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Blog #4: Historical Survey of Worship

Historical Survey of Worship


Worship involves the assembling of God’s people. In fact, believers are commanded, through Scripture, to “not give up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25). There is a direct correlation between how a congregation understands itself to be a church and how they worship as a church. When churches gather corporately through a biblical understanding of worship, it transforms how they engage in the process and with each other. Corporate worship involves communion with Christ by His Spirit, but must also be through sound doctrine while staying theologically and historically rooted.[1]This brief survey hopes to trace the development of the traditional elements of worship from the early church up to the start of reformation period.

Christian praise can be traced back as far as King David and the worship at Solomon’s Temple.[2] However, the foundations for contemporary Christian worship were established in the century following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, during the time that the New Testament was being written and developed. All subsequent periods have sought to adhere to the standards and practices of worship laid out during the apostolic era and the early church. “The churches of the apostles and their immediate heirs have an authority for the Christian imagination that no other period can match. Golden age or not, all things liturgical are still tested by the standard of the earliest worshiping Christian communities.”[3]

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love, He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will— to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (Eph 1:3-6). This verse offers much insight into the worship of the early Christians. It confirms their awareness of the importance and purpose of their role in worship. [4] “In order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:12).

Scripture presents evidence of many practices carried out in early church worship meetings. The ultimate purpose of the gatherings was to worship God. Christians, according to 1 Corinthians 11:16, have no other practice, “nor do the churches of God.” The components of worship for early Christians included “reading, preaching, and teaching Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13) so as to admonish one another (Col. 3:16); singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thanksgiving to God (Col. 3:16); prophesying and praying (1 Cor. 11:3–16), which included making “requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving … for everyone — for kings and all those in authority” (1 Tim. 2:1–2); the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12–14), including speaking in tongues and its interpretation and prophecy and its evaluation (1 Cor. 14), carried out “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7); financial giving (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8–9); the exercise of church discipline (1 Cor. 5; cf. 2 Cor. 2:1–11); baptism of new converts (Acts 2:38–41); and the Lord’s Supper, which was celebrated in the context of an agape meal or love feast (1 Cor. 10:14–22; 11:17–34; cf. Jude 12).”[5]

Over time, however, certain conventions became necessary to help sustain the Christian community, including the expansion of various ministries, methods for preaching the Gospel, the use of music, and, eventually, architecture. Many of these changes led to substantial development throughout subsequent eras.[6] The most notable Christian developments occurred during the fourth century, giving rise to the liturgy of the medieval church. Medieval worship centered on the “sensate and ceremonial, not the verbal and intellectual.”[7] It was a time in which there was “increasing complexity in both written liturgies and the use of ceremony.”[8]

Public worship for laypeople during the Medieval period mainly came in the form of the Eucharist, which they received in the Mass on Sundays and various Feast days. Prayer was done for them, rather than by them, as it had become the responsibility of monks and clerics.[9] The Mass was so complex, typically read in Latin, that it had become incomprehensible and unrelatable to the average layperson. The altar was moved so that the Mass was offered in a way that was remote from the congregation. “Priests who before had faced the congregation from behind the altar now celebrated the Eucharist with their backs to them.”[10]

Many other modifications were eventually made during this era, including “touches of dramatic buildup, a heavy use of incense, extended introspection prior to the eucharistic celebration, a Trinitarian orientation in prayers (the number of which was increased significantly), an increased sense of mystery, a view of the Mass as a sacrifice explicable by transubstantiation, and a (physical) distancing of the priest celebrating the Mass from the congregation.”[11]The disturbing developments within the church, such as the addition of extra-biblical components, the suggestion of transubstantiation, the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration, the depreciation of preaching the Word of God, and the trafficking of indulgences during the Mass, set the stage for the dominant event in western Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reformation.[12]



Footnotes: [1] Matt Merker, Corporate Worship (9Marks: Building Healthy Churches) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2021), 24. [2] Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 33. [3] James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 13. [4] Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 2. [5] Gregg Allison, A History of Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 30, Kindle Edition. [6] White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 23. [7] Matthew Pinson, Perspectives on Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 7. [8] Ibid., 5. [9] White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 86. [10] Pinson, Perspectives on Christian Worship, 7. [11] Allison, A History of Worship, 104. [12] Ibid., 131.

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