Ecclesial Worship in the First Century
I wonder if our Sunday meeting attempts to capture the fervor of those of the early church. When we have a rigid structure, I somehow doubt we do...
There was no equivalent to our Ecclesial Guide in the first century. Nor is there a “Mode of Conducting Meetings” in the Bible. There were no ecclesial halls, just gatherings in various private homes, which would collectively be addressed as, for example, “all in Rome.”
Immediately after Pentecost, the early Christians met daily.
Clearly, they had their main meal together every day and appeared to have at least broken bread and offered prayers in memory of the broken body of their Lord. Moreover, we must recollect that these Jews in Jerusalem had previously been supported by the Jews elsewhere in Israel. Because they became Christians, they now had no means of employment, hence the later “Jerusalem Poor Fund.”
Decades later, by the time of Paul, the Gentiles were probably in the majority, and it was also impractical to eat their meal together every day. So, a different form of worship appears to have evolved. From all evidence, it was based in private homes (house churches).
There was a Christian body in a city, but it was comprised of individual house churches, and it was at these that meetings took place.
So, what form did these meetings take? It is clear they took place on a Sunday, the first day of the week, but when? We must remember that for Jews, their day begins with sunset on Saturday, so I would argue the first day of the week begins on Saturday night and that the meeting probably started around that time. Further, we know from 1 Corinthians 11 that such meetings also involved a meal.
But there are clues that early Christian meetings involved much more than just the memorial feast. In 1 Corinthians 11, the issue was the conduct of the members at the meal, but in 1 Corinthians 14, the problem presented is of speaking with tongues. We read, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor 14:26 ESV).
Of course, this list is not an order of service, nor is it inclusive. It mentions neither prayer nor prophecy, the latter of which appears to be what we would term an exhortation. We are given other somewhat cryptic references to this type of meeting in the New Testament, such as Colossians 3:16, and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-20, but they add no real details.
So, in 1 Corinthians 14, we have what we would probably describe as a combined form of lecture and devotion. Whether non-Christians were present is uncertain, but I would consider it likely. So, the question is, was this a separate meeting?
By the 2nd century, it seems that the worship services were combined and lasted about 3 hours, as outlined below. In the first century, there was no “day of rest” except the Sabbath in Israel. It, therefore, seems likely the meetings were held in the evening; after all, it is called a supper.
The contents and order of the meetings appear in the New Testament to have been highly variable. However, they were infused throughout by an awareness of the transforming power of the gospel, aided as it was by the words of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Second-Century Order of Service
We do have some indication of the order of service in the 2nd century. The following seems to have been the typical order: 2
- Opening greeting by bishop and response by the congregation. Often, the bishop would say “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation would respond, “And with your spirit.”
- Old Testament Scripture reading, usually read or chanted by a deacon.
- Psalm or hymn chanted or sung.
- New Testament Scripture reading. This first New Testament reading was from any New Testament book outside the gospels.
- Psalm or hymn.
- New Testament Scripture reading (II). From one of the four gospels.
- Sermon. Delivered by the bishop while seated.
- Dismissal of all but baptized believers.
Part 2: The Eucharist
- Congregational prayers.
- The Lord’s Supper. Here’s the order:
- The bishop offered a greeting;
- The congregation responded;
- There was a “kiss of peace” (men to men, women to women);
- Church members brought their own small loaf of bread and flask of wine from home; the deacons took these and spread them out on the Lord’s table, emptying the flasks of wine into one large silver cup;
- The bishop and the congregation engaged in a liturgical “dialogue” with the congregation;
- The bishop led the congregation in prayer;
- The bishop and the deacons broke the bread and distributed the cup to the congregation;
- Something would be said to each member as he or she received the elements (e.g., “The bread of heaven in Christ Jesus,” with the response of “Amen.”) Unconsumed bread and wine would be taken home by church members to use for celebrating communion at home during the weekdays.
Part 3: Benediction
Possible Order of Service
We can use order of Service in the 2nd century to add to the information given in the Letters of Paul. In the beginning, these services would have been in the evening of the Sabbath, when the audience (including many slaves) might have had free time. Only later would meetings take place on what we would term as Sunday.
We can tentatively describe what a Christian service might have looked like in the second half of the first century. It was probably divided into two segments, with a pause to rearrange the room between them.
The first period was probably open to potential as well as actual members, but there would have been probably less than 30 present, as most of the services were in private homes, putting a limit on the numbers present.
- Open with Prayer.
- Hymns (probably the Psalms).
- Some form of what we would term a lecture, perhaps assigned ahead of time.
- Possibly a reading from one of the Letters of the Apostles or some well-known words of Jesus.
- An open period for any brother to say whatever he felt moved to utter.
- In rare cases very early, a period of speaking with tongues (but this seems to have died out).
- Close with prayer.
After the close of the first session, it is likely that only baptized members would be present for the second session.
Second Session—Memorial Feast
It seems certain that the early church combined the memorial service with a communal meal. So, the service would be:
- Presider opened with prayer, breaking a physical loaf of leavened bread in memory of Jesus, perhaps prefaced by a few appropriate words.
- For the meal, it seems the food was brought by each individual or family.
After the meal: “The Cup after Supper,” in the words of 1 Corinthians 11:25 (ESV), along with some remarks and prayer, offering thanks for the shed blood of the Lord.
The Cup after Supper
For many years, I believed that a common cup, passed from hand to hand, was closest to the example of Jesus, who, as we read in Luke 22:17 (ESV), “took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves.’” We note that Paul tells us, as informed by Jesus, that it was “The cup after supper.” Now, in Paul’s day, it was a communal meal, and almost certainly, each participant had their own cup. So, they either:
- Drank from the special large communal cup, as was the 2nd Century custom in large gatherings.
- Or each person’s cup had been refilled, and they each simultaneously drank from their own cup in a symbolic acknowledgment of the new covenant.
The above is only a brief summary of what are, in fact, many alternatives. I suspect the first was almost universal in churches after the first century until the 20th century.
Lessons For Us
as the churches grew, the meal as part of the Memorial disappeared
Our somewhat rigid form of service has evolved. John Thomas placed the exhortation after the emblems, but he had an address before as well. By 1886, Robert Roberts had the exhortation (less than 30 minutes) before the emblems but another exhortation of 15 minutes after. However, these are minor details. The important item to note is that as the churches grew, the meal as part of the Memorial disappeared.
So, what can we learn from this little study?
- Although Christadelphians from their origin have struggled with abandoning the common cup, I have come to the opinion that the very early church possibly used individual cups, which they filled or brought to the service.
- We sometimes struggle to differentiate between the purpose of the Bread and the Wine. As a community, the first Christians probably ate the bread from one loaf, showing their united memory of the Lord, and possibly also the wine in separate cups, showing their individual devotion.
- I once had a meal which combined the food with a Memorial Service. The bread was broken before, the wine taken after (and not just a sip). We each drank our cup of wine simultaneously in memory of the New Covenant. I felt it somehow sanctified the whole time, as I have never experienced before or since. I wonder if I will ever do this again!
I wonder if our Sunday meeting attempts to capture the fervor of those of the early church. When we have a rigid structure, I somehow doubt we do. At least some meetings have a period for special prayers at the end of the service.
After two thousand years, capturing the spirit of the first century church is difficult, but perhaps we might try a little harder sometimes.
Pittsburgh Ecclesia, PA
1 There is no mention of speaking with tongues outside of Acts and 1 Corinthians, so the early Christians seem to have heard the warnings of Paul.
2 From 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power by N.R. Needham, Part 1.