This post will probably only interest you if you’re a friend of mine and like listening to me already, or if you have an avid interest in early Christianity and how the church became the miserable mess that it became in the middle ages.
This is very general, though I mention some details in establishing that general idea.
This is a response to a question from a friend of mine to whom I probably have no business giving advice, even though he’s younger than me. But, hey, we’re brothers and friends, so God gives me opportunities to be of benefit even to those who might be running ahead of me.
Organic Church, House Churches, and the Early Church
The question was concerning some history passed on by someone in a church planting ministry. The history they passed on was miserably inaccurate in its details, but it’s point was exactly accurate.
I could say more, but I explain all that in the email. Here it is …
My Email on Early Christianity and the Fall of the Church
I’m not giving you the original claims by this church-planting group because I don’t think it’s necessary to understand my response.
Poor Ignatius (bishop of Antioch, c. A.D. 70 – 110) had to face gnostics in the church in an empire with no public school system. What that means is that it was typical for philosophers to simply open their schools and try to earn a living teaching people math, science … and philosophy or religion.
So let’s say you’re Ignatius. You’ve got “Christians” in your church saying the right things (or saying nothing) at the assemblies, but then going off to teach gnostic nonsense in their house or in a school on the street. Your precious sheep are being taken in by these charlatans.
Ignatius chose to tell them, “Stick with the bishop. Don’t do baptisms without the bishop, and don’t hold a Lord’s supper without his knowledge.”
We can complain about his solution, but that’s the only legitimate complaint we can make against that great man of God. It’s crazy to charge him with failing to discipline a local body to keep it pure. He fought his guts out to get the gnostics out of the church, and his letters are full of statements that a person is only a Christian if he lives it.
It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts. … There is nothing that is hidden from God. Our very secrets are near to him. Therefore, let us do everything as those who have him dwelling in us. (Letter to the Ephesians 15)
You have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed [by your conduct], which in your instructions ye enjoin [on others]. Only pray both inward and outward strength for me, so that I may not only speak, but also be willing; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one. For if I be truly found [a Christian], I may also be called one, and be then deemed faithful. (Letter to the Romans 3)
Hardly a guy who justified godlessness.
Real history goes like this. In the 2nd century , the church was so doggone powerful that it grew rapidly, despite poverty, slander, and persecution. Truly, their blood was seed, and that includes Ignatius’ blood.
In the 3rd century, the church was large enough that in many places they were known. Persecution was very limited. They were respected in some places. They had some size. Some leaders were leaders for the glory it gave them, and each person’s “place” was emphasized more than ever. There was more fighting about doctrine, more worldliness, and a lot more people pew sitting (though they may not have had pews).
The real disaster didn’t come until Constantine, though. And it’s not because he gave authority to the bishop of Rome. He didn’t do that, nor did the Council of Nicea. The disaster was because he embraced Christianity as honestly as he knew how. The problem was not that he was fake; the problem was that he was sincere.
Suddenly, the church was filled with most of the Roman populace, unconverted in any spiritual sense, and the devil sent Arius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Nicomedia to focus the church on doctrine. Suddenly, everyone cared whether you had to say that the Son was “same substance as the Father,” but no one seemed to care that Christians were killing each other with their bare hands!!!
Irenaeus was a 2nd century missionary to the Gauls. He was awesome. Cyprian was a mid-3rd-century bishop of Carthage who actually called a council to oppose the Roman bishop on the baptism of heretics. Stephen of Rome was claiming the right to decide on that issue, at least for the bishops in his area: Italy, Gaul, and north Africa (including Cyprian’s Carthage). The Council of Carthage, led by Cyprian, determined that no bishop had the right to call himself a bishop of other bishops. (This council is not quoted by Catholics for some reason, even though it’s in The Ante-Nicene Fathers set, and everyone knows about it.)
The authoritarian Roman structure was not imposed by the bishop of Rome, by the way. That simply happened. The 3rd century churches were already too top-heavy, and Christians were already failing to use their gifts as one body with many equally important members. When the emperor converted and everyone come flocking in, they wanted the Roman government structure to function in the church as well.
After that, yes, new churches had a political culture rather than a Scriptural authority, but there’s no sense blaming the pope for that. He’s a product of the problem, not a cause.
Of course, the end of all this is that real history still backs up the organic church model. I wish we’d quit slandering great men like Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian, but it’s nonetheless true that the early churches were not led by foreign missionaries. They were, in that sense, indigenous. Their leaders knew about every member using their gift.
And the fact is, while it’s not Cyprian’s fault, that did all get forgotten, and the church became political and forgot that Jesus said about the authority of the Gentiles, “It shall not be so among you.”