Church Life in the Second and Third Centuries

Key Points During this Time

  • After an intensive and often lengthy period of preparation, converts were initiated into Christianity through a highly symbolic baptism ritual
  • Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays and other times for worship and instruction; celebrating the Eucharist was central to Sunday gatherings
  • The church was known for advocating high standards of personal morality, including sexual behavior and charity
  • Women were prominent in the story of early Christianity, as celebrated martyrs, in special roles of church service, and defining new social roles through celibacy
  • Christian hope of bodily resurrection supplied a powerful testimony. Christian expectations included chiliastic and non-chiliastic understandings of the end times.


Although early Christian practices exhibit the influence of their social contexts, they also display distinctive features and definitively Christian expressions. Christians took seriously the matter of initiation into the church, requiring converts to undergo an intensive period of instruction and preparation prior to baptism. Understanding of doctrine and the practice of Christian moral behavior were expected. The baptismal ritual itself showed great care and abundant symbolism. Although initially baptism seems to have been intended for those capable of making a mature commitment, in time infant baptism came to be a routine practice. Christian art depicting baptism illuminates our understanding of early Christian conceptions of this ritual.

Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays from the earliest times, in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. Weekly assemblies included the reading of Scripture, preaching, hymnody, prayer, and taking up collections for those in need, but centered on the celebration of the Eucharist. As a mystical participation in Jesus’ body and blood, the Eucharist functioned as an argument against Docetic and Gnostic interpretations of the incarnation. By the late third century, the unbaptized were excluded from the eucharistic portion of the assembly.

In addition to weekly assemblies, Christians met for worship and agape meals at other times. They observed regular fast days and had other personal devotions. The apologists stressed the high moral standards of Christians, pointing to their ethics as an argument for the truth of Christianity. Dependent partly on Jewish moral instruction, the moral philosophy of the day, and Jesus’ own teaching and example, Christians claimed a spiritual power to live extraordinary lives. Many early Christian texts focus on moral behavior, including celibacy as an expression of extreme devotion to God in Christ. Christian attitudes towards the state and military service remained ambivalent.

Women played a prominent role in the growth and stability of the early church. Many subverted social expectations by choosing to adopt lives of celibacy. Some became heroines as martyrs. Although women seem not to have been commonly involved in preaching and presiding at liturgical functions, in roles such as that of deaconess they served the church in key ways.

Christian attitudes towards death were very impactful as a part of the Christian witness. Christians observed many of the same burial practices as their Jewish and pagan neighbors, yet inscriptional and artistic evidence shows the hope with which Christians faced death. Partly as a matter of biblical interpretation and partly in response to Marcion and Gnostics, some Christian teachers held to a chiliastic understanding of the end, in which Christ would assume the rule of earth from Jerusalem for 1000 years after his return. The more pervasive view of the end saw the promised millennium as a more symbolic or spiritual event. Both groups taught the resurrection of the body and maintained the vindication of the righteous in the final judgment, resulting in heavenly reward.


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