From There To Here: The Story of the Church

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from179 God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. … Having therefore received their orders … they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours] … to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42, AD 95-96)

This is a one-paragraph overview by Clement of the beginning of the church. It’s a little surprising to modern Christians how often that brief story is repeated in writings of the second century church. We know from our Bibles that the apostles “once committed [the faith] to the saints” (Jude 1:3).  Second-century Christians agreed, but said it more fully: “God gave the Gospel to Jesus; Jesus gave it to the apostles; and the apostles gave it to the church to be preserved unchanged.”

I think my readers are pretty diligent Bible readers, so this story begins with the apostles passing the faith onto the saints.

I love the summation of the second century found in the “Introductory Notice” of The Ante-Nicene Fathers:

We thus find ourselves conducted, by this goodly fellowship of witnesses, from the times of the apostles to those of Tertullian, from the martyrs of the second persecution to those of the sixth. Those were times of heroism, not of words; an age, not of writers, but of soldiers; not of talkers, but of sufferers. Curiosity is baffled, but faith and love are fed by these scanty relics of primitive antiquity.

That said, here we go. I’d love to tell the whole story today, but we’ll see how far we get.

The story begins with the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, making a sound like a rushing wind that was heard even in the streets. Tongues of fire sat on each of the apostles and their companions, a total of 120 people. Crowds, drawn by the sound of the wind, rushed towards the source of that sound–the upper room, where the apostles were being filled with the Spirit of God.

Whether into the streets or onto the balcony, the apostles began to proclaim the praises of God in languages they had never learned. Seeing their ecstasy, some wondered aloud if this were merely a drunken cacophony.

Peter stood up to make the most important pronouncement in history:

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel. (Acts 2:16)

The day had come! God had long ago promised a New Covenant with the house of Israel (Jer. 31:31-34). Under that covenant, the Holy Spirit, formerly reserved for only the exceptional, often only for priests, prophets, judges, and kings, was now being poured out on all flesh just as Joel prophesied (2:28-32). Every person who entered into this New Covenant would know him, from the greatest to the least. They would prophesy, dream dreams, and see visions.

How this New Covenant was lived out is what we are here to discuss.

The New Covenant, and the Church, begins

There is no better description of how the church began to live than this:

They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, WEB)

“Day by day” they were “steadfastly” and “with one accord” in the temple, breaking bread at home, taking their food with gladness and single-heartedness, and finding favor with the people.

This was a glorious and united account: “day by day,” “steadfastly,” “with one accord.”

This sort of lifestyle would continue for almost 200 years.

AD 100 (between 100 and 130):

Labor together with one another. Strive in company together. Run together; suffer together; sleep together; awake together, as the stewards, assessors, and servants of God. (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 6)

You shall seek out the faces of the saints every day so that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace …You shall not turn away from him that is in need, but you shall share all things with your brother and shall not say that they are your own. For if you share what is immortal, how much more things which are temporary? (Anonymous, Didache 4)

AD 150:

We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them. (Justin, First Apology 14)

AD 200:

But perhaps the very reason we are regarded [by the Romans] as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, Apology 39)

For 200 years early churches did not lose the zeal that had fallen on the church from its outset, “steadfastly” devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship.

The Boast of the Early Churches

Above, we saw the words, “Those were times of heroism, not of words; an age, not of writers, but of soldiers; not of talkers, but of sufferers.”

How true. Christians tell the stories of heroism more than they tell the stories of failures. Before we address the stories of heroism, I should point out that there were many cases where Christians  were unable to endure torture. Pliny the Younger, a Roman official, in a letter to the emperor Trajan in AD 110, first explains what the Christians were doing:

They had been accustomed to come together on a fixed day before daylight and to sing responsively a song to Christ as God. They bound themselves with an oath—not to commit some crime—but, on the contrary, that they would not commit theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, that they would not break faith, nor refuse to return a deposit when asked for it. When they had done these things, their custom was to separate and to assemble again to partake of a meal, common yet harmless, which is not the characteristic of a nefarious superstition. (ref)

Then he explains what he did about it:

They stopped doing this after my edict. You had asked me to prohibit fraternities, so I did.

Because you asked this, I considered it all the more necessary to examine, even with the use of torture, two female slaves who were called deaconesses, in order to get to the truth. But I found nothing except a superstition depraved and immoderate. (ibid.)

Finally, he explains the result. I am including the part where he discusses just how many Christians there are. Remember, this is AD 110, probably only 15 or 20 years after John wrote his Gospel!

The matter seems to me to be worth consulting about, especially because of the number of people involved! Many of every age and of every rank and of both sexes have been and will be brought to trial. The contagion of this superstition has permeated not only the cities, but also the villages and even the country districts. Apparently, though, it can be halted and corrected. At any rate, it is certainly a fact that the temples, which were almost deserted, are now beginning to be frequented. (ibid.)

Unfortunately, we can see that Pliny was somewhat successful in turning Christians by persecution. Rome was not completely successful, though, and the Christians appealed to the bravery of their martyrs as proof of divine grace:

Though death is decreed against those who teach or at all confess the name of Christ, we everywhere both embrace and teach it. And if you also read these words in a hostile spirit, you can do no more, as I said before, than kill us; which indeed does no harm to us, but to you and all who unjustly hate us and do not repent, brings eternal punishment by fire. (Justin, First Apology 45)

Boys and young women among us treat with contempt crosses and tortures, wild beasts, and all the bugbears of punishment with the inspired patience of suffering. And do you not perceive, O wretched men, that there is nobody who either is willing without reason to undergo punishment, or is able without God to bear tortures? (Minucius Felix, The Octavius 37)

While Pliny was somewhat successful stopping the influence of Christians in Bithynia, overall the sporadic Roman persecution of Christians was to no avail. Pliny has already described for us just how influential they were in Bithynia. Tertullian, a century later, wrote a letter to the Roman emperor claiming that if he banished Christians from his empire he would have no one left to pay taxes! (I confess I can’t find this quote right now, though I am certain it is in his 50-chapter Apology.)

Tertullian adds:

The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. (Apology 50)

Justin, a half century earlier, describes it this way:

it is plain that, though beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; instead, the more such things happen, the more others—in even larger numbers—become faithful and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus. (Dialogue with Trypho 110)

The early churches did not just boast of their endurance of persecution, but also of …

The Righteousness of Christ in the Early Churches

If we Christians be compared with you, although in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you. For you forbid, and yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives: you punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin: you are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are even afraid of our own conscience alone, without which we cannat exist. Finally,from your numbers the prison boils over, but there is no Christian there, unless he is accused on account of his religion, or a deserter. (Minucius Felix, The Octavius 35)

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 11)

Early Christians did not adopt the slogan, “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me,” nor did they say, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Even as last as AD 225, Origen offered to compare the worst of the ekklesia of God in any Roman town to the best of the secular ekklesia of that same town. [I don’t remember where this is, either, except somewhere in the huge book Against Celsus; any help finding it would be appreciated.] The early churches were convinced that Jesus could actually transform their lives, and that this was mandatory if one was to call himself/herself a Christian.

They were not only convinced of this, they proved it to be true with their lives. As Minucius Felix put it, “We don’t speak great things, we live them. We boast that we have attained what [the philosophers] have sought for with the utmost eagerness, and have not been able to find” (The Octavius 38).

The Religious Life of the Early Churches

This was probably not the best title to give this section, but I couldn’t think of what else to name it. I’m taking way too long to finish this post, so I’m going to speed up a bit.

I’m one of those people who really likes 1 Cor. 14:26 and Paul’s teaching that when we come together every one of us should participate. The early churches, however, did not continue that practice, unless you count …

Well, I’ll let you decide.

Meetings

The earliest description of a meeting/service/gathering of the church is not from a Christian at all, but from Pliny the Younger, quoted above. Pliny gives little detail, mentioning only that Christians met “on a fixed day,” before daylight, to sing a “responsive hymn” to Christ as God and to make vows to live a righteous life. He adds that they depart after this early morning meeting and come back later to partake of a common meal.

The next account we find is from Justin Martyr (First Apology 67, c. AD 155). He says that “fixed day” was Sunday, and he said that they read Scripture, the “president” expounded on the Scripture, and then they took communion. They also took a collection, all of which was used to help brothers and sisters in distress. One interesting item is that if a member was sick or absent for some other reason, the deacons brought some of the Eucharist (means “Thanksgiving”) meal to him/her. (Note: I really dislike that word deacon. The word is literally servant, and it is a much better title than the religious and meaningless “deacon.”)

The next time we get to peek inside a gathering of early Christians is in the writings of Tertullian, who wrote in the first decade of the third century, about 50 years after Justin. In his Apology, ch. 39, he tells us what we would know from many earlier writers. The Romans slandered the Agape, the weekly love feast, surely the same one that Pliny mentions. They accused the Christians of all sorts of atrocities at their banquet, including the killing of babies and orgies.

Tertullian explains the truth. The participants “partake of prayer before they recline at the table.” They “benefit the needy.” They eat and drink to moderation only, and they talk together as those who know that the Lord is one of their listeners. After everyone washes up from the meal, either one  or everyone is asked to sing a hymn. (Unfortunately, we can’t tell from the Latin whether Tertullian said one or everyone.) Interestingly enough, Tertullian points out the hymn can be “either one from the Scriptures or one of his own composition.” Then they close with prayer.

Note that this Agape was not the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper happened at that early morning gathering, which is described by Justin as happening on Sunday and by Pliny as happening on “a fixed day.”

Church Government

I have numerous pages at Christian-history.org that address this issue for those that are contentious about it. I do not admit that what I am about to say is up for dispute except on the basis of sectarian bias, and extreme sectarian bias at that.

So, before I start, let me appeal to Father Richard P. McBrien, a Roman Catholic scholar. His Catholic credentials and acceptance are superb. He is Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame. He once served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He was the general editor of The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.

I am going to cite his agreement with me on everything I am saying here, which I found in his 2008 book, The Church, as the best proof I can offer that what I say below is so well-documented in early Christian history that only sectarian bias could hide it from a historian. He is disturbed with the twisting of history as I am. Here are just two quotes:

The term “presbyter” [i.e., elder] was used interchangeably with that of “overseer” [i.e., bishop], both of which indicated some kind of community leadership. Only at the end of the first century did the presbyter’s role become distinct from that of the overseer, or bishop. (p. 45, brackets mine)

By the late second or early third centuries, however, Peter did become identified in tradition as the first Bishop of Rome. But tradition is not a fact factory. It cannot make something into historical fact when it is not. (p. 96)

That said, I am going to proceed assuming you are going to trust me on the following. For references and more information, see Elders-Bishops-Pastors and Is the Roman Catholic Church the One True Church, both of which I wrote.

It is clear to see in the Scriptures that Peter and Paul set up churches that were led by a group of elders (or presbyters, Gr. presbuteros), all of whom were also called overseers (or bishop, Gr. episkopos).  You will find the references for that in Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17,28; and 1 Peter 5:1-5. In other words, the leadership that Peter and Paul appointed was a group leadership of equal men. They were elders, held the office of overseer (bishop), and their work was shepherding (pastoring).

Most of the apostles either left the Roman empire or died by the late first century. John was the exception, and as a result he was the lone apostle in Asia Minor for at least a couple decades. He had an itinerant ministry among those churches (some of which are mentioned in Revelation chs. 2 & 3). Clement of Alexandria, writing about AD 190, tells us about that itinerant ministry (Who Is the Rich Man Who Must Be Saved, ch. 42). Though his testimony is a century later, there is a lot of corroborating evidence to support him, which we are about to look at.

It appears that John did things a little differently than Paul and Peter, even in Antioch, which was Paul’s home church. John also appointed groups of elders, but only one of them was the overseer.

How do we know this? Well, the answer to that is very interesting.

Clement of Rome, in his letter to the Corinthians in AD 96, makes it clear that he uses overseer and elder interchangeably in chapters 42 and 44 of his letter. This would be expected because Peter and Paul were the founders of the Roman church (according to Irenaeus, anyway, Against Heresies III:3:2). They would have set up one group of elders all called overseers, and AD 96 would have been too early for that to have changed.

Ignatius, however, who wrote 7 letters in AD 107 or 116 (during a visit of Trajan to Asia Minor), was from Antioch, where some say Peter installed him as a bishop over a group of elders. We will refer to that as a “monarchial” bishop from here on in.

That doesn’t make sense, though. Peter didn’t do that, as we can see from Rome and from 1 Pet. 5:1-4. It is much more likely that John appointed Ignatius, since he was in that area anyway until around AD 100. The other churches there, such as the ones referred to in Revelation 2 and 3, also seem to have had monarchial bishops. A famous one is Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who received one of Ignatius’ letters and wrote one of his own to Philippi.

So here’s what’s interesting: We know from Ignatius’ letters that both he and Polycarp were both monarchial bishops. In fact, Ignatius’ praise of the bishops in the churches he writes to in Asia Minor is so profuse that it makes Protestants uncomfortable. (I explain this as being Ignatius’ solution–massive control by the bishop–to the problem of the gnostics, who, for the most part, were still in the churches, not ejected from them. His solution seems to have worked for by the mid-2nd century, the gnostics were evicted from the churches into their own sects, but at what cost?)

Anyway, Ignatius wrote one letter to Rome, where he was headed. In it, he not only does not praise the bishop, but never even mentions him.

Why not?

The obvious answer, to me, anyway (as well as to Fr. McBrien, mentioned above) is that there was no monarchial bishop in Rome. There were many bishops. In Ignatius’ time that had not yet changed.

Polycarp, too, wrote a letter to a church outside of Asia Minor and founded by Paul. That church would be Philippi. He, too, mentions only elders and deacons. He even has a whole chapter on each and their responsibilities. He never mentions a bishop, and doesn’t give his own office. Instead he begins his letter with, “Polycarp and the elders with him.”

So we see an early government in Paul and Peter’s churches of a group of elders, all called bishops (overseers is better, but I’m using bishop for ease of reading). In John’s churches, however, there were a group of elders, with one head elder, who was the only one called a bishop.

By the mid-second century, John’s way had prevailed throughout the empire. In the late second and early third centuries, when churches were debating with gnostic sects about interpretations of the Bible (gnostic interpretations are pretty bizarre), two noted apologists (Irenaeus and Tertullian) used the argument of apostolic succession against the gnostics. They argued that since the apostolic churches kept a roll of bishops dating back to the apostles, who is more likely to have preserved the true meaning of the Scriptures, the descendants of the apostles with their bishops and elders, assigned to preserve the faith handed down to them, or the gnostics, who had no regard for the apostles at all?

In our day, this has been turned into an argument that Christians have to join a church that still has a roll of bishops dating back to the apostles. Around AD 200, apostolic succession was a very reasonable argument that the succession of bishops and elders had preserved the truth of the apostles unchanged until their day. Around AD 2000, that’s an unreasonable argument, because we can see the huge diversions from the apostolic faith by comparing those churches (Catholic, Orthodox) with the writings of the apostles (the NT) and the writings that came from their early churches.

Okay, let me wrap this up. This method of church government, a monarchial bishop with elders, became universal by the mid-second century or so, certainly by the late second century. In the third century, as churches became larger and congregations multiplied, bishops in the major cities, and especially the apostolic cities, such as Rome, Philippi, Ephesus, Antioch, and Corinth (for example) became the “go to” guys for churches in villages and small towns.

Such bishops became known as Metropolitans. At the Council of Nicea, in AD 325, three of those metropolitans–Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch–were assigned responsibility over entire countries. These bishops became known as patriarchs, and after Constantinople was built and became the residence of the eastern Augustus, the bishop of Constatinople became a patriarch as well.

In AD 467, the last emperor in Rome was overthrown by Gauls. The western half of the empire fell. Only from Greece and east did the Roman empire maintain its foothold. The Roman empire now did not include Rome!

Today, we call that half empire the “Byzantine empire” because it was ruled from Constantinople, formerly Byzantium. However, while it reigned, it recognized itself as the Roman empire, not the Byzantine empire.

The point of this is that the only apostolic church, and thus the only patriarch in the fallen west. Slowly, that patriarch gained authority not just over spiritual matters in the west, but even over secular matters. When this concentration of power led to thoroughly corrupt popes, as the bishop of Rome began to be called, is debated. Many of the earlier popes, even into the 700’s, seem spiritually driven, but the popes from the official split with Byzantine Christianity (in 1054) until the Reformation were famously corrupt (for the most part). During a good portion of that time, the pope–the bishop of Rome–lived in France(!) and once a successor tried to return, the result was 2 or 3 popes at a time for decades.

So, that wasn’t very fast, was it. I usually fail at being fast. Let’s get back to our story. I’m going to zip from the second century through the third to Nicea, and we’ll take up there the next time.

Let’s see, I have to go pick up my daughter in 8 minutes. Lol. Good luck to me!

What Happened?

Here’s what happened. Christianity spread wildly in the third century. Even at the start, listen to this description by Tertullian of how many Christians there were. He may be exaggerating, but remember, Christianity converted even the Caesar by the early fourth century.

Without arms even … we could carry on the contest with you by an ill-willed severance alone. For if such multitudes of men were to break away from you, and betake themselves to some remote corner of the world, why, the very loss of so many citizens, whatever sort they were, would cover the empire with shame; nay, in the very forsaking, vengeance would be inflicted. Why, you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence, and that stupor as of a dead world. You would have to seek subjects to govern. You would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For now it is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few,—almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ. (Apology 37)

Can you imagine an Agape with thousands of attendants? It would not be the intimate thing that Tertullian describes.

As the churches grew larger and larger, they had to deal with crowds. Descriptions in later writings give instruction for the seating of those who attend the congregations. Hearers sat in one section, candidates for baptism (catechumens) in another, those under penance and banned from communion in another, and regular members in a fourth section, which was the only one authorized to received communion.

The authority of bishops grew and grew. Attempts to stop the growth of the church by persecution just led to what Tertullian predicted, “The oftener you mow us down, the more of us there are. The blood of Christians is seed” (Apology 50).

However, in the early 4th century, Diocletian, provoked by his Caesar Galerius (the Augustus outranked the Caesar, and there were two of each in the West and the East), instigated the Great Persecution in AD 303. When Constantine put an end to this along with Licinius in AD 311, the church was thrilled. In fact, Constantine claimed to embrace Christianity, restored the property of the churches, and freed all Christian prisoners.

The result of this was a mass entrance of the public into the church. The church received them, and the effect was immediate and awful.

Unfortunately, I have to explain all that another time, as I’m 4 minutes late on leaving to pick up my daughter.

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