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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 28 Mar 2002

Church History QUESTION from Alan Jeffrey Dompas February 7, 2000 Dear Madam, to my recollection, we can trace back the history of the early christians assembly at the members houses/home. Is it correct to say that this was the start of the christians on going to church?,
Please advise
In Christ, Jeffrey
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on February 12, 2000 Dear Jeffrey
For the greater part of the pre-Nicene church, Christians did meet in houses. In the earliest decades, Jewish converts to the faith often met in synagogues if the whole congregation, including the elders, converted. Soon after the Apostolic Age, Gentile converts quickly outnumbered their Jewish counterparts. The Gentiles obviously did not have any synagogues, so they were forced to improvise.
In the Pre-Nicene period, Christianity was largely an urban religion, and her faithful were at one time or another either outcasts or outlaws. This situation made it nearly impossible to obtain the necessary permit to build places of worship. And, even when it was possible to erect a church, Christians often lost their property to the State in times of persecution.
It therefore became necessary to meet in the house of a wealthy patron, in secret. These houses would be fairly large. Hippolytus (c. 2nd century), in describing the Sunday service, relates that the doorkeeper would greet over a hundred people. This would also indicate that in areas with a significant Christian population, there would be numerous congregations; numerous because a house could only hold so many people; and numerous because the number of well-to-do converts was substantial.
The room used for the service would be especially set aside for that purpose and fittingly decorated. It would be of an oblong shape, and there would be an annex where the clergy would prepare for the service-- a presbytery of sorts. There could also be a baptistery with a tub. Since candidates were undressed for baptisms, modesty dictated that the rite be performed in a relatively secluded place.
The customs associated with worship, as you can see, were much more fluid than they are today. Persecution and social contempt made such adaptations necessary. Those of us who are cradle Catholics, or those who grew up as conservative Protestants, take for granted how regulated our practices are. We attend a set parish, at a given time; we hear the same Mass with little variation, always the same words in the same order (if we're lucky enough to attend a Mass relatively free of abuses). This was not the case in the Early Church. Especially in the first century and a half, the Church was much more free to make things up as they went along. There was prophesying, as St. Paul describes in his epistles, and the priest leading the congregation did not have a set text to read, nor was there a set order of how the ceremony should proceed. But, in spite of the relative lack of rules, the lack of liturgical texts, and regional variations, the services of the first centuries were incredibly similar. Justin Martyr (died around A.D. 164)describes in his First Apology the order of the Mass as follows:

1. Lessons (lxvii, 3). 2. Sermon by the bishop (lxvii, 4). 3. Prayers for all people (lxvii, 5; lxv, 1). 4. Kiss of peace (lxv, 2). 5. Offertory of bread and wine and water brought up by the deacons (lxvii, 5; lxv, 3). 6. Thanksgiving-prayer by the bishop (lxvii, 5; lxv, 3). 7. Consecration by the words of institution (? lxv, 5; lxvi, 2-3). 8. Intercession for the people (lxvii, 5; lxv, 3). 9. The people end this prayer with Amen. (lxvii, 5; lxv, 3). 10. Communion (lxvii, 5; lxv 5). [Quoted from the Old Catholic Encyclopedia Article Liturgy]
Justin writes that the priest leading the congregation would consecrate the host as best he could-- meaning there was no official prayer of consecration. Yet, in spite of a lack of a missal, the prayer service almost universally followed this outline from one end of the Church to the other.
So yes, the first Christians met in houses, but this should not be taken that they were being Protestant in doing this, as some might like to infer. The gatherings of Christians on Sunday were not prayer services in houses, like many people hold today. The Mass of the first Christians were not so radically different from the one that we know.
One notable practice which is absent today is that of the agape, the love-feast, which was never formally part of the Eucharistic celebration, but celebrated in conjunction with it. The Agape was a kind of potluck supper, where the more fortunate Christians would bring food for the poor, and the assembly would fraternize. By the third century, it was falling into disuse. Pagans suspected that Christians engaged in immorality during these gatherings, and unfortunately, some did. More and more these meals resembled pagan banquets rather than a Christian assembly, and the practice died out in the sixth century.
God Bless, Suzanne
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