Thursday, November 4, 2010

How the Early Christians Worshiped

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2.42)

An evangelical worship service these days usually goes something like the following: There's about 30 min of praise music led by a band, and then a 30-45min sermon. There might be short, extemporaneous prayers said by various leaders at the front at different points. The Lord's Supper is generally celebrated somewhere between once a month and a few times a year, and the bread and the wine is usually held to be merely symbolic.

The Catholic Mass has this basic outline: The Scriptures are read aloud, there's a homily, the congregation offers prayers together as a congregation, the Eucharistic prayers are offered by the priest to which the congregation responds with the great 'Amen', and finally the Eucharist is distributed to all baptized Catholics in good standing in the Church. The Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, is always celebrated, and it is held that the bread and the wine actually become the true Body and Blood of Jesus.

But how did the early Christians worship?

We actually know. St Justin the Martyr was a 2nd century philosopher who converted to Christianity. Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire, but Justin believed that this was the case largely due to misunderstandings of Christianity held by the Roman officials. So he wrote a letter around A.D. 150 to the Emperor which we refer to today as The First Apology. In it he explains the Christian faith of his day. At the end of this letter, he describes when and how Christians worshiped in his day:

[O]n 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. (67)

Sound familiar? It's because its the same thing that Catholics do today, 1900 years later.

He also describes more clearly what the early Christians believed about the nature of the Eucharist:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [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 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. (66)

(Sidenote: He clearly believes that baptism does something, that it's not just a symbol. When a person is baptized, there is "remission of sins" and "regeneration".)

He calls it the Eucharist. He specifically says that the bread and wine are received "not as common bread and common drink", but that this food "is the flesh and blood of that Jesus". He then goes on to prove this by quoting Jesus when he said "This is my body" and "This is my blood" - words that evangelicals dismiss, without Scriptural warrant, as merely symbolic.

The Mass, the Catholic belief in the real presence - these were not late medieval corruptions. They have been there from the very beginning. Evangelicals are the ones who have done something new.

Evangelical worship would have been foreign to the early Christians. The Cathoic Mass, in its fundamental form, is how the early Church worshiped, as passed down from the Apostles.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I cannot see how it could possibly be more clear than these words of Justin.

  2. Wonderful information! Thank you!

  3. Wonderful post!

    But, just to add - I am an evangelical convert and the the church I came from had communion every week (that was one of the things I looked for in a church at that time, in fact) and we read Scripture as well. At a cursory look, it would look much like the first quote.

  4. Hey Lauren,

    Oh yeah, there are definitely exceptions regarding the order of worship. But I'm assuming your evangelical church differed greatly with the early Church in their beliefs regarding the Eucharist, which is central to the worship.

  5. Yes, indeed, that is why I said the first quote. :)

    My point is that many, possibly most evangelicals would read the first quote and think their worship looks the same as well.

  6. Awesome article! Thanks for sharing. When I first read the words of Justin Martyr last year while we were in RCIA together, I was totally blown out of the water...I couldn't believe what I'd been missing!!

  7. Just a couple comments. I suspect that you composed your description of Catholic liturgy after having read the quote. You left off an opening/closing hymns, confession, recitation of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the sign of peace. A more generous coverage of evangelical liturgy could have been composed which would "sound a lot like the quote". A less generous coverage of Catholic liturgy could have been composed to point out the insertion of "traditions of men".

    Second, the quote about the Eucharist contains a "fence" which sort of bothers me. The Lord's Supper has always had the dual meaning of altar (of which only believers can truly partake) and the table (which is open to "sinners and tax colectors"). The erection of fences around the Lord's Table has always bothered me since it is Christ alone who invites sinners to His feast. I am no more or less worthy to partake of His Body and Blood than the priest or the unbeliever.

  8. Hey Bob,
    Thanks for the comment!
    You are right that I did not describe the Catholic Mass in detail. And yes, the Mass has developed since Justin's time. But it has been an organic development in which the fundamental structure has remained the same. The same is not true for evangelical worship these days.

    I don't think that a more generous description (I think that's what you meant by coverage) of evangelical worship services could have made them sound like the quote from Justin. I think how I described evangelical worship is pretty right on for most evangelical churches, and it's clearly not what Justin describes.

    Regarding a your worry about restricting participation in the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper has always been a sign of unity among Christians:

    "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf." (1 Cor 10.16-17

    And it does matter how we take it and what we believe:
    "So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves." (1 Cor 11.27-29)

    The fence that Justin describes as normal for Christians in the 2nd century is the same fence, fundamentally, that Catholics have today.

  9. "the Mass has developed since Justin's time. But it has been an organic development in which the fundamental structure has remained the same."



  10. Great stuff!
    I'm excited to show some of my evangelical friends.

    I was referred to you from here:

  11. As a PCA believer but who has studied a lot of Church Fathers and RCC teachings and liturgy, I would say that even with the highest liturgy that the protestants could provide (except Anglicans)as our church have, with Call to Worship, Confession, Prayers of the Church, the Apostle's Creed, himns, and the Benediction, while the Lord's Supper is once a month, still it does not come close to the Justin Martyr's description or other ones from other church fathers. Even the best reformed liturgy lacks the true worship with body and spirit and for this I want to connect you with this link at called to communion: