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History of the Church


Lesson audio

Mention the word “history” and you will usually get one of two reactions in this country. Some are enthusiasts for history; but not any history will do. They’re interested in Civil War history, for example. Or perhaps the history of railroads. There are just enough of these to make good conversation, if the party is large enough.

The other group views history as so much wilted broccoli. The word means to them the incredible boredom of listening to a teacher drone through endless lists of names and dates, mostly known today as a good place to have a museum. Even the name of the teacher is gone; but the boredom lingers.

Now, history teachers will usually argue by citing Santana’s dictum: those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. This may be so, but there are actually other reasons for studying the history of the church – particularly the history of its ideas. Why?

  • First, by looking into the past we shall see the frauds, the misguided doctrines, the dead ends of the faith – and perhaps recognize their counterparts today.
  • Next, in looking at the past we may gain new insight into the present. Every age has its blindness. A continuing blindness is to deny such blindness; but there are others. The future will look back on us and laugh – but we don’t get the joke yet. By seeing what was, looking at the challenges to the faith, we may gain greater insight into the present – and perhaps even the future.

In what follows of our much too short survey of Christian history, we shall be looking at three general categories:

  1.  What’s going on in the world around the church – and how that affects the church.
  2.  What’s going on in the church – who are its great men, what changes are taking place.
  3.  How does the church view Christ – his position, his authority and his example.

The World

The first period we will consider is that between the time of the Apostles and the coming of the emperor Constantine. As we shall see, Constantine changes matters greatly when he makes Christianity legal and later the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the meanwhile, however, things were not all bad.

Expansion of the church

Nothing is so remarkable about this era as the expansion of the church, geographically. Starting in Jerusalem in about AD 50, by the end of the third century Christianity had penetrated to most of the Roman world. This so struck the early Christians as a token of divine favor that it was generally held that the arrival of Christ was timed to coincide with this era of the Roman Empire. Generally speaking, there was peace throughout the empire; good road systems and sailing ships connected all areas. From the evangelist’s point of view, all these things were good. It can even be argued that the persecution which happened also worked for evangelism – the testimony of martyrs is very powerful.
The extent which the church achieved is shown well in this map

Map showing 1st and 2nd century expansion of the church  Click to expand

One other fact assisted the growth of Christianity – but in a strange way. Until AD 70, the leadership of the church was mostly Jewish. They viewed themselves as being the culmination of Judaism – the Messiah had come, the Law is now complete. The issue of how Gentiles could enter the church was a vexing one, causing the first church council. But in AD 70 Jerusalem was sacked; the Temple torn down to the ground – and the church no longer had Jerusalem as its base. This, it will be seen, had grave consequences which are still with us today. But this also meant that the distinction between Jew and Gentile faded into the past – and the church became a largely Gentile organization.

Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing the triumphal procession in honor of his destruction of Jerusalem.
Click to Expand.  Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing the triumphal procession in honor of his destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple removed Jerusalem as the center of the church.

Other religions

Christianity and Judaism shared one common trait which set them apart from all other religions: only one God. These are the days of classical mythology for the Roman Empire – Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury – all these planetary beings were very real gods to the Romans. The idea that there is only one God was very disturbing. Indeed, Christians were often referred to as atheists – since they didn’t believe in the Roman gods.

This caused a great deal of trouble. Remove from your mind the much later notion of separation of church and state. The governments of this time considered it their duty to see to it that the gods were happy with them. If that meant enforcing the law, fine. If it meant disposing of the unbelieving Christians, that was fine too.

How the world saw the Christians

In our time we are familiar with the idea that we are “weirdo right wing fundamentalists.” Our forebears had the same problem. Because the state was so entwined with religion, it did not take long for the Christian’s “one Lord” to become a threat to the empire – or so it was perceived. Fitful persecution was the lot of the ancient Christian. How much persecution there was varied by location and emperor; for example, under Diocletian it was a capital offense to be a Christian. Nero would have his Christians covered in pitch, crucified – and that night set alight so that he might race his chariot down the lit streets.

The testimony of the ancient writers who were not Christians can fairly be summarized by two things:

  • First, the Christians believed strange things – things like the Resurrection. It was inconceivable to the scholarly that anyone could believe such things.
  • Second, the Christians themselves were loyal, law-abiding citizens, given to charity. Indeed one emperor complained that the Christians not only took care of their own poor but the rest of Rome’s as well.

This was combined with the rumors and myths of the population as a whole. Many believed that Christians ate children (a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper). It was rumored that sexual immorality – “love feasts” were a constant feature of their worship, “Godless wretches” they were called. It is not too difficult to find the parallels today.
Anti-Christian grafitti from Roman Times
Graffiti found in Rome dating to the early period of Christianity.

The Church

We may now look inside the covers of the church, to see how different – and how alike – they are to us today.


It is difficult to form a complete picture of Christian worship in this time, as we have very little documentary evidence on which to go. There are two or three descriptions from late in this period, and there are some scenes in mosaic or on caskets. But one thing is clear: the church was moving from the informality of a house church type of worship to the formality associated with larger gatherings.

What was worship like? We know its elements:

  • Foremost in worship was the Lord’s Supper. It was considered to be the most important part of worship; a Christian of that time would be shocked to see how little time we spend on it.
  •  Separate from that was an “Agape feast.” This might be best compared to a potluck dinner today. Separating the two events was not common at first, but as abuse grew it was felt better to keep the two apart.
  • Prayers – note the plural – were lengthy, fervid and personal. The worship of communal prayer has almost vanished from the evangelical worship. Even the prayer meeting has greatly declined.
  •  There was music: hymns were sung responsively. Psalms were also chanted, often by an individual as instruction to the others.

Great Men

Every age of the church has its great men; here is a sample of them from this time. It should give you an idea of the challenges the church faced and the response she made to them.

Ignatius of AntiochIgnatius of Antioch. He opposed the Docetists, who held that Jesus was nothing more than a spirit who appeared to have a body. To counter this, Ignatius laid great emphasis on the physical nature of the Lord’s Supper. It is real wine; real bread – and our Lord called these things his blood and body. If the elements are physically real, so is the Christ.

Icon painting of Ignatius of Antioch - click to enlarge.

Justyn MartyrJustyn Martyr, Justyn was one of the first to attempt to harmonize Christianity with Greek philosophy. His appeals to reason, his clear exposition of the faith, led him to debate both with the Jews and with the Greek philosophers. His analysis of what Christians believe tells us a great deal about how Christians used the New Testament. Justyn was martyred about AD 165; evidently bringing faith and reason together was dangerous then too.

Icon painting of Justyn Martyr - click to enlarge.

Note: the paintings are stylized, but the facial features are generally accurate.

IranaeusIrenaeus. A most valuable link in the chain of Scripture, he wrote against the Gnostics, showing that Christ was fully God and fully Man. He is a treasure for those who defend the Scriptures, for Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp – and Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle. He particularly taught that the New Testament is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. His work is still worth reading today.

Icon painting of Irenaeus - click to enlarge.


New Testament text

We must remember that the early Christians would have laughed at the modern “higher criticism” theory that most of the Gospels were invented after the fact. They would react just like we would react if someone said the Declaration of Independence was a fraud. We’d point out that we live under the same government that wrote that; people of the time had the opportunity to label it a fraud – and no one did so. They would have confidence in the scriptoria of their day to make accurate copies.

Sample parchment fragment of the timeSample parchment fragment of the time. This is from Matthew 6, an early copy.  Click to expand.

 The New Testament, as we know it, would not be a familiar concept. They would see it as its pieces – the Gospels, Acts, the letters, Revelation. Indeed, it is as such pieces that the ancient manuscripts are found today. The evidence of the authority of the original, the accuracy of the copy and the exactness of translation is overwhelming.

Christ & Doctrine

The proof test of doctrine is simply this: who do you say that Jesus is? Every age of the church has its challenges to doctrine; often, these are based upon the person of Christ. Here are a few of those which attacked the early church.


(Who do not come from Montana). Around AD 172 a man named Montanus declared that he was a prophet. He attracted to himself others who believed that the Holy Spirit – or Paraclete as they referred to Him – was giving the church new messages from them. In this sense they parallel the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses today.

Their religion preached a severe asceticism. This was coupled with speaking in tongues, a very emotional style of worship, and a general sense that the rest of the church was not in favor with God – because they didn’t have the Paraclete. Their most prominent member was Tertullian, the church historian.

Eventually their “gift of prophecy” was seen as a challenge to the New Testament. The movement grew and shrank, but was largely wiped out by the Muslim conquest of North Africa.


Novationists were named after their founder, Novation. He was a gifted theologian; his work on the Trinity sheds much light on how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed. He was martyred in AD 258 by the emperor Valerian.

Novationists were theologically orthodox – but were a splinter group going away from the church. The reason for this concerned the persecutions. It was not uncommon for the weak Christian to give way, proclaim his emperor as God, and live in peace. But when the persecution ended, could such people be accepted back into the church? The Novationists said no. Christians who entered their schism had to be rebaptized. Such rebaptism was denied those who had denied the Lord.

Gradually, as persecution faded from the landscape, the Novationists disappeared. Their leaders were often ascetics, who therefore did not have a lot of children.


If ever there was a classic definition of “cult” it would fit the Gnostics perfectly. First, they maintained that they – and they alone, of course – had access to secret writings which the church was trying to destroy. They taught (along with some of the Greek philosophers) the idea that matter is inherently evil; only spirit can be good. This led to at least these two interesting developments:

  • They separated Christ (the spirit) from Jesus. By their theology, the spirit (Christ) descended upon a human named Jesus at his baptism. Then the spirit left Jesus just before the Crucifixion, because spirit could not suffer. (Give me a pair of scissors and a Bible and I can prove anything).
  • Since matter is inherently evil, and the spirit all that counts, many Gnostics became completely licentious – since sins done in the body were assumed not to affect the spirit.

These folks haven’t left us yet; every so often you read an advertisement for the “lost Gospels” or lost books of the Bible. There’s always someone willing to believe that the church (despite its fractures) has for two thousand years maintained a conspiracy to keep these books out of your hands.

The Apostles Creed

The challenge of Gnosticism and other groups prompted the church to write a creed (from the Latin, credo = I believe). It addressed the issues the church was facing at the time. See if you can see the answers to the Gnostics in this statement:

  1.  I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
  2.  And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
  3.  Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
  4.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
  5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
  6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
  7.  From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
  8.  I believe in the Holy Ghost:
  9.  I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
  10.  The forgiveness of sins:
  11.  The resurrection of the body:
  12.  And the life everlasting. Amen.

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