Church History

Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 1

While Christian worship has developed over time in some ways, the fundamental elements of worship continue to be practiced today in many faithful Christian churches. This is clearly demonstrated in the worship of the early church, particularly in the early centuries. The essence of Christian worship was never its form, methods, and procedures; rather, it is an intimate worship to God from the heart based upon the truth of God’s Word. Jesus said that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

The term “liturgy” is commonly used in high church worship. It has the connotation of a pre-planned, formalistic, and ritualistic worship. The term, however, can have a broader idea. It simply pertains to the church’s “order of worship” or the practices observed in the corporate worship of the church. This post demonstrates that although Christian liturgy in the early church may differ from today’s worship in its form, methods, and procedures, the essential activities of worship remain constant.

This is true in three major areas: the day of worship, the place of worship, and the elements of worship.

The Day of Worship

From the very beginning of Christian church, the gathering for worship took place on the first day of the week, which became known as the “Lord’s Day.”[1] Justin Martyr, one of the ante-Nicene church fathers, testifies to this,

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place.”

Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:186.

After describing the events that take place on Sunday, he then explains why the early church gathers on Sundays:

But on Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.

Ibid.

The first day of the week in the first three centuries was a regular day of work. It was not until the time of Emperor Constantine when the first day of the week, or the Lord’s Day, became a day off work.[2] The explanation of how the worship of the first Christians shifted from Sabbath to the Lord’s Day is beyond the scope of this paper.[3]


The Place of Worship

The early church did not gather in church buildings as most churches do today. In the New Testament times, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem still gathered in the temple; others worshiped in the synagogue. But they all gathered in homes to celebrate the Eucharist. Worship in homes was held in an oblong dining hall, known as the triclinium.

Church historian Philip Schaff quotes Justin Marty’s defense of the Christian’s place of worship before a Roman perfect:

The Christians assemble wherever it is convenient, because their God is not, like the gods of the heathen, enclosed in space, but is invisibly present everywhere.”

Philip Schaff, 2:199

Origen, another church father, asserts something similar when he said,

The humanity of Christ is the highest temple and the most beautiful image of God, and true Christians are living statues of the Holy Spirit, with which no Jupiter of Phidias can compare.

Ibid.

Besides private homes, Christians also gathered in desert places and at the graves of martyrs. It was not until late second century that permanent places of worship became common, evidenced by the several buildings devoted for church gathering that were destroyed during the Diocletian persecution. Church historian, James White observes:

The earliest surviving house church dates from 232-256 in Dura-Europos, a frontier garrison town on the Euphrates. In it, an ordinary house has been adapted by throwing together two rooms and raising a small platform at one end, presumably for the altar-table. Another room has a baptistery built so children could be immersed or adults washed by pouring. The baptistery room is decorated with biblical murals such as the women at the empty tomb.

James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship. (Nashville: Abdingdon, 1993), 72

Then a total reversal took place during the time of Emperor Constantine. Not only were buildings consecrated for the use of corporate worship, but these church buildings became elaborate in their architecture, and are known as the basilica.

Next post: The Order of Worship (or the Elements of Worship) in the early church that continues to be practiced in many Christian churches today.


[1] See Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; and Revelation 1:10.[

[2] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 5th ed., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 222.[

[3] For a discussion on the relationship between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian’s “Lord’s Day” see D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) and Willy Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968).

3 thoughts on “Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 1”

  1. Not too long ago I visited home in the U.S. after having spent quite some time worshipping in house-church settings, and it felt peculiar. I have grown accustomed to the closeness of the house-church setting, though, as you say, the form is not the substance of Christian worship. But I enjoy how the house-church setting brings out family-like fellowship.

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