The Fork in the Road: Learning from the History of Worship, Part 1

It occurred to me the other day that our view of worship is largely defined by the Protestant Reformation, which reinvented the assembly in reaction to earlier Catholic practices. The Reformation theory was to return to a biblical understanding of worship, but their understanding was filtered through 1,500 years of Christian church history.

The Restoration Movement attempted the very same thing, but pushed for a purer understanding of First Century practice — but filtered through 1,800 years of church history.

You see, to go back to the First Century, you really have to go back to Abraham. That’s right. We and our Reformation forebears ignored over 2,000 years of worship history, assuming the Old Testament to be irrelevant. It isn’t.


God’s covenant with the church begins with Abraham. This is a doctrine we routinely ignore, because we’ve added this “dispensation” theory to the Bible, which requires us to believe that the Abahamic covenant was repealed on Mt. Sinai. But the New Testament disagrees —

(Gal 3:7-9, 14)  Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. … He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

How did Abraham worship? Well, he built altars (Gen 12:7). He gave a tenth of the spoils of war to Mechizedek, priest of the God most High, and ate bread and wine with him (Gen 14).

Abraham participated in a blood-oath covenant ceremony with God (Gen 15). He offered his only son as a sacrifice (Gen 17). He called upon the name of the Lord (Gen 21:33). And he walked with and spoke to God.

There’s no indication that Abraham engaged in any sort of weekly or periodic or routine worship. The sacrifices he offered, so far as is recorded, were many years apart.

However, nearly everything he did is found in the Lord’s Supper — the sacrifice of an only son, the taking of bread and wine, the making of sacrifice for atonement, the enjoyment of God’s blessings — all are found in the eucharist.

Of course, God also required that Abraham and his descendants be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:10-11). “Sign” could equally well be rendered “mark” — and the mark of the Christian is the Spirit —

Paul treats the work of the Spirit as the Christian equivalent of circumcision —

(Col 2:11-12)  In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

(Rom 2:29)  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

(Eph 1:13-14)  And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.

Other patriarchs

The stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all reflect similar practices — no regularly scheduled times of worship, but a genuine, deep devotion expressed through sacrifice and prayer and circumcision — and building of a community of believers, which form both a nation and a family. There was no temple, no church, and no weekly observance.


In marked contrast, the Law of Moses was radically different. There were, as the Jews counted, 613 commands, including especially the establishment of the Tabernacle where sacrifices were offered to God for forgiveness of sins.

And God established the Sabbath —

(Exo 20:8-11)  “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

(Exo 35:2-3)  For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death. 3 Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

The Sabbath was instituted as a day of rest, not worship. The only command was to stop working. Of course, for Christians, Sunday is often the most tiring of all days — because we do so much work. In no biblical sense is Sunday the Christian Sabbath. We work on Sundays. Maybe not to make money, but we work.

However, we do read that the Sabbath —

(Lev 23:3)  “‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.”

But there were no instructions for this assembly, other than parallels throughout the Law suggesting this was a day of animal sacrifice. Nonetheless, the practice for many years was the Sabbath to be simply a day of rest — except for the several sacred feasts commanded by God, many of which involved special observances on the Sabbath.

One aspect of Jewish worship that we overlook is the practice of celebrating special feasts — and seven were commanded in the Law. These created a calendar of events reminding the people of the Exodus and God’s care. Passover is the celebration we are most familiar with, and it concluded a weeklong feast.

Once the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they did not gather for a weekly worship. After all, it was quite impossible for them to travel weekly to Shiloh to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle, and sacrifices could only be offered at the Tabernacle.

Rather, the worship of the early Jewish nation was centered on the annual festivals and the occasional trip to Shiloh to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle. The Sabbath was dedicated to God, but as a day of rest, not to attend an assembly to worship.

Indeed, throughout this period, when “worship” is used of acceptable worship to God, it’s used almost exclusively of Tabernacle or, later, Temple worship.

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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12 Responses to The Fork in the Road: Learning from the History of Worship, Part 1

  1. Eddie says:

    Does anyone know of any material that traces the development of Protestant worship? While the atmosphere is different, it seems that the form of Protestant worship shares similarities with the Catholic Mass.

    I have a hunch that Protestant worship services have evolved from the time of the Reformation having started out as a close copy of the Mass. I'd love to see if history validates my hypothesis.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    I very much agree with you, Jay. (I know you're relieved!) I did a series on my blog exploring assemblies in the Bible and arrived at a similar conclusion. I don't see assembly being the focal point of worship in the Old Testament, at least not in the way we think of assembly. As much as anything, worship was about a family assembled around a table, eating a feast in memory of what God had done in their lives and the lives of their forefathers.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Nancy says:

    I'm no Jewish scholar, but didn't the Jews get together (assemble) in smaller groups. Not to satisfy a command, but because it was good for them to fellowship and meet together as a spiritual family? Isn't this the tradition that the Hebrew writer encouraged the early Christians to continue.

  4. Alan S. says:

    Two books I have found helpful in studying worship history are A Brief History of Christian Worship, and Protestsnt Worship. Both by Jamrs F. White.

  5. Jerry Starling says:

    I blogged on acceptable worship in a series you can find here.

    While I did not explore Old Testament assemblies, I did give particular attention to the purpose of the Christian assembly against a background of other texts in the New Covenant writings concerning worship.

    Summarized in a nutshell, Christian liturgy is, first of all, what Jesus did in offering Himself as our sacrifice. Our "liturgical worship" is the works of service we do, the teaching of the good news, and the praise of our lips.

    The purpose of the Christian assembly can involve some of these – but the assembly focuses on edifying and encouraging one another to "love and good works" – i.e., to worship God in our lives. This is in the context of remembering and praising our Lord for His blessings to us.

    Jerry Starling

  6. Sunday has become the hardest working day of the week. Perhaps this is due to our modern suburban lifestyle. For me, Sunday is a 14-hour work day. I think we have lost ourselves somewhere along the way.

  7. Ray Downen says:

    I fear when folks dare to differ with the writer of Hebrews who contrasted the present covenant with an OLD covenant which was that of Moses. I think he was NOT urging that we go back to learn "worship" from Abraham. If we have lost ourselves somewhere along the way, it's by following traditions rather than inspired directives. The apostle Paul makes clear that as we gather we should eat and remember the sacrifice of Jesus for us. The "Lord's Supper" ceremony we now practice is not at all like what early Christians did. Our practice of assembling to worship is something absolutely foreign to apostolic writings. OUR worship is described in Romans 12:1,2. But that wouldn't increase the church offerings, would it? THEIR gifts went to needy brethren, to widows and orphans. Most of our "stewardship" is to buy and keep up real estate and "church staffs." I agree that we have lost ourselves somewhere along the way! And looking to see how Abraham worshipped won't help us find our way again. Will it? God spoke directly to him. It's through apostolic writings that God NOW speaks, last I heard.

  8. Steven says:

    Eddie, the book you want to read is Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. Your hypothesis is correct and there is a whole lot more to know, too.
    Have you read that book, Jay? And the rest of the series by Viola?

  9. Todd Collier says:

    PC is indeed a good book, though he does propagandize a bit too much on the paid minister thing. (Sorry but Paul says quite plainly that a worker is worthy of his hire and he means money.)

    The bottom line of the book is that early Christianity was a home based, small community focused movement with a relatively easy going nature until Constantine hijacked the movement for his own political purposes and made it a power player in the Empire. According to VB most of what we see today – including much we consider "restored" is more closely related to the post Constantinian church than the first century Church.

  10. Alan S. says:

    Having studied early church history quite a bit, I think Constantine gets a lot more blame than he deserves.

  11. Eddie says:

    Thanks Steven, I can't wait to read it!

  12. Jay Guin says:


    I've read the first edition of Pagan Christianity, before George Barna was added as a co-author. It's very interesting. He shows that our "New Testament" Christian order of worship is little different from the order of worship practiced in pagan temples before the church took over the temple under Constantine.

    And that, to me, demonstrates that the order of worship we inherited from the European church isn't the only proper way to do things. There are boundaries, but not nearly so many as we imagine.

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