How did the earliest Christians worship?

You may occasionally hear people claim that their worship style reflects that of the early church. But what elements were in place in the first two centuries of worship? We get our basic principles of church worship from Scripture, but how did the Biblical principals play out during church services early on?

Outside of the New Testament, we have a few early Christian writings that give us a glimpse of the first two centuries of Christian worship. Worship styles tended to become more complex and formalized in the 3rd and 4th century. The earliest emphases in worship were the Lord’s table, prayer, reading of scripture, and exhortation/preaching. Leaders oversaw worship; and baptism played a central role as a rite of passage for worship. Here is a look at the three earliest witnesses to Christian worship outside the New Testament:

The earliest record of Christian worship service outside of the New Testament is found in a work called Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve”). Didache was written during the first century. The first portion of the document gives directions for educating new converts in the essentials of the faith before baptism (like a baptism class or catechesis). The work delineates instructions for worship/gatherings further on. Baptisms were to be carried out in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in “running water” (7:1). If running water was not available, other means could be used, including pouring on the head three times in the names of Father, Son, and Spirit (7:2-3). Chapter 9 gives instructions for celebrating the Lord’s Table/communion (here called “eucharist,” meaning thanksgiving). It includes brief formulaic prayers for the cup and the bread (9:1-4). It clearly indicates that only the baptized should be admitted to partake of the eucharist (9:4). The sharing of the cup and bread was then followed by another thanksgiving prayer (10:1-6). It would seem that these prayers were to be followed closely in practice, but one was allowed to go off script and pray as they wished if they held the title of “prophet” (10:7). It is possible that this arrangement kept the untrained from stumbling into error while leading prayers but allowed for those who had a more formal role the freedom to change up what they did. It also instructs Christians to gather on the Lord’s day to break bread after confession of sin (14:1). From this document we can conclude that the central aspects of worship were prayer and the Lord’s table. There was flexibility for leadership to change up the prayers, otherwise prayer formulas were given. Baptism was a key rite of passage that was necessary for partaking in this eucharistic (Lord’s table) celebration.

Another witness to early Christian worship is Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was ordained by the Apostle John. In his seven letters written to various churches and Polycarp, he gives various instructions/reminders regarding proper worship order (written just prior to his martyrdom in 117 C.E.). In his letter to the church of Smyrna, he indicates that baptisms and “love feasts” were not to be performed without the oversight of the bishop (the head overseer/elder/pastor). It is not always clear in these early accounts if the love feast (agape meal) and eucharist/communion were celebrated as part of the same event or separately, but it can be concluded that church communities with poor members saw fit to make sure the less fortunate were fed. The celebration of the eucharist was invalid without the presence of the bishop (Letter to the Smyrneans, 8-9). These elements of worship were presided over by the head elder/bishop with the assistance of the other elders/presbyters. The reason again is likely to guard against theological error in the worship service, as these worship elements were seen as instructional and proclamational. In this way, the early church placed an emphasis on the role of church leaders in guarding sound doctrine in worship and keeping watch over the souls of those in their care (2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2:1; Hebrews 13:17).

A little further down the time line, Justin Martyr (living 100-165 C.E.) gives us one of the clearest early descriptions of the Sunday worship service. He notes that Christians gathered on Sunday to read the prophets or the apostles (i.e. Old and New Testament) for as long as time permitted (no one was rushing off to their favorite restaurant or to watch the game). After the reading, the “president” (probably the bishop/lead elder/pastor) would get up to preach by giving instructions and exhortations from the reading. Everyone would then rise for prayer. The bread and wine mixed with water were distributed. The president would then offer prayers and thanksgivings before the partaking of the eucharist. Portions were then sent with the deacons to be given to those who were absent that Sunday (1st Apology, 67). New believers were permitted to partake of their first communion following their baptism (1st Apology, 65).

It is not until the 3rd and 4th centuries that more extensive liturgies took shape and became widespread. We can find in all these early accounts an emphasis on loving Christian brothers and sisters in the community, as well as taking care of the poor and disadvantaged (Didache, 4:8).

Oddly, no mention of music is given. Does that mean that it didn’t happen in church services? No. But it wasn’t the emphasis in reports of what worship looked like.

While we do see the Apostle Paul’s instruction in the New Testament to share songs, hymns, and spiritual songs together (Ephesians 5:19), there is no other record in scripture or in the earliest records of music playing a central role in Christian worship gatherings. Justin does mention hymns/psalms as something Christians offer up to God, but not within his discussion of Sunday worship (1st Apology, 13). Likely, music was often or normally shared, but it seems that the emphasis was placed on the sacraments (with the Lord’s table/communion being a central and weekly practice), prayer, reading of scripture, and preaching. Baptism was viewed as an initiation rite into the worship community, after which the participant could partake of the bread and wine. Leadership played a central role in safe-guarding the doctrine represented in worship. Some formal/prescribed elements for worship were suggested (order and sound doctrine being the concern), though there seems to have been room for flexibility.The various aspects of worship reflected a Trinitarian emphasis.

So does your worship look like that of the early church? If it does, it will be marked by a Trinitarian focus, it will center around the Lord’s table, and it will include prayer, preaching, and scripture reading, being careful to guard sound doctrine through all that is said or sung.

 

For further reading:

  • Svigel, Michael J. RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
  • Didache
  • Justin Martyr, First Apology
  • Letters of Ignatius of Antioch

 

 

 

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