On the Worship of the Early Church

– Matthew R. Crawford –

I just started reading Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It is a fascinating book. Wilken is a church history professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in the early church. His book was originally published in 1984, but was recently republished by Yale in 2003. Wilken’s method in the book is to look at the early Christians through the eyes of their detractors. He examines the descriptions of the Christians contained in the writings of significant non-Christians such as Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate.

The book succeeds in giving a glimpse into the world of early Christianity. For example, below is a description of the early Christians in a letter written by Pliny, a government official, to Emperor Trajan from Asia Minor sometime during the fall of A.D. 112. Apparently some persons in a certain town were upset because the sale of sacrificial meat was down, presumably due to people converting to Christianity. Pliny made an investigation of the matter and reported it back to the Emperor for advice. He stated that the Christians

declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind. (22)

It’s quite a description of the worship of the early church, isn’t it? The church met weekly on a certain day. They engaged in some form of chanting or singing to one another. Perhaps they were chanting to one another portions of the Psalms or the New Testament. The focus of their worship was to honor Christ as if he were God. They encouraged one another towards holiness through the means of something like a proto-church covenant. That is, they had a sense of their corporate responsibility to aid one another in sanctification. Finally, they enjoyed fellowship with one another over a meal. How does Pliny’s description of the early church’s worship compare with what you do at your church?

The model of the early church’s worship does not serve as an irrefutable authority for how we should structure our church gatherings today. In fact, the description above leaves out some important elements such as communion and the preaching of the word. Nevertheless, Christians should draw encouragement from the fact that when we gather for worship we are doing so even as so many millions of fellow believers have done for the last two thousand years. We are part of a community that greatly transcends us in both time and space. Nevertheless, we are bound together by our common faith. Let us not forget so. Some have argued for the importance of biblical theology because it gives Christians a cosmic narrative in which to place their own lives and so find significance in this larger story. This is certainly true for biblical theology, but I think it is also true for church history. Pastors should strive to communicate to their congregations that the faith did not arise yesterday, but that there is a long tradition that can teach us much if we are willing to listen. The community of the local church is primary, but this community is a part of a much larger community, the community of those redeemed by the blood of the lamb throughout all the ages.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On the Worship of the Early Church

  1. Paul Cable

    Does Wilken have reason to believe that the “harmless” food wasn’t communion? Good post.

  2. Matthew

    Great question, Paul. Wilken doesn’t elaborate on that point exactly. I assumed that the meal was something other than communion, but it is possible that communion at this point in church history was closely connected to a larger meal, as it seems to have been in the Corinthian church.

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