Prayer in the earliest church

For most evangelicals, Acts 2:42 is the prototype that shapes how church ought to be done. "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (NRSV)

Thus, the earliest church was a place of learning from Scripture, relating to one another, eating together and taking Communion together ("the breaking of bread" most likely refers to both eating common meals and celebrating the Eucharist), and praying. What kind of praying, though? Here is where many evangelicals selectively interpret Acts 2:42.

The NRSV translates the Greek tais proseuchais as "the prayers" -- i.e., prayers plural. This is a correct translation of the Greek. Without drawing unwarranted conclusions, it is true that the verse does not say "prayer" in the singular. It is "prayers" in the plural. "Prayers" as in liturgical prayers.

Was there liturgy involved in the early church? Yes! This verse does not conclusively tell us that, but we know from history that the Jewish people of Jesus' day were highly liturgical. They recited the Shema twice a day and recited other set prayers throughout the day as well. To pray strictly extemporaneously would seem very strange to Jews of Jesus' day. Jesus did not advocate empty repetition of words, but he was no stranger to liturgy either.

Low-church evangelicals, on the other hand, avoid liturgy like the plague. It smacks of Catholicism and empty ritual. It is no coincidence that the NIV, which was the pet translation of low-church evangelicals for the last part of the 20th century, translates Acts 2:42, "to the breaking of bread and to prayer." The NIV transforms proseuchais into a singular noun, thereby removing the appearance that liturgical forms of prayer might have been involved -- which would, in turn, challenge low-church evangelicals to adopt some amount of liturgical prayer.

The truth is that liturgy was everywhere in Jesus' day. It was used in the temple and the synagogue. It was used at home and in private devotions. There is little doubt Jesus himself participated in liturgical forms of prayer on a regular basis.

In fact, it sets Jesus' two greatest commandments in a different light when you consider that to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength" was a prayer Jesus surely recited twice a day.

The early church, made up of Jews, did not dump liturgical prayer on the day of Pentecost. Rather, liturgical prayer continued in the early church. Now you have to ask, if the Acts 2:42 church is supposed to be our template, then why don't more evangelicals practice liturgical prayer? Sadly, sometimes evangelicals prefer to be anything-but-Catholic over being scriptural.


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