How much is your church like the ancient church?
Most of the contemporary discussion about the ancient church attempts to show discrepancies between what is now and what was then. The not-so-subtle implication is that there is something very wrong with the contemporary church. Blame Constantine. Blame the Enlightenment. Blame Capitalism. Blame the Fundamentalists. It doesn’t really matter. The only way to fix the church today is to get back to the ancient church.
Based on this premise we are told (by some) that the church needs to be more sacramental, more liturgical, and more mystical. We ought to light candles, burn incense, celebrate the arts, foster community, and avoid conventional church structures (like, especially, preaching). By others, we are told that we need to meet in houses and not church buildings. (And again, cut down on the preaching.)
All of this is proposed on the supposition that these practices characterized the ancient church.
Is that what the ancient church was like? And have theologically-conservative, Bible-believing churches in America gone so far off course that the twenty-first century church looks nothing like the early church of the first or second centuries?
Perhaps the best way to answer such questions, rather than perusing modern books on the subject, is to read a description of the ancient church by someone who was actually there.
Enter Justin Martyr.
Justin was born toward the end of the first century. He died in 165 as a martyr for his faith in Jesus Christ.
Around 150, he wrote a defense of the faith to the Roman emperor—called his First Apology—arguing that Christianity should not be illegal. In the course of his defense, he describes what a typical church service was like in his day.
I think you’ll be encouraged to see what was included in an ancient Christian worship service.
(Note that Justin referred to the pastor by the term “president,” namely as the one “presiding” over the worship service. This was likely done because he using terminology that a pagan emperor would understand.)
On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president [pastor] in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers.
When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the ‘Amen.’ A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.
Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector 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 Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (First Apology, 67)
Per Justin’s description, we get a pretty good idea of what took place in an ancient Christian church service. Notice at least seven important factors: (1) Scripture was read, from both the New Testament (“the memoirs of the apostles”) and the Old Testament (“the writings of the prophets”). (2) The pastor preached a message (“discourse”), exhorting the people to obey the things they had just heard from the Scripture. (3) The congregation prayed together. (4) The congregation participated in commemorating the Lord’s Supper. (5) In their preparation for Communion, the pastor prayed and the congregation sang songs of affirmation. (6) An offering was taken in order to meet the needs of fellow saints. (7) All of this took place on Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.
When I read Justin’s description I am encouraged, because those same things are found at my church too. Like the ancient church described here, we read the Scripture, listen to preaching, pray, sing, give, and regularly celebrate the Lord’s Table. And, of course, we also meet on Sundays.
When contemporary authors argue that the church needs to get back to the “ancient practices” of the church, my question is: What “ancient practices” are they talking about? The sacramental mysticism of the medieval period perhaps?
If you really want the ancient church, it doesn’t get any more ancient than the quote provided above. In fact, Justin’s description of an ancient church service is the earliest we have outside the New Testament.
So, should we get back to the practices of the ancient church? If this passage from Justin provides the model, I’m all for it.