Living in the First Century World #7

Consider a couple of citations from two quite different sources concerning worship practices in the first/second century church.

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternative verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Pliny the Younger writing to Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the 2nd century)

And so 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  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 writing around 150 AD)

Recognize any of that? It is quite amazing that over the centuries Christian worship has continued to be rooted in the same practices, but really not surprising since worship is designed to be built around celebrating the supper, prayers, praise, the Word, sharing and fellowship. Of course, in the first century the setting of worship was different (house churches) and the expressions of worship were culturally relevant to that time and place. In some ways we would recognize first century worship and in some ways we would not. But beyond just the actual worship experience itself—the worship order—first century Christians understood and experienced worship in perhaps a radically different way then 21 century Christians:

We tend to view worship as one activity among many taking its place alongside job, home, school, sport and hobby. We “go to church” in the same way we go to work or to the gym… Worship becomes an event that occurs for one hour on Sunday; it plays a fairly limited role in the lives of most Christians, including serious Christians. Our spotty attendance in worship is proof enough of that. When we do attend worship, we tend to approach it as consumers, expecting good music (according to our tastes), an inspiring sermon, and friendly people. Early Christians viewed worship as a communal discipline around which their lives were ordered and organized. It played a central role in the movement because it prepared them for the challenges of discipleship in the larger Roman world…Christians depended on worship; their world revolved around it; they committed themselves to the regular discipline of it. It was the heart of their faith, not simply an expression of it, because worship ordered their lives around the center of life, the Triune God. They viewed worship as they did food and sleep and air. It was a spiritual necessity to them. Without it they put their spiritual life at risk. (Gerald L. Sittser in Resilient Faith)

The Centrality of Jesus and the Church

He was the focal point of first century worship. He shaped every aspect of it—from communion to songs to the love feasts. They internalized the Word in order to maintain their focus and faith afterward. “Early Christians believed that worship prepared them for the demands of discipleship once they left places of worship…and reentered daily life in the Greco-Roman world. Worship trained them for witness and service; worship cultivated virtue; worship showed them how to live in the world as followers of Jesus.” (Sittser)

And as they lived in the world as disciples, they did so with an ever-present awareness of the essentiality of the church. Theirs was that communal approach. There was no thought or understanding of any separation between Christ and the church. Christ, church, worship, life, behavior, family—it was all intergraded. They simply could not imagine one without the other. Nor could they imagine valuing the individual over the community. As one writer stated, “The church has priority over the individual.” (Joseph H. Hellerman in When the Church was a Family)

Worship overflowed into life. The same writer noted: “People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed. They converted because of the way in which early Christians behaved.” Consider this excerpt from a letter by Julian the Apostate (not a fan of Christianity) from 361 .A.D.:

Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of the lives that have done the most to increase atheism? When…the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.

Quite the contrast noted between Christians and others and this was seen first in worship—not just their attitude toward it or priority in keeping it. In no other place—not in any Roman guild; association; social setting; gymnasium, coliseum, etc. would there be found such a mix of social classes—all together as one. Slave, master, freeborn, noble, merchant, women, children, immigrant, Jew, Greek, Roman—all around the table together as equals because of the Christ (admittedly not always and not always easy, but eventually accomplished enough to provide such an incredibly powerful witness that it changed the Roman world.) It was the centrality of Jesus and the church that brought this about along with their commitment to discipleship:

 Consider the contrast with the church in the West today. The early Christians made tremendous demands of their converts-demands that affected the most important area of their lives. And people came in droves. But we bend over backwards in our churches to accommodate the radical individualism of people who come to us to find a “personal” Savior who, we assure them will meet their every felt need. And the overwhelmingly tide of secular culture threatens to suffocate what is life of the spiritual life of our churches, as the West becomes less and less Christian. (Hellerman)

Maybe it can be summed up in this way: perhaps the first century Christians simply took Paul at his word in urging the integration of worship in Romans 12:1. That is, to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”

*Resources for this lesson: Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World by Gerald L. Sittser; When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Community by Joseph H. Hellerman; Life in Year One; What the World was Like in First-Century Palestine by Scott Korb