Saturday, 7 January 2017

Early Church Services according to the Letter to the Hebrews

Hopefully this post will prove more interesting than its title suggests! I’ve appreciated reading Colin Buchanan’s Grove Book, Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2016), and found chapter three especially interesting. In this chapter, Buchanan notes that we can reconstruct what features an early church service might have included. These features are:

  • meeting together and seeking access to the presence of God—recollecting the person and work of Jesus, our Great High Priest, fixing our eyes on him, coming to him with thankful hearts, and so on;
  • finding Jesus ‘there’, being held fast by him, and so speaking with ‘boldness’ or ‘complete freedom’, receiving his mercy and grace (after confessing our sins?);
  • hearing the Word—Buchanan notes that Hebrews is saturated with references to the Old Testament (Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai) and assumes knowledge of the story of Jesus (which we now have as the four Gospels);
  • offering a sacrifice of praise, ‘the fruit from our lips that confess his name’ (Heb. 13:15 CEB)—most likely expressed in song, though presumably (and this is my gloss, not Buchanan’s) also spoken;
  • interceding for others;
  • joining with the faithful others, including believers who have died—‘So we worship “with saints” or “with the whole company of heaven”,’ Buchanan writes, ‘and have from this passage some strong notion of a “communion of saints”’ (which does not mean, he adds, praying to or praying for the departed; see page 17); and
  • sacrificing for others by doing good for those outside the assembly (Buchanan includes such things as church-run food banks and financial giving as such ‘sacrifices’ (13:16)).

Buchanan also mentions that Hebrews warns against over-ceremonialism or legalism, as our gaze is to be focussed on Jesus rather than on particular rules and regulations—but this does not mean that there is no order, or no place for rules and regulations, and Buchanan is well aware that Hebrews assumes that some members hold some kind of authority over the others. As Buchanan is a retired Bishop of the Church of England, I suspect he knows at least a little about balancing these sorts of things!

It seems to me that as Buchanan presents it, there is little here that wouldn’t coincide with a typical Church of England service or, indeed, any kind of Christian service. Buchanan doesn’t find the Eucharist or baptism in the letter, but notes this doesn’t preclude practising either—it’s just that the letter doesn’t mention them. But what does stand out to me are Buchanan’s comments about hearing God’s Word. The author of Hebrews (who may have been a woman—Buchanan doesn’t really say anything about who wrote the letter, but other commentators have suggested it may have been Priscilla/Prisca (Acts 18:2; Rom. 16:3), and still others that the letter might have had two authors) draws from what we would now call the Old Testament and the Gospels to compose the letter and warns against the ‘many strange teachings out there’ (Heb. 13:9 CEB). Buchanan adds:

It is not simply that the teachers and leaders have a responsibility for presenting Jesus to the people (13.7-8): it is also that the people have to take responsibility for their own lives of discipleship and not be ‘carried about’ (perhaps ‘taken for a ride’) by error. There is to be an adult and discerning holding of the faith running through the whole life of the assembly. (pp. 15–16)

I happen to agree with this quite strongly. What’s the point of ministers and preachers faithfully teaching God’s Word if members of the congregation are just going to get caught up in the latest fad? One of the points of knowing the Bible and receiving good and sound teaching is precisely to help others avoid faddism.

Also, I think a case can be made from what Buchanan has written for using the Lectionary or for consciously using at least an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading in each service where there’s a sermon or similar. This would suggest that the preacher should be skilled enough to discern and communicate what God is saying through three given biblical texts—but why shouldn’t s/he be, anyway? Genuine preaching is far more than just standing in front of a congregation saying nice or helpful things or expressing opinions about a given passage. Not every sermon needs to be a work of art, but it does need to be faithful to Scripture.

And finally, Buchanan doesn’t make a huge deal of it, but he does note that many of the words in the letter are plurals: Let us . . . The emphasis is very much on the assembly or congregation or local church together, not on the individual. So when, for example, the author writes ‘share what you have’ (13:16), it’s the congregation as one body (to use one of Paul’s images) which is encouraged to share—not certain members of the congregation or even the sum total of the members as such. It is the body of Christ that shares—and so Christ himself. And when the author warns against strange teachings, s/he intends for the one body—not just certain members such as the leadership team or those who might have an interest in theology—not to get carried away. Each member is supposed to take responsibility for preserving sound teaching, even if only a few are specifically trained to communicate sound teaching, and so as one body—as Christ himself—the congregation remains faithful to God.

Of course, all the above is based on Buchanan’s analysis of this single New Testament letter, and other books in the New Testament will paint different pictures of early church services, authority, and order. But Buchanan’s points remain insightful and helpful for anyone reflecting on what happens in a church service.


  1. Interesting what you say about it possibly having been written by a woman. And I agree about the purpose of preaching. Unless our lives are changed by our faith, and unless we grow in our faith (also a subject in Hebrews), what's the point? God uses teaching to aid and effect this.

    1. I don't know if you spotted it, Sandy, but the link to the Wisdom Commentary on Hebrews includes a sample to download. It contains details about the possible female authorship of Hebrews.

    2. Thanks. My husband would be fascinated, so I will share it with him, too.