Assembly 2.0: Part 11.1: Introduction; Prayer

dura_church_diagramThe subset of Bible study — theology — relating to the assembly and church organization is called ecclesiology.

Today, the heart of worship (in the popular sense of the word) is the song service. If someone speaks highly of the “worship service,” they likely have the quality of the singing in mind — especially in the Churches of Christ. They will secondarily think about the sermon. After all, the two parts of the assembly for which we hire professionals are the the singing and the sermon. Prayers, the Lord’s Supper, and contribution may be handled by amateurs and done poorly, and we won’t much complain. But if the sermon or the singing is bad, we’re either firing someone or changing congregations.

Locations

Don’t forget the recent posts on congregational autonomy, Parts 10.7 – 10.11. The early church met in homes as a single congregation in each city, with a single eldership. Their gatherings were very much small group meetings today, except these gatherings served the same role as our Sunday morning assemblies in our church buildings.

Prayer

However, the early church thought very differently.

“Worship,” we have noted, is sometimes now a way of talking about music. This would have baffled Christians of the first centuries; music was often important for their communal gatherings, as were buildings or food, but music was neither the most central or distinctive aspect of their gatherings nor identified with “worship” as such, any more than other ritual activities were. Yet sing they did.

McGowan, Andrew B. (2014-09-30). Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Kindle Locations 2381-2383).

McGowan points out that “worship” in the First Century church begins with prayer. The church gathered first to pray.

(Acts 1:13-14 ESV)  13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.  14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. 

(Acts 2:42 ESV)  42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

(Acts 3:1 ESV)  Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. 

(Acts 4:31 ESV)  31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

(Acts 6:4 ESV) 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 

Acts uses “pray” and its cognates (words with the same root) 30 times, compared to 23 for “baptism.” And yet we treat Acts as a manual on baptism and regularly ignore its teachings regarding prayer. As you can see from the above verses, prayer was not the only reason for the church to gather, but it was a major reason. Indeed, “sing” is found but once in Acts (16:25), and this is a reference to Paul and Silas singing in prison. Singing was doubtlessly part of the early Christian assembly, but it was not the focus of the assembly. It’s not even mentioned in the several passages that describe the Christian assemblies, such as at the end of Acts 2.

Ritual prayer

Very early, the church began to pray the Lord’s Prayer routinely. The author of the Didache (100 – 125 AD) instructs his readers to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily. However, we have evidence of ritualized prayer that’s even earlier —

(Acts 2:42 ESV)  42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Most commentators take “the prayers” to be a reference to particular prayers, that is, the prayers ritually said by the early Christians.

Finally, they devoted themselves ‘to the prayers’ (tais proseuchais). The plural form with the article in Greek suggests that the reference is to specific ‘prayers’ (KJV, NRSV, ESV), rather than to prayer in general (TNIV, to prayer). In the context, this most obviously points to their continuing participation in the set times of prayer at the temple.

David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 161.

Finally, there is mention of prayers. If the reference is not to part of a Christian meeting, it will be to the way the Christians observed the set Jewish hours of prayer (3:1).

I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 5; IVP/ Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 89.

The best evidence we have is that the Jews prayed either twice or three times daily, at the third hour (9 a.m.), sixth hour (noon), and ninth hour (3 pm). We know that Daniel prayed three times a day, which became the Jewish tradition. We have some evidence that during Jesus’ day, the Jews prayed at the hours of sacrifice (third and ninth hours). It’s likely that by the time of Jesus, these prayers were ritualized — memorized prayers written for this purpose.

It seems likely that the early church continued the Jewish practice, at least for a while, but soon modified the practice to include the Lord’s Prayer and to otherwise express specifically Christian beliefs.

We also have —

(Lk. 11:2-4 ESV)  2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.  3 Give us each day our daily bread,  4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

Jesus assumes that his disciples will pray, and the language suggests a routine, ritualized way of praying.

Jesus replied by delivering a form of words. His opening, When you pray, say, shows that he intended the prayer to be used just as it stands. In Matthew it is introduced with, ‘Pray then like this’, which makes it a model on which we can base other prayers. Christians have found both approaches helpful.

Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 3; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 211-212.

In the Churches of Christ, we have a “low church” worship tradition, meaning that we don’t do the Lord’s Prayer — which seems to violate a fairly direct command. We prefer to think of the Lord’s Prayer as a model, which we may or may not follow. But the early church doubtlessly prayed the Lord’s Prayer, although with variations in the text (as McGowan demonstrates), routinely, likely daily.

We low-church Christians think that ritual prayer is not meaningful. We prefer extemporaneous prayers. But the early church (and Jesus) evidently disagree. After all, by what right do we say that saying the Lord’s Prayer weekly leads to insincerity? Have you asked your friends who do that what it means to them?

The Jewish tradition, going back for centuries, is to use memorized prayers because memorization makes certain that we cover certain points that are important, and repetition allows us to focus on the meaning and on God.

Now, my point isn’t that our low-church approach is wrong but that it’s not the only possible approach and not the First Century approach — which should be respected if not followed.

Posture

Again, we who have a low-church tradition give little thought to our posture while praying. In church, we don’t kneel; we don’t stand; we sit. Most of us sit and bow our heads to pray in church. We figure God surely doesn’t care because he’s concerned with the spoken or unspoken words of the prayer.

But the early church thought of the mind, body, spirit, and soul as a unity. The body mattered. Its posture was a part of the prayer — just as much as the words.

Just so, the early church gave considerable thought to prayer posture — a complete non-issue in the Churches of Christ. The preferred posture was standing, with arms outstretched, reminiscent of the cross. Just so, the Jews generally prayed standing, with arms lifted toward heaven — more like a Y than a Christian T, if that makes sense

Hands were normally lifted or outstretched for both praise and supplication in the Old Testament, Judaism, the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. Diaspora Jews usually washed their hands before prayer, so “pure [or holy] hands” became a natural image for genuine worship (cf. also Ps 24:4).

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 610.

Of course, there are many examples in scripture of prostration or bowing, which the early church considered approved but not appropriate except in unusual circumstances.

Again, I’m not suggesting that this is a law we must obey, but that we have obviously failed to follow this binding example in 1 Tim 2:8, urging  men to lift holy hands in prayer. We don’t do it, but the command, example, necessary inference hermeneutic would require it.

Worse yet, when one of our members lifts hands in prayer, we are prone to criticize them. Rather than being pleased to see a member honor a command, we sneer that they’re drawing attention to themselves (unlike the loud complainers) or acting “Pentecostal.” We should be ashamed.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to Assembly 2.0: Part 11.1: Introduction; Prayer

  1. Price says:

    it’s not often that a CoC leader will point out the very Jewish traditions of the earliest believers… Bobby Valentine wrote a piece recently about what is actually mentioned in Luke and Acts.. It would surprise most…..
    Someone asked recently on another FB group why we pray with our heads bowed and eyes closed… Given the posture of prayer that the biblical characters describe and project, why is it exactly that you think we moved toward a “cowered” position. Some suggest reverence…but my assumption is that the early believers and those of the OT had great reverence for God. I’m guessing that we began to teach the “Fear of the Lord” and it manifested itself in various ways including our approach to the throne. We crawl instead of run towards Him. But I can say that in my present assembly raising hands is something done without hesitation and often requested from the front of the room with the admonition to do just as you suggested, “lift holy hands”… I’m sure it would make a hard core CoC member uncomfortable…But so would seeing people just stand up in the middle of a song with lifted hands… The CoC church service is so rigid… Just try looking over at someone during the communion and smiling… long way from the “supper” or dinner table of the first century. I wonder why the reformation didn’t include these things ? Oh well.. Merry Christmas… oops, can I say that here ? 🙂

  2. The low-church approach to leading in prayer, i.e., one man prays aloud while everyone else is silent, contradicts itself. We pray to God, so why does someone pray aloud where everyone else can her him? If we pray to God, the prayer is intended for God, not everyone else. So why pray where everyone else can hear?

    On the other side, the words someone uses in a prayer often inspire another to feel and do things in a more Christ-like manner in their life. Hence, if we have someone “lead” in prayer, I would prefer that person have something inspiring to say.

    And to one of Jay’s points, I have attended worship services where the people said the Lord’s Prayer every week and some people wept every week.

  3. John says:

    Unfortunately, the Church of Christ has a history of arrogantly claiming to know how to approach, or not approach may be a better way of expressing it, passages like the Lord’s Prayer and the Song of Mary(The Magnificat). In doing so it has refused itself of great spiritual nourishment. Of course, the leadership in the CoC has, over many years, starved its people to death by, “What we don’t do”. The same can be said in regard to Christmas, Easter, etc,. The saying in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 102} applies when Jesus, speaking of the religious leaders of the day, said, “They are like a dog sleeping in a cattle manger. The dog neither eats, nor lets the cattle eat.”

  4. Dwight says:

    I think sometimes we don’t know the difference between a blessing and a prayer from the Jewish perspective. A blessing wasn’t a prayer but was prayer like. The blessings over the Passover and the Lord’s Supper was a recital of thought and not necessarily directed to God like a prayer.

  5. James says:

    “Again, we who have a low-church tradition give little thought to our posture while praying. In church, we don’t kneel; we don’t stand; we sit. Most of us sit and bow our heads to pray in church. We figure God surely doesn’t care because he’s concerned with the spoken or unspoken words of the prayer.”

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of Alexander Campbell, mentioned by Lynn Anderson (http://www.heartlight.org/articles/200105/20010530_kneeling.html): “Dr. Kinder elaborates further: ‘He (Campbell) complained that the current practice of sitting for prayers came from a degenerate, apostate age and had not been known to earlier believers. He returned to the topic in 1845, writing in his Millenial Harbinger that when people offered prayers in church, ‘kneeling should be preferred, when it could be made convenient. If not convenient, then standing was the required posture.’ He viewed kneeling as a sign of submission, standing as a sign of reverence, and sitting as a sign of nothing.’”

    “But the early church thought of the mind, body, spirit, and soul as a unity. The body mattered. Its posture was a part of the prayer — just as much as the words.”
    And this reminds me of the discussion here a few years ago of the lingering Gnostic residue in RM churches, in regard to our disconnect of body & soul. It’s something I’ve become more and more aware of, not only in our discussions of worship and prayer, but of death, dying, and the resurrection to come.

  6. Mark says:

    In high church tradition, there are prayers that have likely been said for 500+ years. Parts are added periodically and names are changed but overall, they haven’t. These old prayers are often said standing or kneeling. In a church, you will have people doing one or the other. Now, some of them will scare you if you read the words in detail. Also, there is always a rack of votive candles in high churches. Those are for anyone who wishes to stand or kneel to pray, light a candle, and make an offering. They are never required and the prayers offered there are a secret between the person and God. I have seen people walk away from there rejoicing and others visibly shaken. Some are lit asking God for something, some for a child just born, and some for the dead or dying. Now, I switched from cofC to high church and one thing missing in low church is a place to pray like that.

    John, the Magnificat was always left out, as was Hebrews 1:1, John 1:1, and the following dozen or so verses of both. These are the high church Advent and Christmas readings, respectively.

  7. Ellen Williams says:

    Memorizing prayers is so natural we think we aren’t doing it, but we are. Naturally, children learn what their prayers are “supposed to” sound like by listening to the adults and older children. My son still says, “Bless those who are weak and those who are poor, physically and spiritually” which he learned as a baby listening to his older cousin pray. In church it’s “guide, guard and protect us” as well as a few more phrases reserved for church praying. More recently, people following other people who were trying to break out of the old habits began saying, “Father God, just…” It gets made fun of, but I really believe it came out of a feeling of awkwardness while trying to be more sincere. Akin to saying,” Um, you know?” Having some really good prayers already in place for us to memorize or read together could be really helpful.

  8. Mark says:

    All current and former cofC attendees can tell you the communion and offering prayers, and they did not change over decades.

    I think it is “guideguardanddirectus” because many who offered that prayer had ill-fitting teeth.

  9. Dwight says:

    And then we never see the praying over others as a practice.

  10. In my youth, some would kneel. Some even thought kneeling was the only acceptable posture. My observation over the years is that most congregations have prayers that are very shallow and little spiritual content. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer would be a major improvement – especially if we took time to savor the words and think about them.

  11. Dwight says:

    Yes, I don’t think repeating the same thing in prayer is the same thing as rote prayer. We do the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, so does that make it rote. No. As long as it has meaning and we place meaning and not to be seen by others, then it is good prayer.

  12. Mark says:

    Another improvement would be the giving of the elements of communion by the ministers and elders to the people one at the time with the words like “this is Christ’s body, broken for you” and “this is Christ’s blood, shed for you” or something similar. This would put the pressure on the higher ups to see the undesirables and treat them the same as everyone else, after all the Bible says that God is no respecter of persons.

    While some here may not agree with everything in this blog post, Rachel Held Evans was offered the opportunity to give out the bread at the time of communion at a Methodist youth retreat. This explains what she realized after saying the same words to hundreds of kids.

    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/communion-junior-high

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for RHE link.

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