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The Crux

What Did Worship Look Like in the First Century Church?

Should the 21st century church model the 1st?

For a little more than 500 years, the Protestant church and the Catholic church hasve argued over which is the best model for worship. Catholics proclaim that the Eucharist should be the center of the worship experience while Protestants argue it should be the ministry of the word. In other words, the sermon.

I'll state at the outset that the Catholic church is closer to the truth on this one.

Both traditions use reason and the Bible to bolster their arguments. For Catholics, the sacrament of the Eucharist represents the "breaking of bread," which is spoken highly of in Scripture. As the Twitter post above states, the early church fathers believed the Eucharist was and should be the central element of worship. The Eucharist is simply the communion table. It is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It was instituted by Christ Himself at the Last Supper. The Roman Catholic church adopted it as its central sacrament in the corporate worship service.

Protestants, on the other hand, make the sermon the most important element of the worship service by calling it the ministry of the word. For Protestants, the Bible must be preached. Because preaching is what the apostles did to spread the word about Jesus Christ and his plan of salvation, Protestants believe preaching should be central to the worship service.

Both views are based on tradition and overlook some central Bible verses and early church practices.

from Pixabay

5 Bible Verses That Show a Meal Was the Central Element of Worship in the Early Church

The problem with the Catholic view of the Eucharist is that it discounts half of what the Lord's Supper was all about. It began with a Passover meal. It ended with the "breaking of bread" and pouring of wine.

These two went together in the early church. They were not separated the way that both Catholics and Protestants practice them today.

Let's look at 5 Bible verses that show what I mean:

  1. Acts 2:42: On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter preached to a crowd, and 3,000 people were baptized (imagine how long that would have taken!). The next verse, Acts 2:42, says, "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." That phrase "breaking of bread" meant they had a meal followed by a loaf of bread that was broken apart so that everyone could have a piece of it with a small amount of wine. It was not a wafer and a sip of wine or grape juice. It was a full meal that included bread and wine.

  2. Acts 6:4: At one point during the apostles' ministry, they got so busy trying to administer meals to all the believers in Jerusalem that they left some of them out. To prevent that from happening again, they appointed seven deacons to serve the meals so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and teaching.

  3. Acts 20:7: In Troas, believers met on the first day of the week to "break bread". Again, that meant a meal plus bread and wine, which represented Jesus' body and blood.

  4. 1 Corinthians 11:33: During his ministry, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians to address some of the issues they were facing. In chapter 11 of his letter (the original letter had no chapters and verses), he came to the Lord's Supper. He began this passage by saying, "I have no praise to offer, because your gatherings do more harm than good." In verse 20, he chastised: "Now then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat." This was followed by rebuking those who ate too much as well as those who got drunk on the wine. He rhetorically asked if they so despise the church of God that they humiliate those who have nothing. His point was that the communion meal should be a shared event, with each participant thinking as much of others as of themselves so that no one in the meeting goes without something to eat and some wine to drink and no one should consume in excess. In verse 25, he said, "In the same way, after supper He took the cup ...." Why he didn't say, "after supper" previously when he shared how Jesus broke the bread is anyone's guess, but I think it's clear that both the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine occurred after the meal. Finally, in his culminating conclusion, the apostle proclaimed, "when you come together to eat, wait for one another." In other words, don't satisfy your lusts with too much food or wine or push yourselves ahead of the line to be first, but share in the meal together so that all may proclaim Christ's death until He comes through the shared communion meal, which includes the bread and the wine.

  5. Jude 1:12: In his short letter, the Apostle Jude proclaimed God's judgment on those who had crept into the church to introduce heresies and false teachings. In his short little diatribe, he said this about those men: "These men are hidden reefs in your love feasts." That's what the early church called their communion meals - love feasts. They were called love feasts because the idea was to share Christ's love while enjoying a meal together, but certain men came in to divide the church with false teachings. Jude was encouraging the church to defend the gospel against such false teachings while showing mercy to those who doubt the faith and persevere in proclaiming the gospel as well as living it out in their daily lives, but especially during their love feasts.

As you can see, the early church worshiped together over a meal that culminated in breaking bread and drinking wine (the Eucharistic elements). The meal (fellowship) and the communion went hand in hand.

5 Practical Realities of the Early Church Worship

We ascertain from these verses that the early church, the church in the first century, held worship services very differently than we do today. Here are 4 ways their worship service was different.

  1. They worshiped in each other's homes. They did not worship in public buildings. While the Bible does not condemn such a practice, there are some practical implications to worshiping in a private home, one of which is the intimate nature of the gathering. Public worship, especially as it is practiced today, is much more impersonal.

  2. They met on the first day of the week. This is in contrast to the Jews, who met on the seventh day of the week. The Bible doesn't tell us why they met on Sunday, but it's clear that they did from Acts 20:7, and they met in the evening.

  3. They had a meal together. The meal was the central element of their gathering and the reason for gathering in the first place. Communion in the early church consisted of a meal followed by the breaking of bread and pouring of wine.

  4. They prayed and learned from the apostles. In addition to a meal, the early church devoted themselves to prayer and the apostles' teaching. While the meal was central to their shared experience together, it was not just a feast. Their gatherings consisted of a meal, praying, and teaching.

  5. Everyone participated. Later on in his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians on what they must do to build up the church. It was not to sit in a pew and listen to one man preach a sermon every week. Instead, he told them, "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up." In other words, everyone in the worship service was allowed to speak to share something they heard from the Lord or felt the need to share to edify the rest.

As we can see from these practical ways the early church worshiped, both the Catholic church and the Protestant churches have something right and something wrong. The Catholics place the Eucharist at the center of the worship service, but the Eucharist is a wafer and a sip of wine, in contrast to the early church's one loaf of bread broken for all to have a piece and a little wine to go with. Protestants focus on preaching from the Bible, but downplay the Eucharist. The problem with the "ministry of the word" is that the early church knew nothing of it. Their teaching was from the Old Testament, but mostly to show how Christ is revealed in those texts, and the apostles went so far as to explain with oration how the practical realities of the gospel should lead Christians to live life in a different way than both the Jews and the Pagans did. Today, we have the benefit of the apostles' letters to help us teach and learn a better way to live, but that teaching should not be the central element of corporate worship.

Note that I'm using the word "teaching" rather than "preaching". When the Apostle Paul went into a town to share the gospel, he preached. When he gathered with those who responded positively after his evangelistic events, he taught. Teaching is a very different posture than preaching and it should be a part of the worship service but not necessarily central to it.

In conclusion, I recommend this article for more information on how and why the early church worshiped the way they did. I also recommend Frank Viola's book Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Until next time, have a good week.

Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.

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