October 14, 2014

Getting Back to the Ancient Church (Reprise)

by Nathan Busenitz

How much is your church like the ancient church?

That’s a popular question these days—especially if you read guys like Robert Webber, Brian McLaren, Wolfgang Simson, or Frank Viola and George Barna.

Finding Our Way AgainMost 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.)

Justin wrote:

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.

Nathan Busenitz

Posts Twitter

Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Ted Bigelow

    Hi Nathan,

    I have a web site devoted to ending schism among ChristiansI have a web site devoted to ending schism among Christians, and I often cite the passage of Justin Martyr you did.

    Twice he refers to the commitment of the early Christians meeting all together (allow me to highlight some words):

    “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.”

    All the Christians in Rome, and in every city, got together in the same place every Sunday for worship. They did not gather in separate churches.

    He repeats it again:

    “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly,”

    Of course, that didn’t start with Justin Martyr, nor could it have been easy on Rome’s Christians. By 150 AD the community of Christians in the city of Rome is estimated to be in the thousands. Yet Justin repeats that they all got together every Sunday.

    Because this is the teaching of the New Testament (for example, 1 Cor. 14;23, NKJV), it is a matter of obedience. Now obviously we need to account for geography and such today.

    But how sad is it, that unity among genuine believers is so broken they might live next door to each other, but never worship together?

    • 4Commencefiring4

      We don’t worship together because we have different ideas of what worship even is. And that doesn’t begin to cover it.

      Even your own contention that believing neighbors should somehow worship at the same church is itself something with which many disagree. My neighbor may be Catholic and I’m not at home there. I’m something else, and they are not comfortable at my church. To expect all christians to think alike and act alike and worship alike is not realistic.

      I know a sincere believer–in my neighborhood, no less–who would say my use of a New American Standard Bible is evidence that I’m not even in the starting gate to salvation. My wife and I don’t attend Wednesday night prayer meetin’ or Sunday night church, so we’re hopeless. We shop on Sundays if we need to, so you know we’ve got to be hell-bound.

      So no, I don’t care to attend his church, and he wouldn’t be caught dead in mine.

  • Johnny

    Ahhh, but Justin Martyr said nothing about guitars, so therefore they aren’t regulative!

  • Ray Adams

    Very helpful. Thanks. And timely as I have been thinking of the same issue from a slightly different direction – sign gifts. Nice to know that the practice of Corinth did not prevail. From none other than Justin the Martyr.

    • tovlogos

      Hi Ray — This statement struck me: “Nice to know that the practice of Corinth did not prevail.” Are you referring to the the spiritual gifts? If so, Why would you say that? Just curious.
      Many things were obviously different back then.
      Things people took for granted back then, amy be seen as unbelievable now; such as miracles.
      Let it be understood that we have the complete revelation God intended when the Bible was finished and sealed. Yet, I can’t avoid putting into the equation, present day lawlessness, the cold hearts; and the evident “great falling away.” Jesus wondered by His rhetorical question: “For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” The spiritually dry days are more and more evident now — exacerbated by an additional 8+ billion people on the planet.
      And in Luke 2:15, where the shepherds readily received information from God, without doubting. Jesse gave good exegetical reasons for the absence of the “gifts;” however, I can’t help but notice the wholesale lack of faith in the world. Although Jesus was not terribly impressed with His ability to manipulate the laws of physics/science; and far more impressed with the faith it took to obtain salvation; nevertheless, the lack of real faith in this world has to have ramifications. Just a few thoughts. Thanks.


      • Ray Adams

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Most interesting. Yes, I was thinking of the spiritual gifts that we do not see today – sign gifts. The picture which Justin Martyr gave was not of the chaos that apparently troubled Corinth but reflected a good deal of orderly peace – the order and peace which Paul enjoined upon the people in the church there. I found that an encouraging and pleasant thought.

        • tovlogos

          I hear you. Thanks, Ray. Yes, Corinth was adjusting…
          The chaos is human, but Justin was focused on the Spirit.
          I must say, I believe in the Lord’s willingness to still do miracles. But miracles are not the point, which served a purpose at that time — just like water baptism, which was strictly a sigh for Israel (John 1:24–34, especially verse 31). We have the full revelation, so that aspect of His work is done.
          Nevertheless, the vast majority of people I know who flatly deny miracles, never exercised that kind of faith, due to disbelief. Yet no man is a healer, today; if they were, my uncle would have not been in a wheel chair due to a drunk driver. Uncle Lanny was a great man; but a really proud man. God wanted him in that chair for a period of time. He spent the last two years of his life feverishly studying the Bible. The Lord was more concerned with his salvation.

          So, I maintain that miracles do happen; but now it not just heal for the sake of healing — there’s more at stake.

  • Robert Sakovich

    Thanks, Nathan. This will come in very handy in many discussions on this matter.

  • Jas25

    The biggest thing from the account that I notice is unfortunately largely missing in today’s church is a lack of understanding of maturity.

    “sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability”
    “each according to his own choice, gives what he wills”

    Both of these are acknowledgements of the varying degrees of maturity within the body. Both qualifiers seem out of the way when considering this is a record of the practices within the church, unless it’s of vital importance to the practice being mentioned.

    The pastor wasn’t sending up prayers and thanksgiving according to his education. They didn’t offer according to their income level. In just that short excerpt there are two occasions where he went out of his way to make the point that the roles performed in the church were dictated by the person’s spiritual maturity.

    The New Testament is full of examples of how the earlier church based their qualifications on spiritual maturity. Most congregations now have leadership who were either hired for their worldly qualifications (degrees, previous work experience, etc…) or promoted because they have seniority. Furthermore, people assume positions because they are the only “professional” options within the church instead of because it’s what they ought to be doing.

    We have hands as feet and occupationally random foreign objects being used as makeshift replacements for actual body parts. In that regard, the early church seemed much better about gauging each other’s qualifications.

    • Guest

      Yow, Lyndon. This is what I hate about Christianity – the “I’m more right than you are” argument. It gives Christianity a bad name. As an Orthodox Christian, I absolutely believe it to be the Apostolic Church. Do I believe you’re wrong in your beliefs as an evangelical protestant? Not necessarily. You’re a devout Christian who asked for an example of the ancient church. I gave you one. If you believe it started with Jesus Christ or not, it doesn’t matter. I’d say 30-60 AD is pretty darn close and a great example of the ancient church. I just believe the date to be a little closer to Christ’s existence. Ease up on the need to attack other Christians. We’re all on the same team.

      • Jas25

        I believe you may have replied to the wrong post. However, it seems you might have bought the ecumenical line that we should accept just any old doctrine in the name of unity. We are to be united in one mind and Spirit(Philippians 2:2). That certainly doesn’t mean throwing up our hands and walking away from someone concerned about the truth of God who disagrees (otherwise we would be without correction as well).

        What it does mean is that when a group is propagating what the Apostle Paul explicitly calls “doctrine of demons” or when they start preaching a different gospel (such as salvation by works or the extreme opposite of salvation by any means as long as we’re earnest) and ignore correction, continuing on as false teachers we are *required* to separate ourselves from them. At that point it’s not a matter of “I’m more right than you are” but one of “I’m of different mind and Spirit than you are”.

        According to pew research over 30% of the world identifies as Christian. Some undoubtably misidentify just as the Nicolatians did. After all, the gate is narrow and *many* will believe they were safe in Christ but never had a relationship with him(Matt 7:14-21). It’s imperative that we all be absolutely certain that we are listening to God and not man, even when that means breaking from traditional or popular establishments(just like Peter and John in Acts 4). Jesus spent a great deal of time warning the church about all the misleading teachers, prophets, and miracle workers who will come in sheep’s clothing (meaning claiming to be one of us).

        • Guest

          Hmmm…I guess my question is if the Orthodox Church is the Apostolic Church – and has remained unchanged in teachings, doctrine…etc. for 2,000 years – how is it that I’m off base here? Your church/denomination came into existence when? Logic says then that it’s your church that started “preaching a different gospel”, eh? No ecumenical line has been purchased here.

          I do believe, as an Orthodox Christian, that I am listening to God and not man. I think you would agree that following the Church that began around 30 AD is about as close to Christ’s teachings – and the ancient church – as one can get. You’re right – “Jesus spent a great deal of time warning the church about all the misleading teacher, prophets and miracle workers who will come in sheep’s clothing.” This is in no way a concern of mine. Should it be yours?
          Frankly, this whole thread sort of perplexes me. The point o the blog – was it not? – was getting back to the ancient church. The author determined that his – most likely very contemporary church with more contemporary beliefs – was very much like the ancient church. If you actually want to get back to the ancient church, the actual ancient church still exists in Orthodoxy.

          • Jas25

            “My question is if the Orthodox Church is the Apostolic Church – and has remained unchanged in teachings, doctrine…etc. for 2,000 years – how is it that I’m off base here?”

            The early church was rife with ungodly beliefs and practices. A large portion of the early apostolic letters were to correct false teaching and practices within the church. Understandable considering how much of the church were new converts to Christianity which, itself, was still maturing with the aid of spiritual gifts (the church wasn’t built in a day).

            Even at the time that the book of Revelation was written (almost unanimously agreed to be written at least after 69 AD) warnings were given to various church assemblies for their false practices and beliefs.

            Locking in to the practices of the very early church, in some ways, may be hanging on to a number of ungodly/pagan practices and concepts that were introduced by those recent converts and false teachers spoken of in the various letters sent to correct said practices.

            Some of them may just be a preference thing, others may be far more damaging toward spiritual growth.

            “Your church/denomination came into existence when?”

            My church is the church bought with the blood of Christ so I guess the day of crucifixion. I don’t claim blind allegiance to any denomination as they are man made distinctions and no man in a leadership position is immune to corruption, though the local assembly I am a member of is lead by very mature men (as per the evidence of Spiritual maturity found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7) for which I am grateful.

            I check all teaching against the instructions provided the apostolic church (which unilaterally encouraged laymen to check all teachings they received against scripture [Acts 17:11, 1 John 4:1, etc…]) preserved in the Bible.

            Reserving such a task for only those who are in charge opens the church up to all sort of corruption of doctrine, and since the average laymen doesn’t take responsibility they will be none the wiser for the change.

            “No ecumenical line has been purchased here.”

            This was in reference to the “why can’t we all just get along” slant in your previous post. All Christians should be striving together in truth. When those claiming to be brothers reject the direction of God it only makes sense that division will be the result. After all, Christ himself knew he would bring division (Luke 12:51) between the world and his kingdom.

            Now that it’s clear you are taking a more “I’m more right than you are” approach, that observation no longer stands.

            “I do believe, as an Orthodox Christian, that I am listening to God and not man.”

            As long as you’re checking the teaching you’re receiving against the historical record of God’s instruction (the Bible) and haven’t been convicted by the Holy Spirit, I’m not going to say you’re not. I’ve not personally experienced your local assembly.

            “This is in no way a concern of mine. Should it be yours?”

            It should absolutely be mine! It is every believer’s concern, lest we be carried by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). The point I made out of Matthew is specifically showing that Jesus gave a mandate to each and every believer to make this their concern.

            “The author determined that his – most likely very contemporary church with more contemporary beliefs – was very much like the ancient church.”

            I don’t think it was wrong of you to broach the topic of the ancient church’s ritual practices as an extension of the topic. However, I believe the goal of this thread was to draw out ways in which a church ought to strive to emulate the early church in edification and righteousness more than in rote.

  • Pingback: Ancient Practices In The Modern Church | Worship Links()

  • tovlogos

    Thanks, Nathan — This subject is often talked about; I like this topic.
    Fortunately The Spirit doesn’t change.

  • Guest

    If you want to understand and experiences the practices of the “ancient church” go to an Orthodox on Sunday and experience the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy was in practice right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples on the 50th day after His Resurrection. When you’re asking what the “ancient church” looks like, it seems to me that this is it.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Ah yes. The Orthodox liturgy, as practiced by the apostles themselves and unchanged since the DAY of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard that story before.

      I once was doing visitation work in a hospital when an Orthodox man told me how his priest told him the Orthodox church started: it involved Moses traveling the globe and searching for the “true” church (which God apparently told him to do). He never found the “true” church and thus started the Orthodox church.

      The fellow apparently didn’t even have a problem with proudly proclaiming the idea that the Orthodox church had been performing the sacraments (and not in Hebrew, even though they were apparently started by Moses) for over a millennia before Christ was born. While the Jews were looking forward to Christ via the sacrifices, the Orthodox church was looking back to the future via communion.

      I hate to tell you, but the story I just recounted is about as believable as your story that the liturgy of the Orthodox church was established by the apostles. You may want to do a little historical research into that particular yarn.

      • Zachary

        Straw man argument on Orthodoxy Lyndon. The Orthodox Church was started by Jesus Christ.

        • Lyndon Unger

          What straw man?

          Our guest said that the Orthodox Church, complete with its contemporary liturgy, was in place since Acts chapter 2.

          It’s a blatant load of horse pucky…and Justin Martyr, in the quote above, sure as baked beans doesn’t talk about any Orthodox Church that is around now.

          The Orthodox Church was not started by Jesus Christ. We may as well be arguing about whether or not the moon landing was faked by the Muppets.

          Either provide some SERIOUS documentation (i.e. something from the New Testament that clearly shows that your claims have more substance than the cover story on the Weekly World News) or quit playing your bagpipes at this luau.

          • Zachary

            Lyndon, your argument was based on what someone told you about orthodoxy. Further, what that person may have said was false concerning Moses starting the Church. Straw man.

          • Lyndon Unger

            My argument wasn’t based on my story; the story wasn’t even a component OF my argument. My story was an illustration of how unbelievable your claims are.

            The argument we’re having is simple:

            – You claim that your premise “The Orthodox Church was started by Jesus Christ” is true.

            – I reject your premise as true because it’s not taught in the Bible.

            I have no basis for accepting the truthfulness of your premise unless you can establish them with some sort of astonishing exegetical documentation.

            Let’s get started!

            Can you give me some argument from the text of scripture that the Orthodox Church, as a religious stream that is distinct from other streams (i.e. Roman Catholicism or Protestantism), was established by Christ and his apostles?

          • Zachary

            Are you suggesting that a group of people who have repentant faith that salvation is by grace, who believe in the Trinity, who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, got there start anywhere but in the Lord?

          • Lyndon Unger


            I’m suggesting that the Orthodox Church, as a proper institution, didn’t become an entity between 30-60 AD.

            You’re not using “Orthodox” as shorthand for “Evangelical Protestant”, are you?

          • Guest

            My reply to this thread is located above. No idea why/how this misplacement occurred.

  • Pingback: View-Worthy: 10.15.14()

  • Pingback: Around the Horn :: 10.16.14 | Treading Grain()

  • Pingback: Around the Horn :: 10.16.2014 | Treading Grain()

  • Pingback: Getting Back to the Ancient Church | WorshipIdeas.com()

  • Pingback: Back to the Early Church?()