Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST009/5 The Worship and Sacrements of the Church.


The Worship and Sacraments of the Church.

We saw earlier that the church was considered under the type of a holy temple where worship is offered to God. It is this collective worship which we are to consider now. 

Worship is peculiarly personal and yet it is likewise only at its best when it is collective and when it is the response of the bride of Christ in adoration for her heavenly bridegroom. The highest peak of worship will be that of the whole redeemed church of God in the glory of heaven.

In considering the subject we shall first of all try to get some conception of the worship of the early church, then we shall think of the means of grace and the Christian Sunday and finally we shall consider the sacraments.

1. The Worship of the Early Church

Wiley suggests that the early church worship was based to a large extent on the synagogue service. This latter was quite a simple service and it is quite likely that the Christians did base theirs on it. As far as we can gather from the New Testament and what other information we have from early church writings, the Christian worship service was divided probably into two sections. 

This commenced with the agape or love feast and it was followed immediately by the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. Bread and wine were taken from the love feast to form the basis of the Lord's Supper. During this part of the service, probably before the actual partaking of the bread and wine, there were prayers, the reading of the Scriptures and the letters of the Apostles, the singing of hymns and psalms and often a sermon. 

Then it does appear from the First Epistle to the Corinthians that there was a second part of the service which was quite free and in which there were again hymns and also the various gifts were exercised. There seems to be little, if any, evidence apart from this epistle of this twofold type of meeting, and is is possible, that even in Paul's time, the meeting was all one and quite free and concluded with the Lord's Supper. 

Quite early the Lord's Supper was separated from the Agape and the latter gradually died out, though, not everywhere or quickly by any means. Tertullian still mentions it at the commencement of the 3rd century though it is completely separated from the Eucharist and at a different time. 

The separation was due to abuses such as those mentioned in First Corinthians, and Paul's censure there may have been the beginning of this separation. Even in the part of the service where the gifts were exercised, it will be remembered that Paul urged upon the Corinthians that "all things be done decently and in order". 

By the middle of the second century the service was more regularized and by the and of the century had become quite liturgical. It had become customary, also, to divide the service in a rather different way from the one mentioned above. 

All, non-believers and believers alike, were free to attend the prayers and the hymns, readings and sermon, but after this only those who were in full standing in the faith were allowed to remain for the Lord's Supper and the remainder were dismissed. Two accounts of the worship service have come down to us, one from the beginning of the second century and one from the middle. 

The first is from a letter from Pliny to the Emperor Trajan concerning how he should deal with the Christian sect that was becoming prevalent. In his investigations he found some who had once been Christians but had recanted and they told him that the custom of the Christians was to meet on a fixed day before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and riot to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food". (from "A New Eusebius" p.14).

The second is from the writings of Justin Martyr written about the middle of the second century in his Apology - "And on the so-called day of the Sun there is a meeting of all of us who live in cities or in the country, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time allows. 

Then when the reader has ceased, the president gives by word of mouth his admonition and exhortation to follow these excellent things. Afterwards we all rise at once and offer prayers and, as I said, when we have ceased to pray, bread is brought and wine and water, and the president likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his power, and the people responds with its Amen.

Then follows the distribution to each and the partaking of that for which thanks were given and to them that are absent a portion is sent by the hand of the deacons. Of those that are well to do and willing, everyone gives what he will according to his own purpose, and the collection is deposited with the president, and he it is that succours orphans and widows, and those that are in want through sickness or any other cause, and those that are in bonds, and the strangers that are sojourning, and in short he has the care of all that are in need." (Select. from Early Christ, Uriters, H,Gwatkin p.55).

The hymns which were sung were Psalms, the well known and cherished hymns of the New Testament e.g. the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and others which were composed by the Christians themselves. 

The words in 1 Tim.3:16 are almost certainly part of an ancient Christian hymn and there are one or two others in the New Testament. Samuel Green in his 'Handbook of Church History' says that a number of hymns were "extemporized or composed in rude or homely strains for each particular church, without thought of further publication," (p.164). 

While the great Greek and Latin hymns known today come generally speaking; from a much later age, there is a hymn extant which was written towards the close of the second century by Clement of Alexandria. 

It was addressed to Christ and written for the young. Green gives the following translation of it, "Bridle of untamed colts, king of wandering birds, sure Helm of babes, Shepherd of royal lambs, assemble why simple children to praise holily, to hymn guilelessly with innocent mouths, Christ the Guide of children, 0 King of saints, all subduing ''lord of the most high Father, Ruler of wisdom, Supporter of sorrows, that rejoicest in the ages; Jesus, Saviour of the human race, Shepherd, Husbandman, Helm, Bridle, Heavenly Wing of the all-holy flock; Fisher of men who are saved, catching the chaste fishes with sweet life from the hateful wave of a sea of vice, guide (us). 

Shepherd of rational sheep, guide unharmed children, 0 Holy king, 0 footsteps of Christ, 0 Heavenly hay, perennial Word, immeasurable Age, eternal Light, Fount of mercy, Performer of Virtue; noble (is the) life of those who hymn God, 0 Christ Jesus, heavenly milk of the sweet breasts of the graces of the Bride, pressed out of Thy wisdom.

Babes nourished with tender mouths, filled with the dewy spirit of rational nourishment, let us sing together simple praises, tune hymns to Christ (our) King; holy tribute for the teaching of life; let us sing in simplicity the almighty Child. O choir of peace, the Christ- begotten, O chaste people, let us sing together the God of peace." (ibid. p.164)

This is only a brief outline but it is sufficient to give some general idea of the form of worship, and as we are only dealing with theology and not history, this is as much as can be attempted.

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