I hear a lot of people criticize the “institutional church” in various ways. Talk about an easy target! Nonetheless, one of the things that is often implied is that the contemporary church service is a silly later invention with little or no relation to what the apostles actually did. While we have little evidence of what the first century church looked like exactly (home gatherings with meals are most likely), I was surprised to find this pretty detailed account that isn’t much older.
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; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours 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, First Apology 67
So, let’s see:
- They meet on Sunday as long or as short as time permits
- They read some from the Old Testament (prophets)
- They read some from the New Testament (apostles)
- The leader gives a teaching and exhortation (sermon)
- They all stand up and pray
- They distribute bread and wine, then pray and eat
- They take up an offering and those “well to do” give some.
- Then they are done.
- (They probably sing somewhere in there, but it’s not mentioned in this account)
- Later that day, the deacons distribute food and money to the poor or absent in the congregation.
So there we go. From AD 150, that looks shockingly like a pretty vanilla church service. There would have been people in the congregation whose parents knew the apostles personally – only one generation removed. Did they stand up and say, “This liturgy and order of service is a bunch of trash! Let’s get back to what Jesus taught us!” No, they didn’t say that. Instead, this is what they actually established. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
I’m appealing to history here to argue for the legitimacy of traditional Christian worship gatherings, though I don’t really have any problem with most “alt worship” ideas either.