A lot of people have a view that the early Church was more “organic,” with no laity-clergy distinctions, and an extemporaneous liturgy. However, there are several problems with this idea. Not only is it not explicitly Biblical, but we see it nowhere recorded in early Christian history. Pretty much, it is an imagined state of affairs.
Saint Hippolytus, a martyr who had for a period of time fell away as a schismatic anti-Pope, has preserved for us what he understood to be traditions passed down by the Apostles. He feared that modernizing influences in third century Rome would do away with these practices, so he committed them to writing.
In this document, The Apostolic Traditions, there is some indication that the traditions arose some time after the Apostles. Nonetheless, it does attests to the existence of a developed liturgy, multiple prayers a day, and elaboration upon several positions in the modern Catholic and Orthodox communions (reader, sub-deacon, deacon, Elder, and Bishop) which the Scriptures do not explicitly speak of.
At the very least, the document attests to modern Orthodox practice being mostly the same for the last 1,800 years. While the document is not all encompassing (it contains no commemoration for the saints, prayers for the dead, and does not extol the use of religious imagery in worship), we cannot take this to mean with certainty that contemporary worship did not contain these things–for that would be an argument from silence.
Nonetheless, in the following, I will pick out peculiar passages that match identically with modern Orthodox practice, which serves the purpose of showing where we know there to be historical continuity. I will also pick out a couple passages where there is discontinuity.
The Modern Liturgy, Same as the Ancient Liturgy. The following is repeated in every Orthodox/Catholic liturgy in the modern day:
Lift up your hearts. The people respond: We have them with the Lord. The bishop says: Let us give thanks to the Lord. The people respond: It is proper and just (4:3).
The bishop, standing in the midst of all the faithful present, shall give thanks. But he
shall first greet all by saying, “The Lord be with you.” And all the people shall respond,
“And with your spirit.” Then the bishop shall say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” And the people shall respond, “It is proper and just. Greatness and exaltation and glory are due to him.” But he shall not say, “Lift up your hearts,” because that is said for the oblation (25:1-6).
Bless the Cheese, Please. People did not offer money back then–they offered food that was then blessed. “Likewise, if someone makes an offering of cheese and olives, the bishop shall say…” (6:1). Nonetheless, there is indication in the document that these things were eaten later after the Lord’s Supper, similar to the “coffee hour” after every Divine Liturgy and feast after the Pascha liturgy that still exists today.
Don’t Bother Ordaining Healers. In chapter 14 Saint Hippolytus writes, “If someone among the laity is seen to have received a gift of healing by revelation,
hands are not laid upon such a one, for the matter is obvious.” Whether this is an instruction that has persevered from Apostolic times when the gift was more common, or it reflects contemporary superstition, the reader should judge. However, what is clear is that the laying on of hands was seen as a literal means of bestowing the Spirit. For someone who can heal, clearly this can only be done by the power of God so the laying on of hands would be superfluous.
The Deaconess Debate. The office of “deaconess” has mostly fell into disuse within Orthodoxy. When five women attained to the “office” in Africa earlier this year, this caused controversy in Orthodox circles. However, deaconesses are probably Scriptural (Rom 16:1) and they played an active role in teaching other women (Titus 2:3-5). Early church practice included that these women baptized other women, because people used to baptize naked back then (“[n]o one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water,” 21:5).
In the Apostolic Tradition, we see widows who appeared to offer the work of praying for the community and teaching younger women in exchange for financial support (1 Tim 5). Their role was closer that of a nun, which means widow-nunnery was the first form of actual, organized monasticism in the Church. Unlike other forms of communal, organized ascetic movements (whose beginnings probably descend from Gnosticism), nunnery is likely Apostolic and there are hints of ascetic women in the Scripture (Anna the Prophetess, Luke 2:36-37) and second century tradition (Saint Mary being brought up in the Temple as a vestal virgin of sorts in the Protoevangelicum of James.)
The proto-monastic life was probably originally envisioned only for women who lost their husbands (and those who forsook marriage), because it killed several birds with one stone: it allowed them to pursue holiness where other avenues (evangelizing, being part of the clergy) were not allowed or too dangerous for women. It also paid their bills, conscripted prayer warriors for the Church (this still being very important in Orthodoxy today), and supplied to the church useful teachers (for other women).
The work of these widow-nuns is elaborated upon by Hippolytus:
When a widow is appointed, she is not ordained, but is chosen by name. If her
husband has been dead a long time, she is appointed. If it has not been a long time since
her husband died, she may not be trusted. If, however, she is old, let her be tested for a
time. For often the passions grow old with those who give them a place in themselves. The widow is appointed by word alone, and then may join the rest of the widows. Do not lay hands upon her, for she does not offer the oblation, nor does she have a liturgical duty. Ordination is for the clergy because of liturgical duty. The widow is appointed because of prayer, which is a duty for all (10:1-5).
Widows and virgins will fast often and pray for the Church. The elders will fast
when they want to, as is the same for the laypeople. The bishop may not fast except
when all the people fast (23:1-2).
Whether these women functioned in the role of deaconess, we do not know. If such women did, we can see they are not ordained. The deaconess functions below a sub-deacon in that she plays no function at all in the liturgy, but like the sub-deacon she is not ordained because there is not a laying on of hands.
Blessed Bread. The first time my wife and I were in an Orthodox service, we were offered “blessed bread.” I politely said no, because I am allergic and besides, I am not chrismated into the Church. I was told, “No, that does not matter, this is ‘blessed bread.'” After the service, we went to the “coffee hour” (which is in fact a luncheon) and the priest said that when he cuts a bread, only some is consecrated as the Eucharist while the rest is set aside for the dead, for visitors, and etcetera.
I remember thinking that this practice was extra-biblical, and I wondered how early its origins were. Well, it existed in Hippolytus’ time:
When they dine, the faithful present shall take from the hand of the bishop a small piece of bread before taking their own bread, because it is blessed. Yet it is not the eucharist, like the body of the Lord. Before they all drink, they shall take their cups and give thanks for them. Thus they will eat and drink in purity (26:1-2).
“Coffee Hour.” In 1 Cor 11:20-11, Paul writes:
Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
This is very confusing to the Protestant, because even if they use real wine in the Lord’s Supper, surely not enough is given out to get drunk. Plus, no one brings their own food to the supper, so how does Paul’s warning, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment,” (1 Cor 11:34) make sense?
In Orthodoxy it does.
Immediately after the Lord’s Supper, everyone eats bread and wine in order to digest all the particulate matter of the Eucharist still in one’s mouth. Then, after prayers, everyone immediately eats a real meal afterwards. The food from the meal is obviously not cooked by the priest, but it is brought by everyone there. Ideally, people share and I have not seen otherwise. It was the lack of sharing (for the Bible says, “Sharing is caring,”) that Paul is condemning. Further, the lack of propriety (for we actually drink liquor on certain occasions after a Divine Liturgy) is a real issue when you are having a real “love feast.” Hippolytus seems to share the same concerns:
Eat and drink in moderation. Do not drink to drunkenness, so that no one will mock you and so that he who invited you will not be grieved by your disorderly conduct. It is better that he continue to pray to be made worthy so that the saints may come to him…When you eat, eat sufficiently and not to excess, so that the host may have some left that he can then send to someone as leftovers of the saints, so that the one to whom it is sent may rejoice (28:1, 3).
The meal appears to be much more solemn in the Apostolic Traditions, similar to a Jewish Passover satyr. Everyone is supposed to be silent and wait to be taught from the Bishop, or Elder, acting as an icon of Christ at the Lord’s Supper–to be treated reverentially. As seen in the the following, this meal also served a pedagogical function, which has been replaced in the modern day by the homily/sermon:
Let the guests eat in silence, without arguing, saying only what the bishop allows. If
someone asks a question, it shall be answered. When the bishop answers, all shall remain silent, praising him modestly, until someone else asks a question. And if, in the absence of the bishop, the faithful attend the meal in the presence of an elder
or a deacon, they shall eat in the same way, honorably (28:4-5).
The Sign of the Cross. In De Corona, Chap 30 Tertullian makes mention of the sign of the cross being done on one’s forehead. This forehead crossing (a western practice that has fallen into disuse) was mentioned by Hippolytus:
If you are tempted, seal your foreheads reverently. For this is the Sign of the Passion…By sealing a the forehead and eyes with the hand, we turn aside the one who is seeking to destroy us (42:1, 4).
Conclusion. There are certainly many commonalities with modern Orthodox practice and what we read in The Apostolic Tradition. There are also differences (the way the cross is signed, the use of milk and honey after baptism, etcetera) but clearly what we see has been faithfully continued in its substance by the Orthodox in the present. Hippolytus prays in the last verse, “If we have omitted anything, beloved ones, God will reveal it to those who are worthy, steering Holy Church to her mooring in the quiet haven.” By Gods grace, our worship will be conformed increasingly into the Apostolic mode.