Much of contemporary Christianity has developed a newly inflamed affection for what they believe to be a first century pattern of Christianity: abandoning all formal or structural ecclesiology for simple house churches, which is allegedly where Christianity was supposed to remain without the hierarchical clergy getting their ugly paws on it. It is assumed that these congregations must have been similar to the informal evangelical low churches today that gather together in someone’s living room, sing a few three-verse praise songs, listen to an elder give a lecture out of the Bible, and maybe take turns offering up extemporaneous prayers. For a growing number of people, this essentially sums up early Christian worship. Furthermore, there is a common notion that formal and liturgical Christianity (often called “High Church”) is something that developed after the legalization of the faith under Constantine in the early fourth century. This event is believed to mark a great turning point when the Church began to rapidly decline into nominalism, parading the traditions and practices of men over against what the Bible says (at least until the corrections of the Reformers in the sixteenth century).
For this first part of the article, I would like to briefly examine what historical and archeological evidence is available from the earliest church that may address both the idea that it was simply an extemporaneous prayer meeting with a lecture prior to Constantine, as well as the alternate extreme that every minute iota of the modern liturgy and Church calendar with every small “t” tradition is an unbroken necessity passed down from the first century. The next part will consider some of the rationale behind early worship as well as some quibbles the modern Christian may have with it.
THE FIRST JEWISH CHRISTIANS
Let us begin this investigation by considering the scene in which the first Jewish followers of Christ found themselves after Pentecost. The New Testament time and again references the Christians, especially the Apostles, continuing to attend Temple worship and the daily prayer hours for as long as possible before the Jews excommunicated them. This is because they continued worshiping the Lord according to the pattern they had always known, as explicated in the Old Testament. The reason we are given for why Jewish worship was the way it was according to the instruction of Moses with the tabernacle, and later the Temples of Solomon and Zerubbabel, is due to its being a picture of, or even a participation in, the worship that takes place before the throne of God.[i]
This is not to say that the entire Old Testament parameters must be followed to truly worship God, for the early Christians realized that with the inauguration of the New Covenant a certain dispensation had arrived with reference to ceremonial regulations that were a shadow and a type of New Testament realities where they find fulfillment. This was especially the case with communion, as Christ literally equated the entire New Covenant itself with “this cup.” Nevertheless, the first Christians had no reason to invent an entirely new and informal way to worship such as they had never known; especially since they had witnessed their own Savior participate in formal Jewish worship with them during his earthly life.
As the first Christians began the practice of communion (and with the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial offerings along with it in 70 A.D.) this sacramental fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices found its place on the first day of the week–Sunday, the Lord’s Day–as the Christians gathered Saturday evening (the next day on the Jewish calendar) for the Eucharistic meal after having observed the Sabbath at Temple (see Acts 20:7). As the first persecutions began, the Christians already had to form their own worship tradition independent of the Jewish Temple and synagogues, but still having its derivation and explanation in the tradition of the Jews. One significant element of Jewish worship was the existence of formal or written prayers in corporate worship as opposed to spontaneous or extemporaneous ones. For example, the Kiddush prayer which was used for Sabbath and feast days, the Shemone Esre (“Eighteen Blessings”), or the Kaddish prayer which is believed to be the central source Jesus drew upon in articulating the Lord’s Prayer.[ii]
WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
We see the early Christian worship beginning to take shape in the New Testament writings. In Acts 13:2, the New King James Version states that the Holy Spirit visited the teachers of the church in Antioch “as they ministered to the Lord and fasted.” The Greek word translated “ministered” is in fact leitourgounton; a more literal translation would read, “as they performed the liturgy to the Lord and fasted.”[iii] In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John states that he experienced the vision therein when he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” (1:10). The implication here is that John was at Sunday liturgy, and the elements and occurrences of this incredible vision have a remarkable parallel with historic liturgical practices of the Church; beginning with small things, such as “the seven lampstands,” (Rev. 1:13). The book of Hebrews is also a very liturgical text and implies that the Christians continue to practice much of what is described, albeit with a more complete Christological understanding (e.g. 13:10, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.”) In Hebrews Christ is the archetype of all Old Testament practices, but what is significant is that they are “filled full,” and rendered obsolete by becoming absorbed into New Testament practices, rather than altogether forgotten. Since He is “a priest forever” (Heb. 7:17,21), “it is unthinkable that He would be a priest but not serve liturgically.”[iv] Thus the purpose of liturgy on earth is to portray the liturgy of heaven. The understanding behind this more formal, liturgical worship style was rooted in the concern for true corporate worship, where all is subsumed into the common act/work (the literal translation of liturgy) of the organic community, becoming a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than merely individuals praying or worshiping privately whilst in the same room.
Outside of the New Testament there are some insights into the worship life of the earliest Church that are still preserved in early Christian writings. A few examples would be the surviving letters of Ignatius, who was discipled and ordained by the Apostle John as bishop of Antioch, traditionally, around 68-70 A.D. Ignatius wrote extensively on church government, as well as how the sacraments were to be administered. A few of his words follow:
“Anyone who acts without the bishop (episcopos), the presbytery (priests), and the deacons does not have a clean conscience.”[v]
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”[vi]
These words come from a Christianity living in intense persecution, where being ordained into the clergy meant painting a target on oneself for martyrdom. Ignatius himself was thrown to the lions in the arena in the early second century. The condemnation of a hierarchical clergy as a post-Constantinian development full of pride and pompous is clearly lacking in evidenced validation here.
Other early writers went into a good bit of detail describing the worship services of their day, such as Justin Martyr in the second century in his First Apology, Hippolytus of Rome in the third century in The Apostolic Tradition, or Cyril of Jerusalem in his fourth century Catechetical Lectures. There are key liturgical consistencies throughout the works of these centuries, but most prominently are that of facing east to worship, the reading of an epistle and then a gospel reading for that day, the antiphonal singing or chanting of psalms and early hymns, the response of the people to the priestly prayers with the phrase “kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”), and many preparatory prayers, hymns, and rites performed by the clergy leading up to the climax of participation in communion. The service was always arranged by an initial liturgy of the Word, followed by a brief homily, and then moved into the service of the gifts, concluding with consuming the Eucharist.
In archeological studies of early house churches, especially the underground catacombs to which the Christians fled in times of intense persecution, two key elements stand out: “the baptistery and the place of the Eucharistic sacrifice.”[vii] The latter was a raised platform at the east end of the worship area on which the celebrant performed the liturgical celebration.[viii] “A large, mosaic inscription in Greek at the Megiddo [Palestine] house church reads: ‘The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ, as a memorial,’” the words “table” and “memorial” confirm its liturgical Eucharistic function as well as the concern for apostolic authority and permission from the bishop to celebrate the Eucharist there.[ix]
There is also much evidence of actual church buildings dedicated to liturgical Christian worship prior to Constantine. For example,
“. . . the mid-third-century Christian house church discovered at Dura Europos in eastern Syria, which contains an extensively decorated room used for baptism [for photos, see this article]. . . A fifth-century octagonal church building at Capernaum was built over an existing domestic structure, believed to have been an early house church located in St Peter’s house. A double church building at Aquileia incorporates an oratory that might be dated to the reign of bishop Theodore (308-19). Documents mentioning the existence of Christian church structures, books, and furnishing in various parts of the Roman empire offer further evidence of growing Christian communities in the mid- to late third century, that had a relative degree of security, wealth, and permanence, and had moved from modest gatherings in homes to larger crowds in imposing edifices. For example, Porphyry complains: ‘But the Christians, imitating the construction of temples, erect great buildings in which they meet to pray, though there is nothing to prevent them from doing this in their own homes.’”[x]
More interesting insight into these communities comes from an inventory record of Munatius Felix after ransacking a worship service at Cirta – a Roman official under the horrific Christian persecutor emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284 to 305 CE – in which is listed numerous liturgical instruments, gold, silver, and bronze vessels, cups, lamps, candelabras, liturgical vestments, and the like.[xi]
Fragments containing anaphoras – liturgical hymnography – that bear remarkable similarity to liturgical compositions from first century Christian hymnody such as in the Didache, have also been found at second and third century churches, as well as extensive evidence of early iconography and Christian art.[xii]
by Joseph Green
[i] For example, Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5; Is. 6:1-8
[ii] Deiss, Lucien. Springtime of the Liturgy: Liturgical Texts of the First Four Centuries. St. Paul, Minnesota: North Central Publishing Company. 1979. p. 4
[iii] Footnote on Acts 13:2. The Orthodox Study Bible. Elk Grove, California: Prepared under the auspices of the Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. 2008. p. 1491.
[iv] “Liturgy in the New Testament Church.” The Orthodox Study Bible. Elk Grove, California: Prepared under the auspices of the Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. 2008. p. 1720.
[v] Ignatius of Antioch. What the Church Fathers Say About . . . Vols. 1&2. Fr. George W. Grube (ed.). Minneapolis, MA: Light & Life Publishing Company. 2005. p. 215.
[vi] Ignatius of Antioch. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. Ch. 8. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm
[vii] Martini, Gabe. “The Eucharistic Liturgy in Ancient House Churches.” On Behalf of All. Web blog. January 13, 2014.
Accessed July 11, 2015.
[x] Mitchell, Margaret M. Frances M. Young. K. Scott Bowie. Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 1, Origins to Constantine. Published in the US by Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 2006. p. 575.
Porph. Christ. frag. 76. White, Social origins of Christian architecture, vol. II, 104.
[xi] Beard et. al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook, p. 112. Cited in:
Martini, Gabe. “The Eucharistic Liturgy in Ancient House Churches.” On Behalf of All. Web blog. January 13, 2014.
Accessed July 11, 2015.