A few months ago, I wrote a series on “Meeting with the Early Church“. While I included the writings of several early Christians, and even some nonChristians, who included a description of the meeting of the early church, I did not include the writings of Tertullian.
Tertullian (155 – 222 AD) is an interesting character in early Christianity. To some, he was a hero who defended the true faith against heresy. To others, Tertullian was a heretic himself who left the orthodox church for Montanism. Whatever our view of Tertullian, his writings seemed to be well respected by other early Christians.
Among his writings, his Apology (Apologeticus) was one of the most polemical. He addressed this book to the Roman civic magistrates of his day in order to defend Christians and Christianity against pagans and paganism. It has been called “one of the most magnificent legacies of the ancient Church, full of enthusiasm, courage, and vigor”.
In chapter 39 (XXXIX) of his Apology, Tertullian discussed several aspects of church meetings. In this series, I’m going to use Tertullian’s words to help us understand how the church met around 200 AD, at least the church meetings with which Tertullian was familiar. Part of this chapter is very polemical, blasting the practice of pagans. I will focus on the parts that describe the Christian assemblies and leave out the parts that describe the pagan meetings and responses.
Here is the first section:
I shall at once go on, then, to exhibit the peculiarities of the Christian society, that, as I have refuted the evil charged against it, I may point out its positive good. We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation. We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful. However it be in that respect, with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more stedfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when any one has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation and in all sacred intercourse. The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.
What does Tertullian tell us about the early church meetings in this passage? The meetings included prayer, reading, exhortation, rebuke, and even judging. Did you notice what binds believers together according to Tertullian: a common profession, a common discipline, and a common hope.
Tertullian talks about praying for emperors and other civic officials, as well as for their own “supplications”. These do not appear to be the nice prayers that we normally hear, but a type of “violence” where the believers “wrestle” with God. I’ve heard believers wrestle with God in prayers, but rarely in a public assembly like this.
Tertullian does not automatically assume that the “sacred writings” have something to say to him and the other believers with whom he gathers. Instead, they read the writings (perhaps the Scriptures?) and consider them to determine if the writings may have something to say about their times and situations. Regardless, Tertullian expects the words of the text themselves to nourish their faith, hope, and confidence.
Apparently, separate from the reading of the “sacred writings”, there were also instances of exhortations, rebukes, and censures. Given the seriousness with which “judgment” is described by Tertullian, these exhortations, rebukes, and censures would seem to go beyond the modern day sermon. These would seem to be personal and direct, dealing with the lives and concerns and problems with individuals and groups within the assembling.
Finally, Tertuallian mentions their leaders. These leaders “preside over” the believers due to their being “tried men” with “established character”. Again, this seems to be different from the modern assembly where the leaders are chosen because of their education and talents. In fact, when most “leaders” begin with a church today, most would not know them well enough to vouch for their character much less to call them “tried men”.
Within the context of these leaders, Tertullian says that they become elders “not by purchase” because “[t]here is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God”. This seems to be too early in church history for Tertullian to be talking about people buying their way into “church offices” (this happened later in the middle ages). Perhaps Tertullian is talking about elders who serve only when they are paid.
What do you think about Tertullians description of church meetings in 200 AD? How does Tertullian’s description of church assemblies compare to church meetings (“worship services”) today? How does Tertullian’s description compare to Scripture?