Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Account of Early Church Worship

On the day called Sunday all who live in the cities or in the country gather at one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the one who is presiding instructs us in a brief discourse and exhorts us to imitate these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers.... When we have finished the prayer, bread is brought forth, and wine and water, and the presiding minister offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; after this the consecrated elements are distributed and received by each one. Then a deacon brings a portion to those who are absent. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute what each thinks fit. What is collected is deposited with the presiding minister who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason, and those who are imprisoned, and the strangers and sojourners among us.
From Justin Martyr's First Apology, quoted on pp. 28-29 of Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. Newhaven: Yale University Press, 2003.

I've been doing some research for a paper on Christology in the early Church, and came across this description of early Christian worship. It isn't directly related to my topic, but it captured my attention nonetheless and I thought I'd share it with you. This description of Christian worship comes to us out of the mid-second century (i.e., the 100s AD) from the hand of Justin Martyr, one of the first great Christian Apologists. (He was a philosopher, and continued wearing his scholarly garb after he converted to Christianity as a statement of his intent to articulate the gospel in a rationally coherent way in the presence of its skeptics and detractors.) I just wanted you to notice a few things about what he says:

1. First, notice the way in which the scriptures are handled: "and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets [in other words, the New Testament or Old Testament writings] are read as long as time permits." The reading of scripture, in line with 1 Timothy 4:13, took on a central importance, and in the congregation of which Justin was a member at least, there was no definite limit on how long scripture might be read at a given worship service. We are probably talking about longer readings rather than shorter ones here, and this raises a worthwhile question: why don't we do this in the church today? Why do we so often read only what will be discussed in the sermon? (This can be especially catastrophic in some parts of the protestant tradition, where the sermon may for better or worse focus on only a couple of verses at a time.) Why not give people more rather than less, so that the diversity of situations out of which church attendees come can be addressed by many things from scripture, and not just the one topic a pastor wants to talk about?

2. Second, notice the twofold pattern of the preaching: instruction and exhortation. This is widely recognized in the church today, but it is helpful to point out the value of this simple approach to sermons. The sermon is intended to address listeners with the word of God, both informing them of and clarifying its meaning (or acknowledging obscurity and uncertainty where it exists), and applying it to them in such a way that the word will take root, grow, and bear fruit in their lives in whatever context or calling they find themselves in. A focus on instruction and exhortation in sermons will in the long run yield communities of Christian disciples who both understand and do the word of God.

3. Third, notice the importance of prayer. It is corporate, something done together, and comes in sequence after the reading of scripture and the sermon. This means that as the church is first addressed by the word of God, it is being prepared to respond with words of its own, based on its own needs that have been put in proper perspective by God's revelation of himself in the gospel. What does corporate prayer look like in your churches? Speaking for my own Anglican tradition, I've come to appreciate lately the value in allowing a significant amount of time for people to pray in the midst of the assembly as they feel led, so that a whole range of the church's needs gets addressed by the church herself. (The pitfall in my tradition is to omit this in the liturgical form of the prayers, so that corporate prayer ends up sounding much more like another segment of the announcements than it does the sweet, rising incense of petition, praise, and thanksgiving from a people to their God.)

4. Fourth, notice the centrality of the Eucharist (i.e., the Lord's Supper). As in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 11:17-34), the celebration of the meal Jesus gave us was an absolutely indispensable part of Christian worship - one could say, it was the edible word that stood alongside the audible word, the sermon. For a multitude of historical reasons there isn't time to discuss right now, this practice has often been pushed to the margins in protestant worship especially (despite the insistence of reformers like John Calvin on its centrality to Christian worship). A church that is 'all pulpit and no table' is in a precarious position (as of course is a church that is 'all table and no pulpit'), in danger of forgetting the importance of experiencing and enjoying the life of the kingdom in intimate personal communion with Christ and with his body the church. This need challenges us, beyond the mere question of how often our churches 'do communion,' to ask ourselves whether our churches are places where life is truly being lived 'together' in a meaningful sense.

5. Fifth and finally, notice how giving in the church is closely connected with providing for the needs of its members, especially people who are poor or in bad health. This is an area in which many churches have gotten a bad reputation, as impersonal organizations that are more intent upon self-perpetuation and on getting fancier facilities or gadgets than they are on engaging in holistic ministry that seeks to address the practical everyday needs of its family members. I won't pretend to have any experience with the ordinary concerns of church budgeting, but what would it look like for the first item on the budgetary concerns of a church to be "orphans and widows, or those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason"? (The last phrase is deliberately vague - in other words, "fill in the blank!") Might churches actually find that, far from limiting resources for ministry and outreach, this kind of prioritization of financial resources might in the long run actually further the work of ministry, by turning a church into a tight-knit community that loves and cares for its members in a way that is utterly foreign to this world? It is better to have people attracted to churches, not because of the funds that those churches were able to sink into state of the art facilities or media, but because of the Christlike generosity of people whose love for one another was such that they didn't regard anything they had as their own, but only as a gift from God with which to serve others and the world. That's the kingdom springing up in the midst of the present evil age, and Christian generosity of every sort serves as one of the most vivid signposts of the reign of God that has been inaugurated in the world through Jesus Christ, who was generous to the point of giving us his very self, of becoming poor so that we through his poverty might become rich.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Hopefully you find Justin's account compelling!


  1. Great analysis. I was also struck by Justin's statement: "Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute what each thinks fit", which is in keeping with the New Testament's emphasis on voluntary, cheerful giving. This contrasts with many (most?) churches today that seek to put their members back under the Levitical tithing law, which cannot be supported from the New Testament.

  2. David, this is a lovely exposition of the tradition and point of a church. Very well done.