Finding Church (Conclusions): Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It is generally agreed that the Revelation of St. John was most likely written in the last decade of the first century. It seems to be addressed in the first instance to Christian communities that had arisen along the eastern Mediterranean littoral such as Ephesus, Sardis and the rest. By the time of this last decade of the century, the majority of these believers would have been gentile converts, with little knowledge of Second Temple Judaism. Their approach to the Old Testament would have been through the Greek Septuagint (LXX), when and if that text was available to them. Now, while much of the language and imagery may have their origin in the Jewish prophetic tradition and/or contemporary apocalyptic literature (such as we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls) I would contend that certain elements speak to a Church life that would have been known to the original recipients. When the writer refers to “white raiment” the reader, a convert to Christianity, could immediately reference the white garment bestowed at baptism. When he writes describing lamp stands, we remember that the earliest Christian prayer outside of the Bible is the lamp lighting hymn, “Phos hilaron” and the flame presented at baptism. When he says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy…” we are reminded of the reading of lessons in the Didache and Justin Martyr. Is it even possible that his reference to incense “which is the prayers of the saints” found resonance with his readers, echoing Psalm 141, “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight…”
All this is to say that the Church of the post-apostolic era already enjoyed and practiced a rich life of worship that has little, if any, resemblance to the meeting house or Bible study group of the modern era. Indeed, as we can see from Dura-Europos, the brick or mortar expression of the Church’s life emphasized baptism, the Eucharist and catechesis. We don’t have to wonder or guess at what was central or vital to their faith; we can actually see it. Not only can we see it in the archaeological remains, we also have contemporary descriptions given to us in the Didache, Ignatius, Hippolytus, and Justin Martyr, just to name a few, not to mention what we find in the Pauline corpus or, indeed, the Revelation. So, let’s try to put it all together.
Firstly, these communities of faith tended to be small, seldom exceeding 80-100 congregants. In larger cities, as Corinth or Rome, they subdivided as they grew. Each gathering had leadership in the form of the presbyter/priest who presided at the Eucharist, as well as deacons who served the needs of the congregation. In cities that contained several gatherings there was the oversight of a bishop (episkopos) who stood as a sign of unity.
From these early writings and the archaeology, we know that these communities were “Gospel oriented”, that is, the Gospels and, in many cases, compendiums of the sayings of Jesus, provided the basis for Christian life and conduct. If they were fortunate enough to have access to the Septuagint Old Testament, they tended to look for images or prophecies of Christ within its pages.
Baptism, conferred in the Name of the Triune God was central and non-negotiable in terms of Christian identity. Let me emphasize this… it was a big deal! Adult converts were prepared for baptism by a lengthy period of teaching (catechesis). Until they were baptized, they were not considered a full member of the Church. Until they were baptized, they could not participate in the Eucharist. Baptism involved physical reminders of a new life. There was a procession to the place of baptism. One was anointed with oil, dressed in a white garment and given a lighted lamp or candle. It was one’s entry into the full life of the Church… and we have a very good picture of what that life entailed.
Central to that life was the Eucharist that took place on “the Lord’s Day”. We even know the main elements of the celebrating of the Eucharist, from the lessons, the sermon, the prayers, the kiss of peace, the presentation of the elements, the Eucharistic Prayer, and the communion itself. All who were baptized participated. If for any reason one was unable to attend, owing to illness, infirmity, or even being in prison, a deacon would bring the consecrated bread and wine to you. As I’ve said elsewhere, to be “Church” was to be a participant in the Eucharist and to be a participant in the Eucharist was to be “Church”.
“Church”, however, did not end with baptism or the Eucharist. Individually, believers both fasted (often twice in the week) and said prayers three times a day, even if it was just the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. Additionally, one might offer oneself to the Church, perhaps as a deacon or even in the offering of talent, such as those who painted the frescoes at Dura-Europos. Corporately, as a community of faith, the Church expressed itself in caring for those who, for whatever reason, were in need. This included not only those within the Church, but those outside of it as well… the widows and orphans, the sick and dying, the prisoners, the immigrants and the homeless. This “work of mercy” was not considered an “added extra”. Rather, it was central to the identity of the Church as they understood it.
When I began this series, I made the following statement about “Finding Church” in the apostolic and post-apostolic age, “This is not ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. It is known and it is documented.” I very much stand by that statement. “Finding Church” in 2020, however, may be more difficult, but at least we might have a better idea of what we’re looking for and a better chance to recognize it when we see it.