Friday, December 24, 2004

Lesson 12 Worship in the Early Church

In the previous lesson, we discussed the political climate from the end of the first century until the ascendancy of Constantine in A.D. 312. Now it is time to look at how these early Christians worshipped.

Documentation is much more available for the second have of this period. From about A.D. 60, where Luke’s history (The book of Acts) ends, to about A.D. 180, there is no continuous account, and what little is known must be pieced together.

By the time the picture clarifies, toward the end of the second century, it does so in a (perhaps) surprising manner. We do not find highly independent Christian communities scattered throughout the world, but something much more like a universal or catholic church, which we might as well call the Catholic Church, a loose but definite confederation of churches that, while disagreeing on certain things, nevertheless distinguished themselves from others that might claim the Christian mantle. The way in which this distinction was manifest is that they functioned as an ecumenical body with a “rule of faith” and a recognized body of scripture that served as the guideline for judging the veracity of anything that might be thought of as a question of faith or doctrine.

Charitable Works

From the earliest days, one of the commonalities among groups of Christians was the practice of charity and mutual aid. Recall that one of the first acts of the second Christian community, the church at Antioch, was to send gifts to the first community, the church at Jerusalem, to alleviate their suffering in the face of famine. In the Jerusalem church itself, wealthier members placed their property in a common pool for use by those in need. The first institution of deacons in the church was intended to distribute goods to the needy.

In later apostolic times, after Paul had founded churches throughout the Mediterranean region, we see additional efforts from a number of them to provide assistance to the poverty stricken Jerusalem church.
1Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. (1 Cor. 16:1-4)

While these apostolic era churches were administered independently, with their own bishops and elders, it was clear they felt a sense of being part of a catholic body, as evidenced by readiness of one community to assist another.

Widows were another area in which the early church practiced charity. Widows were not only to be taken care of, but also put to work in the church, primarily in the distribution of charity to others in need. This is evident in the instructions regarding widows found, for example, in 1 Tim. 5.

The charitable and mutual aid aspect of Christianity made its way into the period’s secular literature. In the second century, and Greek satirist by the name of Lucian describes Christian practice in one of his works. The character is a charlatan named Proteus Peregrinius. Proteus is depicted as joining the Christians. When he ends up in prison, Lucian writes that the Christians “left no stone unturned” in their effort to secure his release. When they were unsuccessful, they looked after his needs in all matters with “untiring solicitude and devotion.” From the crack of dawn, widows and orphans are waiting at the prison doors, and church officers bribe the jailers so that they might spend the night and being him meals and partake of their “sacred formulas.”

The fact that Christian charity did not go unnoticed is, of course, also testimony of the fact that it was unusual. This is an important part of the explanation of how the church grew even us it suffered repeated persecutions.

Caring for children (orphans) is another mark of the Christian communities, and one which distinguishes them—for this was an era when children were exposed (instead of murdered in the womb) if unwanted by their parents. This practice of abandonment is well documented in the Greco-Roman world, and these children were often picked up by “baby farmers” to become slaves or courtesans.

An example: a letter, written in 1 B.C., from an Egyptian to his wife. Though written in a loving manner to his pregnant spouse, the writer gives these matter-of-fact instructions: “If it is a boy, keep it; if a girl, expose it.”

In addition to attending to the needs of widows and orphans, the church also distinguished itself by caring for the sick. When Alexandria was devastated by a plague in the middle of the third century, the bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, wrote about the devotion of Christians in tending the sick, often catching the plague and dying of it themselves in consequence, whereas their pagan neighbors “thrust from them those who showed symptoms of the plague and fled from their nearest and dearest. They would throw them into the streets half dead, or cast out their corpses without burial.”

In these and other matters (e.g., slavery) Christians were not just “doing what any decent folk would do,” but were setting an entirely new standard in treating all human life with respect and kindness.


It would be nice if a study of the nascent church demonstrated a definitive point of view when it comes to baptism, both in the question of who gets baptized (children and professing believers, or only professing believers) and in the mode of administration of the sacrament (ordinance). Alas, it does not, and many of the same debates that rage in our day were also present (although the arguments were couched differently) in the earliest days of the church.

One of earliest documents to speak on this is the Didache (~A.D. 120), which has the full title The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles. (Its neglect of Paul suggests it was at first a document of Jewish Christians, probably of Syrian origin.)
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: After reviewing all of this teaching, baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in living (running) water. But if running water is not available, then baptize into other water; and cold is preferred, but if not available in warm. But if neither is available, pour water three times upon the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism, let the overseer fast, and also the one being baptized, and all others who are able; Be sure to instruct the one being baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7)

Notice a sort of non-dogmatic reasonableness, cold running water is preferred, but if not, warm static water is fine. Neither dunking nor sprinkling is declared as the “only” method; the meaning of baptism (whatever they took it to be) is more important than the method. Since fasting is mentioned, it is also interesting to look at what the Didache has to say about that:
Be careful not to schedule your fasts at the times when the hypocrites fast. They fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week, therefore make your fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation day (Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath-Saturday). Likewise, don't pray as the hypocrites, but as commanded in the Gospel in this manner:

Our Father in heaven,
Sacred is Your Name.
Your kingdom comes.
Your will is accomplished,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debt
in the manner that we forgive our debtors.
And do not allow us to fall to temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for Yours is the power and the glory forever.

Pray in this manner three times per day. (Didache 8)

The admonition against fasting like the hypocrites brings to mind:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matt. 6:16)

But in the Didache, fasting like the “hypocrites” is extended to avoid the very days in which they fast (second and fifth), i.e., the days when the Jews fasted!

As for the Lord’s Supper, the Didache throws a curve: it instructs the partaking of the cup first:
Now concerning the Thanksgiving meal, give thanks in this manner.

First, concerning the cup:

We thank You, our Father,
For the Holy Vine of David Your servant,
Whom You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.

Concerning the broken bread:

We thank You, our Father,
For the life and knowledge
Which You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.
As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains,
And was gathered together to become one,
So let Your Body of Faithful be gathered together
From the ends of the earth into Your kingdom;
for the glory and power are Yours forever.

But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving, unless they have been baptized; for concerning this is taught, "Do not give what is holy to dogs." (Didache 9)

Back to baptism. Some of the earliest evidence that infant baptism was practiced in the early church comes from those who argue against it. For example, Tertullian:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary--if (baptism itself) is not so necessary --that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, "Forbid them not to come unto me." Let them "come," then, while they are growing up; let them "come" while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the "remission of sins?" More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to "ask" for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given "to him that asketh." For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred--in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom--until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation. (Tertullian, On Baptism)

Tertullian is not arguing against a hypothetical, it would seem, but an actual practice in the North African church. He did not dispute the validity of infant baptism, but questioned its necessity and pointed out what, in his mind, were its risks “If people understood the obligations of baptism, they fear receiving it more than delaying it.”

Origen, on the other hand, was in favor of baptizing children, claiming and preaching that it was apostolic. He wrote:
Little ones are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Which sins? Or at what time have they sinned? Or how can there be the slightest reason for the baptism of little children, unless it is to be found in the passage “No one is free from taint, not even he whose life upon earth lasts but a day”? Even little children are baptized. Because the taint which we have at birth is removed in the sacrament of baptism.

Cyprian (200-258), Bishop of Carthage, was another ardent supporter of infant baptism.
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man… And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to he hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to he observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat. (Cyprian, Epistle LVIII)

In spite of evidence that infant baptism was practiced and that some of the great church fathers and first-generation apologists supported it, a great deal of evidence points to the widespread practice of “believers baptism” (implying also withholding baptism from children). Many church fathers, those of Christian parents, were not baptized until the end of their “student days,” e.g. Augustine.

We can also turn to Justin Martyr, and look at his teaching concerning baptism:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers' wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Isaiah the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the layer the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (Justin, Apol, 1, 61)
Justin appears to have an unresolved and rather odd view –he seems to teach baptismal regeneration while denying the common view of original sin.

Concerning Communion, Justin writes:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. 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 genoito [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 [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 Savior, 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. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (Justin, Apol, 1, 65,66)
Concerning weekly worship, Justin instructs:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. 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 succors 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 Savoir 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. (Justin, Apol, 1, 67)

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