SAYSF Bible Church is presently preparing for a major transition of becoming a church of small groups. The Elders have shared that they are attempting to recapture some of the focus and relational dynamics of early church Christians. Many have asked how the Elders know what the early church gatherings were like. This article will examine some interesting information from church history.
In about 110 AD, fifty years after Paul was executed in Rome and twenty years after John wrote the letter of Revelation, a man named Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) was appointed governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (northwest Turkey). In the course of Pliny’s duties as governor he wrote letters of report to Emperor Trajan. Many of these letters and the emperor’s responses have survived to our present day.
One of Pliny’s letters, and Trajan’s response, is of significance because the problem of Christians who were gathering in illegal “political associations” is discussed. Please keep in mind that this letter was not written by a Christian trying to explain what they did during their gatherings. Instead, a Roman pagan who was simply reporting facts to his emperor wrote this historical description. Pliny would want to make certain he had his facts correct before submitting his report for the emperor’s review.
Pliny reports that an anonymous witness provided a list of Christians who were unlawfully meeting together. Those named on the list were arrested and interrogated. Some of the people claimed they were not Christians, and immediately proved it by invoking Roman gods, offering prayers with incense and wine to an image of the emperor, and cursing Christ. Pliny stated, “None of… those who are genuine Christians… can be forced to do so.”
Other people on the list declared that they were Christians at first, but eventually denied Christ. Pliny does not specifically state what caused their change of heart. However, it is probable that they were tortured. This is assumed because the end of his report describes the torture of two “deaconesses” who refused to renounce Christ.
Pliny’s report contains important details concerning the gathering of these Christians of Bithynia. He writes:
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.”
We are able to learn a number of things about early church worship gatherings from the above excerpt. First, worship gatherings included singing of songs proclaiming Christ to be a god (in the words of Pliny). It is obvious that recognition of the deity of Jesus was extremely important to the early church Christians.
Second, early Christians held each other accountable to live holy and obedient lives to God’s Word. Pliny stated that they would “bind themselves by oath”. Thus, they took this commitment to holy living very seriously. It appears that the early Christians would openly talk about their personal behavior every week. This was a transparent group of people.
Finally, the early Christians ate together. This could be referring to the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, but it could also indicate that they simply ate a meal together every week. It is also important to note that there must have been rumors spreading that Christians were cannibals because Pliny specifies that they ate only “ordinary and innocent food.” There was nothing strange or socially out of place about their food. The point is that sharing life together was a priority to the early Christians.
Of interesting note, it appears that there were two separate gatherings held the same day (a fixed day) of the week. One gathering took place early in the morning, before the sun rose, and included singing and some sort of mutual accountability. The other gathering included the meal and was probably the main meal of the day, typically mid-afternoon.
In case you’re wondering, when Emperor Trajan replied to Pliny’s report he assured the governor that he had acted correctly in punishing the Christians for forming illegal associations. However, he also told Pliny to no longer accept anonymous accusations, nor should he intentionally go out and look for Christians:
“You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshipping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”