Church History

Introduction to the Worship Practices of the Early Church—Part 4

What does worship in the early church look like? That is the question that this short series tries to answer. This is now the final installment (here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I have been arguing that while worship forms may be different between the ancient church and today, the essence of worship remains the same. In this final post, I’ll be introducing the practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the ancient church.

Courtesy of Elisey Vavulin via Unsplash

The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist

The overwhelming majority of discussion on church worship in the early church focuses on the practice of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Most Protestants are hesitant in using the term Eucharist because of its association with the Roman Catholic Mass. Historically, however, the Eucharist is the common term used to refer to the Lord’s Supper. The term Eucharist simply means “thanksgiving,” which is an appropriate designation for the Lord’s Supper.

The practice of the Eucharist began in the Upper Room the night before the Lord Jesus was betrayed (cf. Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). This practice continued in the early church from the very beginning (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32). In the second century, Christian worship was divided into two services. The first service, known as the worship of the catechumens, included all the elements of worship—singing, praying, reading Scripture, and preaching—and it was open to unbaptized believers. The term catechumen simply refers to new converts who are under instruction before baptism. [1] The latter service was the celebration of the Eucharist, which was only open to baptized believers. This celebration of the Eucharist was the culmination of Christian worship.[2]

At first, the Eucharist celebration began with a meal, also known as the “Love Feast,” which often took place on Sunday evening. This “Love Feast” was misunderstood by observing non-Christians. Tertullian clarifies and defends it: the “Love Feast” is…

an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God.

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

Due to the growth of churches and abuses, the “Love Feast” was no longer practiced (and even prohibited) by the third and fourth centuries.[3]

In order to partake in the Eucharist, certain qualifications had to be met. Whoever took of the elements had to be regenerated, be baptized, believe that Christian teachings, and live a life like Christ.[4] Those who met the qualifications joined the gathered church in the celebration of the Eucharist. Justin Martyr describes the celebration:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks to considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen….Those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 45 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:185.

The Eucharist celebration was truly a “thanksgiving,” as evidenced by the frequency of prayer at this activity. They began with congregational prayer and ended with a prayer of thanksgiving. They had a prayer for the bread and another prayer for the cup.[5]

Baptism

The practice of baptism in the early church was in keeping with the Lord Jesus’ command to make disciples and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). The baptism of new converts was a common practice in the early church.[6] Outside the New Testament, one of the earliest records of how the early church practiced baptism is found in the Didache. According to this document, the preference for baptism was running cold water, but if such was not available, standing warm water would suffice. If sufficient water was not accessible, pouring water over the one being baptized would be acceptable as long as it was done three times (one for each person of the Godhead). In addition to all these, the one being baptized and the one administering the baptism are instructed to fast for one or two days before the baptism.[7]

Candidates for baptism were required to give a solemn vow to forsake sin, pursue Christ, and confess a creed reflecting the basic theological truths of Christianity. The one being baptized was immersed three times. While baptism could be conducted at any time, it was common practice to baptize converts as part of the celebration of Easter.[8]

Conclusion

While various methods, settings, and practices differ between the worship in the early church and today, vital elements remain the same. These elements are prayer, singing, giving, reading of Scripture, preaching, and the observance of church ordinances (Lord’s Supper and baptism).  These elements of worship are constant because they are rooted not merely in traditional practices, but in biblical instructions. 

In fact, not only are these elements prescribed by Scripture, but they are also centered on Scripture. One of the best ways to pray is to pray God’s Words back to God. In the early church, it was common to sing the words of Scripture or to compose songs of biblical truth. Reading, preaching, and teaching were means of the public declaration of God’s Word. One of the purposes of giving was to provide for those whose calling was to study and teach God’s Word to God’s people. The ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism are symbol-laden rites that portray biblical realities. Thus, the liturgy of the church involves acts of worship based and centered on biblical truth.

When these are practiced with a sincere heart, they are acts of worship acceptable to God. Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).


[1] One of the earliest records of this designation is found in Tertullian, “On Prescription Against Heretics,” ch. 41 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:263.

[2] Schaff, 2:235.

[3] Schaff, 2:240.

[4] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 46 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:185.

[5] See sample of prayers in “The Didache,” chs. 9-10 in Holmes, 167–168.

[6] Cf. Acts 2:41; 8:12, 36; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5.

[7] “The Didache,” ch. 7 in Holmes, 166–167.

[8] For the most comprehensive discussion on baptism (late second century to early third century), see Tertullian, “On Baptism” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:669-679.

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