Several weeks ago I published a series of posts on the biblical understanding of tithing and giving. (You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3). I discussed how the early Christian church collected funds specifically for the purpose of redistributing back to those in need. We read about this in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-35.
This practice continued to go on well into the second century, as evidenced by the writings of Justin Martyr, a major Christian apologist during the second century. The following is an except from his First Apology, and in it Justin describes a typical church service.
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 succours [uses it to help] 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. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Chapter LXVII.)
The typical meeting consisted of (1) the reading of scripture, (2) a teaching/exhortation related to what was just read, (3) communal prayers, (4) the partaking of communion, (5) and the giving of donations by well-off members as they saw fit. These donations were then given to orphans, widows, prisoners, foreigners, and anyone else in need.
This was written around 155 AD, showing the continued practice of giving collected funds to the needy. It did not cease to be practiced for more than one hundred years after Jesus ascended into heaven, which shows remarkable consistency.
I’ve said it before. Churches should show more serious intention to follow scripture and the example demonstrated by the early church. Love for money inhibits the church from fully functioning as the body of Christ. When financial abuses occur by churches and church leaders (and they do occur), this blasphemes the name of God. As Jesus said, “you cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) As our country contracts economically and people struggle to make ends meet, this will become increasingly important.
The other aspects of corporate worship may sound familiar. Some Christian denominations still have a public reading from scripture, although it seems to be conspicuously absent from your typical evangelical service. To be fair, public reading had even greater need then, as access to scripture was much more limited than today. Illiteracy was common among the poor, and the cost to copy manuscripts was much more prohibitive.
The rest mentioned by Justin—the teachings, prayer, and communion—still occur in churches today, with variation in the particulars. He does not mention musical worship in this excerpt, although we know that “hymns and spiritual songs” are mentioned by Paul in scripture (Ephesians 5:19). Obviously, the concert style of worship music now would be altogether foreign to these early Christians.
Of course, this description is not scripture. There is no command that a church needs to be conducted in this particular way. However, if we understand where the church came from, it can free us from traditional expectations that aren’t found in scripture. It can free us to worship in ways that spiritually edify the church and bring glory to Jesus.