The History of Christianity #68
Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Acts 2:46-47 which reads: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
Our History of Christianity quote today is from Ernest Loosley. He said: “When the church was very young, it had no buildings. Let us begin with that striking fact. That the church had no buildings is the most noticeable of the points of difference between the church of the early days and the church of today. In the minds of most people today, “church” means first a building, probably something else second; but seldom does “the church” stand for anything other than a building. Yet here is the fact with which we start: the early church possessed no buildings and carried on its work for a great many years without erecting any.”
Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Christian Life” (Part 5) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).
Christian Worship (Part 3)
Another early custom was to gather for communion at the tombs of the faithful. This was the function of the catacombs. Some authors have dramatized the “church of the catacombs,” depicting these as secret places where Christians gathered in defiance of the authorities. This is at best an exaggeration. The catacombs were cemeteries whose existence was well known to the authorities, for Christians were not the only ones with such subterranean burial arrangements. Although on occasion Christians did use the catacombs as hiding places, the main reason why they gathered there was not that they feared the authorities, but rather two others. First, although the church was not recognized by the government, and therefore could not own property, funeral societies were allowed, and these could own cemetery property. In some cities Christians organized themselves into such funeral societies, and therefore it made sense for them to gather at their cemeteries. But even more importantly, many heroes of the faith were buried there, and Christians believed that communion joined them not only among themselves and with Jesus Christ, but also with their ancestors in the faith.
This was particularly true in the case of the martyrs. As early as the middle of the second century, it was customary to gather at their tombs on the anniversary of their deaths, and there to celebrate communion. Once again, the idea was that they too were part of the church, and that communion joined the living and the dead in a single body. It was this practice that gave rise to saints’ days – which usually celebrated, not their birthday, but the day of their martyrdom. (The custom of gathering relics of martyrs seems to have begun fairly early. In the mid-second century, the Martyrdom of Polycarp tells us that Polycarp’s bones “would have been more precious to us than pearls.”)
More frequently than in catacombs or cemeteries, Christians gathered in private homes. There are indications of this in the New Testament. Later, as congregations grew, some houses were exclusively devoted to divine worship. Thus, the oldest Christian church, found in the excavations of Dura-Europos and built before 256 AD, seems to have been a private dwelling that was converted into a church.