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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 Preaching In 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


16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions

We have said that Christianity began without any cultus, without the usual rituals of festivals, musical performances, dances, pilgrimages, inscriptions etc. And yet we have seen that a healthy community identity arose, with the specific ‘in-house’ usage of terms like ekklesia, Chrestos, etc. The hard boundaries of the community against the world led to a healthy and strong sense of identity with each other. And inevitably some traditions developed which served to strengthen the community. The following are examples of traditions which developed in the early church:

- It seems that hymns developed, fragments of which are found in the poems of 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Eph. 1:13,14; 5:14; Phil. 2:6-12; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 2:4.

- There are also other standard acclamations or doxologies which may reflect common phrases used in prayers throughout the early brotherhood- just as there are certain phrases used in prayers throughout the world today. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” is an acclamation that crops in up in some form or other in 1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 6:17; 7:25; 2 Cor. 2:14; 8:16; 9:15. Likewise “God…to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 3:15; Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Tim. 1:17).

- “A holy kiss” seems to have been the way of concluding a meeting, in the same way as Paul ends some of his letters with this (1 Thess. 5:26; Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Pet. 5:14).

- I have wondered, and it’s no more than me wondering, whether it could be that Rom. 10:9,13; Acts 22:16 and the other references to calling on the name of the Lord at baptism imply that the candidate for baptism made the statement “Jesus is Lord!” after their confession of faith or just before their immersion, and then they shouted the word “Abba! Father!” as they came out of the water, indicating their adoption as a child of God (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  

But over time, these healthy signs of group identity became rituals and traditions which were insisted on, codified and formalized. And this gave way eventually to the abuses of the orthodox churches.

Tradition As Authority

Paul's letters indicate that there was a very wide diversity of opinion in the early churches, on a whole range of practical and theological issues. If the early preachers had insisted upon a higher level of understanding and conformity before baptism, then the church wouldn't have grown as it did. Instead the impression is given that a basic belief in Jesus and His teaching was what was required, and the clarification of anything deeper was left to be later elucidated. And as we know from the epistles, this process often didn't come to completion. As time went on, however, there arose the very human desire for tighter definition of everything- and this is what led to division and the evaporation of that unique spirit of unity and love which characterized the first Christians. In his extensive survey of the post-Apostolic development of doctrine, J.N.D.Kelly observed that "gradually... did the tendency to insist upon precise definition and rigid uniformity assert itself" (1). This desire for uniformity didn't achieve unity, but rather the opposite. For true spiritual unity isn't achieved by uniformity. Further, this desire for precise definition, intellectual accuracy and purity of 'truth' rather than the spirit of Christ, led to an effective distinction being drawn by Clement and Origen between simple believers, who just accepted the Biblical record, and those whom they called 'spiritual men', 'the perfect', who looked beyond the Scriptures to some more esoteric knowledge of God. In all the discussions of doctrine which occurred in the second and third centuries, it became less and less common to appeal purely to Scripture. The decisions of councils of bishops came to define which dogma was right and which was wrong; the average believer was no longer empowered to decide for him/herself, nor were they allowed the autonomy to decide for themselves what they thought the Bible meant. The original source of Christian doctrine wasn't so much the Bible as we know it, but the person of Christ. He and His teachings were what Christian doctrine was all about. But this Christ-based faith became muddied by so much that was extra to it. Truth became defined according to which line of earlier church fathers believed it- thus Clement spoke of "the rule of our tradition" (Dialogue 80,3) as being the source of truth. Athanasius used this argument to justify his view of the dogmas that later became enshrined in the Trinity: "Athanasius, disputing with the Arians, claimed that his own doctrine had been handed down from father to father, whereas they could not produce a single respectable witness to theirs... the compilation of lists of fathers of unimpeachable prestige, with select quotations from their writings, became a favourite technique in theological debate" (2). Tradition and the name-dropping of learned men became more important than the basic truths of the Bible. And there's scarcely a church today which hasn't faced this kind of mentality over one matter or another.


(1) J.N.D.Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (London: A. & C. Black, 1968) p. 4.

(2) Kelly ibid., pp. 45,48.