13. The Early Church
(first 300 years AD)
Where did the early Christian congregations first meet?
How was the early church organized?
- During the earliest years of the new Christian faith (30-70 AD) many Christians thought of themselves as "Messianic Jews"--Jews who understood that God had sent the long promised Messiah or Christ in Jesus of Nazareth. Being loyal Jews, they met at the beginning of the Sabbath (Friday evenings) in certain synagogues where the followers of Christ outnumbered the other Jews.
- But through the action of Paul and others, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was carried to large numbers of Gentiles (non-Jews). Outside of Judea or Palestine the Gentile Christians began to soon outnumber the Jewish Christians. They did not (could not) meet in synagogues--so instead met in small groups in their homes. They met frequently--but especially on Sundays, which they termed "the Lord's Day," in celebration of the fact that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus was raised from the dead and it was likewise on the first day of the week that the Holy Spirit had begun the new spiritual community (the "church") of Christians.
- Elders. Since the Christians at first thought of themselves as Jews they tended to organize themselves as Jews: each church was led by a handful of respected "elders" (presbyteros) or "overseers" (episcopos). These were men who were very learned in God's word, who possessed high moral character, and were recognized as being "gifted" by God in the areas of teaching, preaching, and spiritual living. They were responsible for overseeing the spiritual development of the rest of the community (ecclesia or church), and thus focused their work on the study and teaching of God's word and on the prayers.
- Deacons. The elders were assisted by deacons, leaders also widely respected for their spiritual maturity. The deacons' job was to look after the physical well-being of the members of the community--a very important task since the early members of the church had given over all their wealth to the community and depended upon the deacons to see that the sharing of the community's blessings was fair to everyone.
- Read Acts 6:1-6 and 1st Timothy 31-12.
What was the relationship of the early church with the society around it?
What kept the early church together as a single faith?
- Being a Christian was not easy in the early years of the church. In the eyes of much of the Jewish community that Christianity originally grew out of, the Christians were "heretics." (people who followed a false religion).
- Most of the Jews rejected the claim that Jesus was the Son of God--to their way of thinking, a horrible blasphemy in claiming that a mere man was equal to God.
- They were shocked by the idea of the spilling of human blood (Christ's) as the "atoning" price to be paid for the world's sins. This was to an "orthodox" Jew a barbaric notion.
- Also Jesus and his followers had not paid a lot of attention to the religious laws,which were designed to keep Jews from being "contaminated" by contact with the world of sin around them. Jesus was always more concerned with helping sinners than with keeping himself and his followers "clean" by avoiding sinners, as good Jews were supposed to do.
- Paul convinced the Christian leaders in Jerusalem not to force Gentiles recently converted to the Christian faith to have to go through the Jewish covenant rite of circumcision and the observance of the Jewish worship rituals. As far as "proper" Jews were concerned this definitely removed a Christian from any claim to being part of God's covenant people.
- Finally, as the last straw, when in 66 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian inisisted that the Jews renounce their religious observances, Christian Jews did not hesitate doing so, for they had ceased to observe such religious practices themselves for some time. Much of the rest of Judaism, however, rose up in angry revolt against the Roman decrees. In contrast, the Christians withdrew to the safe site of Pella (in modern-day Jordan) when Jerusalem in AD 70 was sacked by the Romans in retaliation for the Jewish rebellion. And in the intensity of the pain of seeing their beloved temple leveled to the ground, the orthodox Jewish party felt all the more hatred for the Christians. To them, the behavior of the Christians during this crisis proved all the more convincingly that the Christians were Jewish "traitors."
- So finally, in around 90 AD, a group of Jewish leaders decided that word was to go out to all the synagogues around the Empire that Christians were to be expelled from synagogue worship. They had no part of the "true" Jewish community.
- The Roman authorities were also very suspicious and at times extremely hostile to the early Christians.
- Making Jesus "Lord" ran into a distinct problem in that the emperors were in no mood to be challenged for that same position as spiritual "Lord" by some cultic figure known as "Jesus the Christ."
- Also the Roman army, which was the chief tool of the emperors, was heavily Mithraist (a religion from Persia) and looked down on Christianity as a religion of the weak and poor.
- And the Jewish community--which had legal status under Roman law--was quick to deny that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism. Thus Christians thus were practicing a religion that had no legal rights to exist anywhere in the Roman Empire.
- Christianity spread quickly around the Roman Empire, especially in the cities. Apparently in capital city itself of Rome the Christian community quickly grew very large. This drew the envy and resentment of many non-Christians. In their resentment Romans claimed that Christians met secretly to eat human flesh and drink human blood (the gossip or rumors that grew up from misinformation about the Christians' celebration of Holy Communion / the Lord's Supper).
When in 65 AD the semi-insane Roman Emperor Nero botched a plan to rebuild Rome (by first burning it to the ground?), he turned the blame for the horrible fire on Christians and began to put them to death as sick public entertainment. This began the Roman practice of persecuting Christians whenever the Roman emperors felt that they needed a scapegoat for the Empire's problems.
- Actually Roman persecution came in waves, rather than just a steady oppression.
- At times the authorities seemed to let up a bit on the Christians. Many people were more willing to join the faith when it was less dangerous--including even important Roman citizens.
- But from time to time a particular Roman emperor would take up the cause of cleansing the Empire of this Christian "heresy." Thus in 250-251 AD under the Roman Emperor Decius, in 259-260 under Valerian, and in 303-305 under the Roman Emperor Diocletian the persecution of the Christian community by the Roman authorities became gruesome. The horror of the persecution during each of these periods would come to an end only with the death of each of the zealous emperors involved.
- Even so, it was always dangerous to be a Christian. Local authorities could also take it upon themselves to purge the land of these Christian "heretics." Because the Christians had no legal rights to practice their faith within the Empire, such persecution could take place at any time and the Christians could do nothing about it.
- Thus Christians found it wisest to meet in secret and admit people to their community only after a long period of preparation. In Rome, one of the places famous as a Christian gathering point was in the catacombs--the almost endless miles of underground tunnels where the dead of Rome were warehoused.
But of course, in the end, the purity and strength of the church was not ultimately determined by human wills--not the popes, not the bishops or elders, not the deacons--nor by the church's persecutors, the Roman emperors and officials. The church was--is and always will be--the chief work of God's own Holy Spirit. The church survived those three first centuries of persecution and very loose organization only because the Holy Spirit himself protected and guided the church of Jesus Christ.
- Certainly things were hard enough with all the persecution and need for secrecy that keeping together the Christian community that stretched around all the shores of the Mediterranean Sea (Europe, the Middle East, North Africa) was a very challenging task.
- Regional leadership tended to grow up to oversee the church in large areas: around Rome, around Antioch (Syria/Asia Minor), around Alexandria (Egypt). Church "Fathers" (Papas or Popes) came to be respected among the elders and overseers as having special authority in matters of doctrine and church organization.
- "Apostolic authority" came to be carefully guarded--so that a person was recognized as having the right to leadership only because he had himself been discipled by one of the respected church Fathers, who themselves had been discipled by Fathers before them--reaching all the way back to the original disciples around Jesus. This tended to keep doctrine from running off in wild directions.
- Of course there were wild directions that periodically crept into the church. But the careful guardianship by the church Fathers working together served to hold the line again such distractions.
- Also, letters circulated among the churches by the Apostle Paul, letters by the Apostles John, Peter, James and the historical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John served as the "canon" of true scripture for the early church. The fact that there was a body of holy scripture that everyone could refer to when questions of doctrine arose helped hold the church together.
- However the New Testament just did not spring up overnight in the early church. While some writings (the 4 gospels and some of Paul's letters) gained an early reputation as being part of the "canon" of holy scripture, others took a couple of centuries to gain widespread acceptance: the Pastoral Epistles of 1st and 2nd Timothy, Jude, the epistles of 1st and 2nd Peter, the epistle of James, Hebrews and Revelation--largely because some had lingering doubts about their apostolic authenticity. Others that originally had widespread acceptance, such as the Didache, were later laid aside as non-canonical.
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Miles H. Hodges - 2002