The Divine Service that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod uses in worship has links all the way back to the early days of New Testament Christianity. The Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox rites have similar connections. Ultimately, liturgical churches worship in a manner that derives from the practices of the early New Testament Church.
After Pentecost, the apostles and other disciples were sent throughout the world to carry out Christ’s charge to baptize and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). In the process, they founded churches in various cities as they preached the Gospel.
Initially, these churches were located in private homes. They were house churches with small congregations, led by a pastor who was appointed by the apostles or those who succeeded them. The pastor occupied the divinely instituted pastoral office with the charge to care for the flock of Christ’s people in that place.
Since many Christian believers were converts from Judaism, the basic Christian worship service followed the pattern established in the Jewish synagogue where readings from the Hebrew Scriptures (as translated into Greek in the Septuagint) were read and hymns were sung. Added to this, however, was the Lord’s Supper.
Thus, the worship service in the Christian house churches consisted of two basic parts:
1. Service of the Word
2. Service of the Sacrament
The Service of the Word contained readings from the Scriptures. Initially these were the Hebrew Scriptures. The letters of the Apostle Paul were later added to the reading list, as were the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Interestingly, Christian scribes were the first to use the codex form (i.e. similar to a modern book with binding at the edge) rather than the scroll. They also introduced punctuation into the Greek texts of the New Testament books in order to aid in public reading in the worship service.
The Service of the Sacrament consisted of the Lord’s Supper. This was the sharing in the body of Christ with the bread and wine of the Supper. Also called the Eucharist or Holy Communion, this was both a thanksgiving and a sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s body and blood.
Taken together, these two elements – Service of the Word and Service of the Sacrament – constituted the Christian worship service. Prayers and hymns were also offered in the name of Christ. Early Christian writers wrote about this form of worship, as did non-Christian Roman observers. Interestingly, the rumor prevalent among the pagan Romans was that Christians were cannibals due to the practice of the Lord’s Supper.
This basic worship service worked fine when churches were small and services were held in private homes. However, as congregations grew and the churches expanded into larger, public buildings (particularly after Christianity became supported by the Roman government in the early fourth century) additional elements were added so as to aid in worship. The problem was that there were periods during the service where people or pastor needed to move from one area to another, such as during the entrance into the building and during the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, additional liturgical elements were added to the service to “cover” these periods.
What is now the Salutation and Collect of the Day, which occurs right before the Service of the Word, was originally the beginning of the service in the small house churches. However, with the growth of the churches, additional liturgical elements such as the Introit, Kyrie, and Gloria were added prior to the Salutation. In addition, the singing of the Agnus Dei and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) were added to the Service of the Sacrament. Thus, at the end of this development the following liturgical structure was arrived at (with some variation)
- Opening Hymn
- Salutation and Collect of the Day
Service of the Word
- OT Reading
- Psalm or Gradual
- Alleluia and Verse
- Gospel reading
- Hymn of the Day
- Offertory Hymn and Offering
- Prayer of the Church
Service of the Sacrament
- Lord’s Prayer
- Words of Institution
- Pax Domini
- Agnus Dei
- Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon)
- Post Communion Collect
- Closing Hymn
These liturgical elements are still in use today, with various adjustments done throughout the centuries (in fact, the above is Divine Service Setting Three in the Lutheran Service Book). It should be noted that the Apostles’ Creed goes back to the early “rules of faith” used in the various churches. Each local church had a creed that spoke of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; this was called the “rule of faith.” The confession of faith in this “rule of faith” came from the teachings of the apostles and not from the Scriptures themselves. The creed that we call the Apostles’ Creed derives from the “rule of faith” that was used in the church in Rome.
Many of our hymns go back to the early New Testament Church as well, such as the Te Deum, the Doxology, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and the Song of Simeon, among others. In particular, I always enjoy singing the Te Deum, because I feel the connection with the wider Church of all times and places, knowing that Christians throughout the world since the fourth century have been singing this hymn.
That to me is the beauty of the traditional liturgy. It helps connect us with Christians throughout the world, with those who have gone before us, and with those who are yet to come. We all join together in the endless song of Christ’s Church, singing praises to God here and now in this life and in the life to come.
(The image used for this post is by Alastair Haines at the University of Michigan and is in the Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)