Worship in the Second Century:

The Spiritual Dimension

Much study has been devoted to the forms of worship in the primitive Church.  Scholars have painstakingly detailed the practices of baptism and the Eucharist.  They have studied the evolution of worship services from the Sabbath to Sunday, examined the controversies surrounding the Easter observance, and developed great taxonomies of orthodox worship.

In the midst of all this, there are more practical concerns in the minds of everyday Christians.  Some seek continuity with the early disciples of Christ in the worship experience through religious form.  Because this emphasis is ultimately empty and powerless, however, many are forsaking vacuous religiosity for a truer relationship with God in Christ, a worship “in spirit and in truth.”  They are searching, not for correct form, but for correct response toward God.

This article is intended to examine the worship of (roughly) the second century.  It will attempt to demonstrate a continuity of this spiritual worship with that of the Apostles and the New Testament Church, and to describe the workings of this worship, which was indeed spiritual rather than mechanical, and personal as well as corporate.


Prayer is generally considered the most basic component of worship and spiritual living.  In the second century, prayer was practiced in numerous capacities.  Perhaps the most common of these mentioned in early Christian writings was the ceremonial prayer.  These prayers, formulated for such formal or corporate occasions as baptism, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Day gathering,1 were not intended to instill dry formalism into the Church, although they seem to have contributed to its germination.  Instead, they served first to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and the Sonship of Jesus Christ.2  Thankfulness for both the gift of salvation and daily provision was also a prominent feature of ceremonial prayers.3  These acknowledgments were intended to honor God not by ritual but by directing the worshipers’ hearts and minds toward the Divine.  This in turn would edify the participants by stirring up faith and causing them to dwell upon the pure things of God.4

Individual prayer also seems to have been universally prescribed.  Christians were encouraged to pray at least three times a day.5  Prayers were to be individual and heartfelt, rather than ritualistic.6  Tertullian insisted that, even in group prayer, Christians do not need a leader since their prayers come from their hearts.7

The content of prayer included a request for guidance,8 daily provision,9 and special comfort and strength.10  Yet, the most frequent subject of prayer mentioned in second-century writings is intercession for others.  Clement encouraged the Corinthians to pray for both the physical and spiritual well-being of others.11  The Didache instructed Christians to pray for their persecutors12 and further said, “Do not hate anybody; but reprove some, pray for others, and still others love more than your own life.”13  Justin claimed that Christians always prayed for their enemies.14 The Apologists often mentioned that the Church prayed for Caesar and the welfare of his empire.15

The most common posture for both prayer and praise seems to have been with arms outstretched, “lifting holy hands.”16  This was done variously while standing17 or kneeling.18  The custom of lifting the hands may have been adopted from Judaism, or more directly from the New Testament references.19  Perhaps this point in itself fittingly demonstrates the continuity of practice from Apostolic times into the second century.  Nevertheless, none of this seems to be arbitrary, a matter of form devoid of rationale.  Tertullian aptly wrote, “Looking up to Him, we Christians—with hands extended, because they are harmless, with head bare because we are not ashamed . . . .”20

Prayer, especially intercession, was often accompanied by fasting.  Because fasting is a relatively minor issue in the New Testament, the primitive Church might have taken precedent from Old Testament Judaism.  While fasting was also an element of pagan worship, Tertullian was quick to separate its function and purpose in Christianity from the pagan practice.  He stated, “Superstition demands that a fast be imposed on those consulting an incubation-oracle, so as to achieve the proper degree of ritual purity.”  He added:

Daniel ate dry food for a period of three weeks, but he did this in order to win God’s favor by acts of humiliation and not that he might augment the perception and mental vision of his soul as a preparation for a dream, as though the soul were meant to act without being in a state of ecstacy.  Sobriety, then, will have no effect of neutralizing the ecstacy, but of recommending the ecstacy to God so that it might take place in Him.21

Fasting can thus be seen as a way to move the heart of God through self-abasement—always accompanied by earnest prayer.  A similar idea was Clement’s:  “Let us prostrate ourselves before him as suppliants of his mercy and kindness.”22  Fasting also seems to have been a general requirement just prior to baptism, an integral part of the ceremony of purification and rebirth.23
Several final comments are in order in regard to fasting.  Many today would object to the necessity of fasting, considering it to be attributable to pagan influence, or else an element of obsolete Judaic legalism.  Certainly, its favor seems to have varied from place to place in the second century.  The early Montanists, for example, were especially ascetic—much more so than was the rule—as were many Jewish Christians.24  Likewise, Philo related the extreme ascetic practices of a group he called Therapeutae, who abounded around Alexandria, whom Eusebius further identified as early Christians.25

Outside of these extremists, however, there is no reason to assume that fasting was a major issue.  In fact, such things often suffered ill repute.26  If there was then any orthodox view, it would seem to be that fasting was used merely as a tool for setting aside the things of the flesh for a little while, concomitant with a special need or occasion, to give attention to the things of God.  This is indeed a worthy endeavor and seems to represent the ultimate concern of the early writers as a whole.

Praise and Worship

Among the second-century writers, praise, worship, and adoration are largely viewed together with prayer rather than separately.  Justin, for instance, spoke of “praising him by the word of prayer and thanksgiving for all that he has given us.”27  Raising the hands, kneeling, crying out, fasting, acknowledging God in word or deed are all acts of worship, although integral with the practice of prayer.

Yet, a few specific ideas can profitably be highlighted:  Thanksgiving is an important part of praise, acknowledging God and Christ for the things they have done.  Prominent among the writings was giving thanks to God for the great gift of his Son.28  The writers went further to thank Him for all manner of provision, “. . . for our creation and all the means of health, for the variety of creatures and the changes of seasons . . . .”29  The entire Christian life is to be one of grate­ful­ness toward God.

Another aspect of Christian worship was the practice of morality and kindness, both among the Christians themselves and toward others.  As the Apostle Paul exhorted New Testament Christians to be blameless in the midst of a perverse world, so also did the Christian leaders of the second century.30  Ignatius insisted that the Magnesians should not identify with Christ in name only, but must be Christians.31  Justin commended the practice of sharing with one another and charity toward the less fortunate, as also did Polycarp.32  The Didache declared, “Let your donation sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it.”33  Through kindness, mercy, and godliness, the Christian was to honor God, demonstrate the love of God to the outside world, and fulfill the divine law of love.

Songs of praise were used as an aid to worship, just as they had been in the New Testament.34  The Roman governor Pliny the Younger related to Caesar that the Christians “met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ. . . .”35  Justin described the Church “in thankfulness to him sending up solemn prayers and hymns . . . .”36  Such songs no doubt were designed to focus attention upon the person and deeds of God and Jesus Christ (as were the many other acts of worship).  Moreover, they served by their very nature to unify the thoughts and attitudes, as well as actions, of the participants as they gathered together for fellowship, corporate worship, and intercessory prayer.


The most controversial element of second-century worship is in regard to the perpetuation of the charismatic gifts from Apostolic times.  Without launching into polemics, it appears self-evident that prophetic gifts and related phenomena were active in this period.  In keeping with the purposes of this article, however, our discussion will be limited to their contribution to worship.

The charismata which Paul enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are many and varied.  All of them in a sense can be considered acts of worship.  Yet the gifts which seem to lend themselves most readily to worship are tongues and prophecy.

Tongues, according to Paul, were an individual expression of worship toward God.37  But these tongues, inspired by the Holy Spirit, could likewise be made intelligible by inspired interpretation, serving to edify the hearers.38  What Paul termed prophecy seems to be approximate in content and purpose to an interpreted utterance in tongues.39  These manifestations were divine utterances serving to build up the congregation by exhorting, comforting, and otherwise edifying them.40
In the second-century writings, these gifts were frequently mentioned as being currently manifested among the Christians.  The Didache spoke of prophets making ecstatic utterances.41  Ignatius claimed to be speaking inspired messages on various occasions.42  Athenagoras referred to prophets being active in the Church in his day.43  Irenaeus, writing late in the second century, further mentioned that there were those in the Church who were presently speaking in diverse languages through the Holy Spirit.44

If there was a decline in the practice of these manifestations during this period, it seems to be due to efforts by the bishops to consolidate their authority by limiting the official, authoritative, “inspired” utterance to themselves and to their office.45  But in direct opposition to this trend are numerous testimonies of charismatic gifts being exercised continually and universally in orthodox Christianity.46  What, after all, could be more comforting, more faith-inspiring, more worshipful and praise-evoking than a word of comfort or exhortation which by the very nature of its delivery is testified to be divine?  Just as the Lord revitalized his apostles by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon them, the Church could enjoy continual renewal and sustaining grace as they encountered and utilized his Spirit in their worship.


Second-century worship, like that of the New Testament, was primarily spiritual, concerned with the proper relationship toward God.  The Church had not yet developed a highly formalized worship, although incipient formalism was visible.  Instead, the individual Christian was concerned with living a holy, charitable, and worship-filled life, honoring God in all he did and all he was.  He regularly gave homage to his Lord, and in doing so fully expected to receive from Him comfort, encouragement, and exhortation by the Holy Spirit of promise.

Worship was not arbitrary:  the acts performed in worship had a rationale behind them.  For instance, the posture used in prayer had an underlying meaning, and fasting a higher purpose than simply complying to form.  The ultimate criteria were true worship and service to God and their Savior.

Indeed, “we who are alive and remain” would do well to remember these factors when tempted to adhere to forms and traditions that are in fact meaningless apart from true worship of the heart.  Our link with the first Christians is not in doing what they did and saying what they said, but in having our own relationship with Christ, and truly worshipping Him “in spirit and in truth.”

© 2012 Paul A. Hughes.  Originally published in Paraclete 21 (Fall 1987):20-25.  Also found in Google Books, and contained in the essay collection, Christ in Us: The Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2007) by the author, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online book retailers.


1. See, for example, Didache 9.1-10.6.
2. See Didache 9.3-4 and Justin Apology I 13, 65, 67; cf. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.2.1-3.
3. See Didache 8.2, and Tertullian Prayer.
4. Cf. Philippians 4:6-9.  This was also the purpose of singing psalms and hymns, as in Ephesians 5:18-20.
5. See Didache 8.3; and Tertullian De Oratione 25.5-26.  Hippolytus commends seven prayer times daily (Apostolic Tradition 4.35, 36).
6. See Athenagoras Plea 13.
7. Tertullian Apology 30.4.
8. See 1 Clement 61:1-3.
9. See Didache 8.2.
10. See Ignatius Trallians 12.3, 13.3.
11. 1 Clement 2:6, 56:1, 59:4.
12. Didache 1.3.
13. Didache 2.7.
14. Justin Apol. I 67; cf. Tert. Apol. 31.2.
15. See Athen. Plea 37; and Tert. Apol. 30.4, 31.1-33.2.
16. See 1 Clement 2:3; and Athen. Plea 13.
17. See Just. Apol. I 67.
18. See Tert. Apol. 30.7.
19. See 1 Timothy 2:8.
20. Tert. Apol. 30.4.
21. Tert. On the Soul 48.3, 4.
22. 1 Clement 9:1; cf. Tert. Apol. 40.15.
23. See Didache 7; and Just. Apol. I 61.
24. On Montanism, see Roy J. Deferrari et al., eds., Eusebius Pamphili:  Ecclesiastical History, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953), p. 322n; and on Jewish Christianity, see George W. Buchanan, “Worship, Feasts, and Ceremonies in the Early Jewish-Christian Church,” New Testament Studies 26 (April 1980):279-80; cf. Ignatius Magnesians 8.1, 9.1.
25. Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.17.
26. Euseb. Eccl. Hist. 5.18; and Letter to Diognetus 4.1.
27. Just. Apol. I 13.
28. Didache 9.3; Ignatius Smyrneans 1.1; Iren. AH 10.1; and Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.
29. Just. Apol. I 13; cf. 1 Clem. 19, 20.
30. See Letter of Polycarp 2.1-11.4; and 1 Clem. 48:1-50:7.
31. Ignatius Magnesians 4.
32. Just. Apol. I 67, and Letter of Polycarp 10.
33. A saying of unknown origin, quoted in Didache 1.6.
34. See Acts 16:25, Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16.
35. Pliny Epistles 10.96.7, Loeb Classical Library, p. 289.
36. Just. Apol. I 13, EC Fathers, p. 249; see also Euseb. Eccl. Hist. 2:17, The Fathers of the Church 19, pp. 113, 114, 116.
37. See 1 Corinthians 14:2, 14, 17.
38. See 1 Cor. 14:14-16.  Such expressions were, however, sometimes in a human language which could be understood by those familiar with it, see Acts 2:4-11.
39. See 1 Cor. 14:5, 13.
40. See 1 Cor. 14:3, 12, 19, 26, 31.
41. Didache 11.7.
42. Ignatius Trall. 4.1, Romans 8.3, Philadelphians 7.1, 2.
43. Athen. Plea 7, 10.
44. Iren. AH 5.6.1.
45. For a discussion of this viewpoint, see James L. Ash, Jr., “The Decline of Ecstatic Prophecy in the Early Church,” Theological Studies 36 (June 1976):227-52; see also Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy?” Pneuma 6 (Spring 1984):67-78.
46. See Ignatius To Polycarp 2.2; Just. Apol. I 36; Iren. AH 3.11.9, 5.20.1, 2; Iren. Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 99; Epiphanius Panarion 48.1; Euseb. Eccl. Hist. 5.17; and Origen Against Celsus 1.46.


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