On Pentecostals and Liturgy (Part 2): But we just want New Testament Worship!

Okay, so maybe I demonstrated in the last post that early British Pentecostal worship was deliberately moving in the opposite direction from radical, innovative, cutting-edge, anti-liturgical worship (represented at that period in history by Brethrenism), and restored instead the liturgical shape (gathering-Word-Sacrament-sending) of worship in the early (post-biblical) church (as represented by Justin Martyr’s account). But, you might be tempted to think that that’s some sort of blip, or momentary aberration. After all, early Pentecostalism wanted to restore New Testament worship, didn’t it – not second-century worship with its liturgy.

But, who says New Testament worship wasn’t liturgical worship? Two New Testament texts were of supreme importance for early British Pentecostals in their thinking on worship: Acts 2:42 and 1 Cor. 14:26. From one of these texts they sought freedom in worship and the leading of the Spirit, and from the other they recognised the importance of order, structure, and form. Yet, Acts 2:42 doesn’t only point us to the need for order, structure, and form; it also reminds us that the very earliest Christian worship was liturgical.

Within my tradition of Pentecostalism (the Apostolic Church) at least, Acts 2:42 is an incredibly well-known verse. (Just look at the header of this blog site!) Most people can rhyme off the four elements of the life of the early church which we find in this verse: ‘And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.’ However, it can be easy for us as 21st century readers to read back our own context, culture, and word-usage into a Scripture like this. So, for example, we easily assume that ‘fellowship’ in a common modern understanding of time spent with other Christians, is one of these four elements: missing the fact that it’s actually ‘the apostles’ … fellowship’ in which the early church continued steadfastly.

And the same misconception can occur with the prayers. For actually, the Greek text tells us not simply that they continued steadfastly in ‘prayer’, but ‘in THE prayers.’ Acts 2:42 isn’t telling us that the early church were a prayerful people, who often had times of fellowship with one another, regularly partook of the Lord’s Supper, and listened to Bible teaching. These aren’t four individual and separable things. What Acts 2:42 is telling us is that the early church faithfully gathered to the Breaking of Bread, in communion with the apostles, under the teaching of the apostles, and with ‘the’ prayers which accompanied this gathering for Word and Sacrament. It’s not talking about a general spirit of prayerfulness, but rather, it’s telling us about liturgical prayers.

(Michael Horton notes that it’s particularly English translations with an anti-liturgical bias that leave out the word ‘the’ before ‘prayers’ in Acts 2:42! Although, to be fair, the Authorised Version leaves it out too, and I don’t think its translators could in any way be accused of anti-liturgical bias.)

Jesus Himself gave us a set form of prayer to pray, and upon which to model our prayers. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ gives the Lord’s prayer as a model (‘in this manner, therefore, pray’ – Mt 6:9), but in Luke’s Gospel, He tells us that it is not only a model, but a form of words which we are to use when we pray (‘When you pray, say…’ – Lk 11:2).

The central words of the Christian liturgy then are words given by Christ Himself: the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Institution. These are words not only given by Christ, but words which He commands us to use: ‘when you pray, say…’ (Lk 11:2); ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor. 11:24).

So, even before the Day of Pentecost, there was a set form ready to be used in Christian prayer – the Lord’s Prayer – which would form one of ‘the prayers’ in which the early church continued steadfastly. But, the Lord’s Prayer is only one prayer, and the text tells us of ‘the prayers’ plural. So what other prayers could it be talking about?

It’s important that we remember that, although we live in an age where people love novelty and anything that claims to be new, the early church didn’t. And they didn’t consider Christianity to be something new, and went to great lengths to make sure those around them understood that this was not some new religion. So, the early Christians weren’t suddenly thinking on the Day of Pentecost, ‘Oh, we’ve got a brand new religion so we need to come up with brand new prayers!’ They were still praying to the same God to whom they prayed before in the synagogue. And so they continued to pray in the same way, and with the same forms.

You might not have realised this, but the form of worship that 1st century Jews were used to was liturgical worship. Jesus and His disciples participated in the liturgical worship of the synagogue, with its set forms of prayer. Even at the Passover meal, there were set forms of prayer to be prayed (which is particularly significant given the relationship between the Passover and the institution of the Breaking of Bread). And so the early church had no qualms about carrying over the liturgical forms of synagogue worship – forms which had been approved of and sanctified by Christ through His participation in synagogue worship.

When the early church prayed the liturgical prayers of the synagogue or prayed the Psalms, they were praying words which some of their members would have heard on Jesus’ own lips. So with great confidence, they knew that they were joining Christ our Intercessor in His prayers, and thus very truly praying ‘in Jesus’ name.’

(Naturally enough, of course, the Christians also wanted to give thanks for Jesus and what He has done, and so the carried-over set forms of prayer were adapted and expanded.)

Jesus clearly didn’t find liturgical set forms of prayer problematic. He drove the moneychangers out of the temple courts because they were preventing prayer. But He never drove the liturgy out of the synagogue for preventing prayer. Remember that, all those who are tempted to say that set forms of prayer prevent ‘real’ prayer!

So, no, the liturgical shape and the evidence of set forms and use of the Psalms in early British Pentecostal worship wasn’t a blip or momentary aberration in the Pentecostal urge to restore New Testament worship. Quite the opposite! By going back to the shape of the liturgy and restoring some set forms, the early Pentecostals were moving back in the direction of New Testament worship.