Was Early Church Worship Reserved and Stoic?

Zac HicksConvergence of Old and New in Worship, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Style, Worship Theology & Thought11 Comments

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.Traditionalist critics of modern worship often point to the hyper-emotionalism associated with the movement as evidence of its imbalance toward expressiveness over and against theological depth, biblical accuracy, and historical connectivity.  Sometimes, these critics will point to “how the church has historically worshipped” to advocate for more reserved, “reverential” forms of worship expression.  They will admonish the church that, unless people reserved and somber in worship, they will be downplaying the fact that in worship we do indeed encounter a holy God who should inspire fear, silence, and meekness.  

Many, many folks have pointed out that the Psalms give us a bigger picture.  They don’t necessarily subtract from the above, but add to it.  The Psalms give us a picture of reverence and jubilation, being reserved and being expressive, both physically and emotionally.  

So what about those arguments about “historic Christian worship?”  Perhaps when we look to post-Reformational Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian worship we see a more stoic model of corporate worship expression.  But if we go back earlier…much earlier…we see a different picture which may surprise us.  If, in our minds, we picture the early church at worship in homes and church buildings engaging in liturgy in formal, reverential postures with solemn faces and expression-less bodies, our picture is wrong.

The above picture is taken from an early Christian fresco, painted in the late third century.  It depicts a worshiper in prayer.  Contrary to our postures of folded hands, closed eyes, and sitting or kneeling, this early Christian was standing, head covered, with eyes open and hands lifted toward heaven.  (It’s interesting that modern worship hand-raising, especially when we realize that singing is a form of prayer, is actually a more ancient, historic worship-posture than the still-bodied, stoic-faced, hymnal holding that characterizes some of traditional worship today!)

If this reality of early church worship is as surprising to you as it was to me, perhaps you, too, should check out Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.1 Along with brief commentary on the above picture, here’s what they had to say as they observed the documents and art produced in and around fourth-century Jerusalem:

[Commenting on the picture:] Although this portrayal dates from the late third century and from a different place than Jerusalem, such portrayals can help one imagine what it would have been like forJerusalem’s buildings to have been filled with worshipers. Envision, for example, hundreds with hands upraised, gathered around the tomb of Christ.2

Early Christian nun Egeria, from her diary, wrote this in describing a portion of a worship service in fourth-century Jerusalem, as the people traveled from site to site surrounding the story of Jesus’ death:

When everyone arrives at Gethsemane, they have an appropriate prayer,  hymn, and then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord’s arrest.  By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loud that people even across in the city can probably hear it all.3

Here’s the sidebar comment by the authors:

The loudness of the people’s reaction to the acount of Jesus’ arrest is another reminder of how demonstrative late patristic worship could be. Congregations were not quiet and passive at this time.4

The authors summarize Jerusalem worship in the fourth century in this way:

Jerusalem worshipers were moved emotionally by their worship, mirrored by how they moved outwardly in its rhythms of time and space. Egeria depicted how deeply people’s affections could be touched in worship, thereby dispelling any notion we might have that the early church’s worship was staid and stuffy because it involved a great deal of ceremony. Egeria drew a picture of worship in which people wept, shouted, called back to the preacher, and applauded with delight.5

And here we see that more formalized and ceremony-oriented worship doesn’t necessarily have to be “staid and stuffy.”  Our doxological ancestors gave us a different picture.  It seems, then, if we want to talk about getting back to the worship of the early church, we need to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  With traditionalists and formalists, we can prize “ceremony,” liturgy, and even high levels of structure and content in our worship.  With modern worship, we can appreciate and incorporate the fullness of physical and emotional expressiveness.  It doesn’t seem that, from a biblical and historical perspective, either needs to be encouraged to the exclusion of the other.  

So we would do well to celebrate and incorporate the ideals of early Christian worship, even as we find new ways of expressing our ancient Christian doxology.


1 Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
2 Ibid., 31.
3 Ibid., 54.
Ibid., 28.


11 Comments on “Was Early Church Worship Reserved and Stoic?”

  1. 'And here we see that more formalized and ceremony-oriented worship doesn't necessarily have to be "staid and stuffy."'

    Of course I agree with this statement, but then "staid and stuffy" is a slur commonly made by those who favor contemporary worship, in reference to worship guided by liturgical forms. I would have never have described our worship that way.

    One other thing that strikes me is that the level of reserve or expressiveness is often dictated by the culture. Southern Europeans and Semites tend to be more expressive, while northern Europeans tend to be more reserved in general. There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these traits, but they do play a role in what behavior is viewed as reverent and worshipful.

  2. One more comment I'd like to make. Genuine expression of human emotion driven by a true appreciation for the Triune God considered in all His works and attributes, as revealed in Scripture, is a far cry from a vapid emotionalism that so characterizes much that passes for worship today. The worship of the patristic age was not vapid emotionalism. The songs were mostly Psalms from the Bible, with some theologically-rich hymns that Ambrose penned, in addition. The preaching was anything but devoid of doctrinal content. Scripture readings were profuse. Where do we see this kind of worship today? It's not to be seen in "contemporary churches" by and large.

  3. Of course the raising of hands is ancient, with roots in synagogue worship, and has always been conserved in at least some streams of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Worship with a CREC congregation–all are far more conservative than mainstream evangelical churches, a few (such as mine, All Saints, Lancaster, PA) are highly liturgical, and most raise hands in unison during the chanting or reciting of the Lord's Prayer and the Gloria Patri. I have every reason to believe that the early church's hand-raising had more in common with our hand raising than with mainstream, contemporary hand-raising.

    As for Egeria's description of affectional expression–it sounds nothing like the kind of expression typical of contemporary evangelical churches. "Groaning and lamenting and weeping"… if only we all were so affected by the reading of God's Word. In any case, if that's going to happen anywhere, it'll be in a liturgical church whose music captures the affectional range that the Church has always sought to capture, and where God's Word is actually read, as in those churches who read an OT, Psalter, NT, and Gospel lesson each Sunday according to a lectionary.

  4. Zack:

    Very thoughtful post. Thanks. I have often imagined how noisy, real, pungent, and earthy Old Testament worship was, with animals bleating and dying, smoke and stench, kids and bells, and trumpets, and people coming and going. Maybe part of our understanding of worship that is missing is that in any "style", in part, it is not only us reaching up to God but rather, like the Incarnation, God dwelling with us in all of our incompleteness. That means worship always has had and always will have a strange tension between heaven and earth. How God deserves to be worshiped and how we can in fact love Him.

    Speaking of noisy, do you have any resources that show how the ancient church handled children in worship? I know none of the ancient archeological church sites I've seen had Sunday school wings.

    Riley: Not sure I should comment because we've never met. That always makes me nervous in these settings. I'm a colleague of Zack's and a pastor who has functioned well in both traditional and contemporary settings. Good point about using negative terms such as "staid and stuffy." It seemed ironic then that in your next comment you named worship that I assume is not to your liking as "vapid emotionalism."

    A book that helped me understand some of this is Gary Thomas' "Sacred Pathways: Discovering your Soul's Path to God." It is not, as it may sound, a book about many ways to God as in many religions, but rather a discussion of Christian worship in various forms.

  5. Yes, temple worship involved all the senses–not in modern, manipulative ways (there is a qualitative difference between the sensory experiences of temple worship and those of light and video shows). Worship is ascension into the throne room and participation with an innumerable, unseen host (Heb. 12). Again, temple worship was conserved in synagogue worship which was conserved and christianized in the Christian liturgy.

    As for children in worship, yes, they were, and they were communed in the eucharist until the 12th century. They were barred from the eucharist at the same time that transubstantiation was invented–the same time that the cup was taken from the laity.

  6. Scott, you said, "children…communed in the eucharist until the 12th century. They were barred from the eucharist at the same time that transubstantiation was invented–the same time that the cup was taken from the laity." I'm interested to know whether you have support or citation for the above statement.

    While I'm certainly in favor of keeping children in the congregation during worship, Communion is a different matter in light of 1 Corinthians 11:28.

  7. Eugene,

    Thanks for your comment. There is a spectrum of emotional projection from reserved to expressive. What I attempted to emphasize above is that whatever the manner of expression in the context of Christian worship, it ought to reflect sound doctrine and theological content. I have experienced both contemporary and traditional worship, as you have. I have concluded that much of what passes for contemporary worship today is more a reflection of popular culture in its emotion devoid of content, than it is a response to Christian theology. You may disagree, but I think the evidence is out there. I would also like to mention that the musical medium does impact the message. It either supports or detracts. I go into a little more detail on this subject here: http://www.calvinisme.org/english/johnny_p.htm Triune blessings!

  8. Riley, thanks for your good comments. I agree with much of what you said, and I share your concern for theological depth in modern worship. In fact, my blog has been largely dedicated to that issue for the last three years. Reading your favorable layout of Gordon's book helps me understand more where you're coming from, too. I, too, have read it, and while I appreciate some of it, I don't think it's a helpful book by and large (Dr. Gordon was gracious enough to engage in lengthy email dialogue with me a year ago, and we've agreed to disagree on several points), and I've tried to outline why in previous posts. You and I differ, it appears, on how dire we view the landscape of modern worship to be. It sounds like you view it as largely hopeless. I don't. I see good strides made, especially in recent years (things I'm careful to point out on my blog), and I try to spur the movement forward (in the best of senses) in my own little corner on the web.

    You're right to say "staid and stuffy" is a pejorative phrase given by the other side. I love the picture of "liturgical physicality" you give and wish it were more true of more liturgically oriented churches (including mine). One has to wonder whether some of the physical expressiveness is, by its nature, more independent and personally expressive rather than corporate, such as with an act of everyone raising hands during prayer. We'd do well for more corporate acts of physical expression, I think, to highlight our unity in worship around our Triune God.

    Please don't confuse my comments as critiquing all of liturgical worship in such a way. Sometimes, I project my own context (where such ideas I argue against above exist and are sometimes marshaled) into the blogosphere as a means of dialogue, though I'm well aware of great counterexamples. There is a brand of traditionalism that does argue that it's actually biblical to worship "from the heart," as it were, rather than from the body, and that God really prizes "inner, spiritual" worship. It is THAT at which I am probably most pointedly aiming my sights.

    Still, I don't know if I can so quickly and sharply criticize modern worship as you do (e.g. "vapid emotionalism…that passes for worship"). Insights like that are a bit beyond my pay grade.

    "Emotion devoid of content": You and I differ here. I wonder whether you are giving modern worship a fair shake or whether you've come up with a caricature. I see a growing body of content and an increasing awareness of doctrine and history, even if it's in baby steps. I can't say it's worthy of being labeled "devoid of content," as you do. What are the sources from which you draw your conclusions? Perhaps we have different sources.

  9. Zach, my comments regarding contemporary worship are largely based on personal experience.

    In my teen years I was part of a large charismatic church and youth group, etc. Although I didn't stick around in contemporary churches to experience all the things you're seeing, it is hard to get away from contemporary worship when visiting other churches, and it even has a tendency to creep into Youth Group and Sunday School.

    As you can see, my views on worship music (among many other things) have changed over the years. One thing I noticed when I was still into contemporary worship, was that not long after I graduated from high school (in the late nineties,) was a shift from the old KJV passage-based praise choruses we sang in the charismatic church (accompanied by drums, guitars, etc.) to the slicker, creatively written praise songs that were all the rage in the mega-churches. Before that, we had mostly sung Scripture from the prophets or the Psalms set to boistrous, happy-clappy music. Even then, I thought it was a big loss in the worship experience to no longer be singing God's Word to music that made no pretense of being hip or trendy.

    Over the last decade I have become much more traditional in my views. To the extent that there is a movement back toward hymns and good liturgy, I rejoice in the developments you're talking about. I see an opportunity in it to win the younger generation back to traditional worship. And don't forget Psalm-singing, too!

  10. Great. Thanks for the testimony. I hope we both get a chance to see the tides turn even more fully.

  11. Riley,

    You asked about children being communed until the 12th c. I don't want to hijack Zac's thoughtful thread, so I'll just mention "The Case for Covenant Communion," ed. Gregg Strawbridge. The chapter by Purcell is devoted to the history of the thing, and highlights a long stream of ancient quotes which I think you'd find fascinating. The chapter by Meyers is devoted to 1 Cor. 11 and offers an exegesis which rather turns the tables–read it to find out what I mean.
    The chapter by Sutton is the weakest, but apart from it, the whole book is worth reading.


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