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    Jun 24, 2016

    Class 2: Gathering the Saints & Defending the Faith

    Series: Church History

    Category: Core Seminars, Church History, Early Church History


    Core Seminar

    Church History

    Class 2: Gathering the Saints & Defending the Faith


    The Development of Scripture, Worship, and Leadership in the Early Church



    Writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan, a governor named Pliny the Younger described the practice of the early Christians in the early second century:


    “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honor it.”[1]


    How did early Christian worship practices develop?  And where did the church turn for guidance and leadership?  In the midst of the expansion and persecution that we considered last week, the early Christians faced two other sets of challenges.  First, they needed to develop their own gatherings, in ways that gave glory to God, maintained the unity of the body, and clearly separated Christianity from other religions of the day.  Second, they needed to defend the faith against the many theological and philosophical challenges that rose against it, from both within and without.


    In this class we will explore the nature of early Christian worship gatherings, how the ordinances of baptism and communion were practiced, how the canon of Scripture was formed, and how the church leadership developed.


    These were trying times.  Truth mixed with error, persecution with growth, division with unity.  If there is one theme that defines this class, however, it is God’s faithfulness. In the midst of these confusions and challenges, the Lord proclaimed His word, and preserved His people.



    Have you ever wondered where the order of our worship service came from?  Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, taking the offering, singing, and preaching are all prescribed in Scripture – and were all practiced by the earliest Christians.  After Jesus had ascended into heaven, Christians began to meet together for times of teaching and praise.  During the earliest decades of the faith, many believers still worshipped in the Jewish Temple and observed the Sabbath.  In addition, the Bible indicates that Christians also began to meet in private homes, like that of Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16:3-5. Many of these meetings were probably held in secrecy, especially during the times of intense persecution.  It was not until the late second and early third centuries that buildings were erected to serve the purpose of church gatherings.  


    Christians met on the first day of the week.  This, of course, was in celebration of the fact that on the day after the Jewish Sabbath Jesus had risen from the dead.  Within several years, this first day of the week had come to be known as “the Lord’s Day,” as John calls it while he is exiled on the Isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:10).  Early Christians were well aware of their ties to Judaism.  As a result, their worship seems to have been patterned, at least in the first years, after the familiar model of worship in the synagogues.




    The early Christians practices two ordinances as commanded by the Lord Jesus – baptism and the Lord’s supper.  

    The Church took baptism quite seriously, often mandating intensive study and preparation before a believer could be baptized, and usually requiring that baptism be overseen if not administered by an elder or bishop. Sometimes the time between professing faith and being baptized was up to two years long. This seems to have been in part because the church was so distinct from the culture.  Surrounded by a world hostile to their beliefs, early Christians needed to keep their faith and their community pure, and to make sure that any new members clearly understood the Gospel and committed to the church.

    The Didache is an anonymous manual of church practices from the early second century.  Though not inspired in the same way as Scripture, it offers a helpful record of the practices of the early church.  On baptism, it records the following instructions:

    This is how to baptize.  Give public instruction on all these points, and then ‘baptize’ in running water, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  If you do not have running water, baptize in some other.  If you cannot in cold, then in warm.  If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’  Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can.”[2]  


    Two aspects of baptism seem to have divided the early Church -- whether infants should be baptized, and whether baptism is regenerative.  The first recorded mention of infant baptism comes in about 200 AD from the pen of Tertullian, and he condemns the practice of infant baptism.  By about 250 or so, other church leaders wrote in defense of the practice, and it became more and more prevalent in the fourth and fifth centuries. As to what baptism actually accomplishes, some early church leaders believed baptism had salvific or regenerative qualities – that is, it actually removes sin and brings salvation.  Others held to a more biblical view, that baptism serves as an outward sign and seal of an inward reality: our faith in Christ.    



    The early church also practiced the Lord’s supper, or communion.  One of the fathers of the early church, Justin Martyr, wrote in about AD150 his First Apology, which gives a detailed account of early Christian gatherings.  Justin records that the Lord’s Supper was a “memorial of the passion” of Christ.  He writes:


    At the end of our prayers, we greet one another with a kiss.  Then the president of the brethren is brought a bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he takes them, and offers up praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost, and gives thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands.  When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their joyful assent by saying Amen. . . . Then those whom we call deacons give to each of those present the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and carry away a portion to those who are absent.  We call this food “Eucharist.”[3]

    In most cases, the first part of the service was open to anyone, including the times of Scripture-reading, prayer, singing, and exhortation.  The second part of the service, however, which included the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, was reserved only for those who were baptized believers in Christ.  

    This merits our reflection.  The ordinances strengthen not only our faith in Christ and our unity with other believers today, but with the universal Church throughout the ages.  When we receive baptism, or partake of the Lord’s table, we join by faith with the millions of Christians who have gone before us, in confessing together “One Lord, One faith, One baptism.”  [As you observe the baptisms at the end of our service today, be sure to ponder God’s faithfulness not just in the lives of those being baptized today, but also his faithfulness through the generations.]




    Prayer, singing of hymns and psalms, and Bible reading were consistent parts of an early Christian gathering.  Apostolic letters would be read when they were available, but until the New Testament began to take some shape in the mid-second century, most of the Scripture-reading and teaching was from the old Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. Justin Martyr (ca. 150) writes:

    “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [pastor] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”[4]


    The quality of preaching was mixed. 2 Clement, probably written in the 2nd century, gives us a good idea of early Christian preaching. It was faithful to God's Word, but not as expositionally refined as would come along during the Reformation.



    In many ways, the most remarkable aspects about the development of the Canon of Scripture are how early the church reached practical agreement, and how little dissension emerged.  The word comes from the Greek word (kanon), meaning “rule or standard,” and with it Christians describe the standard books of the Bible which provide the final “rule and authority” for our faith.  Of course, because of their roots in Judaism, early Christians already affirmed biblical authority, for they saw the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, as the Word of God.  They just faced the question of which books should be added to this Old Testament canon.  

    Christians immediately accepted the writings of the apostles, such as Paul’s letters, as authoritative and inspired by God.  Even within the Bible, in II Peter 3:16, the apostle Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as “Scripture.”  These epistles were circulated widely among different churches in the first and second centuries.  Early Christians also recognized the four Gospels, and by the end of the second century the church had in practice a collection a New Testament Scriptures including the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters. 1 Clement, for example, written around 100 A.D., shows a deep familiarity with most of the books of the New Testament.



    Sometimes it takes an external threat or challenge to force Christians to clarify and defend our beliefs, and canonization was no exception.  In the mid-second century, a heretic in Rome named Marcion began attracting followers to his false teachings, and he tried to form a different canon of Scripture.  Marcion, drawing on the philosophy of Plato, thought that matter was evil and the spiritual realm was good.  He argued that two different gods existed: the evil god of the Old Testament, who had created this miserable world and who was petty, harsh, and cruel, and the good god of the New Testament, who was kind and loving and who had sent Jesus to earth (as an adult, not born as an infant) to bring Christians back to the spiritual world.  [Have any of you ever had a non-Christian friend complain that the “God of the Old Testament” is judgmental and the “God of the New Testament” is loving?  Again, this is nothing new, and is as wrong now as it was in the second century.]  Not surprisingly, since Marcion hated the Old Testament, he also hated the Jews.  So he decided to form his own “bible,” and he rejected the entire Old Testament as well as Matthew, Mark, and John in the New, since he believed “Jewishness” had contaminated all of those books. He only affirmed the Gospel of Luke and the writings of Paul as true.

    Early Christians rightfully condemned Marcion for his heresy. Irenaeus says that Polycarp called him to his face “the first-born of Satan,”[5] and another church father called him “the Wolf of Pontus.” But challenges such as his and others (such as the Montanists, who claimed to still be receiving divine revelation through their prophets) forced the church to make official the canon of Scripture that it was already using in practice.  The church developed a simple set of standards for inspiration.  The document had to have been written by an apostle or close friend of an apostle, it had to agree with the faith and doctrine in the acknowledged and undoubted letters of the apostles, and it had to be functioning as scripture widely within the church.

    While the vast majority of the New Testament gained early and wide acceptance, a few challenges arose.  Pseudepigrapha, or “fake writing,” was common in the day; an unknown author would write a letter or treatise and sign the name of an apostle to give it credibility.  So-called “gospels” of Thomas, Mary, Barnabas, and even Jesus Himself circulated through the churches at one time or another.  Some books seem to have been given some consideration but were finally rejected.  For example, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas did not gain acceptance due to questions of doctrine or authenticity.  Hebrews faced some questions due to its uncertain authorship, but was accepted because of its evident apostolicity.  Revelation likewise received some scrutiny because of its apocalyptic view of the future, which bothered some Christians enamored of the Roman empire.  

    While many early church fathers from early in the second century described the vast majority of New Testament books as Scripture, the first written document we have that lists all twenty-seven books of the New Testament is Athanasius’s Easter Letter 39, written in 367.  

    Nevertheless, in the words of the renowned theologian and biblical scholar B.B. Warfield, “the canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles, and that was when John wrote the Apocalypse [Revelation], about A.D. 98…we must not mistake the historical evidences of the slow circulation and authentication of these books…[as] evidence of slowness of ‘canonization’ of books by the authority or the taste of the church itself.”[6]

    When you read your Bible today, do not take it lightly.  Read it with confidence that God has spoken, that He has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, and that we read the same Bible as that handed down by the first apostles of Christ’s church.  


    Leadership Structure In The Early Church

    Though the Lord Jesus is the ultimate head of His church, He also instituted human leaders from the very beginning. Paul and the other apostles were careful to appoint officers in every church they planted.  By the middle of the first century, the New Testament tells us that the churches had two offices: “deacons,” and “elders” or “overseers.” The Didache also gave instructions on the government of the church.  About church officers, it reads:

    You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord; men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well-tried.  For their ministry to you is identical to that of the prophets and teachers.[7]

    At first, each church had its own elders or bishops. As the Church continued to grow through the third century, though, the bishops were unable to keep up with the responsibility of so many people.  Instead, the bishops became leaders over thousands of people and perhaps scores of congregations in a single city.  Presbyters, or priests, were appointed to assist the bishop in his duties.

    All of the churches of a city were under the care of the bishop.  In Rome, for example, the bishop performed all baptisms and personally blessed all the bread and wine for the eucharist, which the presbyters would then carry to the congregations scattered throughout the city. The bishops were also solely responsible for the finances of the churches, which would eventually contribute to all manner of scandal and abuse.

    In theory, all the bishops were equal, but in practice, those over the larger cities gradually exerted more and more influence.  Great centers of trade and learning were, understandably, seen as having greater authority.  The mother church at Jerusalem had occupied the position of authority until AD70 when the Romans destroyed it.  The center of authority then shifted West and rested on the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Carthage.  Very early in the history of Christianity, Rome became the pre-eminent church in the Empire.  The capital city’s political grandeur and the traditions of Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdoms there quickly led to Rome being recognized as the greatest of the churches.  As early as the late second-century, 200 years before the city’s primacy would be authoritatively asserted, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons would declare that

    “It is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church [the church of Rome] on account of its pre-eminent authority.”[8]

    Of course this doesn’t mean that the 2nd century bishops of Rome had the expansive and infallible supervisory functions that its later bishops would assert, but it is clear that the seeds of that overarching primacy were sown very early.

    Rome’s supremacy did not go unquestioned, however.  Though the formal split between West and East, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, would not occur until the 11th century, the seeds of division can be seen as early as the 2nd century.  Raw power disputes mixed with differences in style and substance.  For example, Victor, Bishop of Rome from 189-199, threatened to excommunicate the Eastern Churches in Asia Minor who disagreed with him on the correct date for Easter.  Even this early, the Eastern Church, which emphasized the Greek language and a more mystical understanding of the faith, began to distinguish itself from the Western Church, which emphasized Latin and a more rational faith.  

    Some of the differences and errors we have seen – whether on baptism, or church leadership, or disputes between East and West – raise questions about why parts of the church went wrong so early.  There are a few reasons.  First, remember that only Christ is infallible; as sinful people, all Christians will make mistakes.  We even see this in the New Testament, when Paul tells the Galatians in chapter 2 how he had to rebuke the Apostle Peter for potential legalism.  Second, the early church did not always have the clear guidance of Scripture, mostly because of a very limited number of copies, limited literacy, and also because some questions were still being settled over the canon.  Third, many parts of the culture – intellectual, spiritual, and moral – were negative influences on the faith.  And the early Christians were the first to wrestle with these problems – which include some of the same challenges that still face Christians today.  



    After the deaths of the apostles, other leaders emerged to take their place.  Because of the tremendous influence they would exert on the development of doctrine and practice in the Church, these men were called “Fathers.”  We will take a brief look at the some of the most important of them.  Two, and perhaps three of the earliest, known as “Apostolic Fathers” because they were trained by one or another of the Apostles, were Clement, Ignatius,  and Polycarp.



    Clement of Rome is not certain to have been a direct follower of the apostles, but he was the bishop of the church at Rome toward the end of the first/ beginning of the 2nd century. There is a Clement mentioned in Philippians, possibly him, and Tertullian records that he knew Peter but this is not absolutely certain. He may have been the immediate successor of Paul at Rome as well, but more likely the third or fourth after him. There is one authentic piece of writing by him – 1 Clement, which is an appeal to the church at Corinth that they respect the authority of their elders, strive to live in unity, and remember that we are justified in Christ:

    And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever.[9]





    Ignatius was the Bishop of the church in Antioch early in the second century. He probably knew John, and kept of a long correspondence with Polycarp, who also knew John.  Roman authorities under Emperor Trajan captured Ignatius and brought him to Rome. What little survives about his life is contained in seven letters that he wrote to various churches during this long journey to Rome for his martyrdom.  Ignatius argued that there should be only one bishop over each congregation, instead of the plurality of elders that Clement addresses in his letter to Corinth.

    Ignatius also insisted that Christians routinely gather together as a bulwark against sin, kind of an echo of what we read several times in Hebrews:


    “When you meet frequently, the powers of Satan are confounded, and in the face of your corporate faith his maleficence crumbles.”[10]


    Determined to validate his faith by dying as a martyr, upon arriving in Rome to stand trial he begged the church there not to do anything to block his execution, which took place in 117 AD by being torn apart by lions:

    Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body – let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Christ![11]



    Ignatius addressed one of his seven letters to another influential church father – Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna.  Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John, and one of the letters that Christ commands to be sent to the seven churches in Revelation is addressed to Smyrna.  He wrote several letters, but only his epistle to the Philippians remains.  The story of his martyrdom, which we read in the last class, was written first by his church and is one of the earliest accounts of Christian martyrdom.



    Many Church Fathers in the Second and Third centuries focused on the intellectual challenges facing Christianity.  Convinced that their beliefs could prevail against any other philosophy, they became known as the “Apologists” for their efforts to explain and defend the new faith.  

    Christianity was born into a world obsessed with ideas and with the spiritual realm.  The description we read in Acts 17:21 of Paul in Athens could well apply to much of the Mediterranean world: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.”  Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists, Aristotelians, Gnostics, mystics, and just about every other flavor of philosophy and religion clamored for the people’s attention.  



    The most eminent of these early apologists was Justin Martyr, an early leader in the Eastern Church.  Justin began as a pagan philosopher from Palestine.  One day while meditating alone on the seashore, perhaps in Ephesus, a stranger approached Justin, pointed out the faults in his thinking, and exposed him to the ancient Jewish prophets and their witness of Christ. Justin was a majorly gifted interpreter of Scripture and took exegesis to a new level – for instance, it was he who made a comparison between sin coming into the world through Eve, but life coming into the world through Mary. Already impressed by the constancy of Christians facing martyrdom, Justin was convinced and became a Christian in about 132.  He immediately set out to prove the truth of Christianity to Greek philosophers.  Focusing on Christ as the “Logos” or “Word” that we read of in John 1, Justin argued that Christ fulfilled all of the incomplete notions of Plato’s philosophy.  Justin earned his name “Martyr” in about 165 when he was beheaded in Rome, probably after he had bested a pagan philosopher in a debate. An account of his exchange with the Roman magistrate survives.





    Another eloquent apologist in the East was Athenagoras of Athens.  Well-versed in pagan philosophies, Athenagoras contended for the supremacy of Christianity because it was based on direct revelation from God, rather than on the speculations of limited human reason. Moreover, he held that because pagan gods were created in man’s image, they were inadequate and infantile. Only the God of the Bible reigned supreme, as all wise, perfect, powerful, and good.   Though he did much to defend the faith, Athenagoras at times conceded too much to Greek thought, making God sound more like a philosophical ideal than the living Lord of the universe.



    A prominent leader in the West, Irenaeus studied under Polycarp and became bishop of the church at Lyons, in Gaul (France) in 177.  Iranaeus directed most of his writings against Gnosticism.  Both a group of mystical sects and a philosophical error, gnosticism described matter as evil and the spirit as good, denied the creation of the world by one God, and claimed to possess secret knowledge, or “gnosis”, necessary to attain salvation, often by deliberately misreading passages of Scripture:

    “By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wickedness and in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.”[12]


    This is just what the Worldwide Church of God cult down the street does.


    Irenaeus responded in his work Against Heresies by asserting apostolic succession – the notion that “the canon (or rule) of truth,” which had been handed down from the apostles and was now preserved in the church, provided the sole key to interpreting Scripture.  Moreover, against the Gnostic belief that matter and flesh were evil, Irenaeus pointed out that history culminated in God taking on flesh and dwelling on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  



    Tertullian, the bishop of Carthage in the West, was the first Christian to write extensively in Latin.  A very eloquent lawyer, Tertullian developed much of the language that would be used in theology even to this day.  For example, Tertullian first used the word trinitas, or Trinity, to describe the nature of God as “one substance, three persons.”  His masterpiece was the Apology, in which he used precise legal reasoning to argue to Roman officials that Christianity should be tolerated. He also dismissed the idea that ancient philosophy should be commingled with Christianity, writing “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” An eloquent writer, Tertullian famously declared “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” as he observed the faith spreading despite violent persecution.  He also displays some humor: “If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is 'The Christians to the lion.' All of them to a single lion?”[13] Yet this wise and witty church leader took an unfortunate turn. Around AD220, Tertullian joined the Montanists, a strange and heretical apocalyptic sect that claimed to be the culmination of history.  Here again we are reminded that even the most eminent of early church leaders were not immune from gross error.



    Another Eastern father trained in philosophy was Clement of Alexandria (not to be confused with Clement of Rome.)  Influenced by Justin, Clement also sought to reconcile two worlds, to persuade Christians of the wisdom of Greek philosophy, and to persuade philosophers of the truth of Christianity. This led him to invent the notion of “purgatory” as a place to cleanse the soul, an idea that eventually would be adopted by the Roman Catholic Church.  Clement read Scripture as more allegorical than literal, which accounts for some of the weaknesses in his thought. He served as bishop of Alexandria until AD202, when he was forced to flee the persecution erupting in the city.




    When the persecution finally passed, Origen, a disciple of Clement and a towering figure in the history of the church, became Bishop.  Born in Alexandria in about 185, Origen proved to be a brilliant scholar and the most prolific church writer of his day, writing over 2000 works. He was truly one of the greatest Bible masters who ever lived, produced the greatest work of scholarship in the early church, a massive work called the Hexapla that put in six parallel columns the ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament together with five Greek translations.  He made the first effort to present the fundamental doctrines of Christianity in a systematic theology, and made great attempts to present the truths of Christianity in the language of the prevailing Platonic philosophy of the day.  As with others, this Greek philosophy led him unfortunately astray, as the church condemned him for his belief in the pre-existence of souls, reincarnation, and universal salvation.  Origen was also reknowned for his ascetic lifestyle, for example he would spend years not wearing shoes, eating only bread and water, etc. Reputable sources claim that Origen also performed an act of self-castration on himself when he took Matthew 19:12 too literally.[14]  He died in AD254 under the persecution of Emperor Decius after being stretched out on a torture rack.  



    Finally, we come to Cyprian, another eminent Western churchman.  Already a wealthy and influential citizen of Carthage when he became a Christian in AD246, Cyprian came to place great emphasis on the unity and authority of the Church.  He was the first to describe the office of the Bishop of Rome as the “Chair of Peter,” thus connecting apostolic authority with the primacy of Rome, and laying the foundation for the modern papacy.  During the Decian persecution, he opposed those who felt that lapsed Christians should be allowed back into the church, writing his most important work, The Unity of the Catholic Church to combat that idea.  “There is no salvation outside the Church,” he famously proclaimed.  Cyprian died a martyr in AD258.



    Christ promised in John 14:18 that “I will not leave you as orphans.” He gave us His Word in the Scriptures, His body in the Church, and His Spirit through baptism and communion.  However, as the errors and divisions in the early church demonstrate, we must always place our faith in Christ and not other Christians.  Yet we should realize the importance of the corporate body to preserve biblical truth – and we should praise God for His providence in guiding the Church through such challenges.


    [1]                      Pliny the Younger, Letters x.96.  AD112


    [2]              “The Didache” in Richardson, Cyril C. ed. Early Christian Fathers (New York: Touchstone 1996), pp.174-75.


    [3]              Justin, Apology I 65-66, AD150


    [4]              Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.


    [5]              Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4.


    [6]              B.B. Warfield, The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament, 415-416.

    [7]              The “Didache” in Richardson, 178.

    [8]              Quoted in La Tourette, History of Christianity, Vol. 1, p.118

    [9]              1 Clement, 32.

    [10]           Ignatius., Epistle to the Ephesians, 13.

    [11]           Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 5.

    [12]           Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1

    [13]           Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, New York:, Penguin Publishers, p, 29.

    [14]           Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."