The early church for the most part was not filled with intellectuals or the social elite. Historians have pieced together an understanding of the early church through the writings of early church leaders. Their writings do not give a complete picture of the Christian life during the early church period. Much like the writings of church leaders today do not fully reflect a picture of the rank and file Christian. A pagan writer named Celsus wrote, “Christians were ignorant folk whose teaching took place, not in schools nor in open forums, but in kitchens, shops, and tanneries.”1 This was said to mock the Christian faith, but the fact remains, Christianity did not spread through the Roman Empire through an elite class of missionary evangelist, but by everyday Christian folk talking “in kitchens, shops, and tanneries.”2
The apostolic writers wrote about very specific issues within the church. The apologist who followed them wrote in defense of the faith to unbelievers outside of the church. It is from two sources, one from each group of writers; “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve” (an apostolic writing), and from Justin Martyr (an apologist) that we get an understanding of the order of worship during the time of the early church.3 Much of the life of the early church was plagued by persecution. The last and great persecution occurred early in the fourth century by Emperor Diocletian and Galerius the Caesar under him. In 304 AD Galerius became ill and issued an edict ending persecution by the Roman empire. There remained lingering persecution until the edict of Milan in 313 AD.4
Through a series of calculated battles and events in the early fourth century Constantine became sole Emperor of the Roman Empire. Though much of his actions were not Christian he was nonetheless Christian friendly; therefore, from that point forward much of Christian life changed as it went from a faith of the poor and meek, to a faith of the rich and powerful.
What we do in church worship services today are reflect changes made by the Constantine era. For the first 300 years’ church meetings were held in houses, and in the catacombs (subterranean burial sites). Teaching included both interaction with the teacher and the other brethren, and communion was part of a full meal. Changes to the church meetings began after Constantine. Christians started meeting in buildings called basilicas, which was a Roman/Geek Imperial building or pagan temple. Professional orators trained in rhetoric began to speak in the church. Because of the layout of the basilica, and also having professional orators there was less-and-less interaction with the teacher and the other brethren.5
As a result, today we meet in church buildings not in homes. Communion does not follow a full meal. We sit in pews facing forward having no interaction with one another during the meeting, and we do not engage the pastor during his teaching. The speaker is on a platform or stage and has a podium to speak from. None of these things are found in the life of the early church.6 However, we have unity with our brothers and sister from the early church in these; we believe in and hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to those of the apostles and prophets. We meet on Sunday mornings, and hold to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. We are of the whole (catholic) one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Reformation, 2nd ed., (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 105.
3 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1996), 84.
4 Cf., Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Reformation, 2nd ed., (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 119-126.
5 Scott McPherson, “The Early Church”, Church History part 4, Biblestudying.net, accessed January, 31, 2017, https://youtu.be/PAkAKpx1ALg