1. Scriptural teaching concerning the first churches
    1. In this section, we will be treating very briefly only a few teachings of Scripture about the local churches. We are taking the view that if a practice or form of organization is commanded in Scripture, then at least some of the early churches practiced according to these apostolic directions. Hence, this is strictly a quick overview of what a first century church might have been like, and indeed should have been like.
    2. Officers

      Two offices are noted in the Scripture: bishops (or overseers) and deacons. Phil. 1:1; I Tim 3:1,8. Bishops are the same as elders; see I Tim 3:1/Titus 1:5/7; Acts 20:17/28; I Pet 5:1/2 where the terms are used interchangeably. There was a plurality of bishops in every church, Phil 1:1; Acts 20:17.

      There is some evidence of "offices" of prophet, teacher, or evangelist which was more or less permanent, Acts 11:27, 13:1, 21:8

      Of course, the Apostles were still alive and were regarded with great reverence and as having great authority.

    3. Sacraments
      1. Baptism was administered to new believers, Acts
      2. The Lord's Supper or breaking of bread was conducted on the first day of the week, Acts 20:7
    4. Form of worship
      1. First day of the week, Acts 20:7 (still daily in Acts 2:42).
      2. Contained exhortation and teaching, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues, I Cor 14:3, 19, 26; Acts 2:42
      3. Breaking of bread, Acts 2:42, I Cor 11:17ff
      4. Prayer, Acts 2:42, I Cor 14:13-17.
      5. Giving, I Cor 16:2.
    5. The Council of Jerusalem: Acts 15
        This whole topic is very debatable, but for whatever it is worth, note that the first century church did have an effective, centralized way to handle disputes via meetings which went beyond the elders of the local churches. Whatever we may think about this practice, it became extremely important as the centuries passed in the early church.
  2. The geographic spread of Christianity
    1. Here we will be using the overhead maps provided by the church library. First we need to refresh our knowledge of the extent of Paul's journeys, which should be familiar to most of us since it is printed in the backs of our Bibles. Secondly we will study the map call The Spread of Christianity as given in the same overhead series. This map shows Christian communities known to have existed by 100 A.D. and 180 A.D. (the time of Irenaus), compared with the extent of the Roman Empire.
    2. Points to look for:
      1. Note that Asia Minor (Turkey) is the focus of almost all the geographic references in the New Testament. Consider the following names: Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae (Paul's epistles), Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter), Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea (Revelation). Much of this area was conquered by the Muslims (Turks) around 1000, and despite the Crusades, has never been officially Christian since then.
      2. Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and Rome are other spots to note on this map.
  3. The early church vs. pagan society
    1. The pleasures of life: "Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theatre, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground," (Tertullian, Apology, 38). "Christians avoided the arena and condemned others for enjoying the blood-letting. To Romans the arena was the moral equivalent of televised football. Christians refused to join in patriotic festivals when their local government paid homage to its patron god. Christians condemned the popular theater as pornographic (so did some Romans). Most regarded the theater as light entertainment." (Spickard and Cragg, p. 44).
    2. Public religion was everywhere: in the parades, the festivals, the private dinners, etc. The Christians regarded it as wicked idolatry and abstained from all of it. For this they were regarded as "atheists."
    3. "In short, the early Christian was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time -- if he wanted to be true to his Lord. This meant that everywhere the Christian turned his life and faith were on display because the gospel introduced a revolutionary attitude toward human life," Shelley, p. 40.
    4. Slavery. "In this kind of society some Christians also held slaves but they treated them kindly and allowed them to have the same rights within the church as anyone else. At least one former slave, Callistus, became the bishop of Rome," Shelley, p. 40. See Ferguson, p. 56, for a description of Roman slavery.
    5. Morality. For background see Ferguson, p. 63. Christians found much that they simply must change about worldly lifestyles. It was a society much like ours has become in the last part of the 20th century, in that various kinds of immorality are now publicly on display and are praised or tolerated.
    6. Economics. They helped each other as a mutual aid society. "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.
    7. Marriage. "The characteristic Christian theme was most at variance with pagan assumptions in that bishops asked husbands to be as faithful to their wives as they expected their wives to be with them. That was news," McManners, p. 39. See Ferguson, p. 65
    8. Children. "Christian attacks on the practice of putting unwanted babies on the refuse heaps challenged the traditional right of the Roman father over his children" (Spickard & Cragg, p. 44). The Christians actually rescued children who had been exposed. Such children were often picked up and sold into slavery. See Ferguson, p. 73
    9. Burial vs. cremation - the Romans cremated their dead until burial became the custom in the 1st century A.D. The Christians created the Catacombs specifically for burial.
  4. Persecutions of the early church. The martyrs.
    1. The main early persecutors: Nero (54-68, fire 64), Domitian (81-96, 95 John sent to Patmos), Trajan (98-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But persecution never became illegal, and local persecutions could break out at any time.
    2. Peter & Paul - Nero's reign. Peter was crucified upside down, because he did not think himself worthy to be crucified just like his Lord was; Paul was beheaded rather than crucified because he was a Roman citizen.

      See Tacitus' description of Nero's persecution in Bettenson, p. 1.

    3. Pliny-Trajan Correspondence, contained in Bettenson, pp 3-4.
    4. Ignatius - his seven epistles were written on the way to Rome to be killed, around 110-115. He was bishop of Antioch, where he was arrested. See Lightfoot, p. 97ff.
    5. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, year 155. See Lightfoot, p. 185ff, especially pp 205-209, or Bettenson, pp 9-12 for a better translation.

      "And when he confessed the Proconsul tried to persuade him, saying, 'Have respect to thine age,' and so forth, according to their customary form; 'Swear by the genius of Caesar,' 'Repent,' 'Say, "Away with the atheists!"' Then Polycarp looked with a severe countenance on the mob of lawless heathen in the stadium, and he waved his hand at them, and looking up to heaven he groaned and said, 'Away with the atheists.' But the Proconsul urged him and said, 'Swear, and I will release thee; curse the Christ.' And Polycarp said, 'Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?' (Bettenson, p. 10)

    6. Gaul (Lyons & Vienne), year 177: Euseb. v. 1, or Ante-Nicene vol 8, p. 778. A shortened account is in Bettenson, pp 12-13.

      "But those who were worthy were seized day by day, filling up their number, so that all the zealous persons, and those through whom especially our affairs had been established, were collected together out of the two churches. And some of our heathen servants were also seized . . . These, being ensnared by Satan, and fearing for themselves the tortures which they beheld the saints endure, and being also urged on by the soldiers, accused us falsely of Thyestian banquets and Oedipodean intercourse, and of deeds which are not only unlawful for us to speak of or to think, but which we cannot believe were ever done by men. When these accusations were reported, the people raged like wild beasts against us . . . But Sanctus also endured marvelously and superhumanly all the outrages which he suffered. . . . they finally fastened red-hot brazen plates to the most tender parts of his body. And these indeed were burned, but he continued unbending and unyielding, firm in his confession, and refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life, flowing from the bowels of Christ. . . . his body arose and stood erect in the midst of the subsequent torments . . . Maturus, therefore, and Sanctus and Blandina and Attalus were led to the amphitheater to be exposed to the wild beasts, and to give to the heathen public a spectacle of cruelty . . . But even thus they did not hear a word from Sanctus except the confession which he had uttered from the beginning. These, then, after their life had continued for a long time through the great conflict, were at last sacrificed, having been made throughout the day a spectacle to the world, in place of the usual variety of combats. But Blandina was suspended on a stake, and exposed to be devoured by the wild beasts who should attack her. . . . As none of the wild beasts at that time touched her, she was taken down from the stake, and cast again into prison. . . After all these, on the last day of the contests, Blandina was again brought in . . . But the blessed Blandina, last of all, having, as a noble mother, encouraged her children and sent them before her victorious to the King, endured herself all their conflicts and hastened after them, glad and rejoicing in her departure as if called to a marriage supper, rather than cast to wild beasts. And after the scourging, after the wild beasts, after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net, and thrown before a bull. And having been tossed about by the animal, but feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope and firm hold upon what had been entrusted to her, and her communion with Christ, she also was sacrificed. And the heathen themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures." Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol 1, p. 212ff.

    7. Why the persecutions? Even though Christianity was generally illegal throughout the period, persecutions were sporadic. When they flared up, it was generally because of some public disturbance or catastrophe. "... they think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, 'Away with the Christians to the lion!'" Tertullian, Apology, 40.
    8. We note briefly here, but it is beyond the scope of this week to tell it, that the martyrs began to be seen in a very special light by the other Christians. In many cases the imprisoned Christians began to desire martyrdom above all else (as Ignatius), and their fellow believers honored them above all else. They were visited by those that had lapsed (denied the faith because of fear), in order to gain readmission to the church by their recommendation. The churches began to celebrate the anniversaries of their deaths. Thus began the long, slow road down to the entire doctrine of "saints" and "saints' days" as practiced in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches.

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.