How worship practices changed in the Bible

Travis raised an interesting point in the comments yesterday. He wrote:

Here’s another question I’ve been pondering. Maybe you can start a thread on this some day. We have passage after passage about not changing “worship” or adding to/taking from God’s word, etc. But in studies I’ve done over the past few months, I’ve noticed how much the worship and celebrations within Judaism changed through the centuries. Hannukah is a religious celebration (of a sort) and Christ took part (it appears He did. We have no record of Him rebuking those who celebrated it.). Also, the Passover feast changed significantly from its origins, adding the drinking of wine (nowhere mentioned in the OT), the reading of certain psalms, etc., and we see Christ celebrating the Passover on multiple occasions. In both of these examples, we see Christ later using them as teaching moments, first to teach “I am the light” (Hannukah) and second the institution of the Lord’s Supper during Passover. My question is, from these examples, does this signify acceptance on God’s part that we are not obligated to keep 100% what is specified for worship? We can change it, without penalty?

We do see a worship evolution in the Bible. Along with the things Travis mentioned, I think we can point to the synagogue as a major “innovation.” (The fact that the King James uses the word “synagogues” in Psalm 74 does not mean that the Old Testament “sanctioned” synagogue assemblies) There were also numerous Jewish traditions which are reflected in the New Testament.

Considering what we talked about yesterday, it’s helpful to me to see that the church didn’t try to start from zero. They continued with what was being practiced in their day and adapted it as necessary. For a long time (possibly until A.D. 70) the Jerusalem church functioned primarily as a Jewish church. Acts 21:20 tells us that the Jewish converts remained “zealous for the Law.” To some degree, worship continued to be related to the temple. We have in mind that all of that was immediately left behind, yet we see Paul participating with Jewish Christians in temple worship in Acts 21, to the point of planning to make an offering!

The early church took the synagogue format of weekly meetings and adapted it to their own needs. Early Christian writings show that Christians saw Sunday assemblies as a replacement for the Sabbath meetings of the synagogue. In Ignatius letter to the Magnesians, he wrote:

We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s Day instead (the day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death.)

That’s what I see in the Restoration Movement. When early leaders of the movement sought to return to biblical practices, they took what was being practiced in their day and analyzed it in the light of Scripture. They didn’t start from zero. They built off of the practices in vogue in the 19th century in the churches they had been a part of: weekly assemblies centered around preaching, Sunday contributions, singing of modern hymns, etc. (Jay Guin had a wonderful post about this a couple of years ago; my searches of his site have proved fruitless, so if anyone can spot the post I’m talking about, please mention it in the comments section)

I do an exercise with my anthropology students, talking about the reactions a 1st-century Christian might have if he were somehow transported to one of our churches today. Personally, I think he’d be shocked to find out it was a Christian church! So much of worship and the trappings around worship have changed through the years.

As Travis asks, is that a bad thing?

6 thoughts on “How worship practices changed in the Bible

  1. Tim,

    If the church in Acts 2 is not identical in practice/ritual of the church in Acts 28, perhaps that suggests that we shouldn’t expect the church of the 21st century to be identical in practice/ritual to the church of any part of the 1st century. The hard part of course is, what degree or kind of continuity should we expect? Or put another way, what’s the reliable source/mechanism by which the evolution takes place?

    A side point to what you said: i’ve read that “prayer” in Acts 2 and Acts 6 is actually “*the* prayers”–meaning the liturgical prayers people would’ve said in temple worship.


  2. Every time someone brings up the fact that worship in first century synagogues was a cappella (something that happens rarely now as I’m outside the Bible belt) I have to point out that nowhere in the Old Testament are synagogues actually “authorized.”

    Once, a fellow actually tried to argue that since Jesus went to the synagogue that mean it was okay, but that argument withered on the vine as the brother realized what he was saying.

  3. When we open up scripture, tune our ears to Christian tradition (in the best sense), and then ask the question of how should we be as Christians/church, we are asking the question of when and how much form is necessary to have the same function our ancestors in the faith had. That question of “form and function” is never easy to arrive with a unanimous answer. That is why we need to exercise much charity to other Christians who come to a different view than us.

    Grace and Peace,


  4. Amen to all of the above. There is more in the OT actually describing worship than there is in the new. Yet, in a very real sense, the NT is an “evolution” of the OT. The sacrifices of the OT are but shadows of the reality that is in Jesus, yet the 1st century church did not stop going to the Temple (for sacrifice, per Acts 21) until the Temple itself had been destroyed. For us to assert that the coming of the New immediately and dramatically meant the abolition of the Old seems to overstate what actually happened.

    Rex, your comment about needing a great deal of charity in these matters is spot on.

  5. Being an ELCA Lutheran, I often get comments like: “Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize the ELCA today.” I often wonder if Martin Luther would have recognized the ELCA yesterday, but I just politely smile & nod.

    I doubt that the Apostles would have recognized the Church by the 4th century any more than they would have recognized the church of the 21st century. It seems natural to me that as language evolves over time (my koine Greek New Testament class struggled with interpreting the LXX because of the linguistic evolution of Greek, for instance), worship, much of which is shaped by language, would evolve as well.

    I personally think that this is the way God intended. We have the promise that God’s Word is what is eternal. We fallible, finite human beings will continue in our path of grappling with the greatest mystery of all–God and God’s love.

    I would be worried if worship didn’t change, but if we keep Christ and the Good News as the focus, I believe God will protect the Church.

  6. Tim – “That’s what I see in the Restoration Movement. When early leaders of the movement sought to return to biblical practices, they took what was being practiced in their day and analyzed it in the light of Scripture. They didn’t start from zero.”

    Adaptation is natural in God’s creation. Actually, it’s necessary. It is reality in nature, and it is reality in humanity’s spiritual journey with God. I think we can see this in the history embedded in the Scriptures. And I think when we see it, we are actually seeing an example of God at work . . . in his creation.

    The first example that comes to mind is baptism. And I know you all know this. We don’t know who started baptism, but it wasn’t Christians, and it wasn’t the Jews. Regardless of how it got started and of who ever practiced it, God transformed it into something useful in his kingdom. We can look at the Lord’s Supper and see a transformed observance of the Passover: Jesus took something of spiritual imporatance that the Lord had given to the Jewish people and transformed it into something useful in his kingdom. God takes something old and transforms it into something new. Jay Guin posted about this a while back as well.

    People start with a reference point . . . they start with what they know. And from that reference point . . . the Spirit leads the way. God may take what we start with and transform it into something useful in his kingdom. Life is transformational. Christians who visit us from the first century should not be surprised to find the church looking differently than it did at its beginning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.