and resurrection of Christ as the central content. Meanwhile, in describing the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, he describes the action as proclaiming the Lord’s death until returns. There is a similarity of content between the traditions Paul mentions he passes on and the meaning of the tradition about the Lord’s Supper, as if the Lord’s Supper is part of the same body of teaching.
Then go back early in chapter 11 to the discussion of head coverings about women, where he talks about the act of women prayer or prophesying, as these two actions have something in common with them. The acts of prayer and prophesying, along with other acts such as speaking in tongues, etc., were spoken of by Paul in chapters 12-14, where Paul’s purpose is them to act on these gifts with love and thus to do things in an orderly manner. In explaining the nature of this sharing of gifts, Paul highlights how believers are one in Jesus Christ through the Spirit in 11:12-13. What seems to be under-girding Paul’s view about this time of sharing of spiritual gifts is the view that it is a time in the gatherings that we might refer to as worship. In other words, this seems to be a time of fellowship where prayers, among other acts, do occur, much as Acts 2:42.
This isn’t to suggest that Acts 2:42 is intended to present a strict account of worship, where the apostle’s teaching and the breaking of bread were happening in one part of worship and the fellowship and prayers were only happening in the other part. Luke isn’t attempting to be technical in his description, but rather is intending to provide a description of what the meetings of the thousands of believers was characterized by.
But Luke’s account seems to be more than just a description but contains a sense of a general order. When Paul scolds the Corinthians in chapter 11 about their behavior in the Lord’s Supper, he tells them to wait for another before eating. This instruction would only make sense if the Lord’s Supper were happening at the beginning of the weekly meetings, as people would not have had time to arrive at the beginning of worship. Having served a pastor, you notice that people were frequently late at the beginning of worship but almost never did people come late at the middle to end of worship. Would there have been a problem of excluding other people who had not arrived is the Lord’s Supper were to happen later on in the worship?
Then, immediately after giving these instructions about the Lord’s Supper, Paul transitions into the discussion of the role of the Spirit in saying “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is accursed” in 12:1-3. Commonly, translations will say “Now concerning spiritual gifts” in v. 1, as if Paul has now transitioned into the discussion of the spiritual charisms that follows later in the chapter. But the Greek word used there is πνευματικός, which Paul also uses in 2:13 to refer to the type of words that are used to convey God’s Wisdom. It seems more likely to take 12:1 to be referring to spiritual teachings. In that case, it following after the Lord’s Supper may suggest that this was part of the instruction that was to come with the Lord’s Supper, just as the apostle’s instructions and the breaking of bread are connected in Acts 2:42. The significance of these spiritual teachings about Jesus thus stand to describe the type of interpretation and significance attached to Jesus’ death, as one where He is in fact Lord rather than being one who is accursed on the cross; this gets at the substance of Paul’s opening statement about wisdom in chapter 1.
Therefore, if all this is correct, worship starts off with the Lord’s Supper and the significance of Jesus’ death. Put a bit differently, their call to worship was the call to die with the Lord Jesus Christ. With this in mind, then the sharing of the gifts during the time of fellowship and prayer may be framed as a remembering of Pentecost where the Spirit bestowed tongues of fire upon the hearers of Peter’s message. Not only was Peter as an apostle inspired, by the hosts of people were dramatically moved by God’s Spirit such that God was working through the community, not simply a specific teacher or leader. Hence, Paul encourages worship in 12-14 to be structured in such a way that certain people do not domineer the time with their giftedness, making God’s work being manifest throughout the whole Church. Therefore, there seems to be a narrative movement in the worship, moving from the cross (and the resurrection) of Jesus to the present reemergence of Pentecost in the gifts of the Spirit.
Now, if my connections between Acts and 1 Corinthians and my analysis of Corinthians is correct, then it suggest that Paul’s instructions in chapters 11-14 are addressing the nature of worship in a more of less order of sequence in which the acts of worship occurred. Can we extend this to chapter 15, Paul’s exposition on the nature of the general, eschatological resurrection?
I think we can. In that passage, Paul refers to the often mysterious “baptism for the dead” in 15:29. Evidence for what the baptism for the dead is quite limited, as there seems to be no other equivalent expressions. But it seems to be some practice Paul and the Corinthians are aware of and he connects it significance to the resurrection. But if chapter 15 continues Paul’s instructions and interpretations of the various parts of worship, then we may be given an insight into its meaning. If worship started on reflecting in the past in Christ’s death (and resurrection), then moved to the presently re-realized event of Pentecost in the outpouring of the Spirit, then chapter 15 essentially refers to the part of worship that looks towards the future in the general resurrection. Against this backdrop, the “baptism for the dead” could be a symbolic, liturgical act that attempts to represent the general resurrection; some person is baptized, not for their own sake, but as symbolically representing the dead and thus the person then arises out of the water as representing the resurrection.
But if Acts 2:42 provides a general description of two acts of worship, then can we say that 1 Corinthians 15 is evidence that the worship included, and ended, on a note of the future hope of the resurrection? Why the difference, if true? One explanation is that the general resurrection, while obviously held to be as true by even Pharisees based upon Daniel 12, became backgrounded as the event of the resurrection of Jesus had so dramatically altered understanding. The general resurrection only becomes more prominent during Paul’s narratives in Acts. Perhaps, as a former Pharisee, Paul would rehighlight the importance of the general resurrection in the way that the Church and the apostle’s prior to Paul did not. If this is the case, then one can explain a third move of worship towards the future general resurrection in Christ to the influence of Paul.
To bring all these observations and inferences together in a concise summary, I would say the early Church under the Pauline influence had a tripartite order of worship that was structured according to a narrative of prominent events in the past in the cross of Christ, the present in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and in the future resurrection in Christ (and Paul also says in Romans 8:11 the Holy Spirit is involved). I would also add, but don’t have space here to argument, the possibility that the way this worship was structured was so as to bring the emphasis upon God’s disclosure in Jesus and the Spirit rather that some other ideas or beliefs that were then connect to God, but that is an
So personally, I am curious as to how worship structured by this tri-partite pattern would function in today’s setting. Not that it would provide some magic key to unlock the power of God among God’s People that has been kept under lock and key so long, but could and would worship structured in this manner be more conducive to rightly directing our faith towards God’s as He makes Himself known in Jesus and the Holy Spirit?