The earliest direct descriptions of a Christian worship service, paradoxically enough, come to us from early writings external to the New Testament. Probably the earliest of these descriptions is from the Didache, a compendium of various instructions by an unknown Christian from about AD 100. Teachings about the general order of Christian worship are as follows:
And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord: ‘In every place and at every time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.’
Several noteworthy features are to be found in this short description. First, as we already have seen, Christian worship was on Sunday, “the Lord’s own day”. Central to this worship was the celebration of the Eucharist, which is described by the language of sacrifice. In fact, the writer in the Didache connects Paul’s language of “the Lord’s table” (1 Co. 10:21) with the Old Testament prophet’s language of “the Lord’s table” (Mal. 1:7). He seems to suggest that the prediction by Malachi that this sacrifice was to be “among the nations” has its consummate fulfillment in the Christian Eucharist celebrated by Gentile Christians! Following Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciliation with one’s fellow prior to approaching the altar of God (Mt. 5:23-24), he urges Christians to reconciliation prior to the Eucharistic meal in order for their sacrifice to be “pure”, the very thing urged by Malachi. Further, the Christian meal should be preceded by “first confessing your transgressions”, in keeping with Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians (1 Co. 11:28-32).
Though not described in the context of a worship service, the compiler of the Didache also offers additional instructions concerning baptism, the Eucharist and itinerant apostles and prophets. Baptism, in agreement with Matthew 28:19, is to be conducted “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. It is to be in “living (= running) water”, language that draws both from Jewish tradition, in which mikva’ot were to be constructed so as to provide running water, and Christian tradition, where Jesus used a pun when he spoke of “living water” (Jn. 4:10). Water other than running water was acceptable for baptism if necessary, and baptism by pouring was acceptable if immersion was not convenient. A day or two of fasting was recommended for the baptismal candidate.
The celebration of the Eucharist is attended with two liturgical prayers, one for the cup and the other for the bread (and curiously, the order of cup first and then bread is reversed from Paul’s order in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). They are:
We give you thanks, O our Father, for your holy vine of your son David, which you made known unto us through your Son Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever.
We give you thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known unto us through your Son Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever and ever.
Once again, a collage of both Old and New Testament passages converge in these prayers, ranging from the pedigree of David to Jesus’ claims, “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1, 5). The repeating phrase, “Yours is the glory forever and ever”, is typical of several New Testament doxologies, while the reference to the gathering of the broken bread scattered upon the mountains is an oblique reference to the feeding of the 5000, when Jesus commanded his apostles to gather up the fragments (Mt. 14:20//Mk. 6:43//Lk. 9:17//Jn. 6:12-13). It is hardly to be doubted that the miracle of feeding the 5000 was firmly connected in the teachings of Jesus to eating the “bread from heaven” (Jn. 6:26-59). That Jesus commanded his apostles to “gather the pieces that are left over…[that] nothing be wasted” seems to symbolize the apostolic mission to the nations of the world. Here also, for the first time, is a requirement that the Eucharist is reserved for those who have been previously baptized. This description of the Eucharist, while it is couched in the language of sacrifice, clearly is marked in the Didache as “spiritual food and drink”, just as Paul similarly spoke of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Co. 10:3-4). Even the ancient Israelites in the desert had received communion of a sort, for the rock from which the water gushed was a type of Christ.
After the celebration of the Eucharist, yet another liturgical prayer is offered:
We give thee thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name, which you have made to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which you made known unto us through your Son, Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever. You, Almighty Master, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave food and drink unto men for enjoyment, that they might render thanks to you; but you bestowed upon us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through your Son. Before all things we give you thanks that you are powerful; yours is the glory forever and ever. Remember, Lord, your church to deliver it from all evil and to perfect it in your love; and gather it together from the four winds—even the church which has been sanctified—into your kingdom which you have prepared for it; for yours is the power and the glory forever and ever. May grace come and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any man is holy, let him come; if any man is not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen!
Clearly, the major temple motif of the Old Testament—a dwellingplace for the holy name of God—has been fulfilled in a spiritual way in the community of Christian believers, who now have received God’s name tabernacled in their hearts. The liturgical responses of Hosanna, Maranatha and Amen round off the prayer.
Finally, the instructions regarding itinerant apostles and prophets regulated their length of stay and any requests for money. Such traveling Christians must not stay more than two or three days, and any requests for money were signs of a false prophet. Itinerants deserved food, but they must not take advantage of their position. They clearly were given the freedom to speak in the name of the Lord, but there were controls set in place to test their authenticity as well.
Another very early description of Christian worship from nearly the same time as the Didache appears in a letter from Pliny, the Governor of Bithynia, to Trajan, the Roman Emperor (ca. AD 108-112). The value of this description is partly because it was composed by an outsider. Pliny was concerned about his method of prosecuting Christians, whose religion was not legal (now that Christians were distinguished from Jews). His province along the south coast of the Black Sea had been exposed to the Christian message at least since the composition of 1 Peter in the New Testament (cf. 1 Pe. 1:1). He wrote to Emperor Trajan, explaining his methods of interrogation, torture and execution, to which the emperor replied that his course of action was proper. However, Trajan also set forth that Christians were not to be sought out, but only prosecuted if they were formally accused—and anonymous charges were not to be entertained. In this correspondence, Pliny offered a brief description of Christian worship:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath (sacramentum) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honor it; after which it was their custom to separate and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.
Once again, several features are prominent in this description. First, Christians met on a fixed day, probably Sunday. Because Sunday was an ordinary work day, they were compelled to meet in the pre-dawn darkness. The early morning service contained both hymn-singing and sacred commitment. The hymns were directed to Christ, recognizing him as divine. Possibly the sacramentum was a baptismal vow or possibly the Eucharist itself, or perhaps it simply refers to prayers in general. Later, possibly that same evening after their day’s work was completed, they assembled again, this time more clearly to celebrate the Eucharist. From this suggestion, some have suggested that the morning worship was a “service of the Word”, while the evening service was a “service of communion”.
A few decades later (ca. AD 155), Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, offered two contributions concerning Christian worship. The first describes a baptismal service followed by the Eucharist. Here, after the baptism, the newly baptized convert joins the assembly of worshippers, where prayer is offered and commitments are made to be “keepers of the commandments”. After the prayers, the kiss of peace is exchanged by congregational members, and the leader presents to the congregation the elements of the communion service.
There is then brought up 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 Ghost, 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 answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
In explaining the communion, Justin says the food is called Eucharistia (= the Eucharist, the thanksgiving), and only baptized believers are allowed to participate. The bread and wine signify the flesh and blood of Jesus following the explanation of the Lord at the last supper, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Justin’s second description of worship is similar in kind:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying, “Amen”; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who assists the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the day before that of Saturn [Saturday]; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun [Sunday], having appeared to his apostles and disciples, he taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
As with other post-apostolic references, the day of worship is Sunday. Prominent in the service are the readings of Scripture, where the writings of the apostles are listed alongside the writings from the Old Testament. The fact that the Scriptural readings are “as long as time permits” may be an intentional contrast with St. Paul’s restrictions on spontaneous gifts of prophecy or tongues. Paul restricts these two gifts to “two, or at the most, three” times in a given worship service (1 Co. 14:27, 29). Scripture, however, clearly takes precedence. The leader bases his exhortation on the Scriptural passages read, and the sermon is followed by communion. In both Justin’s descriptions, elements of the communion are carried by the deacons to brothers and sisters who were not able to attend. The service concludes with an offertory where gifts are given for the support of the poor or others in need. While the office of deacon is familiar from the New Testament, the title of “president” seems unusual. Perhaps this refers to the bishop or elder or pastor, since he presides over the communion.
Various other fragments pertaining to early Christian worship are scattered throughout the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but those given above are among the most complete. Altogether, the surviving accounts describe the major components of Christian worship to be Scripture reading, preaching, singing, praying, the Eucharist and giving.