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Justin Martyr on Congregational Worship in the Ancient Church

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Worship

This excerpt from Justin Martyr’s First Apology is the oldest record outside of the Bible of the ancient Christian order and time of congregational worship. Justin Martyr (110-165 A.D.) wrote the First Apology as part of the defense of his faith in a Roman court. It may be found in Volume I of the collection of writings from the early church titled The Ante-Nicene Fathers. The elements of worship and their general order conform to Acts 2:42 if 1) ‘fellowship’ is understood as the collection and distribution of the offering and 2) ‘breaking bread’ refers to the Lord’s Supper. Evidently, the churches known to Justin celebrated the Lord’s Supper every time they gathered together in remembrance of Him. Of course, the phrase ‘breaking bread’ need not refer to the Lord’s Supper. However, if that is not the meaning in Acts 2:42,46; and 20:7 we have no mention of the Lord’s Supper in the Biblical book of the history of the early church. Obviously, that cannot be the case. It may seem strange that Justin does not mention the singing of praise in his account. However, elsewhere he mentions singing ‘hymns’ in congregational worship. Probably the reference to prayer also includes singing. To this day Eastern Christians, as well as Jews and Moslems, sing or chant their prayers. After mentioning the collection of the offerings, Justin states that for ‘those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.’ The widows and poor present in the congregation apparently received support from the offering on Sunday. Those members of the church who could not be present, perhaps because of illness or imprisonment, would be visited by the deacons. Some believe that Justin is alluding to the practice in some of the ancient churches of taking bread and wine remaining from the Lord’s Supper to the homes of absent members. However, even if Justin is referring to the bread and wine left over, he does not say that it is used to observe the Lord’s Supper in the home. The order of worship followed by the Covenant Family Fellowship seeks to follow the New Testament elements, according to the pattern of the ancient church as found in Justin Martyr. We believe that this order accords very well with that of the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God. We would be happy to share this order of worship with any interested churches and welcome edifying criticism.

‘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 succors [give assistance to] 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 the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.’