|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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Emperor Decius, in 259-260 under Valerian, and in 303-305 under the
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.
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.
What kept the
early church together as a single faith?
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.