When I was still protestant/evangelical, I assumed that the early Christians worshiped in a way that was similar in essence to what I was accustomed to. I imagined a rather casual atmosphere of singing, Bible reading, long lecture-like sermons, spontaneous prayer, and an occasional Lord’s Supper here and there for the sake of the symbolism and sentimentalism that accompanies it. I was quite sure that their worship would not have been tainted by any of what I deemed to be those ‘pagan rituals’ that I figured must have crept into the Church after Catholicism became the state religion of Rome in 380 AD. Imagine my surprise when I read a very prominent Early Church Father named Justin Martyr give account to the pagan Roman government regarding the way that Christians were worshiping in about 155 AD, just roughly 50 years after the final book of the Bible was written.
St. Justin was a renown evangelist/philosopher/apologist who was famous for winning debates with pagan philosophers. He was eventually tortured and executed by the Roman authorities for his Catholic faith. From just a few short paragraphs of his account (which is consistent with the ‘unanimous consent’ of the other early Church fathers), it was apparent that these early Christians:
- Believed that baptism had a regenerating effect and remitted sins
- All gathered regularly each Sunday to commemorating the day of Christ’s resurrection
- Celebrated a liturgy (organized public service) lead by a ‘president’ that included both the teaching of the Scriptures and the sharing in what they called ‘the Eucharist’ every single week
- Did not treat the Eucharistic bread and wine like ordinary food and drink, since the bread and wine “becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving” (Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’).
- Practiced closed communion (only those who united in the same beliefs were welcome to partake)
- Required one to live in accordance with the principles of Christ to receive communion (be in what we now call a ‘state of grace’)
- Believed that Jesus Christ taught them that they were to worship in this manner through his apostles and eye-witness disciples (these were no mere ‘traditions of men,’ but traditions of the ‘God-man’)
Don’t just take my word for it, read it:
From the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr, c. 155 AD
“ No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.
We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.
The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.
On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.
The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.
We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.“
It is worth noting that he was describing the practice of the Church in Rome, which was regarded as the center of the civilized world, and was already holding a place of prominence in decision-making within the whole Church (as described in the writings of early Church fathers St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Clement of Rome). This Church was violently persecuted by the pagan Roman government of the time, and the reason wasn’t because they were stealing those pesky ‘pagan rituals’ ;-)