Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective


Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, by Andrew B. McGowan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. 262 pp. $29.99.

The phrase “Rome was not built in a day” is also fitting to describe early Christian worship, as it too was not established in one day. In Andrew B. McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, he explores the beginnings of Christian worship in the first four centuries of the early church. McGowan, an Australian native, is an ordained Anglican priest, and he has held the position of President and Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University since 2014. The purpose of McGowan’s book is to trace the roots of Christian worship; he argues that the origin of Christian worship was shaped by a belief that worship is formative and should therefore reflect a distinct Christian identity.

McGowan begins by defining worship as “practices that constitute Christian communal and ritual life” (7). He then divides elements of Christian worship into six parts and engages in a discourse with each element to explore its origin as well as its development in the Christian liturgy; these elements are meal, word, music, initiation, prayer, and time. In his second chapter on the meal, he examines how the Eucharist evolved from being a component of the evening banquet meal to being part of the morning service. Then in his third chapter, he explains the importance of reading the Word aloud and how the interpretation that followed eventually became its own entity, known today as preaching. Next, his fourth chapter addresses music in the early church. Even though it was not common to sing in worship, the origin of singing also emerged from the evening banquet meal. Following, his fifth chapter looks into the initiation rites of Christians that includes baptism, anointing, and foot washing. Then in his sixth chapter, he discusses prayer in the early church by summarizing writings from Tertullian, Origen, and the Apostolic Tradition for insight. Lastly, McGowan closes his study with time by investigating the development of feasts and fasts in the church year.

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The majority of McGowan’s discussion on tracing the origin of Christian worship, which includes the Eucharist, reading, preaching, and singing, stems from the early church’s gathering for the evening banquet on the Lord’s Day. McGowan explains:

We begin consideration of these meals not because of the prominence the descendants have for some Christians now, however, but because of their place then. They were not merely one sacramental part of a community or worship life but the central act around or within which others—reading and preaching, prayer and prophecy—were arranged. (20)

Since gathering for a meal was communal, early believers would inevitably observe the Eucharist, read the Word, and sing. McGowan explains:

All these Jewish meals are useful for comparison with the evidence for Christian communal eating; none of them provides a simple model adopted or adapted for Christian use, however. The Eucharist emerges in the same world as these forms, aware of some of the earlier ones, but developing alongside rather than merely out of them. (25)

In other words, McGowan’s conclusion that the Eucharist was developed alongside rather than from Jewish meals is paramount to support his argument that the origin of Christian worship was anchored by a need to shape a distinct Christian identity.

Next, public reading of the Word was common in synagogue worship; however, McGowan defends a distinct difference in a Christian reading of the Word:

Thus the commonly held view that Christian liturgical reading of Scripture has its origins in the synagogue may be broadly right, but wrong in the ways usually envisaged; it was not an organic, immediate, or universal bequest to the fledging Christian movement but a later borrowing necessitated by a real (if sometimes exaggerated) ‘parting of the ways’ wherein relations changed sufficiently for the synagogue no longer to be an obvious locus for Scripture to be heard and interpreted for Christians. (83)

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McGowan acknowledges that the public reading of Scripture was an aspect of Christian worship that derived from synagogue worship, but the major shift is that the interpretation comes from a Christian perspective. Hence, the reading of Scripture aloud followed by an interpretation later evolved into a preaching of the passage. McGowan’s examination of the origin, reading the Word supports his thesis for Christians to have a clear break from synagogue worship to form their own identity.

Although McGowan’s meticulous study on the origin of Christian worship is well researched, the only weakness in his book, from a Baptist perspective, is his discussion on infant baptism. Indirectly, McGowan makes a case for infant baptism by explaining:

Baptism is often referred to in ancient texts as a ‘seal.’ . . . Circumcision, with which baptism was at times compared and contrasted, was also termed a seal (cf. Rom 4:13); as a literal marking of the body, circumcision was also the sign of a covenant relationship, contract, or treaty. (153)

In other words, there is justification for infant baptism by reinterpreting it as the new form of circumcision. Furthermore, McGowan states: “Many infant baptisms were taking place by this time and had certainly been common in many communities for a century or more. Augustine himself provided impetus to that trend, or at least a clearer theological underpinning” (169). It was Augustine’s doctrine of original sin that gave prominence for the baptism of infants (169). Although McGowan’s Anglican background gives him reason to advocate infant baptism, he nonetheless does acknowledge there is limited evidence on the practice of baptizing infants in the first and second century, adult baptism was the norm (145).

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McGowan’s book is essential for anyone interested in understanding the origins of Christian worship. His straightforward writing and organization makes it easy for the reader to grasp his thoughts. However, from the way McGowan engages with the facts in his book, it is recommended for the reader to have some knowledge as well as understanding of early church writings and history to serve as a foundation to comprehend the conclusions that he makes. Moreover, McGowan’s book would be wonderful as a course textbook for upper undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral classes to slowly study each chapter and discuss McGowan’s arguments on the origins of each element of Christian worship.

Jessica Wan
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary