How Should We Determine the Order of Worship in Our Church Services?

Ordering Worship

Our worship should be, among other things, God-fearing (Eccl. 5) and bibliocentric (Neh. 8). In other words, our worship should be God-revering and Scripture-saturated. Let’s build upon that foundation by answering the more practical question: How, then, should we order our weekly Sunday gathering? Our worship should be regulated tota et sola Scriptura (“by the Scriptures alone, and by all of Scripture”).1 True. But what does the Bible prescribe regarding Christian liturgy?2 Nothing. There is no command in the New Testament to (1) gather on Sunday, (2) say the Shema, immediately followed by the Gloria Patri, (3) read Genesis, Jeremiah, Matthew, and then Paul, (4) share some matzah bread, and (5) go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Rather, what we find throughout the New Testament are descriptive elements of worship. Does this allow for freedom of forms? Yes. Does it mean we ignore what is described? God forbid! “When something is not specifically commanded, prescribed, or directed or when there is no scriptural example to guide us in how we are to perform some particular aspect of worship we should try nevertheless to be guided by scriptural principles.”3

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Jesus’s Worship Habits

With that truth in mind, let’s start with Jesus’s worship habits. In Luke 4:16–21, we read:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Notice six details.

First, it was Jesus’s “custom” to attend synagogue on Saturdays. To give a conservative estimate, if Jesus had attended synagogue on the Sabbath since age thirteen, then at this point in his ministry he had worshiped there about nine hundred times. Whatever else we might say about that fact, we must acknowledge that Jesus didn’t find the “formal” liturgy (see what follows below) and regular attendance in a building designated for learning about God to be stultifying to his spiritual development (Luke 2:40).

Second, there was a Bible reading, and Jesus was the one who read it. Did he ask to do the reading or was he asked to do it? We don’t know. Was it in Hebrew or Greek? We don’t know. Diaspora synagogues would have read the Bible in Greek; for the Jews of Palestine, the reading would have been in Hebrew and translated into Aramaic. Perhaps the synagogue in Jesus’s hometown read the Hebrew. Through the synagogue school, and perhaps through Joseph’s business, Jesus would have learned Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.

Third, there was an “attendant” who handed him the scroll of Isaiah. Was Jesus given Isaiah because (1) it was the only scroll they had, (2) there was a set reading from Isaiah for the day and he knew where to find it, or (3) he asked for it and, as the teacher, had the liberty to preach from any text he desired? We cannot be certain, but most likely he simply was given the next section in the prophet Isaiah, following the previous Sabbath’s reading.

Fourth, on this occasion, he preached Christ (himself) from the Old Testament (and it didn’t go over well in his hometown).

Fifth, when he read the text, he was standing, yet when he taught, he was sitting. Sitting was a sign of authority. He spoke ex cathedra (“from the chair”). Sixth, this passage, along with a few passing references elsewhere in the Gospels and Acts,4 gives us all we are told about the synagogue service in the New Testament. Why? Is it because the synagogue service was insignificant to Jesus’s view of public worship? No. Was it then because the majority of the first readers of the New Testament knew very well all the elements of service? Yes.

Our worship should be God-revering and Scripture-saturated.

I have read many explanations of the synagogue service over the years. Perhaps the clearest and simplest, and thus certainly one of the best, comes from a children’s book that covers the topic. The full picture is in order:

The synagogue was a place of meeting for reading . . . the Bible, and for prayer. . . . Within the synagogue there was nearly always a closet or chest which stood against the wall that faced toward Jerusalem. This closet or chest was the ark where the scrolls of the sacred books were kept. These were the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. . . . In the center of the synagogue stood a platform on which a reading desk was placed. At the foot of the platform and facing the rest of the room were benches called chief seats. Here important persons sat during the services. . . . The leader of the synagogue conducted the service.5 The Shema was said.6Benedictions were recited.7 A procession of men and of boys over thirteen years of age brought the scrolls from the ark and placed them on the reading desk. Psalms were chanted. Then the leader chose someone to read from the Law. He began where the reading of the last Sabbath had ended. Then a portion from the Prophets was read. A member of the congregation was chosen to explain the Law or to preach a verse from the Prophets.8 There were prayers. The service closed with a final benediction.9

There is little doubt that when the early church gathered regularly on Sundays (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2) or what came to be called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10)—because it was the day Jesus rose from the dead (see Mark 16:1–2; John 20:1)10 and bestowed the Spirit upon his church (Acts 2:1–3)—the pattern of the synagogue played a major role in the structure of their gatherings. Perhaps they simplified the structure, or perhaps what is recorded in the New Testament is only part of their gatherings. The picture we get from the gatherings mentioned in Acts 2:42–47 and Acts 20:7–11 centers on table fellowship (“the breaking of bread”), apostolic teaching (Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”),11 and prayer (“the prayers,” to be precise, likely a reference to set prayers said in Jewish homes, at synagogue, and perhaps when traveling to the temple, no doubt Christianized where needed). Again, while this pattern is not prescriptive, it would be foolish for us to dismiss a scriptural pattern as unimportant. We can’t be dogmatic (we must order our services like this or else!)12 and we shouldn’t be stale (for example, insisting that Christian worship must always contain teaching, Communion, and prayer in that order and never with variance), but we can be wise. And to be wise is to understand patterns and principles we find in Scripture and, in general, followed throughout church history. As Old writes: “While the Reformers understood the Scriptures to be their sole authority, they were very interested in how generations of Christians down through history had understood the Scriptures. In the history of Christian worship they found many good examples of how the church had truly understood Scripture.”13 Later he comments that the contemporary church should “maintain [the Reformed liturgical] tradition because it witnesses to the authority of Scripture.”14 Its public worship practices are “above all, according to Scripture.”15


  1. “Was David right to eat the showbread? . . . Was Christ right to worship in the synagogue, a pattern of worship generally required by God (Lev. 23:3; Ps. 74:8), but nowhere regulated in the details? To ask such questions is to answer them. Put another way, the requirements of the Word of God are broader than the requirements in the Word of God. Our worship is to be authoritatively regulated tota et sola Scriptura, by the Scriptures alone, and by all of Scripture.” Wilson, Mother Kirk, 125.
  2. Again, the word liturgy is a Greek (also Latin) word that simply means “the work or service of the people.” It need not have a high-church connotation.
  3. Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 171.
  4. For example, Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:21–28; 3:1–6; 6:2; Luke 6:6; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20; Acts 13:5; 14:1; 18:4, 19.
  5. To this detail, Ralph P. Martin adds: “The ‘ruler’ summons the ‘minister’ (see Luke vi, 20) to invite someone from the congregation to commence the service with this ‘call to worship’. He begins with the cry: ‘Bless ye the Lord, the One who is to be blessed’; and the people respond with the benediction: ‘Blessed be the Lord . . . for ever,’ in the spirit of Nehemiah ix, 5. At the outset, then, the worshippers are invited to think of God and to acknowledge His greatness and blessing.” Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 25.
  6. Compare Deuteronomy 6:4–9 with 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41.
  7. While there was no standardized prayer book, the Eighteen Benedictions show something of what the Jews of Jesus’s generation would have prayed. These prayers “cover a wide range of themes . . . partly an expression of praise, partly petitions for spiritual and material benefits and partly supplications for those in need (exiles, judges and counsellors and chosen people).” Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 26.
  8. Cf. Josephus, Contra Apionem 2:175; Philo, De Somniis 2:127.
  9. Ethel L. Smither, illus. Ruth King, A Picture Book of Palestine (New York/Nashville: Abingdon, 1947), 46, 50–51. For more scholarly summaries, see Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 23–27; Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 228–233; and Larry W. Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 31–34.
  10. On the Lord’s Day, cf. Didache 14.1; Ignatius, To the Magnesians 9.1; Justin, Apology I.67.3 (Justin speaks of the focus on Scripture reading [the writings of the Prophets and apostles “are read as long as we have time”], exhortation, and prayer). “Each Lord’s Day was an Easter Festival, since this was not yet confined to one single Sunday in the year. . . . It is correct to say that from the time of Christ’s resurrection, the day of rest appointed by God was transferred to the day of Christ’s resurrection and was regarded as ‘fulfilled’ in it.” Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (repr., Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall, n.d.), 11.
  11. In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul focused on the Word elements of worship, writing, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
  12. “Jesus attended the synagogue regularly and taught there (Luke 4:15–16), so there can be no question as to God’s approval of the institution. It is interesting, however, to note that the synagogue and the temple were very different in their scriptural warrant: God regulated the sacrificial worship of the tabernacle and the temple in detail, charging the people to do everything strictly according to the revealed pattern. He hardly said anything to Israel, however, about the synagogue (or, for that matter, about the ministries of teaching and prayer carried out on the temple grounds), leaving the arranging of its services largely to the discretion of the people. Of course, they knew in general what God wanted: he wanted his word to be taught and prayer to be offered. But God left the specifics open-ended.” John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principle and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 23.
  13. Old, Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture, 4.
  14. Ibid., 170.
  15. Ibid., 172.

This article is by Douglas Sean O'Donnell and is adapted from The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry by R. Kent Hughes.

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