Early Christian Worship

What would it have been like to worship with the saints at Rome in the middle of the second century?

One can only imagine how thrilling it must have been to meet older Christians whose parents or grandparents actually knew the apostles. If only they had left us an account of what it was like to worship with the apostles!

Well, one Christian living in Rome in middle of the second century did, in fact, leave us an account of what a service of worship looked like in his day.

Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, has left us a brief description of a typical worship service in the church at Rome around 150 AD. Although Justin’s account does not provide us with many details, it does give us a fair picture of Christian worship in the first generation after the apostolic era.

Through Justin’s account, we are able to peer through a window, so to speak, and catch a glimpse at how the earliest Christians worshiped on the Lord’s Day.

Justin writes,

[O]n the day that is called Sunday all who live in the cities or in rural areas gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. Then after the lector concludes, the president verbally instructs and exhorts us to imitate all these excellent things. Then all stand up together and offer prayers…. [W]hen we have concluded our prayer, bread is brought forward together with the wine and water. And the presider in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability. The people give their consent, saying “Amen”; there is a distribution, and all share in the Eucharist. To those who are absent a portion is brought by the deacons. And those who are well-to-do and willing give as they choose, as each one so desires. The collection is then deposited with the presider who uses it on behalf of orphans, widows, those who are needy due to sickness or any other cause, prisoners, strangers who are traveling; in short, he assists all who are in need.[1]

According to Justin, a typical service of worship in Rome in the middle of the second century would have included the following elements in this order:

  1. Reading of scripture – Old and New Testaments
  2. Preaching – an exposition of the text(s) read
  3. Prayers
  4. Eucharist
  5. Collection

Though this account of a typical worship service is only a brief summary, it is clear that the same four elements of worship mentioned in Acts 2:42 were included.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42, ESV).

The apostles’ teaching, of course, refers to the ministry of the Word—the reading and preaching of holy scripture.

The word translated fellowship in this verse refers to the sharing of material goods. In other words, it refers to charitable or diaconal giving, and the distribution of material goods to those in need. Justin said that such material goods were collected and

deposited with the presider who uses it on behalf of orphans, widows, those who are needy due to sickness or any other cause, prisoners, strangers who are traveling; in short, he assists all who are in need.

The other two elements are “the breaking of bread” (which is the eucharist, the sacred meal of the church) and prayer.

Thus, from Justin’s account of the worship in Rome, we see that a typical service of worship in the generation that followed the apostolic age consisted of (1) the ministry of the Word, (2) prayer, (3) the eucharist and (4) alms.

Endnotes

[1] Johnson, Worship in the Early Church, 1:68–69; cf. Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961) 3–9.

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