Leonard: “Worship in the Early Church”

Richard C. Leonard – holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University (1972) and has taught at the college and graduate level.  Below, Dr. Leonard discusses Christian worship in the first two centuries of the church with information from primary sources of the time.

RC LeonardWorship in the New Testament Church

The New Testament church was a minority movement within a hostile religious environment. The earliest followers of Jesus could not conduct public Christian worship of the type we are accustomed to in the Western world. For this reason, the New Testament does not offer detailed instructions for the order and leadership of worship. However, from its pages we are able to glean some indication of what worship looked like in the church’s earliest days.

The Christian assembly usually met in private homes for worship and instruction (Acts 2:46; 16:40; 18:7; Philem. 1:2). It appears that, in commemoration of the resurrection, the congregation assembled on the “Lord’s Day,” the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes two types of Christian gathering. One is the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:20-29) or ceremonial community meal, over which Jesus had presided on the night of his arrest and which he had asked his followers to continue. Paul goes on to describe a second type of gathering, the prophetic assembly, which includes both singing and thanksgiving in unknown languages, with interpretation, and prophecy (14:1-33). Perhaps these were two aspects of the same gathering.

Elsewhere the New Testament suggests that Christian worship incorporated singing of hymns and psalms (Eph. 5:19), prayer (1 Cor. 11:4-5), vocal thanksgiving (Eph. 5:20; Heb. 13:15), and instruction (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). The Gospel of Luke and the Revelation to John preserve hymns that may have been used in the worship of the early church. The New Testament does not specify who is to officiate in worship, or to administer the Lord’s Supper, although prophets clearly had a role in corporate worship (1 Cor. 14:23-33). Paul’s words indicate that unbelievers occasionally attended the prophetic assembly (1 Cor. 14:22-25), although it would not have been appropriate for them to take part in the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus himself instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of his last Passover celebration with his disciples (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-22.) His words on that occasion (“This is my body . . . ,” “this is my blood . . . ,” “do this in remembrance of me”) suggest a close identification between the elements of bread and wine and the continuing presence of Jesus with his church. Though it is clear that the risen Christ was recognized by his followers “in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:13-35), the New Testament does not define this relationship as precisely as later theologians might have wished. As the ceremony passed into the practice of the church, it appears that the aspect of blessing and thanksgiving became predominant in a celebration of the oneness of Christ with his followers (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Indeed, the Greek word for giving thanks (eucharisteo) associated with Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper has given us one of the ceremony’s historic names, Eucharist.

Two other sacramental actions established by Jesus were baptism and foot washing. The Gospel of John records that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the night of his arrest, as a symbol of the loving servanthood they were to show toward one another (John 13:1-15). However, the rite is not specifically mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament.

Regarding baptism, Jesus himself had been baptized by John the Baptizer as a sign of his role as the Messiah or Son of God (Mark 1:9-11). As practiced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, baptism is an act through which a person repents, or turns away from the existing cultural and religious establishment to identify with the new order God has initiated in the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:38-39). Such repentance involves acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Paul gives baptism further theological significance as an act through which one dies to sin and shares in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:3-9). But its basic function as a ceremony is to initiate the new convert into the Christian faith. Jesus had commanded its use for this very purpose, as part of “making disciples” of people from all ethnic groups (Matt. 28:19-20). Since baptism was a rite of initiation, it was not practiced in the setting of a service of worship. Although the symbolism of baptism is best preserved when the new convert is completely immersed in water, the New Testament records several occasions of baptism where that method would have been impractical (such as the 3,000 baptized on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, which has no river), and perhaps water was simply poured over the convert’s head.

For more extended discussion of worship in the New Testament, see The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, Volume I of The Complete Library of Christian Worship.

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles

The Didache (pronounced “dee-dah-khay’”) or “Teaching” is a manual of church order and Christian living from the late first or early second century. The Greek title is “Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles.” The Didache was apparently compiled from earlier sources, including material now included in the Gospels. It was rediscovered in 1875. Its importance for Christian worship lies in the fact that it contains the earliest description of the Eucharist outside the New Testament.

The document recommends praying the Lord’s Prayer three times daily. It describes how Christians come together on the Lord’s Day “to break bread and give thanks,” first confessing their sins and being reconciled with their neighbors for a pure sacrifice to the Lord. Only baptized Christians are to partake.

The service of the Eucharist begins with thanksgiving over the cup and the loaf. In offering the cup, the leader gives thanks for “the holy vine of David,” apparently a reference to the Messianic community (Psa. 80:8). A doxology, or expression of praise to God, follows: “To you be glory forever.” Then the leader gives thanks over the broken bread, thanking God “for the life and knowledge you have revealed through Jesus, your child [servant],” concluding with a doxology. Then follows a prayer comparing the bread to the gathering of the church into the kingdom, again ending with a doxology. The community meal, which comes next, is not described.

After the meal, the leader again offers thanksgivings for the Lord’s holy name dwelling within his people, and for God’s creative activity and his provision of food and drink for all people. He then prays that the Lord would deliver the church from evil, perfect it in love, and gather it into his kingdom. Each of these acts concludes with a doxology. The service concludes with responses ending with Maranatha! Amen, and extemporaneous thanksgivings by the church prophets, who are to be allowed to give thanks (eucharist) in their own way, following no particular text.

The order of worship in the Didache follows Jewish forms for “grace” before and after meals. The leader’s prayer does not refer to the body and blood of Jesus; instead, the emphasis is on the gathering of the church body (see 1 Cor. 10:17). It is noteworthy that the prayer and thanksgiving are interlaced with doxologies; the event is a praise-celebration of the congregation of God’s people. The role of prophets is significant; the Didache calls them the church’s “high priests,” and gives instructions on how to welcome prophets and discern true from false. The document does not specify what sort of church official is to preside at the Eucharist.

The Letter of Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecelius Secundus, circa 61-113) was a Roman administrator whom the Emperor Trajan had sent to Bithynia, in Asia Minor, to reform the region’s finances and court system. Around AD 112 he wrote to Trajan reporting how he had dealt with Christians in his jurisdiction, and requesting the Emperor’s further advice. The Christian movement had become strong in the region, for the pagan temples were virtually deserted. But the fact that Christians worshiped in secret gatherings had aroused public suspicion. They were being accused of killing infants, eating human flesh, and having incestuous relations, and were considered atheists because they refused to honor the pagan gods.

Pliny was not sure whether Christians should be condemned for specific crimes, or simply because they professed to be followers of Christ. His first tactic was to ask the accused if they were Christians, and then if they persisted in their Christian confession he had them executed because of their obstinacy. But he changed his policy after large numbers of people began to be accused. When a person was charged with being Christian, Pliny gave them the chance to worship pagan divinities and make offerings to their images, including that of the Emperor, and to curse Christ. Using this procedure, Pliny found many people who admitted to having once been Christians but claimed to have renounced the faith. From them he learned what little he knew about Christian worship.

According to these people, “on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god.” Then they would take an oath (Latin sacramentum) “to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of faith.” After this ceremony they left, but reassembled later on to eat together.
Although Pliny’s knowledge of Christian worship was gained second-hand from people who had abandoned the faith, the general outline is consistent with our other sources and supplements them. We find the Christian community assembling early on the Lord’s day, and then gathering to share a meal. One may assume the meal included the Lord’s Supper, but Pliny reported he was unable to get much more information about the ceremony even after torturing two deaconesses. The word sacramentum referred to an oath taken by Roman soldiers, and its use to describe an act of Christian worship reminds us that worship is basically a pledge of loyalty to the God of the covenant. Finally, Pliny’s account is the only one of our sources that specifically mentions hymns as part of Christian worship. However, since worship in both Old and New Testaments emphasizes “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” we must assume that some kind of singing or chanting — in this case an antiphonal or responsive hymn — was a standard component of worship during the earliest Christian centuries.

The First Apology of Justin Martyr

Justin was a seeker after truth who, after a long flirtation with various pagan philosophies, finally embraced the Christian faith. He composed his First Apology in Rome about AD 155. This document is addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (reign AD 137-161), defending the Christian faith against attacks on legal and moral grounds. Justin was later put to death for his faith (about AD 165), and is therefore known to history as Justin Martyr.

In his First Apology, Justin describes both a post-baptismal Eucharist and a Sunday assembly. The first event follows the baptism, or “washing,” of one who has become convinced and confessed Christ. The new Christian is then led to the assembly of “brethren.” Only those who accept the Christian faith and have “received the washing” for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who live by Christ’s principles, are allowed to partake of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist begins with common prayers for the assembly: for themselves, for the new convert, and for others. Then the worshipers greet one another with a kiss. (We should probably understand that men and women were in separate parts of the congregation, so that this greeting was not “coeducational.”) Bread, wine and water are then brought to the president, who offers the eucharistic prayer. The prayer begins by ascribing glory to the Father in the name of the Son and Spirit, and continues with thanksgiving that worshipers have been judged worthy to receive the bread and wine. At the end, the congregation says the Amen.

Deacons then give to those present a portion of the bread, wine and water that have been “eucharistized” (offered thanks over). Justin’s account adds, “For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.” Justin then repeats Jesus’ words in delivering the bread and cup at the Last Supper. At the conclusion of the service, the Eucharist is also taken to those members of the Christian community who were absent. Justin goes on to mention the ongoing common life of the Christian community, in which “those who have more come to the aid of those who lack,” and God is blessed for his gifts.

The other event Justin describes is the Sunday assembly “in one place.” He explains that the community gathers on Sunday, or the first day, both because it was the first day of creation and because on it Jesus rose from the dead.

The service begins with readings from the “memoirs of the apostles” (the Gospels) or writings of the prophets, as long as time allows. Then the president teaches from the Scriptures. The speaker was probably seated while the people stood, as was the custom in ancient times (see Matt. 5:1). Prayers and the celebration of the Eucharist follow, as described above. At the end, those who have prospered voluntarily bring their gifts to the president, who will distribute them to those in need.

The worship Justin describes reveals a further development of Christian liturgy beyond the ceremony described in the Didache. There is a formal offertory for the elements of bread and wine, which are now associated with the body and blood of Christ. They do not here signify the gathering of the church, although the corporate solidarity of the community is evident in the setting for the Eucharist. The Sunday assembly combines the service of the Word, or reading and teaching from Scripture, with the Eucharist or service of the Lord’s table; this was to become the historic sequence of Christian worship. There is a greater role and responsibility for the president and deacons, while the prophets of the Didache are not mentioned. The description of the post-baptismal Eucharist makes it clear that the unbaptized were not present for the Eucharist. If during the Sunday gathering they were present for the readings and the president’s discourse, they would have been dismissed before the prayers.

The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus

Around AD 200 Hippolytus, a Roman clergyman, composed a manual of church order and worship known as the Apostolic Tradition. In this document, Hippolytus describes a Eucharist in two settings: one following the consecration of a bishop, and one following baptism and confirmation.
The Eucharist at the consecration of a bishop begins with the greeting or kiss of peace. Deacons then bring the elements to the bishop, who with other presbyters (elders) lays his hands on them. Introductory responses, still used in many liturgies, are then spoken:

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We have them with the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord.
It is fitting and right.

The eucharistic prayer is longer than in the previous examples. It begins with thanksgiving for the coming of Jesus, the incarnate Word. It proceeds through the narrative of Christ’s sufferings through which he abolished death, to the words of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper and the anamnesis (recollection) of Christ’s death and resurrection. The prayer concludes with the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the assembly, and a doxology.

Hippolytus then indicates that if oil is offered as a gift, it is then blessed, symbolic of the anointing of kings, priests and prophets. A doxology concludes the ceremony. If cheese and olives are offered, they are similarly blessed as symbolic of charity and of the free flow from the tree of life, with a concluding doxology.

In Hippolytus’ second example, the Eucharist after baptism and confirmation, the ceremony begins with the offering by the deacons of bread, wine, milk, honey and water. During the prayer that follows, which Hippolytus does not quote, the bread is to be eucharistized into the “flesh of Christ” and the cup of wine into his blood. The mixed milk and honey, symbolic of the promised land and the nourishment of Christ, is blessed, and also the water, symbolic of cleansing. The bread, and cups of water, milk and wine are then distributed by the presbyters. The cups are served to each worshiper three times, with the following dialogue:

In God the Father Almighty. Amen.
And in the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
And in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church. Amen.

In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, we note that the elements of the Eucharist are viewed as the representation of the flesh and blood of Christ, having taken on this property through the eucharistic prayer. There is now an invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis), but it is upon the people rather than upon the elements of the Eucharist as in later practice. The church hierarchy shows a greater differentiation; the president is now a consecrated bishop, elevated above other presbyters. There is more elaborate use of symbolism suitable to the different occasions on which the Eucharist is celebrated, but the service of the Word is not mentioned in these examples.

Concluding Observations

Already by the second century, Christian worship had developed beyond what is described in the New Testament. There is a tendency to invent new symbolism not directly present in Scripture. In some cases it is hard to establish a clear linkage between early Christian liturgies and the practice of the New Testament church.

On one important point, however, the second-century sources agree with the witness of the New Testament: Christian worship centered in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, accompanied by the proclamation of the Word of God. In the case of the second-century church, the Word took the form of the reading and interpretation of Scripture, while in the New Testament period the Word came partly through the activity of prophets. In this twofold structure we see the kernel of the historic fourfold sequence of Christian worship: Entrance, Service of the Word, Service of the Lord’s Table, and Dismissal.

The church was moving from Hebraic culture into Graeco-Roman culture and was undergoing a philosophical transition. The emphasis was shifting from being the people of God to explaining issues of Christian theology. This begins to appear in the writings of the early “fathers” of the church and in early doctrinal disputes, and is reflected in the development of the liturgy. There is a growing tendency to define the way in which the bread and wine are identified with the body and blood of Christ, although the New Testament sources do not.

Understanding early Christian worship is an important aspect of the renewal of Christian worship today. In our efforts to restore Christian worship based on primitive models, however, we must always evaluate what we do in the light of worship as described in Scripture.

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