Tertullian's Worshiping Community

Tertullian was perhaps one of the greatest minds in early Christendom – regardless of what you think about his doctrine or personal temperament. It is possible that Tertullian had a previous life as a famous Roman jurist, but only a possibility. Beyond that, he provides fine detail  about the early struggles – doctrinally, morally, and legally – in the Christian community. Here, we examine his community’s liturgy and practice of ‘church service.’

His Apology was written to effect the recognition of Christianity as a legal religion. Writing sometime between 198-204, Tertullian gives us supreme insight into the life of the early church, keeping in mind his rigorist notions of piety. This chapter centers on the charge that the Christian worship service is one of immoral practices, bankrupting the community, centered on self-gratification rather than the godliness of themselves. Tertullian shows that unlike other mystery cults of the Empire, the Christian congregations were pious, and centered on the community.

The text is from Schaff’s Church Fathers series, but I have separated it according to points which I wish to make.

Tertullian’s Apology XXXIX:

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.1 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.

The imagery from Genesis 32.23-34 is front and center as well as the passage from the Gospels (Matthew 11.12 NKJV). Here, though, we find Tertullian focusing on the commonality of worship in which they share a common religious profession (either the whole of Christian religion or perhaps something as the Rule of Faith) and they offer prayer up to God corporately. For Tertullian, the ‘we’ is important.

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.2 We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful.3 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 Gods 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. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day,4 if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, pietys deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of Gods Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one5 another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.

And they are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity are assumed in mere pretence of affection. But we are your brethren as well, by the law of our common mother nature, though you are hardly men, because brothers so unkind. At the same time, how much more fittingly they are called and counted brothers who have been led to the knowledge of God as their common Father, who have drunk in one spirit of holiness, who from the same womb of a common ignorance have agonized into the same light of truth! But on this very account, perhaps, we are regarded as having less claim to be held true brothers, that no tragedy makes a noise about our brotherhood, or that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.

All things are common among us but our wives. We give up our community where it is practised alone by others, who not only take possession of the wives of their friends, but most tolerantly also accommodate their friends with theirs, following the example, I believe, of those wise men of ancient times, the Greek Socrates and the Roman Cato, who shared with their friends the wives whom they had married, it seems for the sake of progeny both to themselves and to others; whether in this acting against their partners wishes, I am not able to say. Why should they have any care over their chastity, when their husbands so readily bestowed it away?

O noble example of Attic wisdom, of Roman gravitythe philosopher and the censor playing pimps! What wonder if that great love of Christians towards one another is desecrated by you! For you abuse also our humble feasts, on the ground that they are extravagant as well as infamously wicked. To us, it seems, applies the saying of Diogenes: The people of Megara feast as though they were going to die on the morrow; they build as though they were never to die! But one sees more readily the mote in anothers eye than the beam in his own. Why, the very air is soured with the eructations of so many tribes, and curiæ, and decuriæ. The Salii cannot have their feast without going into debt; you must get the accountants to tell you what the tenths of Hercules and the sacrificial banquets cost; the choicest cook is appointed for the Apaturia, the Dionysia, the Attic mysteries; the smoke from the banquet of Serapis will call out the firemen.

Yet about the modest supper-room of the Christians alone a great ado is made. Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agapè, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy; not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment,but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors.

After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each1 is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing,a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet. Give the congregation of the Christians its due, and hold it unlawful, if it is like assemblies of the illicit sort: by all means let it be condemned, if any complaint can be validly laid against it, such as lies against secret factions. But who has ever suffered harm from our assemblies? We are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are individuals; we injure nobody, we trouble nobody. When the upright, when the virtuous meet together, when the pious, when the pure assemble in congregation, you ought not to call that a faction, but a curia[i.e., the court of God.]

Tertullian places stress on the corporateness of worship from the public confession to the united prayer, but he gives way for the individual to praise God in the singular hymn.


1[Elucidation VII.]

2[Chap. xxxii. supra p. 43.]

3[An argument for Days of Public Thanksgiving, Fasting and the like.]

4[On ordinary Sundays, they laid by in store, apparently: once a month they offered.]

5[A precious testimony, though the caviller asserts that afterwards the heathen used this expression derisively.]

Post By Joel Watts (10,049 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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34 thoughts on Tertullian's Worshiping Community

  1. Nice Post, to bring Tertullian before our eyes is historic and simply good stuff. On a side note, Philip Schaff’s work is always good. Note his Mercersburg theology…an American-German Reformed Church theology; liturgical, sacramental and Christological, within the center of patristic thought and Reformation teaching. Would that the Reformed Church returned more here!
    Fr. R.

  2. Joel,
    I would like to see that context! Everything that I have read about Schaff, or read from Schaff, shows that he was a sound Reformed Christian, seeking to return the Reformation and the Reformed Church to the Apostles Doctrine and certain patristics. He did believe in a certain mystical strain in the Eucharist. But again, I have never heard of any “universalist” position strictly speaking. Please if you have it (quote and text, etc.), do share it?
    Fr. R.

  3. Joel: thanks for this passage from Tertullian. Yes, I love the community emphasis that is quite evidence, as God was worshiped.

    But where are the candles and so on? :-D

  4. I will see if I can find my source. Regardless, his tireless work on bringing the Patristics to the English world is to be commended.

  5. He was a rigorist. He liked things black and white, and minimal living. Further, if you read his writings, he liked to use ad hominem arguments against his opponants, and really push them into a corner.

  6. We could use a few more in his ability! Real argument is a lost art today. Ad hom, was more along those lines in his day also, personal but within the argument. It is sad to see really that so many modern Christians have not read and know so little about him.
    And bad math..what the heck is that?
    Fr. R.

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