Online Bible College
Carelinks Home
FREE Literature
'Bible Lives' Home
Bible Books Home
Buy this Book!
Bible Lives  

16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine

Above all, it seems to me that it was the very doctrines which they preached which were the real reason for the inexplicable success of Christianity. Those doctrines took hold on the heart and conscience of the individual, so that this new religion was likely no other. Because of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [who] was rich but for your sakes he became poor, that you might become rich through his poverty”, the Corinthian converts should share their money with their poorer brethren in Jerusalem. Doctrine had a profound and practical import in daily life, quite unlike any other religion. And so it should be with us today. Studies of new religions in the Roman empire have found that they usually fizzled out if the state was opposed to them. Christianity is the one great exception. Rodney Stark concludes: “I believe that it was the religion's particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity” (1). The message of the love of God was radically different to that of the pagan religions. " For God so loved the world . . ." would have been a new paradigm. The gods were thought not to care how we treat each other. They could  be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. But the idea of grace was totally new- that God does something for nothing, even giving His only begotten son. The philosophers regarded grace, mercy and pity as pathological emotions- defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice, which was the important concept at the time. Cultured human beings had to as it were  " curb the impulse" to be kind- to watch the spectacle of men being torn to death by lions was the order of the day. E.A. Judge quotes examples of ancient philosophy which taught that " the cry of the undeserving for mercy [must go] unanswered." Judge continued: " Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders" . And yet the Truth declared that “God is love”, and He requires His people to manifest the love and outpoured grace which He has shown in the cross.  

There was a great thirst for religion at the time of the 1st century, just as there is in our own time. And there were many religions on offer, as today- what E.R. Dodds called " a bewildering mass of alternatives. There were too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from" . And yet against this background, Christianity was exclusive; one couldn’t be a Christian and also dabble in the other cults. For there was only one Lord and Master, and one God.  

There can be no doubt that early Christian doctrine met the religious needs of society. Isis was a cult which spread at roughly the same time as Christianity. In a study of 22 Graeco-Roman cities, Rodney Stark found: “that I can report a highly significant correlation of .67 between the expansion of Isis and the expansion of Christianity. Where Isis went, Christianity followed”. We must ask whether we are meeting the so evident religious need of the world around us- or whether we are mismatched to their needs. People then were desperately interested in religion, and yet disillusioned with it. The excavations of the walls of Pompeii abound in extremely blasphemous graffiti and drawings, some of them very obscene as well, often directed against the gods. It was a  world like ours. Although  people often appealed to various gods for help, it was not assumed that the gods truly cared about humans- Aristotle taught that gods could feel no love for mere humans. And yet there was growing experimentation and interest in religion. The growth of Christianity shows that early Christian doctrine clearly connected with the needs. It’s not that we can change the doctrines of the Truth to make them interesting for our society- rather must we offer them to people in such a way as they see their practical outworking, and they see their own need for salvation revealed to them…and thereby they are attracted. 

In the end, as today, it was the unique teachings of early Christian doctrine which attracted men and women to conversion. That God should love the world would have been something totally radical to the first century audience. And that He should actually care how we treat one another was likewise a major paradigm break. E.A. Judge(2) shows in some detail that the surrounding philosophy regarded mercy and pity as emotions to be avoided by all rational people. “Mercy is not governed by reason…[therefore humans must] curb the impulse…the cry of the undeserving for mercy must go unanswered…pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise…it was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders”. Yet the Truth taught that God is love, He is mercy, and we must respond to His superabounding grace in lives of outlived kindness and mercy toward others. True love must extend beyond natural family to all who call on the Lord Jesus, in whatever place (1 Cor. 1:2). We have spoken of how the example of the early community played a major role in conversion. And so it did. But it was only as the doctrines of Christianity were acted out in daily life that the change in human lives became apparent.

A Clear Focus

The early church had a clear focus; they knew what was core teaching, and they taught it. The 21st century church has become so caught up over interpretation and correct theology that this clarity, the crystal clear focus upon the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, God's grace in Him and the appropriate human response, has all become sadly muted. Statements of faith within fellowships and denominations tend to get longer rather than shorter as time goes on; bridging documents, clarificatory statements, riders to this clause and that point, just keep on accreting. Until the true Christian church has gone just the way of Rabbinic Judaism, endlessly adding explanations to interpretations, notes in the margin, until one reaches a point where the simple message of the basic Gospel has become shrouded in such obscurity that it takes a long time to teach someone about it. And there is rarely a moment in that long explanation when the person becomes convicted of the personal truth of Christ, and wishes to give their lives to it in the abandon of devotion which characterized the 1st century converts. We need to remember that any 'doctrine' we arrive at is the result of a survey of the Biblical facts and an attempt to coordinate those facts and present them in the form of a doctrine. And it is only an attempt. Whilst truth is truth, on the other hand we must hold in mind our intellectual and spiritual fallibility- and that of whatever doctrinal tradition we have come from. God did not send down from Heaven a set of bullet points, a theology. He gave us instead His Son. And even then, as Job perceived, how little a portion is ultimately heard of God (Job 26:14). At the day of judgment, we will understand how we were faithful in "a very little" (Lk. 19:17). "The truth" is the reality of the Lord Jesus, that He was and is and shall come again; that in Him, in His death and resurrection, we are saved. All else is "a very little". We are saved by grace, not intellectual accuracy or purity of interpretation. Yet we all struggle with being saved by grace; we would far rather we could earn that great salvation. We would prefer if it were available only to those who passed a Bible knowledge quiz or a theology test. We're very good at giving ourselves grace, cutting ourselves some slack; but not so good at accepting the gift of grace from God. The fact that we shall be saved by grace through faith, through child-like trust, "and that not of [ourselves]", not of our intellectual prowess nor depth of understanding, is a huge barrier to so many of our generation. It was less so amongst the illiterate of the first century Mediterranean world.

No Division Over Interpretation

The clear focus upon Jesus and the experience of personal reconcilliation with God in Him meant that there was little scope for division over any other matters. Christianity developed out of Judaism, and the early believers were intended to continue attendance at the synagogue until they were cast out (Jn. 16:2). Christian believers are pictured as still attending the synagogue in James 2:2 Gk; the implication of Mt. 5:23 is that Christ’s first followers sill made offerings, and surely Mt. 17:24 implies they were expected by Jesus to continue to pay the temple tax. But Judaism then and now placed more emphasis on practical living than on what we might call doctrine or theology; it was “not a system and never had a creed” (3) or ‘statement of faith’. There were wide variations in how the Bible was interpreted. “With the Pharisees moral theology (Halachah) was fixed, but not expository or doctrinal theology (Haggadah)” (4). The various Rabbis had different and contradictory interpretations of Scripture- there are very inconsistent interpretations offered throughout books like 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection, Sadducees didn’t (Acts 23:8). Because there was no defined ‘statement of faith’, there were few accusations of heresy in departing from an agreed body of doctrine. What mattered was practical living. It has truly been observed that “It is remarkable how Jewish theology, owing to its lack of system, was able, as it were, to dabble in ideas” (5). This attitude is continued in the New Testament; no statement of faith is presented, no body of doctrine is explicitly set in stone, and false teaching and heresy was nearly always in the context of a false way of life. Pharisees, Sadduccees and Essenes (John the Baptist’s followers) were all converted into Christianity (Acts 6:7; 15:5; 19:1-5). There is no specific statement that they dropped all their previous understandings; indeed Acts 15:5 shows that there were Christians who still called themselves “Pharisees”. The uniting and defining feature was their common acceptance of Jesus as Messiah, baptism into Him and commitment to Him. The “one faith” referred to the believers’ faith in one and the same person- the one Lord, Jesus (Eph. 4:4-6), rather than only one set of doctrinal propositions about Jesus being “the faith” and all else being apostate. Given the breadth of doctrinal belief within the synagogue system, it’s highly significant that the Lord assumed His followers would remain within that system until they were cast out. He established no principle of leaving a community because one disagrees with some of their theological tenets. He in fact taught the opposite; that there is no guilt by association by such things, and His emphasis was on the heart and human behaviour being transformed.  It seems to me a romanticizing of the New Testament evidence to suggest that the early church was totally doctrinally united, but was soon fractured by doctrinal declension from a specific set of doctrines and interpretations which were set in stone by the apostles. Rather the amazing unity of the church was and is remarkable in that it was achieved despite and in the face of those differences. What split the church was fleshly behaviour, which in turn utilized doctrinal differences to justify the various divisions. Truly, “Not even within the New Testament is there convincing evidence of a simple, early unity within the church” in theological matters (6). This is not to say that Biblical interpretation is unimportant; there is indeed “another Jesus” whom the New Testament doesn’t know nor preach. My point rather is that there was no fixed statement of faith in the New Testament, no concept that there was “saving truth” in Biblical interpretation, rather was salvation posited in the person and work of the Lord Jesus; and there was not division between those “in Christ” over matters of theological interpretation.


(6)  Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism And Belief (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938) p. 210.

(1)  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) p.196.

(2) E.A. Judge in P.T. O’Brien, God Who Is Rich In Mercy, Sydney: Macquarrie University Press, 1986 pp. 107-121.

(3) R.T. Herford, The Pharisees (New York: Macmillan, 1924) p. 13.
(4) L.E. Elliott-Binns, Galilean Christianity (Chicago: Allenson, 1956) p.50.
(5) C.G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings (London: Macmillan, 1930) p. 25.
(6) Paul J. Achtemeir, Paul and the Jerusalem Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005) p. 1.