Church History, Pastoral Theology

Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 3

This is now part 3 of 4 on a mini-series of posts introducing the worship practices of the early church. I have 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. The first two were discussed in the first post, and two elements of worship, namely prayer and singing were discussed in the second post. In this third post, I’ll add three more elements of worship: the public reading of Scripture, preaching, and giving.

Public Reading of Scripture

The Apostle Paul reminded Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). He also expected the churches to read his epistles publicly during the church gatherings (cf. 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16). The public reading of Scripture was one of the practices in the early church influenced by synagogue worship. The reading of Scripture was one of the first things done by the church when it gathered. Justin Martyr testifies to this:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.

Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 67 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:186.

Tertullian also writes a similar description:

We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful. However, it be in that respect, with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits.

Tertullian

With the NT canon yet to be recognized, the public reading also included works from non-canonical writings, such as the Epistle of Clement of Rome, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Since manuscripts were still being circulated, many church members did not have a personal copy of the Scriptures. Therefore, the public reading of Scripture was a significant part of corporate worship.

Preaching and Teaching

In the first church gathering, Luke, the author of Acts, points out that the early church devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching (Acts 2:42). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul commands the young pastor to “preach the Word” (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-4). Before sailing to Jerusalem, Paul exhorts the elders of the church in Ephesus to shepherd the church of God and to follow his example of preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27-28).

After the reading of Scripture, an exhortation or sermon followed. The sermon would generally be an exposition of the Scripture, read with pertinent applications. It was a common practice for the preacher to be preaching from his seat. Church historian James F. White says that the practice of the preacher sitting down while preaching changed when Chrysostom began to preach from a reading desk. Thus, the use of pulpits in preaching began and later developed into a significant furniture in Christian liturgy.[1]

While the task of preaching was open to every member who had the gift of exhortation, it continued to be the primary task of the church elders. Tertullian describes this work of the church elders in the early church:

In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered… The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase, but by established character.

Tertullian, “Apology,” ch. 39, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:46.

The Didache instructs its readers regarding the reception of preachers. Teachers must be welcomed, unless they go astray and teach another doctrine. Christians were instructed to welcome a preacher as they would welcome the Lord if “his teaching contributes to righteousness and knowledge of the Lord” (“The Didache,” ch. 11). The Didache also provides further instructions concerning itinerant apostles and prophets.

The extant works from later church fathers (Homilies of Chrysostom and commentaries of Origen) reveal that it was not unusual for preachers to preach through books of the Bible. Extant sermons from the church fathers in the second century and onwards are in large volumes. While many sermons tend to be allegorical (led by Origen in the second and third centuries), others follow a somewhat historical-grammatical interpretation, like Chrysostom in the fourth century. Perhaps the oldest extant sermon outside the canonical New Testament is Second Letter of Clement, an anonymous sermon that was perhaps read from manuscript or delivered extemporaneously and later transcribed by short-hand writers (cf. Philip Schaff, 2:225). This sermon, like the other homilies in the early church, calls people to repentance, exhorts Christians to live a holy life, and exalts God with a doxology. Here is how it ends:

To the only God, invisible, the Father of truth, who sent to us the Savior and Founder of immortality, through whom he also revealed to us the truth and the heavenly life, to him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

“Second Clement,” in The Apostolic Fathers in English, translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 86.

Giving

As early as Acts 2, the Christian church practiced the provision for the needs of the poor (cf. Acts 2:44-45). In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, the Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church to participate in the collection for the saints as part of their worship on the first day of every week. This collection was typically for the needs of the poor believers (cf. Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 9:7-13). Churches also provided for the needs of missionaries and pastors (Phil. 4:14-15; 1 Cor. 9:6-9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18).

The church in the second century continued the practice of giving for the needs of the poor and of the church leaders. Justin Martyr testifies to this:

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president (presider or leader), who succours [sic] the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 47 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:186.

Thus, giving to the poor and the needs of the church was not only part of worship, but a demonstration of pure worship. James says,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:27, English Standard Version, 2011.

The English word translated “religion” can also be construed as “worship.” The same Greek word (θρησκεὶα, threskeia) is also found in Colossians 2:18, translated as “worship of angels.”

In the early church, public reading of Scripture, preaching/teaching, and giving were significant parts of worship that continue to be practiced today. The reason they are practiced today is not because Christian churches continue their traditional practices; rather, they are observed by churches today because they are clearly commanded and modeled by Scriptures. In the final post on this mini-series, I will introduce two more elements of worship practiced by the early church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned!


[1] James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 69.

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

  1. Amen! Recognizing preaching as a function of worship transforms preaching and imbues holiness and reverence in ways that nothing else will; preaching that doesn’t reach to worship God is devoid of the Spirit!

    Like

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