Places and Means of Worship Services

Places and Means of Worship Services

Because Orthodoxy preaches that it is the only true Church of Christ on earth, it is easy for our uninformed Serbian religious people to assume that the early Christian churches (the church) resembled today’s church: an inner sanctuary full of icons and frescoes, two main rooms, a place for the faithful to stand near the altar, and an entrance only for priests. Also, it would appear so easy to depict the images of the apostles and their successors wearing special clothing, such as do today’s priests.
One could imagine, for example, the icons of the Holy Archdeacon and First Martyr Stephen who holds a censer in his hand, just as the deacons and elders of the first century churches ministered in their church premises – such as the present clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church does today. However, the conclusion at the end of this study is that the worship observed in the churches of the first century (at the time of the Apostles and after them) actually more closely resemble services held in today’s evangelical-Protestant churches, not those conducted in Orthodox temples.
Therefore, regarding the place where the apostles with other disciples gathered to worship, these were ordinary homes where some of the believers lived. They opened their home to host church services. This situation was similar whether the homes were located in an urban or rural environment. Let the Scriptures testify:
“Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God.”
“But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.”
“Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.”
“The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.”
“Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.”
Church historian Eusebius Popovic confirms the fact that the first Christians gathered to worship the Lord in places that did not resemble at all resembled today’s Orthodox temples:
“The first liturgies were observed by Christians gathered in private homes. During the persecution, they held common worship services in caves, caverns, underground vaults, and in forests… They conducted worship in special areas… The internal layout of church buildings was easy to understand. The interior of the church buildings at the end of this period (3rd and 4th century A.D.) usually consisted of three parts: the porch for baptismal candidates and penitent, the middle part for believers, and the final part for classes of clergy of the church, but without a barrier.”
What today in Serbia appears quite “scandalous” for members who belong to the traditional Eastern Orthodox Church is that evangelical Christians (derogatorily called “sectarians”), model their church architecture on that of churches in early church history. Places of worship include places of worship in private homes (that is, no separate church building) or in buildings that exude simplicity – like those in the apostolic time.
Only later (from the 3rd and 4th centuries) did they begin to erect ornate temples that required substantial amounts of financial resources. Some beautiful pagan temples were transformed into Christian churches. Christian emperors competed with each other to build better, brighter, and more expensive temples for the Liturgy. According to Eusebius Popovic, the builders attempted to recreate the look of the reception hall for audiences at the imperial courts when they built the church buildings. Thus churches were built first before they were officially christened for usage. Then they were “consecrated” by one or more local bishops. Thus every year, the day of their consecration is celebrated. Out of respect for the church, some people entered the worship barefoot, and others kissed the entry threshold before the door. Also, apparently modeled after the Jerusalem temple, the church consisted of two rooms, in which no one except the priests (and emperors – who were considered a kind of high priest) could enter. They were called “the Holy of Holies”, or “the altar”. Popovic mentions the custom that anyone who forced his way inside and fell upon “the altar” and grabbed the table would enjoy church asylum (i.e., church protection). This situation strongly reminds us of many Old Testament examples where some who deserved death clutched onto “the horns of the altar,” which was placed in front of the tent of meeting, and sought pardon.
The simplicity of external appearance of the place of worship for the first century Church as well as its interior did not resemble in the least anything like that of today’s Orthodox churches. Here is what Mijac says about the requirements for the interior of an Orthodox church:
“The temple is a place for the exact iconic operation. Therefore, as a rule, a church cannot be an Orthodox church in the absence of icons. A temple may have more or fewer icons, but it can not exist without icons. The icon is a critical component of the concept of the church, because the icon occupies a central role in worship, primarily in the Holy Liturgy, that requires other components to complement the icon.”
In contrast, the church history teaches us that in the beginning of the Christian era there existed no iconography or frescography. In fact, according to well-known Orthodox theologian Sergey Bulgakov, the early church adhered to “an iconoclastic spirit.” And yet, according to the conclusion just proposed by Mijac, the places where the early Christians gathered cannot be called “Orthodox temples” because they have no icons in them! Following the example of the early Church, even today’s serious evangelical-Protestant Christians do not store icons within their houses of worship. Therefore, on this issue, they are much more faithful to the practice of the early Apostolic Church than is the case with the Orthodox.
As regards the use of hand censers by Orthodox priests in worship and their relation to burning candles, Vladeta Jerotić, citing information which came from Sima Trojanović, says that this practice originates from paganism:
“According to S. Trojanović, incense is a pagan custom (the burning of incense to the icon by the deacon!), for it is offered up to idols. This also includes the burning of candles! This pagan custom began to spread from the second century after Christ.”
Eusebius Popovic also confirms that many modern-day Orthodox religious practices originated centuries after the death of the apostles. Some of the customs were adopted from paganism. Baptized but new converts from pagan religions added innovations to the liturgical practice, while other actions (such as patron sign of consecration or blessing by the priest) were invented and developed, so to speak, “by themselves”:
“The development of the form of the worship service in the second period (i.e., 312-622 A.D. – author’s note) is related to the development of the church and its structure or hierarchy as it was instituted. Since the church of the Roman Empire became driven by the state, which supported it with material and moral aid, the church became a wealthier and more advanced church in terms of its external forms. It was a natural progression that the form and structure of its worship also became more complicated, especially as many Gentiles, who converted to Christianity, demanded syncretism with their pompous forms of worship full of pagan cult symbols. Some symbols became common in Christian rites, or at least arose in general forms, such as the use of incense and lighting in worship, including lamps and candles. Some other forms of worship, however, that existed in the first period became more sophisticated, such as the devoted sign of the cross, which, so far as we know, only the African church had performed. Whereas before, believers only drew the sign of the cross on the forehead with one finger, so in the new age of the second period, it reached its most complete form. In the West, believers went from left to right using the whole hand with the forehead on his chest and shoulders with one another, as opposed to the East which required using the first three fingers to symbolize the Holy Trinity and going right to left. So symbolic blessing, which is performed by laying the sign of the cross over another person or many persons or even things, headed in the same direction.”
Regarding the custom of the sign of the cross invented by the churches on the African continent, in other areas it still was not known in the second and third century A.D. (and certainly not at the time of the Apostles). Popovic makes the following statement:
“In the beginning, every major action performed by Christians was followed with a habit of making the sign of the saving cross as a sign of redemption, the adoption of salvation. According to the testimony of Tertullian, believers in Africa traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads. However, also during that time, the church in the East knew nothing about the sign of the cross.”
As regards the hand-made clothes used by Orthodox priests, the Bible and historical sources inform us that the apostles and elders of the first century churches (as well as Christ) dressed simply, unlike the Old Testament priests who wore special clothes. Contrast this with Serbian people, who are used to bearded priests always seen dressed in black robes. By comparison, preachers at evangelical churches who dress in ordinary civilian suits look quite strange.
However, this very sort of outward appearance by worship ministers in evangelical communities approximates that very way of appearance as practiced and taught by Christ and the apostles! The simple reason is that, as we found earlier, the clergy of the Old Testament with its special clothing and ministries in the period of the New Testament (the Church of Christ) is rendered completely unnecessary. This is how ministers in the first century (apostles and other elders-overseers) dressed, according to an Orthodox presbyter:
“At first glance, the fact that the New Testament makes it impossible for us to find a doctrine of how ministers should dress, similar to other cases, should not confuse us. It really has no such regulations. There may be found only some notes about modesty in dress (Mt. 6:28-30; Lk.12:27-28; Phil. 4:5), while Christ and the apostles wore attire commonly worn by other people. Moreover, Christ attacked [the Pharisees] for wearing special clothing as part of their hypocrisy (Mt. 23:5)… So, after the apostolic era, in which one does not find a particular dress code for a pastor (one should know that Christ and His apostles wore attire typical of their fellow countrymen during their time – a simple garment that covered the entire body, which was well suited for their pastoral roles), but at the end of the first century there are traces of its existence, which testifies to the apostolic tradition and church canons. Only in the second half of the fourth century do we discover precise rules on a special clerical dress code.”
Eusebius Popović, in contrast to Bozidar Mijac, neglects to mention information that a special dress code for “priests” began to be introduced at the end of the first century. Rather, he dates the first mention of a dress code “at the end of the first period”, i.e., sometime before the end of the third and fourth centuries, with emphasis that no facts point to one beforehand. The author points out that the clothing religious servants wore was probably white (or some other bright colors), and not usually navy or black as is the case today. The second “period” (from 312-622 A.D.) witnessed nearly all of the clothes that are still used today by the clergy in the Eastern and Western Churches, with the indication that some vestments were introduced much later in time.
Thus, for example, Popovic states that the lowest level cleric initially wore a sleeveless shoulder cape, which is called a “short phelonion”. A little later, it became common that these clerics, just like those at the next highest level, wore basic clothes, including a lower garment, a white tunic called a “sticharion.” All the archdeacons and senior clerics wore tunics. The part of the clerical clothing called the “orarion” includes long strips worn by deacons over the left shoulder and reaching over the ankle in both front and back. It is believed that the tape might have initially had the clear purpose to wipe the mouth of those who participated in Communion, similar to the Roman custom of using a handkerchief called an “orarium” to wipe the mouth. On the other hand, the orarion serves to give a signal to begin certain activities in the Liturgy. The Deacon raises the front end of the strip in the air so that everyone can see it. This commences the exercise of worship services carried out by the presbyter, with the difference that on the priest, rather than having the strips fall on his back and chest, instead they both hang over his chest. In this form, the “orarion” bears a special name called an “epitrachelion”, a stole (collar), which serves a dual function for the priest during worship. These church officials adorned over the sticharion and stole a long “phelonion”, a sleeveless garment that covers the chest and back and is held together by a belt.
On the other hand, bishops in the beginning had the right to wear all these items of attire, with the difference that they could wear a cross over their phelonion, while the priests did not have this privilege. This vestment of the bishop was decorated with many crosses and was called the “polistavria” (phelonion with many crosses). Another component of the bishop’s vestment consisted of the “Omophorion”, i.e., a garment for the shoulders, which, according to the words of Popovic, represented an imitation of the ephod, the vestment of the Old Testament high priest. This part of the clothing became the distinctive emblem of a distinguished bishop or priest, and his clothing signaled the beginning of the exercise of the high priestly activity. The “Nadbedrenik” is also part of the bishop’s outfit. It consists of a four-fold linen cloth that extends from the shoulder to the knee or thigh. It is believed that the nadbedrennik initially served as a towel used after the bishop washes the feet of other believers, especially on Maundy Thursday, following the example of Christ. A later mystic interpretation endowed the nadbedrenik with episcopal authority, i.e., a spiritual sword.
“Sakkos”, are liturgical garments which were initially worn only by patriarchs. (Eusebius says that it is not known whether they wore them before the third period, e.g., before the 7th century). The sakkos represent vestments like a bag with large sleeves made of rich material. Modeled on that of the Old Testament high priest and the Greco-Roman emperor, it later became a vestment for all bishops. Up to the 12th century, only patriarchs wore the sakkos. By the 13th century, some metropolitans also adorned them, and all other bishops were wearing them by the 14th century. From the time when the patriarchs along with a privileged few metropolitans and archbishops wore them, the sakkos was adorned with many crosses (called “sakkos polistavros”) to distinguish these men from other bishops. On special festive occasions, bishops wore a cape (a mantle, similar to that like a monk – but expensive). Part of their uniform included a decoration on the chest called an “engolpion”, which is a partial imitation of the breastplate of the Old Testament high priest. The decoration on the chest is also called “panagion” (the All-holy thing). This engolpion is a medallion upon which are drawn small icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin with a small icon of Jesus or the Holy Trinity and the cross. In recent times, the enkolpion took the form of a medal with the image of the Mother of God, which also became known as the “panagia” (the All-Holy Theotokos).
Bishops still carry a pastoral staff, which is bent at the top or T-shaped. The top often consists of two snake heads intertwined with one another (representing the two-fold wisdom of the archbishops).
Bishops wear on their heads a special hat called a “mitre”. The mitre was based partially on the crowns of Greco-Roman emperors and partly on hats worn by Old Testament high priests. The use of the mitre dates only from the 10th century. The name “mitre” originally referred to a headband or turban that people wore in the secular world to cover their head. In the Eastern Church, the Patriarch of Alexandria was the first to wear a turban, or mitre, and later other patriarchs followed. Only in the eighteenth century were bishops required to wear them, and even then as a special prerogative for archimandrites and protopresbyters.
On the other hand, the use of mitres by Western Catholic bishops developed such that they eventually covered the whole head in a way similar to that of the ancient pagan Roman priests. In fact, the mitre was also called by the same name “infula” in the Roman church as it had been used for the pagan sacrifices. These infulas were a head covering composed of two triangular areas, with the tops facing up. On the back of the mitre, two more strips hang down in back, just like the pagan priests wore them. The mitres of Western bishops and the Pope resembled the head of a fish with an open mouth.
It begs the question as to what meaning they had discovered from the old Roman polytheistic cult. (Remember that we have already established the pagan origins of the mitre from polytheism both for the Eastern and Western bishops; the mitre in the East derived from the model of the crown worn by Greco-Roman emperors and the mitre in the West mimicked the hats worn by pagan Roman priests.)
According to Alexander Hislop , the mitre adorned by the Roman Pope, despite being decorated in various ways through the centuries, shares an identical form to the crown worn by various gods and angelic in the pagan world. One example is the drawing of the fish god Dagon which was worshiped by the Philistines and the Babylonians. The cap is shaped like the open mouth of a fish head, while the rest of the fish body hung in the back. (This is similar to Roman Catholic bishops, with the only difference that they wear several ribbons called “infulae”.) Moreover, all the Popes bore the pagan title of “Pontifex Maximus”, which was also borne by the Emperor Constantine the Great as well as many of his pagan predecessors.
It is possible that the priestly garments, which were instituted centuries after the apostles in the traditional Christianity of both East and West, originates from the pagan Roman Empire and even their customs were adapted from an older pagan system. The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah, citing the warning words of the Lord (Zephaniah 1:4), writes the Hebrew word kemarim (kamar), which refers to the priests of the idol Baal. According to data from Fausset’s Bible Encyclopedia, these priests were dressed in clothes of black color.
Eusebius Popovic cites the fact that Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, in 476 ordered the bishops to wear red vestments on days of mourning in memory of martyrs (allegedly because of the identity of the color with the scarlet red robe that the Roman soldiers forced Jesus to wear on the day of His crucifixion). On the other hand, Woodrow believes that it is probable that today’s Roman Catholic cardinals wore red clothes as another inheritance from the ancient Babylonian religion, just like the mitre. (See Ezekiel 23:14-15.) According to historical data, some priests among pagan religions wore red clothing (the color of fire) to symbolize their actual role of maintaining the holy fire which burned during the activities of the ritual.
What is certain is that the first century Apostolic Church had nothing in common with the numerous, later innovations of ecclesiastical customs and practices, many of which undoubtedly originated from pagan sources. Of course, the fact remains true that church
authorities, even in adopting pagan customs, attempted to replace them with Christian
meanings, as we shall see later. Nonetheless, these measures could not change the undeniable fact that they came from polytheism:
“Love for the allegorical interpretation of the Bible captivated particular mystic theologians, which also extended to their acts of worship and institutions of the worship service. So, symbolic and allegorical interpretation of liturgical activities and relics also gradually emerged. Even in those cases that do not have symbolism in and of themselves, there arose a so-called mystical interpretation and understanding of everything that concerns worship.”
And at the end of this chapter, I would like to cite two large passages from Serbian educators, who explained the difference between actual spiritual Christian values versus many novelties introduced over the centuries, which are a blurred view of the original apostolic confession and religious practice:
“Steeples, bells, oil, and shiny silver lamps – it is all secular pomp and decoration, not the redeemed church of Christ the Savior, for which the Most Holy shed His blood. The souls of the people purified and doing good works, innocent and pure nature: this is my brother, the true bride of Christ and the Heavenly Zion by the witness of the Apostles: ‘This is the church for the living God!’ which is painted and adorned by God, and not walls, bells, and golden threaded vestments (female adornments) and silverware.”
“Greek people and other people can fool themselves as easily as others, and we have received from them, however we found ourselves stuck in the same mess, just as the others are stuck. Yet how is it we come out shining like the sun! When we have acted in such a way that we judge others as abusers, is it just and timely to examine and judge ourselves? It seems to me that this is the smartest option. When the Greeks and Latins accepted Christian doctrine from Christ’s apostles, there was no Holy Wood, no icons, no bodies of the saints or relics, no bones, no canons, nor irmos , no troparion , not the slightest kontakion. For not one of the blessed and holy apostles neither knew or thought of a single word or letter of such things. Yet our Slavic peoples received Christianity not from the Greeks nor from the Latins. But when? Nine hundred years after the apostles. So let me say: who knows what they could have conjured up and invented over nine hundred years?”
The studies to follow relate to the holy sacraments of marriage and anointing, which will be shorter than the previous sections. The reason is simple. In our studies, we see that the sacraments are the foundation on which stands the whole Orthodox structure. Therefore, we need just a little more consideration to make the correct conclusion about their (contra) Biblical foundation.


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