Early Christian Worship
- Paul F. BradshawPaul F. BradshawUniversity of Notre Dame, Emeritus
The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed.
Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.