Worship in the Early Church

Worship in the New Testament embraced both attitude and form. Jesus spoke of worship in this way in John 4:24:

24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit d in truth.”

Worship must not be robbed of its emotional content or made void of feelings. However, it must also be based upon the truth of God’s word. True worship is not based upon doing things the way we like, or the way that most people like it. We have to look through scripture to find the God affirmed acts or items of praise and devotion to God.

Worship is not a spectator sport in which the worshipers sit in the stands giving their approval or disapproval to those performing in the arena. In true worship, the worshippers are involved in the action. Worship is not a dramatic production in which the ‘clergy’ are the actors and the worshippers are the audience. In true worship, God is the audience, and the worshipers are the actors.[1]

Earle Cairns has this to say about the corporate worship of the early church.

During the first century, two services were held on the first day of the week. That day was adopted as the day of worship because it was the day on which Christ rose from the dead (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). The morning service most likely included the reading of Scripture (Col. 3:16), exhortation…, prayers, and singing (Eph 5:19). The love feast (I Cor. 11:20-22), or agape preceded the Communion during the evening service, By the end of the first century the love feast was generally dropped and the Communion celebrated during the morning service of worship. [2]

It is also interesting to look at what we know about worship during the second and third Centuries.


The early Christians did not think of a church as a place of worship. A church signified a body of believers who were called out of the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They met in homes (Acts 12:12; Romans 16:5 Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1-4), the Temple (Acts 5:13), public auditoriums (Acts 19:9), and synagogue as long as they were permitted to do so (Acts 14:1, 3; 17:1; 18:4). Everett Ferguson said:

Not until the age of Constantine do we find specifically constructed buildings. Any space where an assembly was permitted was a possible site for Christian gatherings. [3]


Between A.D. 110 and 113 the Roman Emperor Trajan received a series of letters from Pliny, the governor of Bithynia. Pliny was concerned about what he considered a cult who met secretly within his governmental domain. His letters give some ideas about the types of things Christians practiced in their assembly in the early second century.

….It was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery,

not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food; and even this (they said) they had given up doing after the issue of my edict, by which in accordance with your commands I had my edict, by which in accordance with your commands I had forbidden the existence of clubs. [4]

Clement of Alexandria (150-220 A.D.)

Always giving thanks in all things to God through righteous hearing and divine reading, true inquiry, holy oblation, blessed prayer, praising, hymning, blessing, singing, such a soul is never separated from God at any time. [5]


Ignatius (born about 50 A.D.)

If therefore those who lived according to the old practices came to the new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath but living according to the Lord’s day, in which also our life arose through him and his death (which some deny), through which mystery we received faith, and on account of which we suffer in order that we may be found disciples of Jesus Christ our only teacher, how shall we be able to live apart from him for whom even the prophets were looking as their teacher since we are disciples in the spirit (Magnesians 9) [6]

The Epistle of Barnabus. This could be the oldest uninspired Christian writing (69-79 A.D.). He was antagonistic towards the Judaizers, and worked to harmonize the Old and New Testaments.

Moreover God says to the Jews, ‘Your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure.’ You see how he says, ‘The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the Sabbath which I have made in which I rested from all things, I will make the beginning of the eight day which is the beginning of another world.’ Wherefore, we (Christians) keep the eight day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead and when he appeared  ascended into heaven. [7]


The roots of the Lord’s Supper are deeply intertwined in the Passover Meal which God instituted shortly before the Israelites escaped Egyptian bondage. Jesus did share many meals with his disciples but the Passover meal he shared with them the night he was arrested was special. (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:1-21). Jesus gave it an all new meaning. However, our knowledge of exactly how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the first century is limited.

In the mid second century, sometime between A.D. 140 and 155 Justin Martyr wrote his Apology to the Emperor Antionius Pius. This philosopher, teacher, apologist informed the emperor of this account of the meal:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he, taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen is the Hebrew for ‘so be it’. And when the President has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those of us who are called deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and the wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. [8]

The Didache was a church manual used by the early church that some have dated between (110-120 A.D.)

Concerning the eucharist, give thanks in this way: First concerning the cup, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.’ Concerning the broken bread, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. As this broken bread scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one loaf, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Because the glory and the power are yours through Jesus Christ forever.’ No one is to eat or drink of your eucharist except those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord. [9]


The first Christians were Jews. It should not be surprising that they would bring to their new faith and worship the custom of reading from Scripture. Paul wrote to Timothy, (I Timothy 4:13)

13Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.

Later in the second century Justin Martyr wrote,

The memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits (1st Apology67) [10]


The location of worship is not what is important. Worship takes place inside us. Our attitudes and emotions must blend with the God ordained items or acts of devotion. The Christians of the second and third centuries continued the external forms of worship that began in the first century by Jesus and his apostles.

We need to continue to worship God in spirit and truth today!

[1] Jimmy Jividen, More Than A Feeling Worship That Pleases God (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1999) 76.

[2] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through The Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 84.

[3] Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1981) 76.

[4] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1983) 14.

[5] Ferguson, 82.

[6] Ferguson, 67

[7] Ferguson, 67

[8] J.G. Davies, The Early Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985) 104.

[9] Ferguson, 93.

[10] Dan Dozier, Come Let Us Adore Him (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 1996) 196.

Posted in Topical Papers.