Gatherings in The Early Church

Have you ever read through the Pentateuch and been struck by the mass of detail governing Israel’s approach to God? There we read of the intricate tabernacle, the priests, the incense and offerings, not to mention the special feast days. When we approach the New Testament, however, that detail of the structure and organisation of their meetings is omitted, although some principles can be drawn from such passages as 1 Corinthians chapters 11 and 14. Perhaps the Lord is teaching that worship is based upon a right state of heart and mind rather than a system or location, John 4. 23-24?

I want to consider how the early church tried to apply these broad principles, and then see how the popularization of Christianity after Constantine (AD 280-337) influenced their approach.

The First Three Centuries

The Lord’s Supper (or ‘Breaking of Bread’)
Justin Martyr recorded that the Breaking of Bread took place on Sunday as early as the second century AD, when paganism still dominated the culture. This practice was said to be to mark the first day of creation and the resurrection day of Jesus Christ. The Breaking of Bread played such a central part in early church life that it took place every Sunday. The service was broken into two parts and a typical service lasted three hours in total. There was:

  • A high place for Scripture. Preaching was central to the first part of the service when everyone was present. Although the preaching was based upon a read passage of Scripture, there were several other readings from Scripture. By the third century these readings had become a rigid affair and began to follow set readings throughout the year, which followed an emerging church calendar.
  • Participation in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Only baptized believers could participate in the subsequent Lord’s Supper and non-participants had to leave. This practice grew out of the belief that the Lord was amongst them and unbelievers could not appreciate what was happening because they did not have the Spirit.
  • Prayer. Both public and private prayer was an essential ingredient in corporate worship. In order to participate in the oral prayer of the ‘prayer leader’, the entire congregation had to stand. Sitting was not an option – the Western church did not introduce seats (in the form of pews) until as late as the 14th century. The weak or the young could sit on rests provided by the wall or simply lean against it (hence the expression, ‘going to the wall’ meaning a very unhealthy state). During times of silent prayer, everyone capable was expected to kneel. The use of fixed, written prayers, developed early on and these were read by the man leading the service. Sometimes these prayers involved responses from the congregation.
  • Singing and music. Neither was prominent in the early church. Musical accompaniment was not introduced until after the 5th century when it was still regarded as Jewish or pagan. If there was singing, this could just as likely be the service leader himself rather than the assembled Christians. Psalms were sung almost exclusively until the 4th century when non-biblical hymn singing was introduced. These hymns were viewed as opportunities to teach doctrine and combat error. Many giants of the early church carefully composed hymns, traces of which are still found in hymns today.

The Fourth Century

When in AD 312 the sun-worshipping Emperor Constantine confessed Christ, his apparent conversion was the most significant conversion after Saul of Tarsus. Christians were persecuted no longer and became respectable members of society, even if the ruling classes were still predominantly pagan. The legitimization of Christianity brought its affect on church life such as:

  • Increasing use of Liturgy. Although some churches had used a written form of worship for some time, the pattern of worship became increasingly inflexible. Prominent bishops such as the bishop of Rome (later known as the ‘pope’ from the Latin papa, meaning ‘father’), wrote liturgies which were circulated throughout their areas of influence.
  • Ritual and Ceremony. Inflexible worship walked hand in hand with increasing ritual in the style of worship. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 310-386), records the first clergy (from the Greek kleeros, meaning ‘lot’, as in Acts 1. 26), to wear special clothing and carry candles. Baptismal services became increasingly elaborate. Although baptism was still by immersion, candidates had to face the East, went into the water three times to represent the trinity, and were variously anointed with oil. After surviving this ordeal, they were led away in a special white robe and given milk and honey to eat, symbolizing the Promised Land. The church calendar came into being with Good Friday, Lent and Christmas all being added. The date for Christmas Day, was taken from the pagan festival for the birth of the sun god. The idea of lights, parties and gifts arose from the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
  • Veneration of martyrs. In the earliest centuries, martyrdom was commonplace, and the memories of martyrs was understandably precious. Unfortunately more than the memory became precious and the physical remains of dust, bones, and clothing or relics, became highly prized commodities. By appreciating dead believers were alive with the Lord, but misapplying James 5. 16, ‘the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much’, requests were made to these saints for their prayers. In due course this drifted into praying to the saints. Traditions then grew up over which saint was more effective for certain requests, and some became famous for helping sailors, travellers and even today, internet users!
  • Images. As the church became wealthier and shook off the fear of persecution, its buildings and furniture became increasingly ornate and ostentatious. Church buildings became the norm, but prior to this believers had largely met in homes or secret locations. Images or icons (from the Greek for image, eikonos) of biblical or historical characters began to adorn the buildings. Also symbols such as the cross, fish, doves, anchors and loaves of bread, these last two symbolizing steadfastness and fellowship, appeared. Artists painted elaborate pictures of biblical scenes with the intention of instructing an illiterate populace in the stories of Scripture.

It would of course be inaccurate to suppose that every true believer followed this route, which ultimately became the Roman Catholic and Orthodox grouping of Christian churches. Many opposed the ritualism and worldliness and eventually separated themselves, sometimes physically, into distinct communities.


In its infancy, the early church had a healthy attitude to worship. The Lord Himself, His word and prayer, took centre stage. These were days of relative simplicity and blessing, despite a hostile pagan world and should be an encouragement to us. Soon though, simplicity and sincerity rapidly gave way to inflexible traditions that obscured the very heart of the gospel and drove away much of the vibrancy and spiritual reality that had existed.

I believe there are two principal lessons that we can draw from this period.

  • Firstly, let us not be tempted to supplement or supplant lack of spiritual reality and exercise with man-made solutions.
  • Secondly, let us recognize that we all practise man-made traditions to some extent, for example the times of services, hymns we sing, and meeting formats have probably been continued from a former generation. Not all traditions are bad, 2 Thess. 2. 15, but Christ roundly condemned many, Mark 7. 1-8.

Every generation therefore must have the courage to ensure its practices rest upon the timeless truths of Scripture alone, Acts 17. 11; 2 Tim. 3. 15-17. This is the one sure foundation rock during days of shifting sand, Matt 7. 24-27. Only then will our worship be fully in spirit and truth.

Broadbent E. H., The Pilgrim Church, Gospel Folio Press, 2000.
Needham N. R., 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Grace Publications, 1997.