Church History, Hymnology, Pastoral Theology

Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 2

In the previous post, I introduced the idea that the worship in the early church—though different from today’s forms, methods, and procedures—remains the same in its essential activities. This is true in at least three major areas: the day of worship, the place of worship, and the elements of worship. Previously, I introduced the day of worship and the place of worship. You can find that here. In this post, I will talk about two of seven elements of worship.

The Catacombs courtesy of Markéta Machová (www.pixabay.com)

Elements of Worship

The very first gathering of the Christian church for worship is recorded in the first church history document, the Books of Acts. The corporate worship gathering, adapted from the worship in the synagogue, involved teaching, fellowship, the Lord’s supper, and prayer. In the same passage, baptism and collection are also included. In other passages in the Christian Bible, there is evidence for the public reading of Scripture and singing.[1] Thus, the standard order of worship in the Christian church involved prayers, singing, reading of Scripture, teaching and preaching, the collection for the saints, and the ordinances of baptism and Lord’s Supper.

These standard elements of worship were followed even through the second century. Four key historical documents outside the New Testament provide insight on how the second century church practiced these elements of worship: the Diadache, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Tertullian’s Apology, and a letter of Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.

Prayer

In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, the Apostle Paul encourages prayer in the corporate gathering of the church. In the first church gathering, prayer was one of the key activities of corporate worship (cf. Acts 2:42). In the second century, the church continued to be devoted to prayer.

According to Justin Martyr, the early church offered “hearty prayers” for themselves, for the newly baptized Christians, and for others in every place. After praying, they saluted one another with a holy kiss.[2] The holy kiss or “kiss of peace” (as some would call it) expressed Christian brotherhood. It was given by men to men and by women to women.[3]

In the Didache, prayer is combined with fasting. The Didache strongly warns about praying and fasting like the hypocrites. Interestingly, it instructs its readers not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because those are the days that hypocrites fast; rather, they are instructed to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays instead. Concerning prayers, the writer of the Didache encourages its readers to pray something similar to the Lord’s prayer three times a day.[4] Thanksgiving prayers are also part of worship during and after the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper).[5] The Didache mentions a prayer of confession as part of corporate worship:

On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with a companion join you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled.[6]

Didache

Clement provides a typical prayer in the early church in his letter to the Corinthians.[7] This prayer is long and filled with Old Testament quotations. It includes an elaborate adoration, intercession for those in need, confession of sin, assurance of pardon, and a prayer for unity. Then it ends with a doxology. Schaff comments that

“Very touching is the prayer for rulers then so hostile to the Christians, that God may grant them health, peace, concord, and stability.” [8]

Concerning the posture in prayer, Christians typically stood with outstretched arms, lifting them up to heaven. This posture is typically reflected in early Christian art.

Singing

The New Testament speaks of singing in the church (Acts 16:25;
1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:18, and Colossians 3:16). This was a common practice in the early church, adapted from the worship in the synagogue.

Singing is an important part of congregational worship because God has given His people many reasons to sing His praise. Justin Martyr captured this idea when he was correcting the accusation that Christians were atheists:

With gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.[9]

Justin Martyr

Many songs in the early church are also Christological in focus. In his letter to Emperor Trajan, Governor Pliny, a persecutor of Christians, observes that Christians sing responsively a song to Christ as singing to God.[10] While many of the songs in the early church are now lost, Eusebius testifies that there were a great number of original composition hymns in the early church. In his massive work, Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius was arguing for Christ’s deity against the heresy of Artemon when he mentions the number of Christological psalms and hymns. Eusebius asks this rhetorical question:

For who does not know the books of Irenaeus, Melito, and the others who proclaim Christ as God and man or all the earliest psalms and hymns that sing of Christ as the Word of God and regard him as God?[11]

Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 5.28.5

Schaff gives one example of an original hymn composition written by Clement of Alexandria. Here is an excerpt from a translation of Clement’s poem:

O King of saints, / All-subduing Word / Of the most high Father, / Prince of wisdom, / Support of sorrows, / That rejoices in the ages, / Jesus, Saviour / Of the human race, / Shepherd, Husbandman, / Helm, Bridle, / Heavenly Wing, / Of the all holy flock, / Fisher of men / Who are saved, / Catching the chaste fishes / With sweet life / From the hateful wave

/ Of a sea of vices.[12]

While many hymns were sung to teach theology, several hymns were also composed by false teachers to disseminate their erroneous doctrines. One example is the Thalia of Arius composed later in the fourth century.[13]

Not only did the early church sing hymns that were originally composed, but they also sang hymns that were directly from Scripture. Tertullian testifies to the variety of songs sang in the early church,

“After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the [H]oly Scriptures or one of his own composing.” [14]

Tertullian

Other hymns in the early church were inspired songs found in Scripture, particularly pertaining to the birth of Christ. These hymns include Mary’s Magnificat, the Benedictus of Zacharias, the Gloria in Excelsis of the angels, and the Song of Simeon (also known as Nunc Dimittis). Some passages in Scripture are probably early Christian hymns, including the Christological hymns in Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15:20. The hymn on love in 1 Corinthians 13 and the doxology of Romans 11:33-35 are also probably hymns sang by the early church. Thus, the songs in the early church were either based on Scripture itself or hymns originally composed that taught profound theological truths.[15]

In our next post, I will introduce three other elements of worship: public reading of Scripture, preaching/teaching, and giving. Stay tuned!


[1] See 1 Timothy 4:13 and Colossians 3:16, respectively.

[2] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 65 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:185.

[3] Oscar Hardman, A History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1937), 32.

[4] “The Didache,” ch. 8 in The Apostolic Fathers in English, trans. Michael W. Holmes, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 167.

[5] Concerning the Eucharist, see discussion on this paper below on p. 11.

[6] “The Didache,” ch. 14 in Holmes, 170.

[7] Clement, “First Clement,” chs. 59-61 in The Apostolic Fathers in English, trans. Michael W. Holmes, 69–71.

[8] Schaff, 2:226.

[9] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 13, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:166.

[10] Schaff, 2:222. Emphasis mine.

[11] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, ch. 28:5. This translation is from Eusebius and Paul L. Maier, Eusebiusthe Church History: A New Translation with Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 201.

[12] For the complete poem and for other Christian hymns during the second century, see Schaff, 2:230.

[13] See Athanasius, “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” 1.2.5 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Reprint ed., vol. 4 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994),308-309.

[14] Tertullian, “Apology,” ch. 39 in Ante-Nicene Fathers,3:47.

[15] In addition to singing, the early church also practiced pledging of oaths. In Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan, he observes that after singing, Christians “pledged themselves by an oath not to do any evil work, to commit no theft, robbery, nor adultery, not to break their word, nor sacrifice property intrusted (sic) to them” (Schaff, 2:222).


2 thoughts on “Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 2”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.