Worship in the Early Church: A Gallery of Wordsmiths of Worship
Defender of the worshiping community
Justin Martyr preserved the earliest full record of a Christian worship service, dating to the mid-second century.
Justin was born in the Roman city of Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem in Samaria). Raised by pagan parents, he sought to find life’s meaning in the philosophies of his day. This brought a series of disappointments.
His first teacher was a Stoic who “knew nothing of God and did not even think knowledge of him to be necessary.” There followed a Peripatetic (itinerant philosopher), who seemed most interested in his fees. Then came a Pythagorean, but his required course of music, astronomy, and geometry seemed far too slow. Finally, Platonism, though intellectually demanding, proved unfulfilling for Justin’s hungry heart.
At last, about A.D. 130, after a conversation with an old man, his life was transformed: “A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.”
Justin continued to wear his philosopher’s cloak, seeking to reconcile faith and reason. His teaching ministry took him first to Ephesus (c. 132), where he held a disputation with Trypho, a Jew. Later he moved to Rome, founded a Christian school, and wrote two bold Apologies addressed to Roman authorities. The first (c. 153), addressed to Emperor Antoninus Plus and sons, has gained the most attention and preserves detailed descriptions of early Christian worship.
What emerges is a writer who loved not only Christianity but also Christians. Justin saw believers baptized “so that we should not remain children of necessity and ignorance, but [become children] of free choice and knowledge.” He took part in the communal prayers, the kiss of peace, the Eucharist, and distribution of resources to those in need. In worship he gathered with others to hear the memoirs of the apostles and writings of the prophets read, to hear the president’s exhortation, and to stand in prayer.
In about 165, partly because of his defense of martyrs in his second Apology, Justin was pointedly denounced as a Christian. Refusing to recant and offer pagan sacrifice, Justin was scourged and beheaded. Having been born a pagan, he gave his life for this “true philosophy,” Christianity, and would ever be known as Justin Martyr.
Melito of Sardis
(died c. 190)
Keeper of the Christian calendar
In the late second century, Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus wrote about “Melito the Eunuch” who “lived entirely in the Holy Spirit” and is among “the greatest luminaries who lie at rest in Asia and will rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming.” Melito traveled to Palestine to visit the Holy Places. Virtually nothing else is known of his life.
Melito’s importance lies in the topic of his most popular work, Homily on the Pasch, and in his role in the controversy over the proper date on which to celebrate Easter.
In Melito’s day, some Eastern churches (especially in Asia Minor) followed Jewish custom and celebrated Easter at the same time as Jewish Passover. This “Christian Passover” marked not only the Lord’s resurrection but also his sufferings as the Passover Lamb.
Other churches (e.g., the Roman Christians under Victor) celebrated Easter on the Sunday after Passover, marking the vital importance of the resurrection, which occurred on the first day of the week.
As bishop of Sardis, Melito defended the former position, termed quartodeciman (meaning “fourteenth”). He believed it dated from the apostle John’s stay in Ephesus. Ultimately, however, the Easter Sunday position triumphed. The Council of Nicea (in 325) rejected quartodeciman practice.
This decision, along with decisions to commemorate Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost, as well as days for martyrs, shows the increasing importance of the Christian calendar, a means for Christians to mark sacred time. Melito’s Homily on the Pasch not only shows some of these developments, it is one of the most beautiful meditations ever written on the work of Christ. The word Pasch evoked for early Christians a number of themes: the Jewish Passover, the Passover meal, the lamb sacrificed and eaten at Passover, Holy Week, and Easter—sometimes all at once. In this sermon, the rhythmic prose declares this mystery:
The mystery of the Pasch
is new and old,
eternal and temporal,
corruptible and incorruptible,
mortal and immortal …
Born as Son,
led like a lamb,
sacrificed like a sheep,
buried as a man,
he rises from the dead as God,
being by nature both God and man.
He is all things:
when he judges, he is law,
when he teaches, word,
when he saves, grace,
when he begets, father,
when he is begotten, son,
when he suffers, lamb,
when he is buried, man,
when he arises, God.
Such is Jesus Christ!
To him be glory forever! Amen.
Hippolytus of Rome
(c. 170–c. 236)
Preserver of sacred tradition
Hippolytus was the first “antipope” (schismatic bishop of Rome), yet he is venerated by the Roman Catholic church as a martyr and saint.
Little is known of his early life. Some have maintained that his familiarity with Greek philosophy and Eastern mystery cults suggests early ties with the East.
In the early third century, Hippolytus became a presbyter in the church of Rome under Bishop Zephyrinus. When Origen visited the city in 212, he gladly heard Hippolytus’s vigorous preaching. Disputes over doctrine and church discipline turned Hippolytus against the bishop and his fellow presbyter Callistus.
When Callistus became bishop in 217, Hippolytus left the church and (probably) was elected bishop of Rome by his influential supporters. This schism persisted until 235, when Roman authorities found both pope (now Pontian) and antipope (Hippolytus) guilty of preaching the gospel. They were sent to the extermination mines of Sardinia. This led each of them to abdicate his episcopate and reestablish fellowship. Both became martyrs on “death island.”
The new bishop of Rome, Fabian, had the bodies of both brought back to Rome, with funerals celebrated on the same day, August 13. A list with similarities to Hippolytus’s writings, and Easter tables, were found on an ancient statue unearthed in Rome in 1551.
Hippolytus was the most significant theologian in Rome during the third century, producing books, commentaries, and topical treatises. The work that has drawn the most interest in this century, however, is his Apostolic Tradition. This systematic manual of church life and practice, written in about 215, opens a window to the Roman church. Liturgies for holy orders, baptism, the Eucharist, and various Christian observances are given.
Hippolytus gives several lengthy prayers but adds, “It is not necessary for anyone to recite the exact words that we have prescribed … but let each one pray according to his ability. If, indeed, he is able to pray competently with an elevated prayer, it is well. But even if he is only moderately able to pray and give praise, no one may forbid him; only let him pray sound in the faith.”
Martyr for Christ
Roman emperor Septimius Severus forbade conversions to Judaism and Christianity in 202. In North Africa, Vivia Perpetua, Felicitas, and several other catechumens [new converts to Christianity] were imprisoned and eventually sentenced to die in the arena at Carthage.
In the Passion, an account of the martyrdom of these women, the 22-year-old Perpetua, a well-educated wife and nursing mother, described her faith and her life in prison, concluding, “The dungeon became to me a palace.”
Perpetua was a woman “privileged to converse with the Lord.” She sought a vision to reveal whether her confinement would result in release or martyrdom, and she received the vivid message that it was the latter. Thereafter she gave up expectations for this life.
Her dungeon-bound days were marked by prayer meetings, a word of knowledge, several visions and Felicitas’ giving birth to a baby girl after eight months of pregnancy (avoiding delay of the execution).
On the eve of martyrdom, the prisoners celebrated an “agape feast.” Then, approaching the arena, Perpetua sang psalms, faced the beasts “in the Spirit” and in an ecstasy. She joined a companion whose bloody slaying was accompanied by the crowd’s mocking baptismal chant, “Saved and washed, saved and washed.”
Most elements of early Christian worship are evident in this Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Moreover, such martyrs profoundly shaped the worship of the church for centuries to come (see this issue, Praying to the Dead). Feasts were held in their honor; their relics were gathered for veneration; monuments were erected to them.
Despite speculation that Perpetua was a Montanist, the larger Christian family embraced her as a saint of surpassing grace.
Clement of Alexandria
(c. 150–c. 215)
Teacher in song and symbol
Titus Flavius Clemens was born in the mid-second century, most likely to pagan parents in Athens. Well-educated and a convert to Christianity during his early adult years, Clement traveled widely in search of excellent teachers. This quest led him finally to Alexandria in Egypt, where he became a student of Pantaenus, first known master of the city’s catechetical school (for Christian instruction).
In about 190, Clement succeeded his teacher and began to write, composing three major works: an Exhortation to the Greeks, the Instructor (who is Christ), and the Miscellanies of topical study. In each, the Christian faith engages classical culture.
In 202, persecution during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus compelled Clement to flee Alexandria. He settled in Cappadocia and by 215 had died.
At the peak of his Alexandrian ministry, however, Clement was the outstanding Christian teacher in a city of perhaps one million inhabitants. Moreover, as presbyter (not bishop), he helped shape the worship life of the Christian community.
One of the earliest Christian hymns is that appended to Clement’s Instructor, “Hymn of the Savior Christ”. Its earliest rendering in English verse (in 1846) appears in many hymnals today as “Shepherd of Tender Youth.” Three stanzas translated from the original Greek bring a vivid picture of the praise-life of the Alexandrian church:
Bridle-bit of untamed colts,
Wing of birds that do not go astray,
Sure Tiller of ships,
Shepherd of the King’s lambs!
Gather your children
Who live in simplicity.
Let them sing in holiness.
Let them celebrate with sincerity,
With a mouth that knows no evil,
The Christ who guides his children!
O King of the saints,
O sovereign Word
Of the Most High Father,
Prince of wisdom,
Support of toiling men,
Eternal Joy of the human family,
O Jesus, Savior …
Clement also advocated the visual arts in worship. Many early Christians were reluctant to do paintings or drawings, fearing attention to their work might constitute idolatry. Clement faced the issue head on and concluded that Christians are not to depict pagan gods (we’re not idolaters), nor sword or bow (we’re peaceful), nor wine cups (we’re temperate), nor reminders of sexual immorality. But Christians could “let our emblem be a dove, or a fish, or a ship running before the wind, or a musician’s lyre, or a ship’s anchor. And if there be a fisherman, he will remind us of an apostle, and little children being drawn up out of the water.”
Dr. James D. Smith III is pastor of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church and adjunct professor of church history at Bethel Seminary-West, both in San Diego, California. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Christian History.
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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