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History of Christian Worship

The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship

It is tempting to assume that the worship practices of the earliest churches are reflected in the more developed liturgical traditions that emerged in the fourth century. A resulting view has been that Christian celebration has exhibited essentially the same shape since the apostolic period. This entry challenges that assumption and suggests that the most ancient forms of Christian worship were not uniform but quite diverse.

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LINKS BETWEEN NEW TESTAMENT & EARLY CHURCH WORSHIP

Twentieth-century scholars of the history and theology of worship have searched for links between the worship of the New Testament and the liturgies that begin to emerge around the fourth century. Resources from the first several centuries are meager, and scholars have differed as to how the continuity of liturgy evolved through this period. Evidence does suggest certain lines of development between the worship of the New Testament church and that which emerged during succeeding centuries. The entries in Part 1 explore these connections. These seven entries probe the relationship between New Testament and early Christian worship. Contemporary scholars have disputed the exact shape of early Christian worship and of its development from apostolic worship. However, enough evidence exists to grasp basic connections between the New Testament worshiping communities and those of the early churches.

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An Introduction to Daily Prayer

Ancient sources reveal that a tradition of daily prayer at stated hours developed quite early in the history of the church. The practice of assembling for these times of daily prayer was derived in part from Jewish custom and is mentioned in the New Testament. Christian daily prayer evolved into two forms: monastic prayer, practiced by members of separated communities (originally of lay people), and cathedral prayer, for which members of the local congregations would assemble with their bishop and other leaders. Daily prayer included the recitation of psalms and hymns, with congregational responses. Some elements in historic Christian liturgies seem to have originated in the practice of daily prayer.

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The Influence of the Synagogue on Early Christian Worship

The New Testament records that Jesus and his disciples, as well as early Christian preachers such as Paul and Barnabas, attended the synagogue assemblies. The true influence of the synagogue on early Christian worship, however, is difficult to assess. Contacts between Christians and Jews continued up to the fourth century; thus, in the post–New Testament period Jewish influence can be seen in the development of Christian prayer and the Christian calendar.

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The Tripartite Structure of Prayer and the Trinitarian Formulary

Jewish table prayer, thought by some historians of liturgy to be the antecedent of the early Christian eucharistic prayer, evidences a threefold pattern of praise, remembrance, and petition. In a general way this sequence corresponds to the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in Christian worship. Thus, liturgical practice may have helped to shape classical Christian Trinitarianism.

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Ordination and Worship Leadership in the Early Church

Ordination is rooted in the need for order within the Christian community. It tends both to reflect and to shape the church’s life and witness amid changing historical circumstances.

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Charismatic Gifts in Early Christian Worship

The New Testament spiritual gifts—especially prophecy, tongues, and interpretation, along with healing—continued to manifest themselves in the life of the church up to and beyond the fourth century. Evidence in the literature from this period indicates that these gifts were respected among the “established” church leadership, referred to by important theologians, and practiced especially throughout the “underground” church.

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Worship in the Book of Revelation and the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy

The Revelation to John makes dramatic use of the rich symbolism of the sacrificial ritual of the Jewish temple. A comparison of the language and imagery of the book of Revelation with the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox churches suggests that in the Revelation we see an early stage in the development of Christian liturgy, especially that of the Eastern churches.

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THE WORSHIP OF THE EARLY CHURCH (TO A.D. 500)

From the early centuries, Christian worship has seen a continuous process of development and change in response to theological and cultural factors. Although the basic elements—the service of the Word and of the Lord’s Table—have remained constant, their shape and setting have undergone modification from century to century, from region to region, and from Christian community to community within both the Eastern and Western branches of the church. The result of this process is the great variety of liturgical forms through which Christians worship the Lord across the world today. These entries begin with a survey of the evidence for Christian worship in the earliest centuries. This is followed by a description of the liturgical traditions of the Eastern churches and a discussion of the various regional rites of the Western (Catholic) church that culminated with the establishment of liturgy uniformity at the Council of Trent. Discussion of the worship in movements of the Protestant Reformation is followed by a survey of worship in the major movements and denominations that developed in the post-Reformation era. The section concludes by considering the impact of twentieth-century renewal movements on Christian liturgy. Our sources for the study of Christian worship in the early post-biblical period are not liturgical texts, such as missals or prayer books, or systematic treatments by theologians of the era. Instead, these sources usually make incidental references to Christian liturgy in writings devoted to other purposes, such as the defense of the Christian faith against pagan opposition, the refutation of false teachings within the Christian community, and the instruction of the faithful in scriptural exposition and sermons. It would be a mistake, however, to infer from the nature of our sources that the church’s liturgical practices during this period were informal, undeveloped, and without consistency. Even the documents of the New Testament reveal a worshiping community that practiced baptism and eucharistic celebration, and mention of these practices occur in the writings of the fathers of the church through the following centuries. The existence of the worshiping community is an underlying datum in this patristic literature, the ongoing evidence of the creation of a new covenant people through the death and resurrection of Christ, and the continued operation of the Holy Spirit to establish the Kingdom of God.

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Worship in the New Testament Era

Worship in the New Testament period was ordered around baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism marks the entrance of the believer into the worshiping community, while the Lord’s Supper, together with the teaching of the Scriptures, forms the content of the worship gathering.

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