Early Church History: Practices and Customs (Notes)


  1. Practices of the early church
    1. Baptism
      1. Catechumens” were men and women who had declared their interest in Christ, and had come under training by the church, but had not yet been baptized. For various reasons, usually related to poor doctrine (e.g. believing that forgiveness after baptism was much harder than the forgiveness given in baptism), people might remain catechumens for a long time. Even if they were eager, they might be delayed by the practice of putting off baptisms until Easter or another important season, or by the church’s suspicion (in times of persecution) of newcomers.
      2. Justin’s description (c. 150): “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ . . . As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” . . . And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.” (First Apology 61)
      3. Hippolytus’ description (c. 200) – see Hall, Doctrine and Practice, pp 18-22.
    2. Liturgy/Meeting
      1. growth of
        1. Liturgies seem to have been well under way in some localities by the time of the death of the Apostles, if one can judge this by the Didache (c. 95-100).
      2. examples of
        1. Pliny’s testimony.
        2. Didache
        3. Justin Martyr: “. . . in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. [ then the Eucharist, see below ]. (First Apology 65)
        4. Justin again: “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 [etc., see below]. 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 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 Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” (First Apology, 67)
        5. Tertullian’s description of the Christian meetings: “We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation. We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful. However it be in that respect, with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more stedfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God . . . The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. [They are taken] to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. . . . One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.” (Tertullian, Apology, 39)
        6. Early liturgies
          1. Apostolic Tradition – don’t have access – but a derived work is Book 8, sections 3-22 of the Apostolic Constitutions in vol. 7 of the Ante Nicene Fathers. These chapters are taken from the earlier Apostolic Tradition.
          2. Most examples are relatively late, and out of our time period for Part 1 of this class. Liturgies were standardized in the East by the 6th century; somewhat earlier in the West.
          3. This is a fascinating topic, and one that is very exciting to Christians in some Protestant traditions, but I cannot say that I have gone very far into it, and so there is little I can say.
    3. Eucharist
      1. catechumens excused
      2. examples
        1. Justin Martyr: “There is then brought 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 from 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 ‘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. [Chap 66] And this food is called among us Eucharistia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. [He then quotes from the Lord’s supper passages.] ” (First Apology 65-66)
        2. composite description in Hall
      3. Changes in belief
        1. Sacramental growth
          1. Ignatius: “the medicine of immortality”
    4. Care of widows, orphans, the poor, etc.
      1. Even though the deacons seem to be the logical handlers of the money, this duty was early given to the bishop. He “signed the checks,” as it were. Deacons assisted, of course, but eventually bishops of large churches had staffs which could handle these kinds of tasks (see below)
    5. Asceticism
      1. Celibacy
      2. Other aspects
  2. Organization of the church(es) (Selected topics only)
    1. See Boer p 27ff for a good overall discussion
    2. growth of bishops, see McManners, pp 33-35: “The emergence of the ‘monarchical’ bishop seems to have been more rapid in some regions and cities than others. . . . A bishop went to represent his people at the ordination of bishops in neighboring churches. He also conducted correspondence with other churches. He was the normal minister of baptism, the president of the eucharistic assembly, ‘blamelessly offering the gifts’ as the first epistle of Clement put it (before the end of the first century). The gifts offered no doubt included the alms of the faithful as well as the bread and wine.”

Note that Ignatius does not exhort the Roman church about bishops, although his other six epistles are full of such exhortations. This is sometimes interpreted to mean that the Roman church, being far west of Asia and Antioch (in Syria), had not yet come to the belief in a single “monarchical” bishop.By the time of Irenaeus, however, the diocesan bishop seems to be the established norm across the Church. Even so, bishops continued to address the presbyters as “fellow presbyters” for several hundred years.elevation of the bishop, see Ap. Const. II: xxvi. This description is from the fourth century: “The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honored by you.”

    1. Sacramental role of the “clergy”
      1. A distinction between clergy and laity goes all the way back to the Bible, in the sense that  church officers are to “shepherd” (I Pet 5:2) and even “rule” (I Tim 5:17) the flock. The concept of “laity,” meaning the people as opposed to the leadership, is found clearly in I Clement 40:5 (arguably the earliest Apostolic Father), where he derives the concept from the Old Testament. But what begins as a healthy division of labor grows into a canyon between the two groups.
      2. This growth in bishops, the growing distinction between clergy and laity (first found clearly in Ignatius, naturally), and the sacramental/priestly role of the clergy all seem to be part of the same growth in the “tradition.” It is obvious (if you are a Protestant) that the growth is gradual and traceable, and that the further one gets from the Apostles, the more pronounced the novelty in doctrine has become. Yet, all through the history of the church, every writer declared unanimously that whatever was practiced at that time was a faithful, accurate transmission of the Apostolic teaching. It is important to note that they were exactly right about this assertion when it came to the heresies and to the Rule of Faith. But, while they were “earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints” in several areas of doctrine, they were allowing church practice and church liturgy to drive a wedge between them and everything the Apostle Paul had worked for. No topic makes this more clear than the gradual growth of the notion that the church leaders served a priestly function, analogous to the Jewish or pagan priesthoods.
      3. Tertullian was the first to really use “sacerdotium” as a term applicable to the Christian ministry, although (as a good Montanist) he also strongly asserted the priesthood of all believers. (Schaff v2 p. 126)
      4. Cyprian (d. 258) applies all Aaronic functions to the ministry. In the third century it begins to be customary to call ministers priests (Schaff v2 p. 126).
    2. New officers (Schaff v2 p. 131): sub-deacons, readers, acolyths, exorcists, precentors (musical and worship leaders), janitors. In Rome before 252, the following numbers are given: 46 presbyters (probably representing the number of meeting places in the city), seven deacons (a traditional number which was preserved in many locations, based upon Acts 6), seven sub-deacons, 42 acolyths, and 52 exorcists, readers, and janitors. !!!
    3. Deaconesses: These seem to have existed. Evidence in Rom 16:1; perhaps 1 Tim 3:11. The Letter of Pliny to Trajan says, “I thought it the more necessary, therefore, to find out what truth there was in this by applying torture to two maidservants, who were called deaconesses.” (Bettenson, p. 4) Bettenson goes on to say in a footnote, “‘ministrae’ probably represents the Greek diakonoi. If so, this is the last reference to ‘deaconesses’ till the fourth century, when they attained some importance in the East. They seem to have been unknown in the West until the recent establishment of the office in the Anglican Church.
       The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, under “deaconess,” says: “Not until the end of the fourth century is much known about the office of deaconess (Gr. diakonissa). The ‘Didascalia’ and the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ describe their functions as assistants to the clergy in the baptizing of women, ministers to the poor and sick among women, instructors of women catechumens, and in general intermediaries between the clergy and women of the congregation. Fears of the usurping of priestly functions and other considerations led to the extinction of the office in the church at large by the eleventh century.”
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