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Cullmann on “The Aim of the Service”

Posted by on Jan 3, 2011 in books, community, edification, gathering | 5 comments

Cullmann on “The Aim of the Service”

In my study of the early church (between the time of the apostles to the middle ages), I’ve started reading Oscar Cullmann’s classic Early Christian Worship (London: SCM Press, 1953).

So far, Cullmann continues to call the church gathering by the term “worship” or the phrase “service of worship.” You’ll see the terms used below.

But, pay close attention to what Cullmann says about the “aim” of this “service of worship”:

The Aim of the Service
We are now familiar with the various elements of the service of worship in early Christianity. They are extraordinarily numerous, and it is astonishing how many forms the life of worship in these first Christian communities has assumed. In the light of this wealth of form, we must assert here and now that the services of worship in the Protestant Churches of our own era are very much poorer, not only in respect of the free working of the Spirit, but also in respect of what is liturgical and especially in respect of what is aimed at in the gatherings of the community. The aim is constantly described by Paul as building up of the community (1 Cor. 14). We must not interpret this word in the hackneyed pietist sense of ‘uplift’, but we have to think of the figure of the body of Christ, which must be formed effectually in the community. All the different elements which we have examined individually are subordinated to this purpose, which attains its peak in the ‘coming of Christ’ in the Lord’s Supper. To this aim is due the wealth and the variety of the elements in the early Christian service. But, on the other hand, in view of this aim their use is constantly brought under examination and, if necessary, limited. Paul has also seen this second necessity; he has recognized the danger of this wealth, but he has not thrown out the baby with the bath water. On the contrary, he has preserved everything which can contribute to the ‘building up’ of the body of Christ. (pg. 26)

What do you think of Cullmann’s statement?


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  1. 1-3-2011

    On the whole, Cullmann raises some great points. I particularly agree with his last comment, “[H]e has recognized the danger of this wealth, but he has not thrown out the baby with the bath water.” It seems there are some inherent dangers that accompany the wealth of expression seen in the New Testament assemblies: the leaders are not in control of what is said and done in the gathering, who knows what might be said, what if someone begins to monopolize, what if someone says something theologically unsound? But as the author mentions, despite all these potential dangers, Paul still favored the wealth of participation we read about in scripture.

  2. 1-3-2011


    It’s always been amazing to me that in the face of the Corinthian problem, Paul did not take the church meeting out of the hands of the people of God. Within a few years, the people who followed Paul did exactly that in several aspects.


  3. 1-4-2011

    “All the different elements which we have examined individually are subordinated to this purpose…”

    I think this provides an answer to “how do we keep from making the same mistakes” as so many other reformers have made.

    I think scripture provides us with what and why purposes– functions and principles. I’ve come to call these “supracultural,” because they apply to every people in every culture in every time. Things such as, “mutual edification.”

    So many of the failures are due to fixing forever the corresponding practices and forms that develop when these principles and functions are rediscovered by each new reforming group. Once these no longer become associated with their purposes, they cannot be changed. The practices and forms become “holy.”

    And so, in a world where certain styles and forms of music were contemporary, over time, they become anachronistic. But the church, not willing to deviate from the “new light discovered a few hundred years ago,” still reveres the style of music. And so, the Plymouth Brethren still today sing dour dirges and funeral songs when they share the Lord’s Supper.

    Of course, the real damages are more than the superficial offenses within a culture, but these contribute to our inability to reach a present culture (which is always changing). While the principles and Functions never change, if we are able to continually re-assess our practices and forms against them, we can continue to adapt.

    When we move into a new culture, understanding these differences, we would have discovered that native americans didn’t need haircuts and to learn the english language and music styles in order to be good “christians.” We still do the same around the world, focusing on our practices and forms so that we require buildings and formal education, rather than on transmitting to indigenous leaders the principles and functions which are to be accomplished, and letting them work those into appropriate practices and forms.

  4. 1-4-2011

    And, yes, I like charts :) Here is an image representation on this “supracultural” perspective in a nutshell:

  5. 1-4-2011


    Of course, all of this flies in the face of modern church culture, which wants to start with the “how” of meeting together.



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