Volume 8, No. 8 (August 2013)
NOTE: For the crucial passage on worship in John 4, please see Worship Notes 3.9.
4. BIBLICAL CONSTANTS OF WORSHIP (Acts 2:42,47)
a. Normative Elements
Luke has just recounted the events of the day of Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers, Peter’s sermon, and the conversion and baptism of “three thousand souls” (2:41). And in the very next verse, Luke tells us what these believers consistently (“devoted themselves“) did when they gathered together:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . praising God and having favor with all the people. (2:42, 47)
Luke’s placement of these elements immediately after his account of the “birthday” of the Church strongly suggests that he sees these elements as normative for Christian worship, as crucial components of Christian worship:
- the word of God (now the complete canon of Scripture)
- fellowship (the mutuality of gathering of corporate worship)
- the breaking of bread (the Lord’ s Supper)
Indeed, a number of commentators concur that these verses may well represent more than simply a description of what the earliest church did, but rather a prescription of normative practice for the Church of all ages; for example:
Luke records what happened to the new converts. Four activities are listed in which they took part. . . . A case can be made out that they are in fact the four elements which characterized a Christian gathering in the early church. . . . Here are the four essential elements in the religious practice of the Christian church. (I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980], 83)
Here Saint Luke gives the four essentials which must not be abandoned . . . . the essential constitution of the church. (Richard B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 33, 41)
Indeed, this writer has often given an assignment to students to list what activities they find consistently in every Christian worship service, in every denomination and tradition, around the world and down through history—and the results they come up with usually correspond amazingly closely to the list found in Acts 2:42, 47! This strengthens the view that intends to highlight these activities as non-negotiable elements which define and characterize truly Christian worship, and which must therefore be represented in some form in every church’s corporate gatherings (and the absence of any of which may suggest an unacceptable, sub-Christian perversion).
b. Worship and Culture
“Worship is the most universal [following unchanging biblical guidelines] and at the same time the most particular [embodying distinct cultural expressions] of the activities in which Christian communities engage” (John H. Erickson and Eileen W. Lindner, “Worship and Prayer in Ecumenical Formation,” Theological Education 34, Supplement : 23).
The elements of worship outlined in Acts 2 are an important aspect of what the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture calls the transcultural nature of Christian worship (along with its simultaneous contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural natures). You may read the important Nairobi Statement in its entirety HERE.
The Biblical Constants suggested in Acts 2 also form an important anchor for church practice in light of the conspicuous (and surprising) absence in the New Testament of detailed instruction about worship forms and practices. It is this absence which in turns accounts for much of the rich variety of culturally inflected worship expressions around the world; but it is vital to recognize the unifying biblical foundations which underlie the outward diversity. For more about conceptualizing the balance between biblical fidelity and cultural sensitivity in our worship, please see “The Bridge” in Worship Notes 2.8, and also “Worship and Culture: Challenges” in Worship Notes 6.5.