The Christian assembly is one of the central marks of modern Christianity as a religion. Consider the amount of time and money churches invest in their buildings and the staff required to run building-based operations — all because the assembly is so important in Christian practice.
And in Church of Christ theology, conducting the assembly according to the proper rules — the Five Acts of Worship — is actually considered a salvation issue by many, as though God saved us to obtain worship in the proper pattern.
However, the scriptures don’t say that much about the assembly. 1 Cor 14 is entirely about the assembly, but deals with the narrow question of how tongues and prophecy are to be practiced in the assembly. There are a few allusions to the assembly elsewhere, but nothing remotely resembling a manual on how to “do church.” In fact, much of our knowledge of the early church’s assemblies comes from the early church fathers, writings by uninspired church leaders dating back to as early as the late First Century.
As a result, there is great uncertainty as to where the church’s assembly practices come from. Were they commanded by Jesus? The apostles? Evolved from the synagogue? The Greek mystery religions? The Temple service in Jerusalem?
For the last 150 years or so, it’s been assumed that the Christian assembly was a modification of the synagogue service, but this was a claim made by 19th Century commentators without proof — most likely based on the similarity of 19th Century church services to 19th Century synagogue services. In reality, we now believe that the evidence is clearly to the contrary.
We have limited but substantial contemporary evidence for Jewish life during the Second Temple period (the time from Roman conquest until AD 70 — more or less). We have the Apocrypha, much of which was written before the NT and after the OT, the Pseudepigrapha (similar writings that aren’t in the Apocrypha), the writings of Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish philosopher who attempted to blend Judaism with Hellenistic thought and lived about the time of Jesus), and the writings of Josephus (a Jewish general who defected to Rome during the First Jewish Rebellion that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). Of course, we also have the NT, especially the Gospels and Acts.
In addition, we have the Midrash (ca. 200 AD), where the Jewish rabbis began to write down the “oral law.” The Midrash is something of an official commentary on the OT. Then around 500 AD, the rabbis wrote the Talmud down, being the far more extensive rabbinic interpretations of the Midrash.
Both the Midrash and Talmud often speak of Judaism as re-interpreted by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, much of what they say doesn’t relate back to apostolic times, meaning that use of these resources to determine Christian origins is often unjustified.
In true Second Temple materials, with regard to the synagogue of Jesus’ day, it’s almost always referred to as a place of prayer or a place of Torah study. It’s never referred to as a place of “worship.” While the Temple stood, it was the only place of worship. To our knowledge, no common meals were shared there. Jewish meals were either at home, at the Temple, or in the case of the Passover, in Jerusalem — even if you had to set up a table on the street, which in fact happened due to the overwhelming crowds during Passover.
We know that the Jews of this time sang psalms and hymns, both at the Temple and at home. We have no real evidence that they gathered at the synagogue to sing. We do know that the Jews developed a style of reading the scriptures in a chant — with indicators in the text of whether to sing higher or lower pitches. They didn’t develop notations quite as precise as musicians use today. This is called cantillation.
This was likely not congregational singing or chanting, but it’s possible that the congregation sometimes responded to the reader (later, the cantor) by repeating a line he’d just chanted. But we cannot establish that this practice dates back to apostolic times or that chanting the text was anything like the song service of the Christian assembly. Rather, it was a highly stylized method of reading the text, designed to help the assembly follow the words and, likely, as an aid to memorization.
Therefore, the assembly was like the synagogue service to the extent the assembly was for prayer and study of the scriptures. But the Lord’s Supper, the singing, the love feast, and the other elements have other origins.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus as part of a Passover meal, and the cup and bread seem to have been borrowed from the Passover cups and unleavened bread. However, some early churches insisted on leavened bread, and no church assembly included bitter herbs or lamb as essential elements. In fact, the Passover meal was a very particular, once-a-year meal, whereas the Christian love feast had varied elements, other than the bread and wine, and was typically celebrated weekly.
Hence, McGowan believes that the earliest assemblies were based on the Greek symposium — to which we’ll return.
The Jews sang Psalms as part of the Temple service. In fact, many of the Psalms are tied to feast days and other Temple events. They also sang at any celebratory event. Oh, and being residents of the Near East, they danced to celebrate — even at the Temple. Their dancing had nothing to do with modern male/female courtship dancing — and would have typically been men dancing with men in an improvised celebration.
(Ps. 30:10-12 ESV) 10 Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me! O LORD, be my helper!” 11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, 12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
(Ps. 149:1-4 ESV) Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! 2 Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King! 3 Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre! 4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.
We know from Josephus that the First Century Temple had choirs of Levites who sang and played instruments as part of the Temple services. There was no formal congregational singing that we know of, but the worshipers likely would have joined in the singing as they worshiped at the Temple.
In short, the Christian assembly seems have been invented and not borrowed from anything else. It was designed to serve its own unique purposes. As noted earlier, its origin is found more in Christian eschatology — the wedding feast of the Lamb — and OT prophecy (Isa 25:6) than in any particular prior Jewish or Greek practice. In fact, the whole point of the common meal is to declare that things are going to change when Jesus returns — and we’re not waiting to start.
The social equality and destruction of cultural barriers in the common meal and other practices declared the heart of God as revealed in Jesus — and what the end times would bring in greater fullness.
Just so, the Eucharist reminds all present that this is all at the cost of the death of Jesus — that forgiveness of sins is intertwined with how we treat each other and to whom we grant hospitality.