Some Glimpses of Early Christian Worship

Have you ever wondered what early Christian worship looked like? What did the early believers do when they met together? Today I would like to give a little glimpse at what it may have looked like in the first and second centuries.

New Testament descriptions of the form of Christian worship are rather sparse. We gain an insight from Acts 2:45-47, though it is still not terribly detailed and depicts only a specific point in time:

45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This is not to say that the New Testament provides no instructions on how to conduct worship; it lays the outline, but the exact expression is not mandated. We can see elements of worship, but not precisely how the early church may have practiced them.

What I am considering here postdates the earliest days of the church and describes a time when the church has had some time to begin developing traditions. Please note I do not here speak of authoritative traditions; I will consider the role of tradition and whether it ought to be authoritative in a later post. These descriptions are windows into the past; they are not the description of all churches everywhere, but of how some churches observed worship. We can make some assumptions that there was likely some degree of uniformity, though, based on the extant evidence that remains, to what extent we cannot say .

Christian Worship

Our first glimpse to consider is from Justin Martyr. In his First Apology, which was a defense of Christianity written to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius somewhere between 155-157, Justin provides us a description of Christian worship as described to an outsider. He writes as follows:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.[1]

Interestingly enough, some testimony is also preserved from a non-Christian source: in a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan dated to around 112. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia, in what is modern day Turkey. During his time in Bithynia he became acquainted with Christian practice through the arrests of those accused of being Christians and learned of Christian customs from those who had renounced the faith. The occasion for this correspondence is Pliny seeking counsel from Emperor Trajan on how to best deal with the large number of Christians there were in the area. Now this correspondence and the response from Trajan is noteworthy for setting the general Roman policy of not seeking Christians out, but of only punishing those who, when accused, refused to recant. For the time being, we are more concerned with what Pliny came to learn of Christian worship:

They [the former Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.[2]

To judge from these two descriptions, we may map out early Christian worship to some extent. On the first day of the week, Christians would meet early before dawn and gather together to worship. They would listen to readings of Scripture, either from the Old Testament or what writings they possessed of the New Testament, accompanied by some teaching and interpretation of the Scriptures. Praises would be offered up to Christ in prayers or songs. The Lord’s Supper would be observed. A collection would be taken to provide for the needs of the saints. Sound familiar? It is quite interesting to consider that, though we are many hundreds of years and culturally far removed, early Christians practices were not as different from our own as we might think. Of course, in actual practice at the time, these elements would quite likely look very different to our Western expectations, but there is much to hold in common.

Baptism

We also gain insights into how baptism was performed. The Didache, a document that dates to probably the late 1st or early 2nd century, gives instructions for how to carry out various aspects of worship. Here we find instructions on how to carry out baptism:

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. And before the baptism let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able. Also, you must instruct the one who is to be baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.[3]

An interesting observation to make is that The Didache prefers running water, i.e. a river, which would lend support to the ideal mode being immersion baptism. Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that alternative methods were provided, the easiest of which would be the pouring of water on the head. Simply considering the logistics in ancient times of getting to a river or of filling a pool with water, it is hardly surprising that sprinkling and pouring became the dominant form of baptism for such a long time.  

The Lord’s Supper (The Eucharist)

In Protestant circles, we tend to not use the term Eucharist, preferring to refer to it as Communion or the Lord’s Supper. I here use the term Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving,” because this is how The Didache refers to it. Here again we gain a glimpse of how the Eucharist was practiced:

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks as follows. First, concerning the cup: We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. And concerning the broken bread: We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: “Do not give what is holy to dogs.”[4]

Justin Martyr, in the same letter as above, describes the observance of the Eucharist in this manner:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone.[5]

It is worth noting that the Eucharist was a rather frequent occurrence in the early days of the church. It was also part of an actual meal that the members of the church shared. We see that this was the practice in the days of the apostles as well, for Acts 2:46 records that they broke bread in their homes together. Justo González provides a helpful commentary on this manner of observance:

The most remarkable characteristic of those early communion services was that they were celebrations. The tone was one of joy and gratitude, rather than sorrow and repentance. In the beginning, communion was part of an entire meal. Believers brought what they could, and after the common meal there were special prayers over the bread and the wine. However, by the beginning of the second century the common meal was being set aside, perhaps for fear of persecution, or in order to quell the rumors about orgiastic “love feasts,” or perhaps simply because the growing number of believers made it necessary. But even then, the original tone of joy remained.[6]

Final Thoughts

I don’t draw any strong conclusions here from the various points we have considered. Certainly, a number of the references cited above are pertinent to Protestant and Catholic debates over the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but I will leave those for another time. Perhaps there are examples from these early Christians that we may learn from in how they worshipped corporately and observed the sacraments; the significance of the Lord’s Supper and manner in which we observe it certainly comes to mind. For the time being, I want to simply present what descriptions we possess for reflection on the solidarity we share with these early Christians and if or how they might help inform our worship today.


[1] 1 Apol. 67.

[2] Pliny, Letters 10.96

[3] Didache 7.1-4.

[4] Didache 9.1-5.

[5] 1 Apol. 65-66.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Reformation, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 108.

 

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