EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCHES, RITUALS AND CHURCH STRUCTURE

CHURCHES

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Trevi Clitumn, a Roman Temple
turned into a Christian church
A church can denote a building or it can refer to a group of people who have answered Christ’s invitation to continue his work on earth. Regarded as the “Body of Christ,” believers are his living presence on earth and follow his example by preaching, teaching and serving others, particularly those in need, and are sustained by prayer and sacraments.

The primary purposes of the church from the very beginning have been to provide a place where baptism and Eucharist can be held and Christian communities can gather to worship together. The Church has been looked upon as the Bride of Christ and the mother of believers, with the Eucharist providing nourishment for those who have been baptized.

The church has traditionally been centered on Christ rather than God because man’s union with God is achieved with the help of Christ, which can be appreciated and approached in a more direct way.

Christianity traditionally has had a strong distrust of power despite the power of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It emphasized equality and democracy. There is no basis in the Bible for the church hierarchy. "Jesus denounced anyone who usurped moral authority of God.

The word "church" (ecclesia, assembly) is traced to Pentecost (escent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks) and the beginning of the Christian mission in the 1st century. It was not used in reference to a building. "Church" may also be used in the sense of "Christian denomination", or in the singular as the Christian Church as a whole. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the BBC: “The Christian church is fundamental to believers. Although it has many faults it is recognised as God's body on earth. The church is the place where the Christian faith is nurtured and where the Holy Spirit is manifest on earth. It is where Christians are received into the faith and where they are brought together into one body through the Eucharist." [Source: BBC, August 14, 2009 |::|]

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

First Churches

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Church of Nativity, 1887,
where Christ was born
Early Christian communities gathered in a private homes and huts to sing hymns, listen to readings of the scriptures, conduct all night prayer sessions and commemorate events like the Last Supper. There was often a lot of noise and animals walking around. Early congregations had an urban and plebeian character.

The building of churches was largely forbidden until Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. The first churches were rather plain. They were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. The were no columns or friezes like Greek and Roman temples, the main object it seems was to create a space large enough for worship.

In the early Christian era, churches were usually small rooms with an altar on the east side. Because they were sometimes attacked, towers were often added to act as look out points and defensive positions.

The earliest known example of a church was built in the late A.D. 3rd century at the Jordanian port town of Aila (now called Al Aqabah). The building was 85 feet long, 52 feet wide and 13 feet high. It had a central nave, two side aisles, a chancel with an altar table and rectangular apse. It was destroyed by a 4th century earthquake. Until it was found the oldest known churches were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, dated to around A.D. 325.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the Cenacle (the site of the Last Supper) in Jerusalem was the "first Christian church."Archaeology magazine suggests that the Dura-Europos church in Syria is the oldest surviving church building in the world. While Jordan's Aqaba Church is considered to be the world's first purpose-built church. Several authors have cited the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Armenia's mother church) as the oldest cathedral.

In November 2005, archaeologists claimed they had found the “oldest church” in the Holy Land. Dated to the A.D. 3rd or 4th century, it was unearthed in Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) inside a high security prison where Hamas and Israeli Jihad prisoners are kept by Israelis. Prisoners from other Israeli prisons helped excavate the site. The church features a large floor mosaic with the name Jesus Christ written in ancient Greek.The ancient church building in Megiddo measures 10 meters by five meters and was dated through jugs of wine and cooking pots found at the site and is thought to pre-date the Byzantine period because no distinctive Byzantine crosses were found. The mosaic has been dated to the late 3rd century. The site was discovered b workers preparing to build a new wing for the prison.

Church Hierarchy

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Over time as the Christian community grew in size and importance and the effort to spread Christianity often involved armed conflict against non-believers, the church developed a hierarchy that was not unlike that of a kingdom or empire, initially with the pope acting as its king.

Churches were initially organized like synagogues with elders (priests), who led services and instructed converts, and assistants (deacons), who helped the poor and sick and other people in the community who needed help. The elders were often like rabbis, who acted more as scholars and teachers than leaders. Later Bishops were introduced. Over time they became more powerful, presided over larger Christian communities and exerted more control. The word bishops connotes oversight. By A.D. 190 the power of the Catholic bishop's was established.

Christianity today is organized religion with a hierarchy that emphasizes community worship and social service. The underlying basis for church structure in the belief that Jesus bestowed ecclesiastical authority only on the male apostles who saw him after his resurrection, thereby establishing the line of succession running from his inner circle of disciples, and particularly of Peter, to the generations of bishops that would follow.

Eastern religion is not organized in the same way. Buddhists and Hindus are not required to visit temples. Hindus have special religious communities but the religion itself is not organized. Buddhism has monasteries for those who have decided to devote themselves entirely to the religion but no communal place for lay people to worship. Temples attract large crowds during festivals and they are often sought as a quiet place for meditation but worship and initiation rites are often performed in front of an altar at home.

The Christian church today divides people into two classes: 1) the laity (laymen), ordinary members; and 2) the clergy, or the officers. The latter is often required to follow certain rules and dress in distinctive clothes that defined their position. In addition they enjoy certain privileges within the church. Layman is derived from the Greek word laos (“people”) .

The are two classes of clergy: 1) monks, who live according to strict rules in a cloistered religious world; and 2) the secular clergy of priests and bishops that carry out their duties in a secular world.

Priests and Bishops

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Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra
Priests are men who have been ordained (officially designated) by the Catholic church to carry the holy sacraments such as baptism and communion. Originally priests were set up to be assistants to the bishops to administer the Eucharist acting in persoana Christ (“in the person of Christ”). An official who becomes a priest must be ordained by a bishop. Ordination allows the priest to consecrate the bread and wine for the Eucharist. During their ordination priest revive and stole

Bishops are powerful priests who have the authority to ordain or confirm and oversee churches within a certain area, called a diocese, comprised of many churches. Bishops are responsible for the unity, order and faith of their diocese. They are usually based in a church or cathedral in the principal city of a diocese. The cathedral chapter consists of members of the clergy called “canons” who assist the bishop.

In each diocese, the bishops fulfills the role of pastor, priest and doctor as is regarded a participant in Jesus Christ’s own ministry. From the earliest days of the church, bishops have been assisted by priests , who the bishop ordains and share in the bishops’ ministry.

Orthodox priests give communion and carry out ceremonial duties but otherwise they are regarded as equals of lay-people and often work closely with the laity to further church goals. The laity is very active in the Orthodox church. They perform educational, philanthropic and missionary work. Any confirmed person can be a teacher. Many of the best-known Orthodox theologians and missionaries have been laymen. Laymen can take part as selected representatives at church councils on the national, diocesan and parochial level.

The primary duty of a Orthodox Christian bishop is to ordain priests. A bishop is a priest. Bishops are celibate but Orthodox priests don't necessarily have to be. Any man can become a priest provided he not been married twice. Widows and divorcees can become priests.

Protestant churches often don’t have priests and bishops. Instead they have minsters deliver sermon, preside over rituals and ceremonies and provide counseling for church members. Protestantism stresses individualism not hierarchy, community and good works like the Catholic Church. Although, Lutheranism has ordained ministers. Lutherans believe that everyone can be a priest and commune with God directly. Presbyterian churches are governed by a "session" consisting of a "teaching leader" (an ordained minister) and "ruling elders" (members elected from the congregation).

Christian Altar

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Altar in the Grotto of the Nativity
Western churches are structured so that the attention of the congregation is focused towards the pulpit or the altar. The Altar is an elevated part of the church where the priest or bishop gives mass. Regarded as the meeting point between God and mankind, it lies of the center of religious buildings and is situated at the heart of the sanctuary and is positioned in such a way that all the architecture of the church seems oriented towards it. In a church with a cross shaped plan the altar is usually right in the center of the plan. The word altar is derived from the Latin adjective altus , meaning “high.”

Throughout the history of mankind, high places such as Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai , the Tower of Babel---have been revered as especially sacred places. The altar in the church is most elevated symbol of Christ in the church. Even before the cross it is the first object that is venerated when

The altar used to be a place of sacrifice and place were smoke offerings were made to God. In Christian churches it has become a kind of table, representing the last Supper, where body and blood of Christ are offered in communion. In the old days when a new church was dedicated it was common to place relics of saints inside the altar in order to mark the continuity between Christ’s sacrifice and that of his faithful. An altar is usually consecrated with a an ointment of holy oil and illuminated by the burning of incense, which signifies the Holy Spirit has taken possession of it.

"The Church": Home of the People of God

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The word "church" is a tricky one. There is a Greek word, ecclesia, which we translate in all modern translations as "the church," and this is a total anachronism, because nobody in the Greek world would have had any concept which was remotely similar to what we regard as a church. This is a political term; an ecclesia is just a meeting, and preeminently the meeting of the free citizens of a city which is constitutionally organized, so that its citizens can vote on important things. And so when Paul writes to the meeting, the ecclesia of God, of the Thessalonians, this is a very strange kind of notion because ordinarily the town meeting of the Thessalonians is a political thing which couldn't be more different from a group of a dozen or so people who have converted to this community meeting in somebody's house. How does that get to be a church, in our sense of the word? How do these little household meetings come to be thought of as a universal church or the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church? This is something which happens over a long period of time and is deeply part of that process by which this new movement works out its relationship to the larger culture, as it institutionalizes itself, to use a modern sociological bit of jargon, as every movement has to if it's going to survive. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>


“But hidden within this development is a piece of self-identity, is a notion of who one is, which comes straight out of the history of Israel. The notion that God has made a treaty, a contract, a covenant, with a group of people, and they will be his people. So this fundamental part of the consciousness of Israel, as being the people of God put among the peoples of the world in order to bring God's intention for humanity to fruition, this is shared by, I think, all of the important groups of early Christianity. Diverse as it was, they all have the sense that, in some way, we have to embody this ancient sense of who Israel was. We either take the place of Israel or we fulfill the notion of Israel or we're a part of the Israel that wants to be a people of God. And, it is this self-concept, I think, which cannot be forgotten, as [part of the process that produces the Church]. <>

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “An important milestone into development of Christian self-consciousness or Christian self-identity will be the emergence of the word "Christianity." This word appears for the first time in the writings of a church thinker of the early 2nd century of our era named Ignatius, who lived in Western Asia Minor, modern day Western Turkey. Ignatius in his letters is warning his flock to stay away from all sorts of theological perils out there, including Judaism and including all sorts of mistaken Christian theologies. And, in his writings, Ignatius uses the word Christianity, and he uses it ... in contrast with the word Judaism. We have here for the first time a polarity, a contrast. There is something called Judaism and there is something called Christianity, and true Christians will make sure that what they believe and what they do, is in fact Christianity and it's not Judaism. That is explicit and unambiguous for the very first time in the writings of Ignatius around the year 110 or 120 B.C. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>

Early Christian Rituals: Baptism and Sharing a Meal

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Among the things that make the Christians different are a couple of rituals which they developed, early on before the very earliest sources that we have about them. One of these is an initiation ceremony, which they call baptism, which is simply a Greek word that means dunking. It's interesting that if you go to the little town of Dura-Europas and that 3rd century Christian building... precisely where one would expect to find the statute of one's god in any of the normal shrines of a religious group, you find what we would think of as a bathtub, with some interesting paintings on the wall behind it. This is the Baptistery. This is the place where people are initiated into this new cult. Why is that the center? Why is that the focal point? Clearly something happens here which is fundamental to the establishing of identity of a group, which at the same time binds them together so that they speak of themselves with family terms but also separates them, in some sense, from the society around them. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“A second major ritual which they developed is a meal, a common meal, which they have together, which is designed as a memorial of The Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciplines. This is recorded already in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and he presents this as a tradition which he has received and handed on to the people in Corinth. So, it's a very, very early thing and has various interpretations, but as a ritual, clearly this is an ongoing way in which the community has gathered and reasserts their unity with one another and their difference from others. <>

Strange Sermon Stories from 12th-13th Century


Christ Seen in the Hands of a Priest: Caesar of Heisterbach wrote: “In Himmerode an aged priest, Henry by name, died a few years ago. He was a holy and just man, and had been for very many years sacristan in that monastery. When he was reading the mass one day at the altar of St. John the Baptist, in the choir of the lay-brethren, a certain one of the lay-brethren standing near, saw, in the hands of the priest, the Saviour in the form of a man. Nevertheless the priest himself did not see it. This was told to me by one of the elders in that convent. [Source: Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. IX, Cap. XXVIII. (Vol. II p. 186,)

Woman Punished for Scattering the Host upon Her Vegetables: Caesar of Heisterbach wrote: “On the same island a maiden, not a nun, whom I saw there, was possessed. When the devil was asked by a priest why he had so long and so cruelly tortured Hartdyfa de Cogheme, he replied through the mouth of the girl. "Why? She has most certainly deserved it. She scattered the Most High upon her vegetables." [Source: Ceasar of Heisterbach, Dist. IX, Cap. IX. (Vol II, pp. 173-74.)]

“Since he did not at all understand the saying and the devil was unwilling to explain, the priest went to the woman and told her what the devil had said about her, advising her not to deny if she under. stood. She immediately confessed her guilt, saying, " I understand the saying well, although I have never told any man of it. When I was a young girl and had a garden to cultivate, I received a wandering woman as a guest one night. When I told her of the losses in my garden, saying that all the vegetables were being devoured by caterpillars, she replied, "I will tell you a good remedy. Receive the body of the Lord, break it in pieces, scatter it over your vegetables, and the plague will cease at once." I, wretched one! who cared more for my garden than for the sacrament, when I had received the body of our Lord at Easter, took it out of my mouth and did with it as I had been taught. What I had intended as a remedy for my vegetables, became a source of torment to me, as the devil is my witness."

“Therefore, up to the present day she atones for that heinous sin and suffers unheard-of tortures. Let those who employ the divine sacrement for temporal gain, or what is more execrable, for evil-doing, give heed to this punishment, even if they do not consider the sinfulness. Also if vermin neglect the reverence due to this sacrament, they sometimes suffer punishment.”

Church Built by Bees


Étienne de Bourbon wrote: “For I have heard that a certain rustic, wishing to become wealthy and having many hives of bees, asked certain evil men how he could get rich and increase the number of his bees. He was told by some that if he should retain the sacred communion on Easter and place it in one of his hives, he would entice away all of his neighbor's bees, which leaving their own hives, would come to the place where body of our Lord was and there would make honey. He did this. [Source: Étienne de Bourbon, No. 317. (pp. 266-67.), “University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 18-20, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

“Then all the bees came to the hive where the body of Christ was, and just as if they had felt compassion for the irreverence done to it, by their labor they began to construct a little church and to erect foundations and bases and columns and an altar with like labor, and with the greatest reverence they placed the body of our Lord upon the Altar. And within that little beehive they formed that little church with wonderful and the most beautiful workmanship. The bees of the vicinity leaving their hives came together at that one; and over that structure they sang in their own manner certain wonderful melodies hymns.

“The rustic hearing this, wondered. But waiting until the fitting time for collecting the swarm of bees and the honey-comb, he found nothing in his hives in which the bees had been accustomed to make honey; finding himself impoverished through the means by which he had believed that he would be enriched; he went to that one where he had placed the host, where he saw the bees had come together. But when he approached, just as if they had wanted to vindicate the insult to our Saviour, the bees rushed upon the rustic and stung him so severely that he escaped with difficulty, and suffering greatly. Going to the priest , related all that he had done and what the bees had done. The priest, by the advice of his bishop, collected his parishioners and went in procession to the place. Then the bees, leaving the hive, rose into the air, making sweet melody. Raising the hive they found within the noble structure of that little church and the body of our Lord placed upon the altar. Then returning thanks they bore to their own church that little church of the bees constructed with such skill and elegance and with praises placed it on the altar.

“By this deed those who do not reverence but offer insult instead to the sacred body of Christ or the sacred place where it is, ought to be put to great confusion.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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