The Sunday congregational meeting in most conservative churches is usually referred to as the “worship service.” It is not clear, however, that corporate worship is the chief motivation and practice that the church had in mind in New Testament times. In the Jewish era, specific days of worship, thanksgiving, and humiliation were called (Ex. 12:24-28; Dt. 27:6-7; 2 Chr. 20:1-4; Neh. 8:9-12). The tabernacle and, later, the Temple, were public convocations of sacrifice, forgiveness, and worship. Subsequently, the synagogue was the local center of congregational unity; and its prime role was instruction in the Word of God (Mt. 13:54; Mk. 1:21; 6:2; Lk. 4:16; Ac. 13:42-43).
As the church became universalized during the New Testament era, while the substance of the Faith in no way changes, we confront a greater external simplicity in the church congregation. In Acts 2:41-47a, we read:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people.
There is little room here for elaborate worship, if by “worship” we connote quiet, tremulous reverence; an atmosphere of awe; external aesthetics; and almost exclusively God-directed actions. All to the contrary, we observe a highly “relational” communion not merely a God-directed prayer, but also doctrine (teaching), the breaking of bread (the Lord's Table), fellowship, the singing of hymns, and so on. It is an obvious point, but one frequently overlooked, that a church meeting need not be specifically God-directed to be God-centered.
If anything, the central theme of the weekly New Testament church meeting was celebration. Thomas Oden is correct, then, to designate the church, “The Community of Celebration.” Today we celebrate Easter annually, but it is imperative to understand that for the primitive church, Easter was every Sunday. There is a very good reason that the early church met on the first day of the week, and not on an earlier day, say, what we would term Friday, the day on which it is traditionally believed that the Lord was crucified. To the primitive church, the resurrection of Christ, not His atoning death (essential though it is) was the heart of the Christian message. Our Lord's resurrection, Paul indicates, is the efficacy of our justification (Rom 4:25). His resurrection constituted the first step in His lordly, regal enthronement over all things (Ac. 2). We today rightly create systematic theologies as forms of dogmatic identity and religious instruction. Our New Testament forebears were less interested in systematic theologies than in the reality of the Faith in the crucified, risen Lord. Both are necessary, but the latter takes precedence.
The church gathers on the first day of the week not to intone fearfully, “But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). This is God's truth, but it is not the central theme for the church's meeting on Sunday. That theme is the celebration of the victory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in Whose victory we now participate (1 Cor. 15:58; Rev. 1:5).
Our church meeting should reflect this reality. Not the reality of quiet, resigned, retiring, pious saints hoping not to offend God by getting too excited about the reality of the crucified, risen, reigning Lord! Funeral-dirge liturgy has no place in the Sunday Christian celebration. Preaching in the form of a boring lecture must be excluded. A communion for which prime preparation is a doleful self-examination (although it is also this) is to severely warp its meaning. A versified, responsive reading that challenges a pronunciation of archaic English but not the heart to a greater devotion, obedience, and hope is misplaced.
The centerpiece of the Biblical church meeting is the resurrection, not the human acts of preaching and instruction as such (though they are vital), nor the Lord's table (just as essential), nor prayer (indispensable too). It is to join in the celebration of the reality and victory of the resurrection. And celebration requires joy, hope, laughter, even ecstasy.
To the primitive saints, Jesus Christ was present with them as they met together, particularly as they approached His Table. In Cullmann's words, “[I]n the early [church] community Christ is thought of as sitting at table with His own and sharing the meal [emphasis in original” (Ac. 10:40). They saw His victory as their own. They combated the world, the flesh, and the devil with the assurance of vanquishing all by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. They moved out from their church meeting to declare the authority of the risen Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, Who rules from the heavens. They worked with absolute confidence to bring all things under Christ's authority.
When the Christian church's Sunday meetings begin again to reflect this victorious reality, then and perhaps only then can we expect genuine victory in our churches, our family, and our wider society.
Cullmann, Oscar. Early Christian Worship. London: SCM Press, 1953.
---- . “The Kingship of Christ and the Church in the New Testament.” In The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961, pp. 105-137.
Gaffin, Richard B. Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed , 1987.
Oden, Thomas C. Life in the Spirit. Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press , 1998.
Richardson, Alan. An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament. London: SCM Press, 1958.
Rushdoony, Rousas John. Systematic Theology. Vallecito, California: Chalcedon Foundation, 1994, pp. 669-783.