Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD) on Christian worship


This is genuinely profound. Before reading this, however, it is perhaps necessary to be reminded about the context in which Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD) wrote his Apologeticus:

This book, his magnum opus, is a defense of Christianity against the unreasoning and unreasonable criticism of the unbelievers, and was addressed to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire. It opens with a request that the truth, being forbidden to defend itself publicly, may reach the ears of the rulers by the hidden path of silent literature. It falls into two parts, dealing with the two types of accusations against the Christians: 1) To be a Christian means taking part in vile and contemptible crimes like ritual incest, and baby-eating, and is a superstition of the ignorant; 2) Christianity involves high treason and contempt for the state religion. Tertullian refutes these as nonsense, and concludes by asserting the absolute superiority of the Christian religion overall, as a revealed religion. He realized that no war is won by remaining on the defensive, and so goes over to attack the indefensible attitudes of the unbelievers, who presumed to judge people who were infinitely their superiors, even by their own standards. With this, the victory of Christianity became possible. With this in mind, here is how Tertullian described the true character of the church over against the misrepresentations of unbelievers:

“I will now set forth the real facts concerning the Christian society in such a way as, having already refuted the evil, to shew the good. We are a body united in the knowledge of religion, the divine character of our doctrine, and in the bond of hope. We meet together in an assembly and congregation that we may besiege God like a marshalled corps with our prayers. This violence is pleasing to Him. We pray for emperors, for their ministers, and those in authority, for the state of the world, for general quietude, and for the delay of the end. We assemble together to call to remembrance the divine writings, if the aspect of affairs requires us to be forewarned or reminded of anything. In any case we feed our faith on these holy words, we encourage our hope, we confirm our confidence, and we enforce the teaching of their precepts none the less during attacks of persecution: at the same time we pronounce exhortations, chastisements, and the divine censures of excommunication. For our judgement is delivered with great weight, as by men who are assured that they are acting in the sight of God; and it is the gravest anticipation of future judgement, if any one has so sinned as to be banished from the communion of prayer, and assembly, and all holy intercourse.

Certain approved elders preside, who have obtained this honour not by purchase but by testimony; for no divine privilege is obtainable by money. Even the kind of treasury which we have is not filled up with sums paid under a sense of obligation, as if they were the price of religion; but each one places there a small contribution on a certain day of the month, or when he wishes, provided only he is both willing and able,—for the offerings are not compulsory but voluntary. These are as it were the deposits of piety. For afterwards they are not spent in feasting or drinking or in repulsive eating-houses, but in supporting and burying the needy, and in relieving destitute orphan boys and girls, and infirm old men, or shipwrecked sufferers, and any who may be in the mines, or islands, or prisons, provided it is for the cause of God’s religion, who thus become pensioners of their own confession.

But even the putting into practice of so great a love as this brands us with a mark of censure in the opinion of some. ‘See,’ say they, ‘how they love each other!’—for they themselves hate each other; and, ‘how ready they are to die for each other!’—for they are more ready to kill each other. And they defame us also, because we call each other by the title of ‘brethren;’—for no other reason, I imagine, than that amongst themselves every title of kinship is counterfeited from affectation. Yet brethren we are, even of yourselves, in right of our one common mother, Nature; although you are scarcely men, because such bad brethren. Yet how much more worthily are those called and regarded as brethren, who acknowledge one Father, God; who have drunk of the One Spirit of holiness; who from the one womb of common ignorance have awakened with awe at the one light of truth. But perhaps it is on this account that we are the less thought to be legitimate brethren, because no tragedy noisily proclaims our brotherhood, or because we are brethren in family possessions, which with you generally dissolve brotherhood. In this way we, who are united heart and soul, never hesitate to communicate our substance to one another. All things are common amongst us, except our wives: in that particular alone we dissolve partnership, in which other men practise it; who not only take the wives of their friends, but even most patiently let their own wives subserve their friends, according to the teaching, I believe, of those ancient sages, Socrates the Greek and Cato the Roman: who shared with their friends the wives whom they had married for the sake of begetting children, even if by another;—I know not indeed whether the wives were unwilling or not; yet why should they care for a chastity, which their husbands so readily gave away? A fine example of Attic wisdom and Roman gravity! —the philosopher and censor acting the part of pimps!

What marvel, then, if love so great as ours should lead us to feast together? For besides branding our modest suppers as criminal, you also denounce them as extravagant…  The feast of the Christians alone is made a subject of comment. Our feast shews its principle in its name [agape]: it is called that which in the Greek signifies ‘love.’ However much it may cost, expense incurred in the name of piety is a gain; since we help by this consolation those in need : not in the same way as parasites amongst you eagerly strive for the glory of enslaving their liberty for their belly’s wage, amidst insults begotten of gluttony; but amongst us, as with God Himself, greater consideration is shewn for the poor. If the reason for our feast is an honourable one, you can estimate what the rest of our disciplinary regulations are with respect to religious duties: nothing disgraceful, nothing immodest is admissible; no one reclines at the feast without first tasting beforehand of prayer to God: sufficient is eaten to satisfy hunger; so much only is drunk as becomes the chaste. Satisfaction of appetite is so far indulged in, as is consistent with the remembrance of the duty of worshipping God during the night: conversation is regulated by the knowledge that the Lord is listening. After hand-washing, the lights are brought in, and a general invitation is given to sing to God as each one is able, either from the Holy Scriptures or from his own natural capability; it may be gathered from this how little one has drunk. Prayer in like manner closes the feast. The meeting then breaks up, not into bands for the perpetration of acts of violence, nor into groups for running hither and thither, nor into outbursts of wantonness, but with the same regard for propriety and modesty as becomes those who have feasted not so much off a supper as off a godly instruction.

This assembly of the Christians would, indeed, have been deservedly made illegal, if it resembled illegal meetings; and it ought deservedly to be condemned, if it were not unlike assemblies that merit condemnation,—if any complaint could be brought against it on the same ground as against factions. Who has ever been the loser by our meeting? We are the same when gathered together as when separated; the same unitedly as individually, causing neither injury nor sorrow to any one. When the honest and good assemble, when the pious and pure are gathered together, it ought not to be called a ‘faction,’ but a solemn court.”

– Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD), Apologeticus, XXXIX