How the Early Church Did Church

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

The early church developed quickly and expanded fast. How did they worship God in those early years? Many denominations claim to follow the pattern of the early church, but do they? In this episode we will look at how the early church “did” church at their gatherings, and how it laid the groundwork for what we do today.


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Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before, and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian. 

Welcome back to Verity podcast friends. Today, we’re talking about how the early church did church. You might find depending on how many denominations you have been that many churches claim to follow the early church model of how a service should be structured or how they go about their traditions, how they go about their worship rituals. And so today, we’re going to look at the structure that the early church followed, which closely connected to the synagogue model as we’ve talked about previously in this church history series and I hope it gives you some clarity as well as some perspective on where some of the traditions and rituals that we have in church services today may have come from.

So we’re going to be heading all the way back to the first few centuries of the church between AD 33 and AD 500 and going to take a look at how church service structure transitioned in that period. Now the word for theology of the church is called ecclesiology taken from the word ekklesia. So this is a word again coming from the Hebrew meaning gathering or assembly, and it referred to the whole assembly of Israel in the old testament which transitioned to the new Israel the spiritual Israel in the new covenant the new testament And so the word for the whole assembly of Israel, God’s people came to include the Gentiles, the non Jews in the new covenant and refer to the whole church. So when we are reading in English, we are reading about this gathering of believers who are coming together to worship Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah.

And in Acts 2:42, so at Pentecost, after the preaching at Pentecost by Peter and this massive influx of new believers to the church we see a little phrase that says exactly what they were doing when they gathered together. It says they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers prayers is plural and we’ll talk about that in a little bit so four things the apostles teaching fellowship breaking of bread and the prayers and so we’re going to look at these Pieces and then we’re going to look at some orders of service or liturgies that were followed by the early church just as they would have been followed by the synagogue there was an order of service of liturgy that will help us understand what the church was doing how the early church did church.

 Now if you come from a tradition that excuse liturgy, so a lot of Baptist churches, especially independent fundamental Baptist churches, Mennonite churches, some Pentecostal or charismatic churches Will say that they don’t believe in liturgy or they say liturgy is just this like rote list of things to do, they call it smells and bells. So basically is what they might refer to it as in the Catholic or Anglican Orthodox traditions but in reality every church tradition every denomination has a liturgy It’s just the order of events, the prayers that you generally pray, the songs that you sing, the worship rituals that you go through that make up the pattern of of your worship to the Lord so liturgy in and of itself isn’t wrong or bad or limiting. It’s not legalistic.

It’s not ritualistic. It’s a means of bringing attention and reverence to the Lord. It’s a pattern of remembering his faithfulness. It’s a guideline for how to pray. If you look at the Lord’s prayer, this is an example of a scripted prayer that was to teach the disciples how to pray, something we memorize and return to and use as the baseline for our more freelance prayers, if you will.

 In the Jewish religion, there was and still is a liturgical procedure for worship. And this is what Jesus observed and what carried over into the early church and so when you hear me talking about liturgy these Structured worship rituals. If you’ve been taught to think of those skeptically, I would encourage you to stick it out and listen because Liturgy in and of itself is not bad. 

But what happened to Israel was that they began to see the liturgy as the end of itself. That the liturgy was God instead of pointing to God. And if that happens in your liturgical church, if you start to think that, Oh, I get grace by doing this ritual, or I receive something through this act, instead of seeing liturgy as pointing to God then yes there’s a problem but liturgy can be a wonderful way to connect with the Lord and to provide a structure for services and it was exactly how the synagogue went about their services and how it transitioned into the modern church traditions we see today. 

So let’s start with the prayers. So the Greek text says the prayers. This is translated as plural in the NRSV and the ESV and a few other translations. So this suggests that the disciples, yes, they were praying temporaneously, but they were also using some kind of set prayers in a liturgical context. And this would have followed over from the Jewish Synagogue structure where there was a ritual prayer that was prayed every Sabbath.

So in the Lord’s Prayer and some of these other early Christian prayers, There’s a liturgy that’s well known to Jesus in the early disciples. So we should not think, and this is according to a scholar who wrote the book in the shadow of the temple, We should not think that the Christians of the early church were anti liturgical in their worship. It was just of worship, a liturgy that pointed to God. Now one of the things that I talked about recently on Instagram was how the Sabbath related to Sunday worship and how that transition happened from a worship day gathering in the synagogue to a worship day on Sunday or the Lord’s day when Jesus arose. 

Justin Martyr, who we talked about last week in the key figures of the early church, wrote in his first apology chapter 67 quote but Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the 1st day on which God having wrought a change in the darkness and matter made the world and Jesus Christ our savior on the same day rose from the dead end quote. So Justin Martyr is saying that the day that God made the world, so he created a light out of nothing is Sunday which would make sense because it says on the 7th day God rested and then he instituted the Sabbath on the 7th day which over the course of history became known as Saturday it’s simply named for Saturn because of the observation of the planets and the Roman culture and Greek culture and Babylonian culture all the days of the week coming together different days of the week got names, and Saturday was the name for the Jewish Sabbath. So if That’s the 7th day. The 1st day would then be Sunday, the day that God created the world. Justin Martyr saying that Jesus also resurrected on Sunday. And so very quickly, like, immediately, almost, you have the early church celebrating their gatherings separate from the Jewish Sabbath on Sunday. 

So the Christian gathering is on Sunday. And as the Gentiles came into the church more and more over the next 50 years, you had an increasing observance on Sunday because they did not have a culture in which they could take a full day off. So Gentiles weren’t living in the Jewish culture that kind of supported itself and was able to observe a full day off of work because they were their markets were geared toward it their businesses were geared toward it everybody knew if you were a Jew that that day you would not be working but in Gentile world, that was not the case. And so the Gentile Christians would have to celebrate extremely early in the morning or extremely late at night on Saturday. And so they would gather at midnight on Saturday or early in the morning on Sunday morning and that was when the Christian worship practices began on the day of the Lord on Sunday. 

Now a quick note about this transition from Jewish observance to gentile observance because it began to And quite quickly as I’ve noted, at first you have a Jewish church, what the Romans believed was a Jewish sect, and it starts to move quickly to predominantly gentile for a variety of reasons. Well, one of the biggest shifts was when the temple was destroyed in AD 70. Obviously, this is a huge event for the Jews, and it also shifts for Jewish Christians. So there are some who believe this is a fulfillment of the kingdom coming with power. And so when this happened, you had a major transition point for Jewish Christians, seeing that the temple is gone and the means of sacrificing in the Levitical sense is no longer possible but only 40 years prior less than that Jesus died on the cross as the ultimate Passover lamb fulfilling the sacrificial system which he predicted when he cleansed the temple twice at the beginning and end of his ministry. That wasn’t just him being mad at the money changers. He was cleansing the temple and saying, look, a greater sacrifice has come. So he dies. The temple is then destroyed. Sacrifices cannot continue. And Tim Trautman says this, the book of Hebrews was written in the 60’s, so not the 1960’s, but the 60’s to explain to the Jewish Christians that Jesus was the true high priest, animal sacrifices were no longer necessary, and Christ’s sacrifice was perpetually sufficient. These facts seem obvious to us in hindsight, but they were not obvious to the early Jewish Christians particularly while the temple was still standing, end quote. 

So again that shift there’s a lot changing for the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. They are still following a general pattern of their gathering after the synagogue structure they are using a lot of those liturgies they’re still predominantly Jewish but there’s Gentiles coming in in droves so now they’re having to gather late at night or early in the morning on Sundays, the day of the Lord. Now there’s no sacrificial system anymore as fulfilled in Jesus prophecy. 

And so now let’s move to what these gatherings started to look like because what’s often assumed is that these were just like house churches that just did whatever they wanted and that’s actually not true we know for sure. Those 4 things, they are devoted to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and the prayers. And that’s a general explanation, but we can fill in some of the gaps with what is written by early church fathers like Justin Martyr or in helpful early church documents like the Didache, which was written in the 1st century. So generally speaking, you had the same structure referred to throughout these early church documents, you had the Eucharist, which is what we call communion and Protestant tradition. You have the Synaxis. So this is kind of like an order of service like you would do a worship service or the sermon and based on synagogue structure, and then you had the agape meal or the love feast, which is different from the Eucharist additional to it and was more of that small group house church model. So we’re gonna look at all 3 of these.

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Let’s start again with the Justin Marder quote. This is again from his first apology that kind of gives us a general idea of what was going on in these services. Quote, on Sunday, we have a common assembly of all our members. This is like a liturgy. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as there is time. So that’s reading the Bible. When the reader has finished, the president, this would be your bishop or your priest, of the assembly speaks to us. So that would be a sermon or a homily. He urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings, then we all stand up together and pray. On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president, bishop, offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give a sent by saying amen. The Eucharist is distributed to everyone present and the deacons take it to those who are absent, end quote.

So you have this loose structure that if you were listening as I was reading, probably sounded a little familiar. You probably do a lot of these in your church service regardless of what denomination you’re in. You probably read the Bible. You probably hear a sermon. You probably stand to pray together. You probably do communion or take the Eucharist. So you probably say amen. You know, there’s another example.

This is 2000 years ago, and it’s so similar to what we are doing today across almost all Christian traditions. And that is something so beautiful. Now, of course, some would follow it more strictly and some would follow it more loosely, but there’s definitely still that root to that liturgical practice in the early church. 

So let’s take a look at the Synaxis or the order of service. Again, this is loosely taken from the synagogue structure and then of course it would change a lot over the next centuries, things being added or taken away. But even by the 200’s and the 300’s, when I was studying for our Easter episode that I did a while back, it was very clear that there were strong connections between the Easter celebrations, the observed Christ at the center of the festival and the Passover celebrations. So this is again outlined by Tim Trautman. I thought it was very helpful in describing the synaxis.

So it starts with the greeting and this would be the Lord be with you or peace be unto you, followed by lections and psalmody. So the Jews would be reading this in order of descending importance. So you would start with the Pentateuch or the law that is of utmost importance, and then they would kinda go to the prophets in the writings. Early Christians kept that order of the synagogue, but they added the epistles and the writings of the Christians to the end. So they began to start by reading the writings of the apostles and so it turned into instead of descending importance, it turned to ascending importance, and they were starting with the writings of the apostles and and working backwards. So they would read Old Testament reading, chant a Psalm, New Testament reading. Sometimes they would even read non-canonical books like letters from later early church fathers like first Clement. Another Psalm, gospel reading the homily so the bishop would teach this while seated and then a dismissal of the catechumens by a deacon, those who are interested in becoming Christians but haven’t been baptized, the prayers of the faithful, people praying together, and then the dismissal of the faithful. So by the faithful, they mean those who are baptized Christians. So this is the general order of this service that we know based on the documents that we have. 

Now let’s look at the Eucharist. So the Eucharist now is celebrated within that service, at least for us, this is a basic structure of a Eucharistic service. Now something that was noted in my research is that this was originally celebrated possibly once a year as Passover as a Christian Jewish Passover but very quickly, it became to be something that was celebrated every week in remembrance of Christ. So it was like a mini Passover to Remember Christ’s sacrifice is the ultimate and perfect sinless lamb and how God’s wrath passed over us because we are in Christ.

So in a Eucharistic celebration, you have the greeting in response, a kiss of peace. Probably have heard about this before. You would have an offertory, so they would bring their bread and wine to a deacon who would set them on the altar. The Eucharistic prayer, this would have been simply something continuing forward from the synagogue, so a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving prayer with some messianic meaning. So if you’re looking at an example of the Eucharistic prayers around Passover among Christians, there’s a lot of similarity between Passover services and Easter services because they were taking a lot of their tradition from the Jewish synagogue. Then communion and dismissal. So they would receive the communion, receive Eucharist while standing, and then dismissal. 

I wanted to read to you a text I have on the Eucharist from a book called The Apostolic Fathers translated by Michael w Holmes. This is a portion from the Didache section 9 and 10. Quote, now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks as follows. 1st, concerning the cup, we give you thanks, our father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant. To you be the glory forever. And concerning the broken bread, we give you thanks, our father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant. To you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who’ve been baptized into the name of the Lord. For the Lord has also spoken concerning this, do not give what is holy to dogs, but permit to prophets to give thanks however they wish. End quote.

So the Eucharist is only for Christians because it’s participation in the body and blood of Christ it’s however you view that symbolic or as you know consubstantiation transubstantiation where you know Christ’s body and blood are physically present whichever way you view it we have an episode about that by the way if you want to go back and listen to it. It is not for unbelievers to participate in something they do not believe in because communion is literally communion. It’s spiritual communion with God in every single interpretation of the Eucharist. It is communion with God. It is a sacred act. 

And the sad thing to me about Protestant churches today and where we perhaps have departed from what the early church was doing Is there’s a severe lack of reverence for communion? I don’t know if this is because we have these little plastic cups that have these little tiny squares of bread in them and it just doesn’t feel sacred. I think that might be a part of it, but I think it’s also just how we talk about it, how we treat it. It’s just, it’s become a very casual thing, Which is interesting because in Corinthians, the Apostle Paul actually challenged them over their behavior around the Eucharist.

And I think it’s in 1 Corinthians 11 where he talks about hey you guys you’re they were getting drunk they were drinking too much wine which part of the grape juice now at most Protestant churches. So that’s not the problem. But there is this lack of reverence or this casual attitude towards it, which would underlie the Corinthians attitude, too. And I’m not sure that’s exactly what we should be going for when it comes to the Eucharist and communion. 

So let’s look at the agape meal or love feast. So this is mentioned in Jude verse 12. It’s Jude 112. And in Acts 244 to 45, it describes how ancient Christians who had an excess would give generously to support fellow believers who had a need. So this is also mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Deacons, the Greek word for servants, and the deaconesses, so there were female deaconesses who are servants of the church, were appointed to help facilitate the meal and make sure that food was distributed to other people. 

So these meals were a way of gathering together for fellowship, but they’re also a way of blessing people who maybe didn’t have enough. So the wealthy could donate money, donate food to provide for the people who didn’t have enough, and they could come to these agape meals and they could be fed. So basic structure of an agape meal, you’d have an introductory prayer, the pastor or leader would bless the food, then you would have a meal. 

So Tim Troutman notes that in the west, it seems that the breaking of the bread was part of the meal. So in the east, it followed the meal. In the west, each person blessed their own cup which would have been consistent with the Jewish tradition and this would not be the case in the East so after the meal that they eat together they wash their hands they light a lamp it’s brought in by the deacon and blessed by the bishop. And then they sing psalms and hymns and bishop blesses the cup. And so this is a different cup. It’s not a cup of blessing like for the Eucharist. Okay? There’s a difference. And then the bishop gives thanks for the bread and distributes it. It was really confusing when I was studying this I was like wait a minute aren’t these the same things? Are they doing Eucharist at the agape meal? And according to the research I found they’re different things. In the Didache, the agape meal is distinct from the Eucharist. There are 2 different instructions, but 1 is identified from the other by the placement of the cup.

In the agape meal, the cup was given before the bread. And during the Eucharist, the bread is given before the cup. Have you ever noticed that in your own communion rituals? I had never noticed it till I studied for this episode that says this is the bread, this is his body broken for you and then the cup. So I find that fascinating. One of the things that we do in our small group which is kind of like a mini church, I’d call it an Acts 2 church, I guess. We all attend the same fellowship, Big C Church. So we all attend a local church in our city. We go every Sunday and we see each other there.

But then we also meet every week once a week in the evening and we make a meal we pray together we break bread and we take the cup so we celebrate communion together and then we pray, sing, and study the word together. And we do this with all of our kids. We have 14 kids, I think yes 14 kids under the age of 13 who are with us during this communal time together. And so when I was reading through for this episode and studying it out, I was really encouraged because we’ve done our best for the last two and a half years to follow this structure loosely not legalistically and I’ve been really encouraged to see that yeah we are we’re really close to what was being talked about here but at the same time we’re still connected to our larger church body where there is the apostolic teaching the leadership the structure of elders the kind of accountability and attachment that we need so that our smaller group our smaller little c church is able to operate in accountability and under the covering of that larger church. 

So by the end of 1st century, the standard Christian liturgical observations would be as follows. On Saturday, you would attend the Synaxis. So when he’s saying Saturday, this is probably not in the middle of the day, probably later at night. On Sunday morning, once again, probably very early, you would attend the Eucharist before dawn. Then if you’re a gentile, you’re going to work or a Jew if it’s a Sunday you would go to work on that day and in the evening you would then go to an agape meal in the house of the bishop or a deacon or someone who’s leading in the area in the church so as we conclude this episode if we look back over the developments, the changes, how the early church was doing church, we can see the roots of what we’re doing today. 

Yes, it probably looks different. It’s a different era, a different culture, a different age, a different structure. There’s so much that’s different now but it’s still similar in so many ways and if you’re thinking about finding a church or looking for a church, look for these things is the word of God being taught. Notice that they were often teaching from both parts of the Bible. They’re teaching old and new testament. They saw that is essential for understanding the gospel because the gospel is rooted in the Old Testament. So if your church is never teaching the Old Testament or never teaching the New I would say that’s probably an issue we want to make sure we’re teaching all of scripture all of the apostles teaching on the old testament which is what they would have had at the time there’s a liturgical precedent here in the early church and that precedent continues through the middle ages. It continues through the revivals and awakenings around the globe to today to where we’re still following some kind of liturgy, even if it looks less liturgical to us in Protestant traditions or in less high church settings.

What I found really interesting as we’re concluding was this quote by Tim Staples about Jesus. He said, Jesus is actually following very much along the prayers of the synagogue, the liturgy of the synagogue when he institutes the Eucharist, the prayers of blessing and such. So he’s following a liturgical sort of precedent but he makes radical changes. He says this is my body. No longer is the prayer over a lamb, instead it’s this is my body and the point is it’s in the context of the Passover. He’s instituting the new Passover and it’s a new liturgy. I thought that was beautiful because instead of the blessing that he gave at the 1st Eucharist the 1st communion being over a lamb it was over himself saying this is my body broken for you not this lamb is given for you but this lamb is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And that’s what we do every time we gather together and we listen to the sermon and we are worshiping and singing hymns and Psalms and we’re listening to to prayers and praying together. And then when we observe communion, that’s what’s happening. This is my body. This is the lamb that is laid down for you. 

Hopefully, this gave you a deeper appreciation for where your church service came from, what it looked like in the early church, and made you even more curious about the church history that laid the groundwork for today. 

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world, find out about Verity, and about Every Woman a Theologian as a ministry in a shop. We appreciate you, and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s word and the heart of Jesus Christ.


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