What Were the Earliest Christian Communities like?
The emergence of a new religion
Many scholars in Christian history debate about the exact time when Christianity became distinct from Judaism. As a Jew himself, Jesus’ teaching and preaching could be understood as a reform movement within the Jewish tradition. Jesus’ twelve apostles whom he instructed to begin the Church, “spreading the news to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” were also Jews (Mt 28:19). And thus, the first and biggest questions facing the followers of Christ was what their relationship to the Mosaic Law was. What did it mean to be a “follower of the way” or a member of the New Covenant in Christ? Did gentiles need to become Jews before being admitted into this new community? These questions are debated by the early Christians in what the Book of Acts describes as the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
The discussion was largely centered upon the issue of circumcision (the mark of the covenant God established with Abraham). Some within the early Christian community were preaching that, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Others, such as the Apostle Paul, were preaching that circumcision was not necessary for one to be saved and thus it was wrong to suggest gentiles must be circumcised to enter the Christian community. Peter and James, ultimately concluded that salvation comes by grace; it is not predicated upon whether or not someone is circumcised.
The importance of this conclusion cannot be understated: it was a defining moment that distinguishes Christians from Jews. Circumcision, and also adherence to the Levitical law, was determined to not be binding on Christians. Moreover, being admitted and recognized as belong to God’s people was not done through circumcision and restricted to those of the Jewish community, but was a universal invitation to all people, thus why early christians called themselves catholic, meaning “universal.” This was now understood by Christians to occur through the washing of regeneration, or baptism.
How did they worship?
Firstly, before we discuss how Christians worshiped, it might be helpful to discuss where they worshiped. Because Christians were mostly lower rank and heavily persecuted up until the reign of Constantine, they typically worshiped in what is described as a domus ecclesiae, latin for “house church.” These were small rooms located in the basements of houses, owned by a member of the congregation who served as a patron.
The only recognizable piece a furniture in the place of worship was a table (possibly an altar). However, scholars disagree about whether this functioned as the location of an agape meal (a communal feast to heighten the community’s sense of belonging are mutual affection) or where Christians celebrated the Eucharist, ευχαριστία in Greek, which means “thanksgiving.” Moreover, it is also possible that the Eucharist was celebrated as part of the agape meal as well. Regardless, this table or altar was the focal point of the room. It wouldn’t be until the fourth century when basilicas are erected and specifically denoted as Christian worship spaces.
There are a number of sources one could use to speculate how the early Christians conducted their worship services, but the two earliest and most reliable are the Didache (c. 90 C.E), and St. Justin Martyr's First Apology. The Didache is greek for “teaching” and is also known as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” In chapters 8-10 we get a glimpse of how Christians prayed and perhaps what were included in their worship services. Chapter 8 specifies that Christians should pray using the instructions Jesus gave during the sermon on the mount: the “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9-13).
Chapters 9 and 10 deal specifically with the Eucharist, and include instructions for a prayer of consecration for both the bread and wine. It then instructs to not let anyone who has not been baptized take part in the ritual, saying, “But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord.” . It also indicates that the consecrated bread and wine should be brought to the members of the community who are absent.
St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology (c.155 C.E.) was written as an apologia, meaning “defense,” of the Christian faith to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. In Chapter 67 it gives a play by play of what a typical Christian gathering would entail. He explains that on the “day of the Sun,” or Sunday, all the Christians in the area congregate together in one place. First they read the memoirs of the Apostles and then the writings of the prophets. Subsequently, the presbyter, or leader, exhorts the congregation and encourages them to imitate the “good things” they have heard. After this, the bread and wine are brought forth and prayed over and then distributed to the congregation. He specifically mentions that the members receive the bread saying, “Amen,” which means, “I believe” or “I assent.” Lastly, prayers or petitions are offered for the congregation and the wider community and the consecrated bread and wine and brought to those in the community who were unable to attend the service. So, as the evidence from the Didache and the First Apology suggests, the celebration of the Eucharist seems to be a particularly important aspect of Christian worship services in antiquity.
Who was in charge?
There is substantial debate on what the earliest hierarchical structure of the Church looked like. Roman Catholics assert that Peter was designated a special leadership role (the Petrine function) among the Apostles and is believed to be the first pope. Catholics of the Roman rite point to Matthew 16 to demonstrate this: “And I tell you, you are Peter,and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). In addition, they assert the bishopric of Rome has an unbroken line of succession from Peter until the present day. Even if Peter did have the main leadership role in the early church, it is clear that both James and John were highly regarded authorities as well. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he refers to these three (Peter, James, and John) as the “pillars” and expresses a need to present them with his Gospel to ensure it’s veracity and sincerity (Galatians 2:1-10).
Women in the Church
One topic generating an ever-growing discussion is the role of women in the early Christian communities. Were they given leadership roles? It is hard to deny that women were, in fact, entrusted with some level of authority in early Christian communities. Jesus himself has several close disciples that were women and seemed to challenge their traditional subservient role. As Irvin and Sunquist note, “Throughout his teaching and ministry he invited women and men alike to begin to live in a new family pattern that was non-patriarchal, doing so accord to the values of the coming reign of God.” There are also several women that Paul explicitly grants authority to within his epistles, Prisca and Pheobe, and distinguishes them as leaders of various communities.
All of this being said, it is important to note that the early Christian church was far from monolithic. During the first few centuries of Christianity, the New Testament canon had not yet been compiled and the hierarchical structure of the Church was still in flux. What would eventually become the systematization of the medieval Church was part of an evolutionary process that has its beginnings here in antiquity.
- In Paul’s epistle to the Romans this specific topic is discussed at length and it the major theme of the entire letter.
- The book of Leviticus in the Tanak (what Christians refer to as the ‘Old Testament’) thoroughly outlines the law Jews were instructed to live by according to God. This law details everything from circumcision to how one must prepare food and interact with gentiles.
- White, L. Michael, Building God's House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews, and Christians. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pg. 106-109.
- Didache,translated by M.B. Riddle. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm>
- Justin Martyr,First Apology, translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm>
- Irvin & Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement. (New York: Orbis, 2008), pg. 23.
- For more on women in the early Church see: Ehrman, Bart D. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).