How did the first Christians gather and worship?
We don’t need to guess, or piece a picture together from the sparse comments in the New Testament. We have descriptions from historical sources outside the Bible such as Pliny the Younger, Justin Martyr, Tacitus and Seutonius.
Before we read their firsthand accounts, John Gooch gives some little-known or remarkable facts about worship in the early church in Christian History magazine article (Issue 37):
The first part of an early Christian worship assembly was open to all, including strangers, who might be converted by the preaching. The second part of the service involved the Lord’s Supper, which only the baptized were allowed to partake, so the unbaptized departed then.
By the early 200s, baptism often included renouncing Satan and all his works, making a statement of faith, being baptized (naked) in water, being clothed in a white robe, receiving anointing with oil, and immediately celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
Many Romans believed Christians were a funeral society because Christian families observed the anniversary of a relative’s death on the third, ninth, and thirtieth (or fortieth) day after the death. They gathered at the tomb, sang psalms, read Scripture, prayed, gave alms to the poor, and ate a meal. Later, this practice developed into feasts to honor martyrs. Perhaps the first such feast was for Polycarp (a bishop burned to death for his faith); it began shortly after his death in about 156.
Christians prepared for Easter, the festival of the Resurrection, by fasting. At first, the fasting lasted one day; later it was extended to 40 hours, to symbolize the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.
Sunday, the “little Easter,” was also a festival of joy. To prepare for it, many Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday.
Repentance was an involved process in the early church. Sin was seen not as a personal matter but as something that destroyed the unity of the church. Penitents fasted and prayed for the forgiveness of their sins, appeared before the church to make public confession, and were barred from the Lord’s Supper until they gave evidence of a change of heart.
Early Christians often gathered to worship at the risk of their lives, as many bogus rumors circulated about the little sect. In his Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius (secretary to Emperor Hadrian) was one of the first pagan writers to mention Christianity. But the context was hardly positive: believers are mentioned only as “a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Christians were rumored to be cannibalistic, incestuous, ass-worshiping magicians who practice dangerous superstitions. Why? They gathered in secret to eat the body and blood of their leader. Everyone professed love toward everyone, and husbands and wives called each other brother and sister, giving the appearance of incest. Ken Curtis has complied the following list of accusations leveled against early Christians:
2. Disruption of business
3. Gross immorality (including incest)
4. Antifamily actions
7. Introduction of Novelties
8. Lack of Patriotism
9. Antisocial behavior
10. Causing Disasters
Read his explanations here.
Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who was charged with dealing with Christians who refused to participate in rites that honored Caesar as a god. In his letter to Emperor Trajan (111-113 CE) he writes about his interrogations of Christians:
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged.
Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but an oath to not commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.
Still, one of our fullest descriptions of early church worship gatherings is found in Justin Martyr’s First Apology 67 from about 155CE:
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; then, when the reader has ceased, the leader 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 leader 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 the money is collected is deposited with the leader, 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. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
For the early Christians, the gospel really was the announcement that on a certain Sunday in around 30CE a New Creation and a New Humanity was launched right in the mist of the Old. Every Sunday was a joyous celebration of that first Resurrection Sunday and a chance to encourage fellow believers as they continue bearing witness to the New Day God had ushered into history.
Is this why we continue to gather for worship each Sunday today?