Finding Church: Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
I’ve spent a good bit of my adult life studying and thinking about the early Church. While much of my work has focused on the fourth century of the Christian era, I’ve also been intrigued by the generation of believers that immediately followed the time of the apostles. This is especially true as I have grown older. I think that this is owing to the fact that I have been able to access and have personal knowledge about much that took place in what must seem to others to be a very distant past. Let me explain.
I am writing this in the year 2022. I am 68 years of age. Now, if I were to tell you that I had heard personal stories and anecdotes from the 1930s about Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) you might have to stop and think for a moment. Yet, this is absolutely true. One of my mentors, Bishop Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) knew Archbishop Temple and, in fact, had been selected by Temple to engage in some particular theological work. So, in 2020, I can speak with some “insider knowledge” about certain theological discussions that took place almost a century before. This isn’t some mystical clairvoyance. It is simply that I “knew the man who knew the man”.
My father, who was from the South, knew men who were veterans of the Civil War. He also knew men who had been born into slavery. As I was growing up, he told me their stories. In the year 2022, I could easily write down their names, their stories and where they lived with a host of details from over 150 years past.
Now, let’s turn to the shape and style of the early Church. The Didache was most likely written at the very end of the first century or the beginning of the second century. While I believe it was most likely written between 90-100 of the Christian era, let’s be very cautious and conservative and say it was written in the year 120. The time between Christ’s earthly ministry and the writing of the Didache is the same as the time between me writing this article and the theological discussions that took place between Temple and Ramsey in the 1930s. Like me, the writer of the Didache “knew the man who knew the man”. Indeed, depending on his age, the writer of the Didache may well have known or heard one or more of the apostles. This may also have been the case with the other Apostolic Fathers who wrote during this time period.
What they have to say about the Church, about their practices and their mode of worship, are, therefore, not flights of imagination or something invented on the spot. Moreover, they write about practices that seem to have been common knowledge among those who identified as Christians. Additionally, there is an amazing consistency spanning the first two centuries of the Church. Indeed, in the archeological work at Dura-Europos on the earliest known Christian church (a house converted for worship between 233 and 256) the specific architectural elements signifying a place of Christian worship line up withe the elements of worship we find in the Didache. The discovery in that place of parchment fragments with Eucharistic prayers from the Didache (written in Hebrew) only serves to highlight a consistent usage over the course of at least one and a half centuries.
This is not “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. It is known and it is documented.
For instance, in the Didache there are sections on:
Baptism, conferred in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays
Daily Prayer, including saying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day
Worship on “the Lord’s Day” and sharing in the Eucharist each Sunday
Now, much more can be said about the Didache, but what I want to point out in this small essay is that we know what “church” looked like for these early Christians. Not only do we know what it looked like, we also have a compelling argument as to how they learned what church looked like, and that was from the first followers of Christ who passed along what they had known, seen and what they themselves had practiced.
There are common misperceptions about the worship and practices of the early Church. These misperceptions, however, often stand alongside fallacies concerning the immediate post-apostolic era and the formation of the New Testament. These fallacies have an anachronistic quality. Owing simply to the current physical arrangement of the New Testament, there is a tendency to believe that we are reading the canon chronologically, that is, the Gospels came first with the story of the life of Christ, then we proceed to the story of the Church in the book of Acts. Moving on to the Epistles, Paul and the other writers develop a theology building on the Gospels and, finally, the Book of Revelation is the prophetic word for the future. So, there we have it, from the angel’s message to Mary straight through to the Second Coming, all laid out chronologically and conveniently divided into chapters and verses for easy reference. Moreover, we imagine that the first three or four generations of Christians had this New Testament in hand (likely leather bound and purchased at the Lifeway store in Antioch or Damascus) as they formed small Bible Study groups in house churches before buying some property by the main road in order to build an attractive sanctuary for worship and outreach.
In this imagining of the early Church, all that is lacking is the praise band and a fog machine.
It is perhaps human nature to invent a past which never was, especially if we can shape that past to our own experiences and perceptions. Such a reimagined past, however, does not correspond to what we know from the evidence.
In the opening of this essay, I tried to point out the close proximity of those believers described in the Didache to the first Apostles. Additionally, we could see that the Didache actually laid out the parameters of Christian worship. As we shall see presently, those parameters where shared by a large number of writers from Ignatius of Antioch (died 108) to Justin Martyr (155) to Hippolytus of Rome (c.170 – 235). First, however, I think we need to address the nature of the Church and the way in which worship and church order developed.
The first and most obvious point is that the Church, that is, the Christian community of faith existed for generations before there was an agreed upon and accepted New Testament canon. Moreover, the earliest New Testament writings were likely the letters of Paul which were addressed to churches which already existed and that already were practicing the very same elements of Christian worship which we see continued in the succeeding generations. It is indeed likely that the first recorded words of Jesus are to be found not in a Gospel, but in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you…’” Please note, Paul is writing to them and reminding them of something that they already know and, indeed, have been practicing.
So, instead of thinking of the New Testament as an “external” document that miraculously appears whole and complete, consider it in a different light. Consider the epistles as dealing with individual churches with unique concerns. See the Gospels as coming later in which the apostolic writers present the person of Christ as he is known by the Christian Church that has already existed for multiple decades. Finally, consider what sort of worshipping community would have understood the images and symbols of the Book of Revelation… the lamp stands, the incense, the prayers beneath the altar, the white raiment, etc. Christian worship and church order was a reality long before any Christian community possessed a complete New Testament and, owing to this, the New Testament not only instructs the Church but also reflects the Church that had come into being.
This worship and church order we see in these writings continued in the Didache at the end of the first century in Baptism, Fasting, Daily Prayer and the Eucharist on Sundays. Fifty years later, Justin Martyr describes Christian worship and, apart from added information, the pattern is the same. In fact, he begins to describe an actual order of Sunday worship that is very recognizable:
“On the day called Sunday, all those who live in the towns or in the country meet together and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…
“Then, when the reader as ended, the one presiding addresses words of instruction and exhortation to imitate these good things.”
“Then we all stand up together and offer prayers.”
Kiss of Peace
“We greet one another with a holy kiss, when we have concluded the prayers.”
Bringing of the Elements
“Bread and a cup of wine mingled with water are then brought to the one presiding.”
The Eucharistic Prayer
“The one presiding offers up prayers and thanksgivings (eucharistias)… and the people give their assent, saying the Amen.”
“And the distribution of the elements, over which thanksgiving has been uttered, is made, so that each partakes…”
As with the Didache, more could be said of Justin Martyr. Once again, however, what I want to point out is that we know what “church” looked like for these early Christians. Moreover, the shape of that worship becomes increasingly explicit not only in the literature, but also in the archeology that helps us place early Christian worship in context. Once again, this is not a mystery or a guessing game. This is something that can be known.
As we have considered “Finding Church” in the apostolic and post-apostolic era we have found emerging communities of faith that we can recognize. Even in the churches described by Justin Martyr in the year AD 155, there were doubtless those who had either heard one or the other of the apostles, or, at the very least, knew someone who had been taught by them. By this time, no doubt, copies of the Gospels and the apostolic letters were being circulated, but the oral tradition of early Christianity remained strong. There also can be little doubt that those who were participating in those services described by the writer of the Didache and Justin Martyr believed that they had apostolic sanction for their manner and mode of worship. The similarities in the manner and mode of worship across geographical substantial distances and varying cultural norms indicates that there was, in some sense, a common worship that one might encounter as a believer, whether in Antioch, or Damascus, or Rome. Again, all of this is to say that based upon the evidence, we have a pretty good idea of what the Church looked like in this early period.
Yet, there is more evidence as to the “Church beyond the Church”. That is, it is apparent from the early writings that, “Church” did not end at the church door. Justin Martyr tells us that when the Eucharist was celebrated, at it’s conclusion “those who are called ‘deacons’ are given the bread and the wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving (eucharistias) was pronounced, and they carry away a portion to those who were not present…” In other words, the Eucharist was considered central enough to the worship and devotional life of believers that the consecrated bread and wine was taken to those who, for whatever reason, could not be present owing to age, illness, infirmity or, even because they were in prison. To be “Church” was to be a participant in the Eucharist and to be a participant in the Eucharist was to be “Church”. In the apostolic and post-apostolic era, we can come to no other possible conclusion.
There was, however, even more evidence of the “Church beyond the Church” and it has to do with money. At the conclusion of the service, after the deacons had been dismissed, Justin describes what next took place. “And then those who have the means, and are so disposed, give as much as they will; and what is collected is deposited with the one who presides, who himself supports and cares for the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are prisoners, and the foreigners [read here, “immigrants”] who are sojourning among us and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
Now, there are things we know from this period and there are things that we don’t know. For instance, we know that there were those who were “clergy” in our understanding of the word. Ignatius of Antioch refers to bishops (episkopos), while elsewhere we find presbyters, elders and, by the end of the second century, priests (sacerdos). Most church historians believe that initially (as in Ignatius) there was an overseer (episkopos) appointed by the Apostles for local churches founded on their various missionary journeys. We have glimpses of this in the Pauline letters. As the churches grew and multiplied the bishops appointed presbyters to partake of their ministry of oversight and to preside at the Eucharist in yet other local assemblies. All of this takes place at a very early date and is referenced in numerous writings. Yet, we do not know how such clergy were supported. While we understand that, ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire” it seems likely that many, if not most, clergy in the early period were bi-vocational or “worker priests”. Again, however, we have no certain evidence apart from warnings in the Didache about itinerant preachers who overstay their welcome!
What we can be certain of, is that the early Church took seriously the demands of Christian charity toward the “least of these”. Presently, we will be discussing the sort of physical structures in which early Christians worshipped. For now it is perhaps enough to say that often these were buildings that early believers “re-purposed” for worship and that most often the building or home was given as a gift by a member of the local church. The money collected at the end of the Eucharist in Justin, therefore, was not for a salary or a building program. Rather it was a direct fulfillment of Matthew 25 and the other gospel imperatives. Indeed, we know that in the later letters of the emperor Julian the Apostate (fourth century) he complains at length that the Christians were known for not only taking care of their own (that is, fellow believers) but instead taking care of all who were in need, even those who were their enemies and persecutors. This sort of giving was a practical and well known hallmark of the Church for centuries. Moreover, while it was, in some sense, the responsibility of all believers, the clergy bore special responsibility for the exercise of practical care for those in need. Additionally, the specific categories of those in need remain with us today.
In seeking to find Church, I think we find it not only in its worship, structure and order. We also find it in its values.
This worship, structure and even values is reflected in the archaeological evidence. In 1920 in eastern Syria, British soldiers discovered the Roman garrison town of Dura-Europos which had been destroyed after a siege by the Persians in AD 256. Archaeological excavations continued over the course of the next two decades with the discovery of numerous buildings, including one of the oldest Jewish synagogues yet found and, in 1932, the remains of perhaps the earliest Christian church yet discovered.
The church at Dura-Europos is often referred to as a “house church” but this designation can be misleading. More properly, it is a house that has been repurposed as a church. Let me explain. During the apostolic age, we read of local churches meeting in the homes of individual believers. Owing to the requirement of the space needed for such assemblies, it usually fell to the more affluent members of the congregation to offer their homes for such a purpose. Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, tensions often arose between the wealthier members of the church and those who were less well off. As we move to the post-apostolic age of the Didache, Ignatius, Hippolytus and Justin Martyr we are told nothing of where they met, but, owing to the numbers that might assemble for baptisms, instruction or the Eucharist, it seems clear that some provision must have been made. The house church of Dura-Europos, renovated in about the year AD 230, that is within 80 years of the writings of Justin Martyr, gives us our first glimpse of Christians embracing the idea of sacred space. Moreover, that space informs us that their worship and church order appears to have been consistent with what was taking place a century before.
What we see in the diagram above is a typical Roman house of the period that has been renovated and repurposed. The house itself may have been purchased by the Christian community in Dura-Europos or, more likely, it was given as a gift (or a legacy in a will) by a more affluent member of the congregation. Archaeologists have determined that before its renovation, the building conformed to the normative plan of a central courtyard (1) surrounded by a series of smaller domestic rooms. In renovating the structure numerous interior dividing walls were removed. This provided an assembly room (2) in which it is estimated that 75 or 80 people could have assembled for the Eucharist, with the courtyard providing an overflow space for an equal number. A smaller room, directly off the courtyard, is thought to have provided a place for teaching and could have accommodated 20 or 25 people. Finally, there was a dedicated place for baptisms (3) with a baptismal font that appears to have been large enough for the full immersion of an adult, typical of early baptistries which have been discovered.
Baptism, teaching, Eucharist… what we find in the Didache and Justin Martyr we also find in the archaeology of Dura-Europos and this early church. In fact, as already mentioned, fragments of the Didache were found on the site. Moreover, we find the earliest examples of Christian art, for the walls are filled with frescoes. There are depictions of David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, the Good Shepherd, the Healing of the Paralytic, Christ and Peter walking on the water and a procession of women (either those at Christ’s tomb or the foolish and wise virgins). While remarkable as early Christian art, the paintings also reveal the body of knowledge that Christians had acquired by this time and the normative place of the stories from the Gospels. Elsewhere in the city a clay jar for oil was found with the inscription “Isseos the Neophyte” which is now believed to have contained the oil for his anointing at baptism, at which time he would have become a full member of the community of faith.
While unique in many ways owing to its early date, echoes of what was found at Dura-Europos have also been discovered at Megiddo, Aqaba and elsewhere. What is truly remarkable, however, is the manner in which the archaeological discoveries correspond to the literature and descriptions of the post-apostolic writers. While one might wish to argue about what the Church should be today, it is not difficult to find what the Church was in the first generations.
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 essay, 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 2023, 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.