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Sources for Discerning Early Church Worship

After the close of the New Testament Scriptures, details concerning how, exactly, Christians worshiped are somewhat difficult to determine. However, several early documents do help to elucidate some of what characterized church gatherings. These include letters from important church leaders like Clement of Rome (35–99), Ignatius in Antioch (c. 35–107), Polycarp (69–155), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), and Justin Martyr’s Apology (c. 155), an early defense of Christianity.

Also, early church orders, documents that gave instructions to new converts and described early baptismal services, help to paint a picture of early Christian worship services. Whether these orders were prescriptive or descriptive is difficult to determine, and they would not have been necessarily indicative of a uniformity in worship during the first three centuries of the church. However, similarity and even direct quotation between various church orders as well as evidence of correspondence between churches during this period establish credibility for these documents as at least instructive concerning how early Christians likely worshiped.

The earliest of these is called the Didache (Greek for “Teaching”), likely written in the early second century around Antioch. It contained teaching concerning moral living as well as instructions regarding worship practices like baptism, the eucharist, and other aspects of Christian worship. Another Antiochene church order from the third century, the Didascalia Apostolorum, was clearly modeled after the Didache, expanding its instructions concerning worship. The Apostolic Tradition may have come from Rome in the third century as well. Finally, a letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia, written to Emperor Trajan in 112, provides a helpful description of early Christian practice:

But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from committing theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food, but it was ordinary and harmless food.

Though none of these documents can prove with certainty how the services were conducted, and there would not have necessarily been uniformity among the various early churches in worship, we can nevertheless discern a few key elements of early worship.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.