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Worship in the Ancient Church


There were no elders in this particular congregation, but the two oldest men alternatively served as the "president" of the worship service on Sunday. The congregation met once every Sunday from 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. The president called the congregation to worship, selected different men to lead prayer, read Scripture and lead hymns. He presided over the Lord's table by making comments, breaking the loaf, and pouring out the cup. He called on someone to take up a collection for the poor, made the announcements, moderated the bible reading and discussion of Scripture, and adjourned the assembly. He was the "president," the worship leader, of the worship assembly. This service, according to Alexander Campbell, was a good "model" for worship assemblies within the Restoration Movement.[1]

There are several differences between this assembly and our contemporary ones. There was no single sermon, for example, and they met for three hours instead of one. There was more emphasis on the liturgical form of the Supper than now. But probably the most significant difference between our modern assemblies and what Campbell recommended was the presence of a "president" or a a "worship leader," over the whole worship period. Interestingly, this is an element which is found in the second century church. Indeed, it reflects one aspect of Campbell's restoration of the worship of the early church.

As part of the process of looking at the history of our traditions in the light of Scripture, this essay seeks to understand what second century worship assemblies were like. This will provide a perspective from which to better understand the New Testament and our own historical traditions.

Value of Study

The above description of an early Restoration Movement worship assembly may have been surprising to some. By looking back we realize that our contemporary services are not "exactly like" earlier services in every detail. We can all remember changes in the worship service from the beginnings of our "church memories" till now. Just as we cannot intuitively equate the traditions of our services with those of the early Restoration Movement, so we cannot equate our present services with that of the New Testament. New Testament worship assemblies did not look exactly like ours today. There are many differences. The building was not the same, the dress was not the same, the hymns were not the same, the style of singing was not the same, the order was not necessarily identical with ours, they did not have songbooks, and a number of other things were different.

However, there is continuity between the past and the present. The New Testament assemblies listened to the Word of God preached, read and discussed; they sang hymns of praise and prayed together; and they communed around the Lord's table and contributed to the needs of the poor. The New Testament, however, has very few actual descriptions of a worship assembly, and certainly not one as detailed as Campbell gave us in The Christian System. The New Testament data must be pieced together from selected texts. I think we can do this adequately, but there is no detailed form or order of worship (like a "Book of Common Prayer" or a "Directory of Worship") contained in the New Testament.

When we look at the history of worship styles or methods in the church, we gain a perspective that helps to identify various traditions within our own worship assemblies which are different from others. In particular, when we look at the worship of the second century church, we can see the kinds of differences in time, order, method and approach between their worship and ours.

This is valuable for several reasons. First, the second century church is the first historical period about which we have information about the church independent of the New Testament. We get a good look at how Christians worshipped, what they believed, and how they related to their hostile society. It is the age closest to the apostles. We see how Christians, immediately after the death of the last apostle, practiced their faith. This can give us a sense of historical continuity between the present and the New Testament.

Second, the study of second century provides what Everett Ferguson calls the "foreground" of New Testament interpretation.[2] It provides a means of validating our interpretation of the New Testament. If our interpretation of the New Testament yields the conclusion that New Testament churches did not use the instrument in their musical worship and that they observed the Lord's Supper every first day of the week, and we discover that this is also true of the second century, then our interpretation is confirmed.[3] On the other hand, if our interpretation of the New Testament yields the conclusion that New Testament churches used women in the public worship of the church, and we discover that this is not the case in the second century, we might want to question our initial interpretation of the New Testament. The second century church, then, provides a means of testing our understanding of the New Testament against the earliest history of the church outside the New Testament. The second century church should not determine our understanding, but they can illuminate it.

Third, the second century of the early church was an age in which the historical memory of the apostolic witness was strong. In other centuries this memory became distant and was not controlled. In the second century, however, we have Christians who were alive when the apostles were alive (as Clement of Rome or Polycarp of Smyrna), and others who lived under the teaching of these kind of witnesses (like Irenaeus). They have a greater sense of historical connection with the apostles than those of the third or fourth centuries, or 20th century, could. They provided oral controls over traditions and a sense of continuity with the apostles themselves. For example, Irenaeus wrote to another teacher to remind him that they both had grown up under the teaching of Polycarp. They both listened to the stories Polycarp told about the apostle John.[4] These stories provide a link with the apostle outside of the New Testament, and underscore the value of studying the second century since it might reflect certain traditions which enhance the teaching of the New Testament itself. Irenaeus listened to the stories of Polycarp about John much as I might listen to the stories of some Memphis Christians about G. C. Brewer or N. B. Hardeman. This kind of historical memory has value.

When we surface these traditions, we are in a better position to evaluate our own, and better understand the New Testament. Our goal is to worship in conformity with New Testament principles and practices. In the final analysis, the New Testament alone must regulate our worship, but the second century, because of its proximity, can provide some help in interpreting the New Testament. The second century is not a source of authority or norms, but it is a means of testing what we believe we have found in the New Testament against the earliest Christian history outside the New Testament.

The Description of Justin Martyr

While there are various allusions to the content, manner and liturgy of second century worship assemblies in the first half of the second century,[5] the two primary descriptions are given by apologists in the second half of the century. Both of these descriptions are intended to unveil the mystery that surrounded the Christian assemblies from the viewpoint of the pagans. They describe the worship assemblies in order to dispel rumors of orgies, cannibalism or secret mysteries which circulated among pagans. They responded to pagan speculations concerning what Christians did in their assemblies. Indeed, there would be no need to describe such a worship to Christians since they were participants.[6] They wrote for pagan readers who had never been to a Christian worship assembly. Consequently, their apologies provide examples of worship assemblies in a manner intelligible to pagan readers. As a result, we also get a peek at those assemblies over eighteen centuries later.

Justin Martyr was the first major apologist for the Christian faith in the second century. He was a philosopher who was converted by an elderly man who had introduced him to the Old Testament prophecies about Christ.[7] Eventually he settled in Rome and became a teacher of Christianity after the model of contemporary philosophers (e.g., gathering disciples and conducting an informal school). Around 155 C.E., he penned his first Apology which was addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius. He defends Christianity against various charges of immorality and treason, and explains the beliefs of Christians for the emperor. He hoped that by this explanation the emperor would tolerate Christians as another philosophical tradition. It is against this background that Justin describes an ordinary worship assembly. He writes:

On the day which is called Sunday we have a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as there is time. Then, when the reader has finished, the president of the assembly verbally admonishes and invites all to imitate such examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer up our prayers, and, as we said before, after we finish our prayers, bread and wine and water are presented. He who presides likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings, to the best of his ability, and the people express their approval by saying `Amen.' The Eucharistic elements are distributed and consumed by those present, and to those who are absent they are sent through the deacons. The wealthy, if they wish, contribute whatever they desire, and the collection is placed in the custody of the president. With it he helps the orphans and widows, those who are needy because of sickness or any other reason, and the captives and strangers in our midst; in short, he takes care of all those in need. Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we hold our common assembly because it is the day on which God, transforming the darkness and matter, created the world; and our Savior Jesus Christ arose from the dead on the same day.[8]

The service is held on Sunday, the first day of the week. This is the consistent and early witness of the church. The second century church gathered on the day of resurrection.[9] Justin's order of service is simple: Scripture reading, sermon, prayers, Lord's Supper, and giving.

It is interesting that reading is from both the Old Testament ("prophets") and New Testament (perhaps, the gospels, the "memoirs of the apostles"). This reading is continuous as time permits which probably indicates a rather lengthy reading. Someone other than the presider did the reading. The presider (literally, "one who stands before") offers some homiletic comments on the passages or related to them. Presumably, he is one of the elders, perhaps a bishop, but Justin never says exactly who he is.[10] After the lesson, communal prayers are offered as the congregation stood. This sequence of reading, sermon and prayer follows the early synagogue model.

The celebration of the Lord's Supper was a central event in the worship assembly and distinguished the assembly from the synagogue. While the first part of the assembly was instructional ("liturgy of the word"), the second part of the assembly was "eucharistic" ("liturgy of the Eucharist"). It focused on the Lord's Supper. In the above passage, Justin gives a truncated version of the Lord's Supper because he had earlier given a more detailed one. The detailed version reads:

After thus baptizing the one who has believed and gives his assent, we escort him to the place where are assembled those whom we call brethren, to offer up sincere prayers in common for ourselves, for the baptized person, and for all other persons wherever they may be . . . At the conclusion of the prayers we greet one another with a kiss. Then, bread and a chalice containing wine mixed with water are presented to the one presiding over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and he recites lengthy prayers of thanksgiving to God in the name of those to whom He granted such favors. At the end of these prayers and thanksgiving, all present express their approval by saying, 'Amen.' This Hebrew word, 'Amen,' means 'So be it.' And when he who presides has celebrated the Eucharist, they whom we call deacons permit each one present to partake of the Eucharistic bread, and wine and water; and they carry it also to the absentees.[11]

It should be noted that three acts preceed the distribution of the elements to the congregation by the deacons. First, the assembly offers up prayers. Second, the participants within the assembly exchange the kiss of peace which symbolizes their brotherhood and unity.[12] This is an appropriate prelude to the Lord's Supper where unity is symbolized. Third, the president offers prayers and praise to God concerning the elements. Apparently, this is extemporaneous and according to the ability of the president. There were no fixed liturgical texts at this point, but general principles. These liturgical acts, however, provide the context for participation in the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

The Lord's Supper is a moment of celebration and thanksgiving. This is particularly evident in the post-baptismal service described above. The prayers reflect the theme of redemption through the grace of the Father, Son and Spirit. The Lord's Supper has a trinitarian context: the Father as giver, the Son as gift, and the Spirit as the means of communion. The context of "thanksgiving" is the central motif of the second century service. Furthermore, the congregation participates in the prayer through the 'Amen.' It is a communal act; a corporate worship. The Lord's Supper is a communal service in which members participate both verbally and through eating and drinking.

Justin's service concludes with a contribution for the poor on the part of the wealthy. This naturally flows from the eucharistic (thanksgiving) character of the Lord's Supper and reflects the gratitude of the wealthy for God's blessings. Their gift, then, is a response to God's gift in Christ. This giving is part of the assembly itself. The contribution appropriately follows the Supper just as our gift follows God's gift.

As detailed as the description is, more so than any single passage in the New Testament, there is no evidence of singing, nor the place, time of day or how long the service lasted. It is the absence of singing that is particularly important. Justin's description is sufficiently detailed so that we would expect the notation of singing if there was singing on a regular basis in the assembly. Its absence may reflect a conscious synagogue model where there was little or no singing.[13]

The Description of Tertullian

Tertullian was most likely born to a rather affluent Roman family. After witnessing the courage of Christians who were executed in the arena, he became a Christian because he found in them a higher morality than his Roman counterparts. Not long after his conversion he penned his Apology around 197 C.E. It is an open letter to the officials of the Roman Empire which intended to persuade magistrates to treat Christians with tolerance and recognize them as law-abiding citizens. As with Justin, Tertullian's description of a worship assembly seeks to rebut charges of immorality or secrecy at their meetings. He writes:

We come together for a meeting and a congregation, in order to besiege God with prayers, like an army in battle formation. Such violence is pleasing to God. We pray, also, for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, that their reign may continue, that the state may be at peace, and that the end of the world may be postponed. We assemble for the consideration of the Holy Scriptures, to see if the circumstances of the present times demand that we look ahead or reflect. Certainly, we nourish our faith with holy conversation, we uplift our hope, we strengthen our trust, intensifying our discipline at the same time by the inculcation of moral precepts. At the same occasion, there are words of encouragement, of correction, and holy censure. Then, too, judgment is passed which is very impressive, as it is before men who are certain of the presence of God, and it is a deeply affecting foretaste of the future judgment, if anyone has so sinned that he is dismissed from sharing in common prayer, assembly, and all holy intercourse. Ceratin approved elders preside, men who have obtained this honor not by money, but by the evidence of good character. For, nothing that pertains to Go is to be had for money. Even if there is some kind of treasury, it is not accumulated from a high initiation fee as if the religion were something bought and paid for. Each man deposits a small amount on a certain day of the month or whenever he wishes, and only on condition that he is willing and able to do so. No one is forced; each makes his contribution voluntarily.[14]

Tertullian assumes a regular assembly as a congregation which, on other occasions, he identifies as a weekly Sunday assembly.[15] In this extended paragraph, Tertullian notes that during these regular meetings the congregation offers prayers, considers the Holy Scriptures, hears homilies of encouragement or correction, receives discipline from the elders and contributes monetarily to the poor on a monthly basis. In another allusion to "Lord's day" services he refers to the chanting of hymns.[16]

This description corresponds to what is called the "liturgy of the Word" much like the beginning of Justin's service. It is a meeting of Christians for instruction and prayers ("liturgy of the word"). These kinds of services could have been daily, and may coincide with the Agape feasts which Tertullian describes in this same chapter of the Apology.[17] After a meal which is provided by the wealthy for the poor, then the congregation worships together. "Each one, according to their ability to do so," he writes, "reads the Holy Scriptures or is invited into the center to sing a hymn to God," and prayer ends the meal just as it began it. The meal is a worship context in which each member is offered the opportunity to participate.

This "liturgy of the Word" or the "service of the Word" intended to undergird the holiness of God's people in an hostile society. It is in this context that discipline takes on special meaning for Tertullian. Discipline is a part of the service. The congregational meeting was a time of commitment and encouragement to holy living in a pagan world. The inner strength drawn from such a service was important for early Christians, and it functions to demonstrate to his pagan readers that Christians were advocates of morality instead of practioners of an immoral religion.

Tertullian's description of the "liturgy of the Word" does not include the Lord's Supper, and Tertullian shows a certain reticence in describing the "liturgy of the Eucharist" service for pagans. He may have intentionally excluded it from his description. He nowhere gives a detailed description of the Lord's Supper or its liturgical context. We can only guess at its complexion from various hints found in his writings. Whereas the Agape feast was held at evening, apparently the eucharistic service was held in the early morning.[18] As a result, any given Sunday may involve an early morning Lord's Supper assembly, and then the evening involved an Agape feast. Both were worship contexts and involved the "liturgy of the Word," but the meal was separated from the Lord's Supper. This was conducive to the work day where members could celebrate the resurrection early in the morning, go to work, and then gather together for a meal and fellowship in the evening. This would roughly correspond to our Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship assemblies.


This look at the early church alerts us to several differences between our contemporary services and that of the second century church. First, there seems to have been more attention given to Scripture reading in the early church. Lengthy Scripture reading is a lost art in our worship assemblies though it was part of the New Testament services (1 Tim. 4:13). Perhaps the second century church can be instructive to us on this point. Second, the agape meal and liturgical symbolism was important to the second century church. The meal together along with the "kiss of peace" prior to the Lord's Supper underlined the unity of the church. Some contemporary churches have a greeting time, but this tradition in the early church was a time of reconciliation. Unity needs symbols. The Lord's Supper is one such symbol, but the "kiss of peace" is another way of representing that unity. It too was present in the New Testament church (1 Thess. 5:26). Third, WASP churches have lost some of the responsiveness of the early church.[19] The congregational "amen" has Old Testament (Ps. 106:48) and New Testament (Phil. 4:23; 1 Cor. 14:16) precedents. It is another symbol of unity and a form of participation in the worship assembly on the part of the whole congregation. Perhaps contemporary churches should encourage this kind of participation as the second century church did through responsive readings and structured times for the church to respond "Amen" to the Lord's Supper, prayer or the reading of Scripture.

While there are some differences in form, style and certain practices, there is a fundamental continuity between the New Testament, second century and contemporary worship assemblies. The church meets every Sunday to celebrate the Lord's Supper in the context of prayers, praise, teaching of the word and giving (though for Tertullian the giving was monthly rather than weekly). The assembly is a time of instruction, thanksgiving and rededication. It is a time of mutual encouragement where the corporate body renews their covenant with each other and God.

They celebrate God's gift to them, and return something of what God have given to them. The heart of New Testament worship is seen in the second century assemblies. Singing, prayer, teaching, reading, giving and partaking of the Lord's Supper. Theses acts may have taken a different form than our modern acts (as, for example, in singing which was probably more like chanting than our melodious hymnology), but the substance is the same. It is the praise of God in hearts which is expressed through various modes of worship. These are present in the New Testament, and they are found in the first records of Christian assemblies in the second century. The worship of the second century church, then, confirms our historic interpretation of New Testament assemblies.


1. Alexander Campbell, The Christian System (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, reprint 1970), 290.

2. Everett Ferguson, "Foreground of the New Testament," in Biblical Interpretation, edited by Furman Kearley, Timothy Hadley, and Edward P. Myers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).

3. Ferguson makes this very case in A Cappella Music In the Public Worship of the Church, rev. ed. (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1972) and "The Lord's Supper and Biblical Hermeneutics," Mission 10 (September 1976): 11-14. Campbell also argues for the frequency of the Lord's Supper with the supporting evidence of the second century, Christian System, 287.

4. This letter is provided by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.21. Eusebius himself calls upon this historical linkage between Polycarp and Irenaeus several times, cf. 3.28; 4.14; 5.24.

5. For those who are interested, some of these may be found in Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, rev. ed. (Abilene: ACU Press, 1987), 67-92.

6. This is probably the reason why we have no such description in the New Testament that we find in Justin Martyr and Tertullian.

7. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 7-8.

8. Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.67. The translation is taken from The Fathers of the Church, trans. by T. B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1948), 6:106-107.

9. See Didache 14:1; Ignatius, Magnesians, 9; Epistle of Barnabas, 15; Tertullian, To the Nations, 1. Cf. Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, pp. 67-75.

10.Allen Cabaniss, Pattern in Early Christian Worship (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 4.

11. Justin, Apology, 65.

12. Didache 14:1-2 indicates that a period of reconciliation must take place before the congregation breaks bread. This may reflect an early practice of the "kiss of peace" prior to the Lord's Supper.

13. Eric Werner, Sacred Bridge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 500-1. Cabaniss theorizes that there was no singing as a part of the liturgy (e.g., the eucharistic service), but that singing appeared in other Christian settings (as in the love feasts), pp. 15ff, 49ff.

14. Tertullian, Apology, 39. The translation is taken from The Fathers of the Church, trans. by R. Arbesmann, et. al. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 10:98-9. Tertullian, in another book, refers to the "Scripture lessons, psalms, sermon [and] prayers" that are part of a regular Christian assembly (On the Soul, 9.4). Other passages in Tertullian allude to early Christian practices as well, and these will be drawn in at appropriate times.

15. To the Nations 1.13.
16. On the Soul 8.
17. Apology 39.
18. On the Crown, 3.
19. WASP means "White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants," and I primarily have in mind suburban congregations among the Churches of Christ.

This article first appeared as "History of Worship in the Early Church," in the Freed-Hardeman Lectureship Book, Worship in Spirit and Truth (1994), pp. 147-155.


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