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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER I. THE WORSHIP OF THE CHURCH. The religion of the primitive Christians must have appeared exceedingly strange to their pagan contemporaries. The heathen worship was little better than a solemn show. Its victims adorned with garlands

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen

CHAPTER I. THE WORSHIP OF THE CHURCH. The religion of the primitive Christians must have appeared exceedingly strange to their pagan contemporaries. The heathen worship was little better than a solemn show. Its victims adorned with garlands

CHAPTER I. THE WORSHIP OF THE CHURCH. The religion of the primitive Christians must have appeared exceedingly strange to their pagan contemporaries. The heathen worship was little better than a solemn show. Its victims adorned with garlands, its incense and music and lustral water, its priests arrayed in white robes, and its marble temples with gilded roofs, were fitted, rather to fascinate the senses, than to improve the heart or expand the intellect. Even the Jewish ritual, in the days of its glory, must have had a powerful effect on the imagination. As the Israelites assembled from all quarters at their great festivals -- as they poured in thousands and tens of thousands into the courts of their ancient sanctuary -- as they surveyed the various parts of a structure which was one of the wonders of the world -- as they beheld the priests in their holy garments -- and as they gazed on the high priest himself, whose forehead glittered with gold whilst his breastplate sparkled with precious stones -- they must have felt that they mingled in a scene of extraordinary splendour. But, when Christianity made its appearance in the world, it presented none of these attractions. Its adherents were stigmatized as atheists, [463:1] because they had no altars, no temples, and no sacrifices. They held their meetings in private dwellings; their ministers wore no peculiar dress; and, by all who sought merely the gratification of the eye or of the ear, the simple service in which they engaged must have been considered very bald and uninteresting. But they rejoiced exceedingly in its spiritual character, as they felt that they could thus draw near to God, and hold sweet and refreshing communion with their Father in heaven. It is probable that, during a considerable part of the second century, the Christians had comparatively few buildings set apart for public worship. At a time when they congregated to celebrate the rites of their religion at night or before break of day, it is not to be supposed that they were anxious to obtrude their conventicles on the notice of their persecutors. But as they increased in numbers, and as the State became somewhat more indulgent, they gradually acquired confidence; and, about the beginning of the third century, the form of their ecclesiastical structures seems to have been already familiar to the eyes of the heathen. [463:2] Shortly after that period, their meeting-houses in Rome were well known; and, in the reign of Alexander Severus, they ventured to dispute with one of the city trades the possession of a piece of ground on which they were desirous to erect a place of worship. [463:3] When the case came for adjudication before the Imperial tribunal, the sovereign decided in their favour, and thus virtually placed them under the shield of his protection. When the Emperor Gallienus, about A.D.260, issued an edict of toleration, church architecture advanced apace, and many of the old buildings, which were now falling into decay, were superseded by edifices at once more capacious and more tasteful. The Christians at this time began to emulate the magnificence of the heathen temples, and even to ape their arrangements. Thus it is that some of our churches at the present day are nearly fac-similes of the ancient religious edifices of paganism. [464:1] In addition to the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the worship of the early Church consisted of singing, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and preaching. In the earliest notice of the Christians of the second century which occurs in any pagan writer, their psalmody, with which they commenced their religious services, [464:2] is particularly mentioned; for, in his celebrated letter to the Emperor Trajan, Pliny states that they met together, before the rising of the sun, to |sing hymns to Christ as to a God.| It is highly probable that the |hymns| here spoken of were the Psalms of the Old Testament. Many of these inspired effusions celebrate the glories of Immanuel, and as, for obvious reasons, the Messianic Psalms would be used more frequently than any others, it is not strange that the disciples are represented as assembling to sing praise to Christ. But it would appear that the Church at this time was not confined to the ancient Psalter. Hymns of human composition were occasionally employed; [464:3] and one of these, to be found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, [464:4] was, perhaps, sung in the early part of the third century by the Christians of the Egyptian capital. Influential bishops sometimes introduced them by their own authority, but the practice was regarded with suspicion, and seems to have been considered irregular. Hence Paul of Samosata, in the Council of Antioch held A.D.269, was blamed for discontinuing the Psalms formerly used, and for establishing a new and very exceptionable hymnology. [465:1] In the church, as well as in the synagogue, the whole congregation joined in the singing; [465:2] but instrumental music was never brought into requisition. The early Christians believed that the organs of the human voice are the most appropriate vehicles for giving utterance to the feelings of devotion; and viewing the lute and the harp as the carnal ordinances of a superannuated dispensation, they rejected their aid in the service of the sanctuary. Long after this period one of the most eminent of the ancient fathers describes the music of the flutes, sackbuts, and psalteries of the temple worship as only befitting the childhood of the Church. |It was,| says he, |permitted to the Jews, as sacrifice was, for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness, because they were lately drawn off from idols; but now, instead of instruments, we may use our own bodies to praise Him withal.| [465:3] The account of the worship of the Church, given by a Christian writer who flourished about the middle of the second century, is exceedingly instructive. |On the day which is called Sunday,| says Justin Martyr, |there is a meeting together in one place of all who dwell either in towns or in the country; and the memoirs of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as the time permits. When the reading ceases, the president delivers a discourse, in which he makes an application and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. We then rise all together and pray. Then ... when we cease from prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water; and the president, in like manner, offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability; [466:1] and the people express their assent by saying Amen.| [466:2] It is abundantly clear from this statement that the presiding minister was not restricted to any set form of supplication. As he prayed |according to his ability,| his petitions could neither have been dictated by others nor taken from a liturgy. Such a practice as the reading of prayers seems, indeed, to have been totally unknown in the Church during the first three centuries. Hence Tertullian represents the Christians of his generation as praying |looking up with hands spread open, ... and without a prompter because from the heart.| [466:3] In his |Treatise on Prayer| Origen recommends the worshipper to address God with stretched out hands and uplifted eyes. [466:4] The erect body with the arms extended was supposed to represent the cross, [466:5] and therefore this attitude was deemed peculiarly appropriate for devotion. [466:6] On the Lord's day the congregation always stood when addressing God. [466:7] At this period forms of prayer were used in the heathen worship, [467:1] and in some cases the pagans adhered with singular tenacity to their ancient liturgies; [467:2] but the Church did not yet require the aid of such auxiliaries. It is remarkable that, though in the account of the losses sustained during the Diocletian persecution, we read frequently of the seizure of the Scriptures, and of the ecclesiastical utensils, we never meet with any allusion to the spoliation of prayer-books. [467:3] There is, in fact, no evidence whatever that such helps to devotion were yet in existence. [467:4]

The worship was now conducted in a dialect which was understood by the congregation; and though the officiating minister was at perfect liberty to select his phraseology, it is probable that he did not think it necessary to aim at great variety in the mere language of his devotional exercises. So long as a petition was deemed suitable, it perhaps continued to be repeated in nearly the same words, whilst providential interpositions, impending persecutions, and the personal condition of the flock, would be continually suggesting some fresh topics for thanksgiving, supplication, and confession. The beautiful and comprehensive prayer taught by our Lord to His disciples was never considered out of place; and, as early as the third century, it was, at least in some districts, used once at every meeting of the faithful. [468:1] The apostle had taught the brethren that intercessions should be made |for kings and for all that are in authority,| [468:2] and the primitive disciples did not neglect to commend their earthly rulers to the care of the Sovereign of the universe. [468:3] But still it is clear that even such petitions did not run in the channel of any prescribed formulary.

From the very days of the apostles the reading of the Scriptures constituted an important part of public worship. This portion of the service was, at first perhaps, conducted by one of the elders, but, in some places, towards the close of the second century, it was committed to a new official, called the Reader. [468:4] The presiding minister seems to have been permitted originally to choose whatever passages he considered most fitting for the occasion, as well as to determine the amount of time which was to be occupied in the exercise; but, at length, an order of lessons was prepared, and then the Reader was expected to confine himself to the Scriptures pointed out in his calendar. [468:5] This arrangement, which was obviously designed to secure a more uniform attention to the several parts of the inspired canon, came only gradually into general operation; and it frequently happened that the order of lessons for one church was very different from that used in another. [468:6]

Whilst the constant reading, in the vernacular tongue, of considerable portions of Scripture at public worship, promoted the religious instruction of the people, the mode of preaching which now prevailed contributed to make them still more intimately acquainted with the sacred records. The custom of selecting a text as the basis of a discourse had not yet been introduced; but, when the reading closed, the minister proceeded to expatiate on that section of the Word which had just been brought under the notice of the congregation, and pointed out, as well the doctrines which it recognised, as the practical lessons which it inculcated. The entire presbytery was usually present in the congregation every Lord's day, and when one or other of the elders had made a few comments, [469:1] the president added some remarks of an expository and hortatory character; but, frequently, he received no assistance in this part of the service. The method of reading and elucidating Scripture, now pursued, was eminently salutary; for, whilst it stored the memory with a large share of biblical knowledge, the whole Word of God, in the way of earnest appeal, was brought into close contact with the heart and conscience of each individual.

So long as pristine piety flourished, the people listened with devout attention to the observations of the preacher; but, as a more secular spirit prevailed, he began to be treated, rather as an orator, than a herald from the King of kings. Before the end of the third century, the house of prayer occasionally resounded with the plaudits of the theatre. Such exhibitions were, indeed, condemned at the time by the ecclesiastical authorities, but the very fact that in the principal church of one of the chief cities of the Empire, the bishop, as he proceeded with his sermon, was greeted with stamping of feet, clapping of hands, and waving of handkerchiefs, [469:2] supplied melancholy evidence of the progress of spiritual degeneracy. In the days of the Apostle Paul such demonstrations would have been universally denounced as unseemly and unseasonable.

During the first three centuries there was nothing in the ordinary costume of a Christian minister to distinguish him from any of his fellow-citizens; [470:1] but, it would appear, that when the pastor officiated in the congregation, he began, at an early date, to wear some peculiar piece of apparel. In an old document, purporting to have been written shortly after the middle of the second century, he is described, at the period of his advancement to the episcopal chair, as |clothed with the dress of the bishops.| [470:2] As the third century advanced, there was a growing disposition to increase the pomp of public worship; in some places vessels of silver or of gold were used at the dispensation of the, Lord's Supper; [470:3] and it is highly probable that, about this time, some few decorations were assumed by those who took part in its administration. But still the habit used by ecclesiastics at divine service was distinguished by its comparative simplicity, and differed very little from the dress commonly worn by the mass of the population.

What a change must have passed over the Church from the period before us to the dawn of the Reformation! Now, the making of images was forbidden, and no picture was permitted to appear even on the walls of the sacred edifice: [470:4] then, a church frequently suggested the idea of a studio, or a picture-gallery. Now, the whole congregation joined heartily in the psalmody: then, the mute crowd listened to the music of the organ accompanied by the shrill voices of a chorus of thoughtless boys. Now, prayers, in the vernacular tongue and suited to the occasion, were offered with simplicity and earnestness; then, petitions, long since antiquated, were muttered in a dead language. Now, the Word was read and expounded in a way intelligible to all: then, a few Latin extracts from it were mumbled over hastily; and, if a sermon followed, it was, perhaps, a eulogy on some wretched fanatic, or an attack on some true evangelist. There are writers who believe that the Church was meanwhile going on in a career of hopeful development; but facts too clearly testify that she was moving backwards in a path of cheerless declension. Now, the Church |holding forth the Word of life| was commending herself to philosophers and statesmen: then, she had sunk into premature dotage, and her very highest functionaries were lisping the language of infidelity.

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