Ignatius of Antioch was sent to Rome to be killed sometime around AD 110. During his trip to Rome, he wrote at least seven letters to churches and individuals. A letter to Polycarp as well as letters to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Trallia, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna exist today. If you are interested in Ignatius, I’ve written about him in several posts: “Singing a Song of Unity“, “Gospel and Monoepiscopacy in Ignatius“, and “Ignatius, the church, and others“.
For Ignatius, unity was very important. Unity begins with One God, One Lord, and One faith. This also means that there must therefore be one gospel and one bishop. So, for Ignatius, unity with the Lord, the bishop, and one another will be very important when he discusses the meeting of the church:
Therefore, make every effort to come together frequently for gratitude and praise of God. For whenever you are together frequently, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and his destructive plan is ruined by your unity of faith. (Ign. Eph. 13:1)
[I will do this] especially if the Lord makes known to me that you all – man to man – come together in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality – that is, the antidote so that we would not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ. (Ign. Eph. 20:2)
Let your assemblies be more frequent. Seek all by name. (Ign. Pol. 4:2)
In the first passage, Ignatius focuses on the purpose of gathering together and the results of gathering together. In Ign. Eph. 13:1, he says that we should come together to proclaim both our gratitude for God and to proclaim God’s glory. The result of our meeting together is the destruction of Satan’s powers and his destructive plans. Ignatius does not fully explain what he means by this. However, in the next verse he writes, “Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” In this context, it seems that Ignatius is saying that war is the work of Satan and that Christians defeat Satan by remaining in peace.
In the second passage (Ign. Eph. 20:2), the bishop focuses on coming together in unity. He emphasizes unity with one another due to our common grace and faith and the Lord Jesus. Primarily, this unity will be displayed in our mutual submission to leaders (the bishop and the presbyters) and in our partaking of a common meal (which would probably include the Lord’s Supper). It is very interesting that Ignatius associated the breaking of bread together with eternal life in Christ.
In the last passage, Ignatius only focuses on meeting together frequently. We don’t learn much more about his understanding of the church meeting from this.
As we can see, both the frequency of meetings and the unity of those involved is extremely important to Ignatius. Ignatius places much emphasis – both in the second passage and in other parts of his letters – on remaining in unity with the bishop. If you read through his letters, you will see that besides meeting together, Ignatius does not think that believers should do anything without the consent of the bishop. I believe this arises from his concern for unity among followers of Jesus Christ.
The Didache (“Teaching”) was probably written in the late first century or early second century (80-150 AD). While it was referenced very early (Eusebius ~ 324 AD), the actual text of the document was not discovered until 1873.
The book is easily divided into two parts. The first part (chapters 1-6) deal with “the two ways”: the way of life and the way of death. The second part (chapters 7-16) deals primarily with living the Christian life and touches on topics such as communion, baptism, travelling apostles and prophets, and fasting.
While the sections concerning the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and teachers affects the meeting of the church, there are two passages that clearly speak about Christians gathering together:
But gathering together every Lord’s, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions, so that your sacrifice may be pure. But do not let anyone who is at variance with his friend come together with you, until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled. (Didache 14:1-2)
But you should come together frequently, seeking the things which are proper for your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not be profitable to your souls, if you are not made perfect in the last time. (Didache 16:2)
In these two passages, the primary concerns for meeting together is 1) the purity of our sacrifice before God and 2) the benefit to each other.
The word “sacrifice” is only used in Didache 14:1-3, and it is not explained further. If it carries the same meaning as found in the New Testament, it refers to both our praises to God (Hebrews 13:15) and the good deeds we do for others (Hebrews 13:16). Meeting together should aid us in both of these endeavors. Notice that the author includes “breaking bread” (eating together) and “giving thanks” (prayer or sharing the Eucharist) as well as confessing our sins to one another. It is also important to the author that believers come together in a spirit of unity, dealing with any disagreements or divisions between brothers and sisters before they are allowed to meet with the remainder of the group.
The second passage (Didache 16:2) focuses on meeting together for the benefit of those gathered. It seems that gathering with other believers should help us mature (“made perfect”) in the faith – looking forward to that time when we will be completely perfect in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12). Individual activities are not in focus in this passage. Instead the focus is on the outcome or the purpose of meeting together – mainly for the benefit of maturing one another in the faith.
There is also a secondary focus on the time of the gathering. In 14:1, the focus is on the day of the gathering, called here simply kuriakos (“belonging to the Lord” meaning “the day belonging to the Lord”). In 16:2, the focus is on the frequency of gathering together. The believers were to gather together frequently – a subjective description that becomes clearer only when used in conjunction with kuriakos in 14:1. The author is encouraging his readers to gather together frequently on the Lord’s Day.
As I said earlier, the Didache includes many instructions for the Lord’s Supper, baptism, dealing with travelling apostles and prophets, choosing bishops and deacons, and other activities that probably take place during the church meeting. All of these passages are important for us to understand what the author of the Didache thought about the church meeting. But only in these two passages (14:1-2; 16:2) do we see a primary focus on the meeting itself.
Around 110 AD, about fifty years after Paul was executed in Rome and perhaps only 20 years after John penned the Revelation, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) was appointed governor of the Roman province of Bithynia. During his travels through the region, Pliny often wrote letters to the Emperor Trajan. Many of these letters and the emperor’s responses have survived to the present day.
In one letter and response, Pliny and Trajan discuss the problem of Christians who were gathering in illegal “political associations.” (Note: The “persecution” listed below did not occur because the Christians worshiped Christ. In fact, other groups who associated together illegally were also arrested, tortured, and killed.) If you have never read this correspondence between Pliny and Trajan concerning Christians, please take the time to read the complete letter in a post called “Pliny, Trajan, and the Christians“.
Pliny became aware of an anonymous list of Christians who were unlawfully associated together. Some of the people on the list claimed that they were not Christians, and immediately demonstrated this by invoking the gods, offering prayers with incense and wine to an image of the emperor, and cursing Christ. Interestingly, in regards to the things that these people agreed to do, Pliny says, “None of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do”.
Other people whose names were found on the list declared that they were Christians at first, but then denied Christ. Pliny does not say that this denial came about after torture, but it can probably be assumed from his treatment of two “deaconesses” later in the letter. These who professed then denied Christ also invoked the gods, worshipped the image of the emperor, and cursed Christ. However, it is from this group and the two “deaconesses” who apparently refused to renounce Christ that Pliny learns something about the gathering of the church in the area 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.
In this short passage, we learn many things about these early church meetings. First, they included the singing of songs that proclaimed Christ to be a god (in the words of the Roman Pliny). Thus, the recognition of the deity of Jesus was important to these early Christians.
Second, these early Christians helped each other live ethical lives. The words that Pliny uses (“to bind themselves by oath”) indicates that they took their manner of life to be very important. Thus they encouraged and exhorted one another not to defraud, commit adultery, lie, etc. In Pliny’s understanding, this was a mutual exhortation.
Finally, these early Christians ate together. Now, this could simply signify that they shared the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper together, but it could also indicate that they ate a meal together. Apparently, at this time, there were already rumors that Christians were cannibals, because Pliny specifies that they ate only “ordinary and innocent food.” There was nothing special about their food.
Interestingly, it seems that there were two separate gatherings held the same day (a fixed day). One gathering included the singing and some type of mutual exhortation which was held very early – before dawn. The other gathering included the meal, and was probably held during the time for the main meal of the day, probably mid-afternoon.
To me, the most interesting aspect of this letter is the source. This letter was not written by Christians trying to explain what they did during their meetings. Instead, it was written by a Roman pagan who was simply reporting the facts as he discovered them to his emperor. I would think that he would want to get his facts straight before he made this report.
By the way, in his reply, Emperor Trajan told Pliny that he had acted correctly in punishing these Christians (and others) for forming illegal associations. However, he tells Pliny to no longer accept anonymous accusations, nor should Pliny look for Christians. Instead, he should only interrogate Christians who are brought to him.
In this blog, I primarily talk about the church as described in the New Testament. However, it is also important to consider how different believers thought about the church through history. In this series, I plan to look at various non-canonical texts from 1st and 2nd century AD that describe the meeting of the church.
These texts are important to help us understand what the author thought about many aspects of the church and of theology in particular. However, since I am studying the meeting of the church, that will be the focus of my examination. Primarily, I will try to answer the following question: What can we learn about the meeting of the church from this particular text?
Obviously, this brief series will not be exhaustive. In some cases, I will not even be able to exhaust everything that a particular author said about the meeting of the church. However, even if I cannot list or discuss every text, I will attempt to at least mention or summarize the texts that I am not able to discuss fully.
Also, I do not plan to list texts that only agree with my position. While that would be a great way of defending my position historically, and a method that is often used today, it would not be honest to the historical data. I plan to discuss several texts in which the author presents a picture of the meeting of the church that is different from the way that I think the church meets.
Finally, I do not plan to make judgment calls about the various authors. Instead, I intend this to simply be a historical survey for various perspectives of the meeting of the church. I will not even attempt to compare what we read with scriptural references to the meeting of the church. That is an important exercise, but it is outside the scope of this study.
Here are some of the texts/authors that I will discuss: 1) one of Pliny’s letters to Trajan, 2) the Didache, 3) Ignatius, 4) Clement of Rome, 5) Justin Martyr, and 6) the Epistle of Barnabas. I hope that through this study we can learn something about the meetings of the church in the first 200 years after Pentecost.
Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.