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How did the first Christians ‘worship’?

One of the most frustrating things about the ‘occasional’ (rather than systematic) nature of the NT writings is that none of them give us precise details of what the first followers of Jesus did when they met together for ‘worship’. (I use inverted commas here, because the NT never actually uses the word ‘worship’ for what Christians did when they met.) If only Paul had attached to his letter to Corinth and order of service! We would have avoided centuries of debate between denominations, and saved ourselves hundreds of thousands of hours in liturgical revision—and even avoided the debate about whether we do in fact meet to ‘worship’!

The latest Grove Worship booklet is by Colin Buchanan, and asks the intriguing question: suppose we do have hints in the Letter to the Hebrews as to what happened when believers gathered? Colin is well equipped to ask this, being not only a life-long commentator and contributor to thinking about worship and liturgy in the Church of England, but also classically trained and an excellent exegete.

Colin begins by exploring the problem with our language. ‘Worship’ is the word many people use to describe what happens when we meet together, even though some use the word for Christian living, or for the feeling of coming close to God, or for one part of the service (usually the singing). In the NT, there are six Greek words translated ‘worship’, but five of them are never used with reference to a corporate gathering.

There then remains one verb, one with but one occurrence in what we would call a worship context. This is leitourge?, the word behind our ‘liturgy.’ Its origins also mean ‘to give service’—in fifth-century BC Athens to give service to the community—but it was picked up by the translators of the Old Testament into Greek to be used for priestly ‘service.’ In the New Testament, in this one use in Acts 13.2, it clearly characterizes a corporate churchly activity by the disciples at Antioch, and it is usually translated as the church ‘ministering to the Lord’ or even ‘worshipping the Lord’—and it sits comfortably with the other activities associated with it at that point—fasting, hearing the word of the Lord, praying, and laying hands on Barnabas and Saul to ‘separate’ them for their specific missionary ministry. This episode gives us the key to our quest. For in various ways the New Testament gives evidence of the disciples meeting together for their corporate purposes, including ministering the word to each other, teaching, prophesying, praying, singing, sharing the Lord’s Supper, commissioning officers, collecting alms, and even administering discipline—all with a view to praising God, recounting the Christian story, bringing their petitions to God and bonding and building each other up in their faith. But there is no one technical word, one common noun such as our ‘worship,’ which describes it—simply the disciples ‘were gathered together’ (Acts 4.31), ‘gathered together’ (Acts 20.7), ‘came together in church’ (1 Cor 11.18; 14.26), and were not to give up ‘the gathering together’ (10.25)…

We read the letter [to the Hebrews] to learn what the writer tells us about the character and functions of the Christian assembly… What actions characterize the church of God when it meets?

Colin then offers a brief introduction to Hebrews, and sets out its key theological themes, including the prominent theme of the priesthood of Christ. In passing, he offers an observation about the use of the term ‘priest’ for Christian ministers.

What should we make of common Anglican parlance by which ministers are called priests? The New Testament never uses the hiereus stem, which is translated as ‘priest’ in the English versions, to denote ordained ministers of the church. However, the English word ‘priest,’ which is used to translate hiereus in the Scriptures, is itself etymologically a corruption of the Greek presbuteros, which the Bible translates as elder. The distinction is clear in Greek—the elders are Christian leaders, and the ‘priest’ stem comes only with Old Testament priests, with Jesus as our high priest, and with the whole church as a ‘priesthood’ (as, for example, in 1 Pet 2.9), but not with Christian ministers or leaders. Ministers have many titles (elders, bishops, pastors, teachers and so on), but the one they do not have is ‘priests’ (hiereis). Ministers hardly appear in this letter, and, when they do, they have no distinctive connection as ministers to the priesthood of Christ. So it is impossible to derive a supposed ‘priesthood’ they hold from the well-defined (and inalienable) priesthood he alone holds. The Anglican Reformers served us ill in retaining ‘priests’ in the liturgy, and we are well served now by the step-by-step return of ‘presbyters,’ which Anglican believers ought to encourage. Finally the New Testament makes no connection whatsoever between priesthood and presiding at the eucharist.

The central chapter then looks at the language within Hebrews that might indicate what happened when they assembled. These comprise: meeting to seek access to God’s presence; encountering Jesus; hearing the word of Scripture, which includes reading it, knowing that Jesus fulfils all God’s promises, and receiving encouragement for faithful living; offering praise; interceding; recognising the whole company of saints, including the departed; practical sharing of resources; avoiding ceremonialism or legalism.

If this letter were our main guide for Christian assemblies, what would we thereby learn?

Vitally, the believers met with each other as believers, and met to encourage and support each other by both spiritual and material means, sharing the truth of Christ, and sharing food and other necessities. Two perspectives dominate, each with ‘looking to Jesus’ as central—the push to get away from the world’s evil ways (13.13), and the pull of ‘seeing the Day approaching’ (10.25). Meeting each others’ material needs was integral to the agenda. But the overarching feature of the agenda was the word. It was taught as exhortation by the leaders, with a great emphasis on the Old Testament’s fulfilment in Jesus. But it also provided mutual encouragement among the people: they shared their experiences of living as Christians in often hostile surrounds; they were ready with thanksgiving and praise to God; and intercession for believers elsewhere also was part of the pattern. Whether they sang we cannot tell, but praise elsewhere in the New Testament implied song, and the whole saturation in psalmody noted above also points to an agenda of song; whether and how often they held the Lord’s Supper is hidden from us. Whether there was a developed routine—a liturgy—for their meetings is unknown to us, but the existence of leaders who were to be followed (13.17) suggests that assemblies were ordered. There is no integrated picture available, but we put together this partial picture from the scattered bits of live evidence in the letter; in that picture we perceive first the absolute centrality of the person of Jesus, their great high priest, and then their own presence with their high priest in the world beyond the veil. It should fill our gaze and dazzle our imagination.

The booklet ends with three Appendices, exploring the role of baptism and Communion in Hebrews, the use of the letter in Anglican liturgy, and suggestions for new liturgy based on the text of the letter. It is a great read, and classic Buchanan in its combination of clarity, robustness and freshness of insight—both into Hebrews as a letter and into the task of corporate worship. You will find yourself thinking again and asking yourself questions about long-held assumptions and practices.

You can order the booklet for £3.95 post-free in the UK from the Grove website.

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12 Responses to How did the first Christians ‘worship’?

  1. Ian January 13, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    My only quibble with this is when he suggests that 1 Peter 2:9 means the lack of priesthood in the NT.

    Exodus 19:5-6 states, “‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

    Logically, then, there can be a sense of all the people being a priesthood with a distinct role of a priest that is separate from that – the two two not mutually exclusive.

    This isn’t to argue against his other points, only that 1 Peter 2:9 is not a conclusive argument for or against the use of the word, and the role of, Priest.

    • Phill January 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

      Isn’t the point that there is a separate distinct role of a presbyter (presbyteros), which is not the same as a priest (hiereus)? I felt that his point re: 1 Pet 2:9 was simply that the people of God are now seen as a priesthood in a way that the OT priests never were (cf Rev 1:6). I agree that 1 Pet 2:9 isn’t conclusive, but it certainly fits in with his argument as a whole – that in the NT church ‘leaders’ are never called priests.

  2. Gill January 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    I’ve thought this for many years, but the Lord has called me as a deacon into the hierarchical nature of the Anglican church! Frustrating.

  3. Phill January 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

    Thanks for bringing this to attention Ian. I love Hebrews and I’m interested in this topic as a whole so I will be buying this for sure.

  4. Rhys January 13, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

    Much as I agree with the argument here, i can’t see inflicting a word with the the letter sequence sbyt in it is going to advance the cause. “What do you do?”. “I’m a presbyter”. “And that would be –?”. Let’s keep Greek out of English as far as possible – it sounds alien. What does the average person understand when they hear the word Eucharist? I managed to get into my twenties with an English degree without knowing what it meant. Our language needs to be at least potentially accessible.

  5. David Shepherd January 14, 2017 at 8:50 am #

    I agree with Buchanan’s statement: The Anglican Reformers served us ill in retaining ‘priests’ in the liturgy, and we are well served now by the step-by-step return of ‘presbyters,’ which Anglican believers ought to encourage. Finally the New Testament makes no connection whatsoever between priesthood and presiding at the eucharist.

    However, as Buchanan is fully aware, like the vestments controversy, which was settled through the Elizabethan Act of Uniformity, the designation of priest was part of a fragile compromise between High Church and Low Church beliefs.

    While I understand that elders should ensure order at church gatherings, if evangelical Anglicans were serious about the return of presbyters, they would challenge the normative restrictions that prevent laity from administering the following rites:
    1. Baptism (despite laity being able to administer in emergency);
    2. Consecration of the Eucharist
    3. Reconciliation of a penitent;
    4. Anointing of the sick.

    Additionally, I would expect decency and order without quenching the Spirit with the level of stagecraft and choreography that typifies most Anglican services (even the happy-clappy ones) and prevents the laity from the kind of spontaneity in prayer, reflection and testimony which characterized the early Church.

    Perhaps, I’d consider this more seriously than just a nostalgic reflection on first-century Christian practice, if Anglican evangelical clergy took seriously the obvious implications of acknowledging the participative priesthood of all believers.

  6. Will Jones January 16, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

    A question I’d be really interested in the answer to: precisely when did Christian ministers (episkopos and presbuteros) start regarding themselves as priests (hiereus) and why, and was there any dissent at the time, and if this happened soon (2nd century?) and became widespread what had prevented it happening sooner i.e. in New Testament times? It’d just be helpful in terms of discerning whether it is a valid development of biblical themes for ministry or (as per protestant ecclesiology) an impious early church imposition on the biblical model.

    • David Shepherd January 17, 2017 at 3:48 pm #

      Hi Will,

      I’m no ecclesiastical historian, but in the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, episkopos and prebuteros are used extensively in relation to the apostles and church leadership. For instance, Irenaeus wrote in Book 4, Chapter 26:
      4. From all such persons, therefore, it behooves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood (presbyterii ordine) He maintains the understanding of church leaders as an order of elders.

      Burton Scott Eaton wrote in his exposition of The Apostolic Tradition of HippolytusThis appearance of sacerdotal titles for Christian ministers—something that is foreign to the New Testament— was a consequence of the adoption of sacrificial terms for Christian worship:1 sacrifice are offered by priests. So Didache 13. 3 describes the prophets as “your high priests” (compare 15. 1), while Ignatius (Philadelphians 4) writes “one altar, as one bishop”.

      Consequently it is more than probable that “high priest” and “priest” were in common—although by no means universal—use among Christians by the middle of the second century. Hippolytus’s distrust of innovations corroborates this; apart from anti-modalist additions the terminology of his consecration prayer can scarcely be thought to depart much from the forms in use in his younger days.

      By the 3rd Century, Tertullian wrote in On Baptism: ‘For concluding our brief subject, it remains to put you in mind also of the due observance of giving and receiving baptism. Of giving it, the chief priest [summus sacerdos] (who is the bishop) has the right: in the next place, the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the bishop’s authority, on account of the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved.

      Therefore, it does appear that the designation of summus sacerdos was based on second and third century development of Latin Christianity regarding the Eucharist as an altar, based on bishop’s role in normatively presiding over the Eucharist.

      This development does not square with scripture. While a presiding role is required for due order, Paul explains in 1 Cor. 10:18 that all of those who partake of the Lord’s Supper are partakers of the altar. The entirety of believers in Christ form a ‘kingdom of priests’.

      • Will Jones January 18, 2017 at 9:42 am #

        Thanks David, that’s really interesting. At the risk of sounding like a Protestant heretic, the development of sacerdotal imagery for Christian worship and ministry seems to have been quite a natural one relatively early on (as you say, the Didache uses it and that is 1st century) from scriptural ideas and met little resistance. Sure, the NT doesn’t use it, but it doesn’t forbid it either (the kingdom of priests is OT imagery for Israel so is not mutually exclusive with a priestly office), and some parts arguably suggest it. Is it really such a crucial issue that we must take a stand on it?

        • David Shepherd January 18, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

          Hi Will,

          I think it’s crucial. The New Testament doesn’t restrict the priestly role to ordained ministers.

          Instead, the gospel broadcasts the message of that Christ has healed divisions, sanctified our hearts the locus of true worship through the Holy Spirit, and granted reconciliation and access to God through Jesus’ blood. It’s by this means that the entire church is a ‘kingdom of priests’.

          Sacerdotal privilege conveys the notion, which is widespread among lay Anglicans, that their relationship with God is mediated (instead of just being facilitated) by ordained ministry, form and ritual; that they are not assigned to a different kind of service to God, but to a different order of relationship with God.

          While observing due order requires authority, the absolute sacerdotal restrictions on who can baptise, anoint the sick, and consecrate the Eucharist simply exacerbates this issue. It’s like saying that we are saying that ‘all Christians are equal, but some are more equal than others.’

        • Ian Paul January 18, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

          I think I would add to David’s observation: for Paul, a central theological theme is that the giving of the Spirit is a sign of the eschatological fulfilment of God’s promises, and that includes (in the New Covenant) an end to sacrifice and therefore an end to priesthood. This is a key theme of Hebrews, hence Colin’s comment here—but it is also pretty central to Paul, for whom all distinction between ‘lay’ and ‘ordained’ as orders of ministry within the people of God are now obsolete, rendered so by the presence of the Spirit.

  7. Perry Butler January 19, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    Dear Will,
    I’m sure you would be interested in my old NT teachers final vol of his mammoth Christianity in the Making….James (Jimmy) D G Dunn…Neither Jew nor Greek…It covers AD70 to about 150 and the emerging identity of Christianity….it’s over 800 pages but it’s beautifully organised and extremely clearly written.He was here lecturing in Canterbury last year and it was a great pleasure to hear him after so many years…the 3 vols are a real tour de force.
    Perry Butler

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