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Early Church Worship

In my reading of early church history this past week I came upon a passage from Justin’s First Apology in which he describes the worship of the early church.

“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 succours 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 Saviour 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.

“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 Eukaristia [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 Saviour, 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.”

I was struck both by the similarities and the differences between worship today. Nick Needham points out that the three primary ingredients of the early worship services were the reading and expounding of Scripture, prayer, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Noticeably absent, of course, is music and singing. While we do know, even from other accounts written from Justin, that music was a part of the services, it was clearly not as central to the services as we make it today. Conserversely, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a more important part of the service, or at least than the service of most of today’s Protestant churches.

It is interesting to note as well that during the early history of the church, and in fact until the 14th century, Christian worshipped while standing. Pews (and stackable, cushioned seats) are quite a late development. Those who were tired or infirm would be able to sit around the outside edge of the church while others stood. Standing was also considered the proper posture for prayer. Generally those who prayed would keep their eyes open looking towards heaven, and their arms outstretched.

One thing Justin does not make clear, but which seems clear from other documents, is that the service was divided into two components. The first, the service of the word, which included singing, reading of the Scripture and the sermon was open to everyone. The second part, the prayers and Lord’s Supper, were open only to baptized believers. Everyone else had to leave.

Corporate worship was an important time for believers and they worshipped, at least initially, very simply.