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I’m really enjoying N.R. Needham’s 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 1: Age of the Early Church Fathers, part of a very accessible but well-informed multi-volume survey of church history. On pp. 66-75 he outlines a fairly typical church service in the second century (A.D. 101-200), based on descriptions and instructions found in the early Church fathers. I thought it might be helpful to outline it below.

The service of worship on Sunday lasted about 3 hours in total, with the typical posture being standing throughout. There were no musical instruments, and the Lord’s Supper was observed every week.

The first part, “The Service of the Word,” was open to three groups: (1) baptized believers; (2) those receiving instruction in the Christian faith; and (3) (probably) those who were merely curious about Christianity.

The second part of the service, “Prayers and the Eucharist,” was only open to believers who had been baptized. The rest had to leave. Needham writes that the early church understood congregational prayer as “participating by the Holy Spirit in the glorified Christ’s own heavenly ministry of prayer”—something unbelievers could not share in since they did not have the Spirit.

Part 1: Service of the Word

1. Opening greeting by bishop and response by the congregation. Often, the bishop would say “The Lord be with you” and the congregation would respond, “And with your spirit.”

2. Old Testament Scripture reading. Usually read or chanted by a deacon.

3. Psalm or hymn (I). Chanted or sung.

4. New Testament Scripture reading (I). This first NT reading was from any NT book outside the gospels.

5. Psalm or hymn (II).

6. New Testament Scripture reading (II). From one of the four gospels.

7. Sermon. Delivered by the bishop, while seated.

8. Dismissal of all but baptized believers.

Part 2: The Eucharist

1. Congregational prayers. The prayer leader—the bishop in the West; senior deacon in the East—would announce the first topic. The congregation prayed silently for a while. Then the leader summed up the petitions with his own spoken prayer. Then he would do the same pattern again with a new topic. This was a lengthy part of the service. Early Christian art suggests that a typical posture from praying was standing, looking heavenward, with arms outstretched and palms up.

2. The Lord’s Supper. Here’s the order: (1) the bishop offered a greeting; (2) the congregation responded; (3) there was a “kiss of peace” (men to men, women to women); (4) church members brought their own small loaf of bread and flask of wine from home; the deacons took these and spread them out on the Lord’s table, emptying the flasks of wine into one large silver cup. (5) The bishop and the congregation engaged in a liturgical “dialogue” with the congregation; (6) the bishop led the congregation in prayer; (7) the bishop and the deacons broke the bread and distributed the cup to the congregation. (8) Something would be said to each member as he or she received the elements (e.g., “The bread of heaven in Christ Jesus,” with the response of “Amen.”) Unconsumed bread and wine would be taken home by church members to use for celebrating communion at home during the weekdays.

3. Benediction. E.g., “Depart in peace,” spoken by the deacon.

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37 thoughts on “What Was a Church Service Like in the Second Century?”

  1. Steven Dresen says:

    Last part of the last sentence in the fourth paragraph has a typo. It reads: “something believers could not share in since they did not have the Spirit.”

    Should be: “something unbelievers could not share in since they did not have the Spirit.”

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Yikes. Thanks, Steve!

  2. Josiah says:

    It’s remarkable how similar this is to a modern Anglican service.

    1. Christiane says:

      and like the Catholic Mass . . . I guess the format was ‘handed down’ through the ages

  3. John Botkin says:

    VERY interesting! Thanks for posting this. I have these books on my shelf, but haven’t read them yet. Looks like they are getting moved up in the to-read list!

  4. Alex C says:

    Another typo, much smaller in import, in the second sentence: it reads “On pp. 66-75 he outlines a fairly typical church serve”, but “serve” should probably read “service”.

    Again, really interesting information! Knowing how the early church celebrated the Lord’s day helps me break down my own conservative reflex against change. I guess we can’t say this anymore: “Change?! But we’ve always done it that way before!”

  5. RPW says:

    It wasn’t necessarily that they weren’t believers. Catechumens (those studying the faith and preparing for baptism) left as well. Many of them already had heard the Word and come to faith, but until they were properly catechized and presented for baptism (usually at Easter), they left before the Body and Blood of Christ were given, because they took 1 Corinthians 11 seriously – “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason, many among you are weak and sick and a number sleep.” Catechesis was crucial.

  6. David says:

    I wonder about the length of time observed before baptism, and was it based on catechesis or something else. Were the examples of Peter and Paul and Philip baptizing outliers (Cornelius, at the river, eunuch)? How much catchesis is necessary or proper? Enough to come to faith, or enough to know the whole faith. And, which should be stressed – enough or all – before baptism?

    Thus, were the church fathers (just the ones included in this research) guarding people from baptism or baptism from the people? Is it unfair to assume that someone is ready for baptism upon faith? I might be misunderstanding this, but from what I just read, it sounded as if you could have believers who were restrained from being “baptized believers” until they believed “more,” or something like that.

  7. These are certainly interesting accounts to read. Check out also this quote from Justin Martyr’s First Apology (written ca. AD 150) on what a church service was like, as he was defending Christianity to the emperor.

  8. Bill Crawford says:

    Does Needham address whether the hymns consisted of only Psalms or other inspired text (Scripture), or whether they were possibly human, uninspired compositions?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Yes, briefly. There was development over the centuries on this issue, and it seems like different things happened in different places.

  9. J Clancy says:

    I appreciate Davids response and questions. It is an interesting article, however, even if accurate historically, it is inaccurate Biblically. There are several places in Scripture where we see people who “believed and were baptized” at once. There is no ordinance given for a time of waiting and instruction between the accounts of Belief and baptism. And a Believer at any stage of Walk is welcome to partake of the Bread and Wine with a very basic understanding of the meaning.
    Finally, though I cannot think of a Biblical example, there is no reason to dismiss unbelievers from a time of prayer.

    What God has omitted from His Word is as important as what He included in it. There is no Biblical course set for the church in the matter of unbelievers being present for pprayer nor a time of waiting or education before baptism. We must be so very careful, as Paul warns, not to add our own intricate ideas of “what should be” to God’s own vey simple plan laid out for us to follow. God is very clear about “requirements”. Anything more that we add is false doctrine and we stand in danger of adding to His Scriptures.

    1. Jeff H says:

      Some excellent observations here. I too immediately thought of the many biblical accounts of immediate baptism. I’m not in the camp that would require this, but neither am I in the camp that would painstakingly hold off until a person is “fully ready.” Certainly we have reason to believe that those Paul wrote of who had drifted in their faith were previously baptized.

      I have also wondered about the traditional exclusion of unbelievers from the Lord’s Supper. The word in 1 Cor. 27 is “unworthy,” not “unbelieving.” And the context points to those who do not rightly honor the ceremony–those who are flippant or gluttonous in their participation (things “believers” were guilty of!). If believers can have powerful encounters with God during the Eucharist, certainly ceremony-honoring pre-believers may have a similar experience and be drawn by this one-of-a-kind “pictorial interaction” with Christ’s saving work to give their hearts over to Him in full faith. (I may be fully alone in my thoughts here, so I’d welcome thoughtful–in both senses of the word–response.)

  10. Arthur Sido says:

    Interesting. Rather than a defense of our church traditions, this strikes me as evidence that within a century after the death of Christ we see Christians turning (as men always do) toward rituals. I am a lot more concerned with what a first century gathering of the church looked like. The picture Needham has painted looks a lot more like a Roman Catholic Mass or a traditional Protestant service than it does the gathered church in Scripture.

    1. Arthur,
      What, pray tell, does the gathered church in Scripture look like? There’s no “description” of a worship service in the NT, as the documents are almost all occasional, written to deal with specific issues as they arose. But we do know what synagogue worship looked like, and we do know what Christian worship from the time just after the completion of the New Testament (and in some cases contemporary with it) looked like, and we do know that they look remarkably similar, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that worship in the NT church followed this pattern as well. When you understand the liturgical background of the NT, you can see a lot more of these traditional elements implicit in the documents.
      Now, of course, the NT doesn’t describe or demand liturgical worship, so I would never say that it’s a MUST for church’s. But to act as though any liturgy is a departure from the New Testament shows a lot of chronological snobbery, as well as ignorance of the history of worship.

      1. henrybish says:

        1Cor14 gives a pretty good picture of what a gathering was like in NT times.

        1. Does it? Or is Paul correcting abuses? Can you develop an order of service from it? While we’re at it, note v. 16, which seems to indicate a part of the service where a specific liturgical call and response are in order.

    2. Christiane says:

      “The picture Needham has painted looks a lot more like a Roman Catholic Mass”

      yes, it does . . .

      BTW, the communion scriptures are taken from the Words of Christ and were handed down, before they were written down
      . . . they never changed

      I think that a second century Christian would ‘recognize’ this format, yes
      and, in reading the Patristics, as well as the Book of Revelation, the similarities are striking

  11. CS says:

    So I wonder if there is any record of what they did with children, especially during the closed part of the service. Since it seems that they practiced believer’s baptism, I wonder how they saw that as affecting the children of believers. Were they allowed to stay but not participate, much like it would be in many church services today? Or did they have to send the kids home?

  12. Bob McD says:

    What? No praise band as an opening act to crank the “audience” up to “feel” the prescence of the Spirit? No special music with applause?

    1. Jeff H says:

      Because the purpose of every praise band is not to praise but to emote and to cause emotion? That seems a rather broad criticism, judging the hearts of men.

  13. Paul C says:

    Arthur hits the nail on the head: “this strikes me as evidence that within a century after the death of Christ we see Christians turning (as men always do) toward rituals.”

    Consider almost every letter from Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John were warning against religious intrusions into the church in some fashion. This service outline sounds as Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran as our modern day. And they are largely apostate movements.

    I’m not sure what the value is from deriving much from an outline like the one in the OP. It certainly doesn’t reflect much of anything seen in the New Testament.

  14. RPW says:

    As far as believers baptism, there is SIGNIFICANT record that infants were baptized, even in the Bible. Acts talks about how whole families were baptized. Children were there in the service, and in many cases were also communed.

    As far as already being contaminated by ritual, the Christian church has ALWAYS been ritualized. The services they embraced were based on the liturgies of the Jewish Tabernacles and evolved from there to include various proclamations of the gospel rapidly. This was a protection to the church. Not only is the liturgy a constant proclamation of the gospel, no matter if a bad sermon is being preached, it also is so completely different than the chaotic services the pagans engaged in around them that it served as a protection and a guide to keep the services from embracing the emotionally-driven, carnal practices of everyone surrounding them.

    Ritual is not evil. It is a good thing. It confesses that we are not only in the present, but we are worshiping Christ with all believers from past to those in Heaven as well. It is also based on the ancient to modern traditions of the King’s Court. Its very set up confesses Christ as King of Kings, since even kings worshiped Him this way. Once the liturgy is known and understood what is going on, it is an incredibly devotional and intimate as well as communal way to worship.

  15. henrybish says:

    Makes me compare it to the kind of church service described in 1Cor14. This is not to commend one way or the other but It seems quite different mainly because:

    1) there seems less participation by other members in addressing the congregation (1Cor14:26)
    2) absence of sign gifts (prophecy, interpretation… etc).

    Very good to see the amount of scripture infused into the service though.

  16. Gary says:

    Nothing to add, just here to second the comments above by Bob McD and RPW.

  17. Edward Gross says:

    RPW, there is NOT “significant evidence” of infant baptism in the New Testament. That is completely theologized, not deduced. Every clear instance of NT baptism is believer’s baptism.

    1. JMH says:

      That’s right. There’s also no evidence that women partook of the Lord’s Supper. There’s not a single text that indicates they did. The conclusion that women have a right to take the Lord’s supper is completely theologized.

    2. RPW says:

      In the 2nd Century, a term of catechesis became important because the Church was so persecuted. While they would not question a person’s coming to faith or confession of faith, since people could easily be asked to put their lives on the line for this faith, knowing what they believed, why they believed it, etc. was important before they became a member of the Church. They needed a time of strengthening. Christians were persecuted as cannibals by Romans for eating the body and blood of Christ. So the period of Catechesis before allowed in the holiest part of the service was there for the protection of the young believer. Because if they partook of the Body and Blood of Christ and then were led to betray the church, they were concerned for the well-being of the soul of that believer.

      Edward – When certain people are to be excluded from something, the Bible is very clear on who it should be. While we are told there is no male and female in Christ, 2nd Timothy also makes it clear that women should not be elders/pastors. In an era where generations lived in the same household, and where birth control did not exist, there were always babies. If it says in Acts that the prison guard’s whole family was baptized, or “Go therefore and baptize all nations” if God didn’t mean children, he would’ve said “no children” but instead, when we are told to let little children come unto Him, or to have the faith of little children, the Greek is Paideia, which includes babies. (i.e. Pediatrician). The Holy Spirit imparts faith through baptism, it is not just a symbolic act. And the Holy Spirit, who draws all who come to faith, can speak baby…as is proven by John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.

    3. Scott Cline says:

      Dittos, Edward.

      Attempts to find paedobaptism in Scripture itself are embarrassingly strained, and many younger paedobaptists have quite those arguments altogether.

      As for extra-biblical evidence, the earliest reference to baptism (Didache, c.60-80) is credobaptism by immersion. Later documents (Irenaeus, 130-202, being the earliest) mention paedobaptism, but always in terms of baptismal regeneration (which RPW seems to espouse). Those whose theological commitments cannot allow for baptismal regeneration should note that the very first evangelical (non-regenerational) rationale for paedobaptism appears in Zwingli, 1525 (and the political pressures which drove his trajectory are worth studying).

      There are very strong theological reasons for including women in the Lord’s Supper, and very strong theological reasons for excluding infants from the covenant community (like taking at face value the declaration that all NC members will consciously know the Lord).

  18. Ken Stewart says:

    It is possible that Nick Needham has addressed this question (and that Justin has overlooked including it). If Nick himself fails to address this, he has done us a disservice. The question is: what is there about a second-century church service that should _bind_ us? It is one thing to depict a second-century church service and to simply say – there it is, for your interest’s sake. It is quite another to depict it and to suggest or imply that it is there to be copied, as the next-best thing to the apostolic age itself.
    In the past 25 years, we have had too much of the second approach. It is what you will find in Robert Webber’s various writings on the worship of the early church; in Peter Gilquist’s recounting of what led him from Campus Crusade to the Antiochean Orthodox Church in the USA(it was the church of the NT! he concluded with his friends). You will find it also in Thomas Howard’s farewell to Evangelicalism: _Evangelical is Not Enough_.

    So Justin tell us: in posting this, do you post it as mere historical construction (more or less accurate) as this is what Nick Needham intended? Or did he (and do you)mean to imply that there is something about the second century that binds us to copy it? The difficulty with the latter is that this reconstruction of the second century is definite where the NT is not. If the second century is set up as “commentary” on the Apostolic period, then we will have no defense against errors from that period. If we take it a mere information, we can sift it more eclectically.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Ken, good question. Needham only intends it, in context, as a historical reconstruction. I thought about mentioning at the beginning of the post that I merely post it “for interest’s sake” and not as a model per se. That clarification probably would have been wise.


    2. Scott Cline says:

      If Needham’s description does reflect the apostolic model (a question I’m not seeking to answer at the moment), then I can’t imagine a Christian not taking it very seriously. God never asked us to figure out how to worship Him, but in Heb. 12:28 we are called to worship Him “acceptably,” with reverence and awe (which must presuppose some standard). God has always regulated form to at least some extent, and no wonder– form has meaning. There should be very little controversy concerning the elements of an ekklesia meeting; and, although the circumstances of such a meeting will vary, traditions cultivated within the community of faith are far more likely to embody God’s ideal than those drawn from other sectors! How could a Christian fail to see anything more than human interest in this kind of insight? Have we nothing to learn from the priorities, presuppositions, and patterns of the earliest meetings?

      And as for those who’ve become enamored with high church religion and called it “apostolic,” well, I can only say that they’d be disappointed to witness the meeting Needham describes for us. No robes. No stained glass. No candles. No architecture. etc. Simple ekklesia. Our high church friends have forgotten that 1000 year old innovations are still innovations.
      A pure appreciation for these early meetings will never lead anybody into Eastern Orthodoxy; I do hope that it will lead many into modest NT meetings that reflect God’s priorities.

      I’m tempted to ask any Christian who’s gun-shy of this picture, “What do you have to lose? What are you clinging to that this picture might rob you of?”

  19. Ken Stewart says:

    Scott Cline:
    I largely agree with you in what you say here. There is, in Needham’s portraiture (for example) a much more robust place given to the proclamation of the Word than you can find in the portraiture of Justo Gonzales (The Story of Christianity) who would have the modern reader suppose that the church meetings of the second century were largely sacramental and hardly at all concerned with proclamation. So, by and large, Needham is sketching out the ongoing observance of essentials which we know were basic to NT Christianity.
    Nevertheless, your approach still assumes (to an unhealthy degree, I think) a continuity between the practice and practices of the apostles and those of the age of the Apostolic Fathers. For example, the Needham depiction makes the role of the bishop central in the worship service. Yet it is not at all a settled matter that an episcopate was universal across the Mediterranean church. It is far from certain that the Lord’s Supper was observed weekly – though the localized accounts of such witnesses as Justin Martyr report that it was so in the church as they knew it. The nineteenth century writer on the Early Church, and the Development of Doctrine, Robert Rainy, said it well when he cautioned:
    “Development does not start from the completed Revelation; that would be a lofty starting point, indeed. It starts from the measure of understanding which the Church had of the Revelation at the time when apostolic guidance ended: it starts from the measure of attainment in knowledge of the meaning, scope, and connection of the truth; from the thoughts and especially the clear thoughts, which the Church then had of the truth set forth in the apostolic teaching…”
    When one recalls that the second century Church was not yet in possession of a full NT canon, accepted by gradual consensus, one has an additional reason to hesitate in affirming that the second century is none other than the apostolic period extended.

    Ken Stewart

  20. Samonas says:

    This sounds more like an Easter Orthodox Divine Liturgy than it does any kind of modern day western service. Though, certain things like the division of the service into two parts has survived in more traditional churches…

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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