Volume III - Church History

Second Century

Church Order and Liturgy

In the writings of The Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and other early Fathers like Saint Irenaeus, it is seen that, at least by the middle of the second century, each local Christian Church was headed by one bishop who presided over a “college” of presbyters or elders, and who guided the more socially-oriented work of the deacons. Thus Saint lgnatius of Antioch writes in his letters:


I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters are to function as the council of the apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry [diakonia; i.e., good works] of Jesus Christ (Letter to Magnesians 6.1).

Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for one is the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants (Letter to Philadelphians 4).

Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church (Letter to Smyrneans 8.2).

Saint Ignatius was the first to use the term catholic to describe the Church. It is an adjective of quality that tells how every authentic Church is—namely, full, perfect, complete, and whole, with nothing lacking of the fullness of the grace, truth, and holiness of God.

To comment on one more of these early writings, the Didache is a kind of brief manual on Christian living and various Church practices compiled probably by the middle of the second century, but including material most likely coming from as early as the late first century. It contains several passages relating to Baptism and the Eucharist:

Baptize as follows: after explaining all of these points, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you do not have running water, use whatever is available. . . . And prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can (Didache 7.1–4).

Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the name of the Lord (Didache 9.5).

On the Lord’s own Day [i.e., Sunday], assemble in common to break bread and give thanks [i.e., the Eucharist; the word itself means ‘thanksgiving’]; but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your assembly until they are reconciled; for your sacrifice must not be defiled (Didache 14.1–2).

An early description of Christian worship,
by Saint Justin Martyr, c. 155 AD


And on the day which is called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.

Then, when the reader has concluded, the president verbally instructs and exhorts us to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray. And as I said before, when we have ended our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought. And the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people give their assent by saying ‘Amen.’ And there is a distribution to each and a partaking by everyone of the Eucharist, and to those who are absent a portion is brought by the deacons.

And those who are well-to-do and willing give as they choose, each as he himself purposes. The collection is then deposited with the president, who supports orphans and widows, and those who are in want owing to sickness or any other cause, and those who are in prison, and strangers who are sojourning with us. In a word, he takes care of all those who are in need.

Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
(First Apology 67)