Finding Church (Part 2):Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
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 first article of this series, 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.
(To be continued…)