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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

16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership

An over emphasis upon eldership, leadership, power and control was another factor in the apostacy. There was an almost desperate attempt to justify dictatorial attitudes by the church leaders. Clement justified this by claiming that Is. 60:17 applied to the church: “I will make your overseers peace, and your taskmasters righteousness”. And so he reasoned that church leaders could never be anything other than right, and could be taskmasters over the church. Clement led the church to organize itself on the basis of Roman army administration- into districts [dioceses] administered by an overseer [bishop]. These autocratic leaders came to define every deviation from their views as ‘heretical’. The church became a one party state. Freedom of thought and personal belief on minor matters was outlawed. Questioning was not allowed. Tertullian advised bishops not to allow the congregation to ask questions, for “it is questions that make people heretics”. Consider these quotations from his Prescription Against Heretics and reflect whether this extreme attitude has parallels with our church today: “They say that we must ask questions in order to discuss. But what is there to discuss? Believers must dismiss all argument over scriptural interpretation; such controversy only has the effect of upsetting the stomach or the brain… if you do discuss with them, the effect on the spectators will be to make them uncertain which side is right… the person in doubt will be confused by the fact that he sees you making no progress”. And we must ask ourselves whether the increasing talk about eldership and leadership in the ecclesia is not part of this same slide into institutionalism…?

There arose in the early church not only poor leadership, but also an over-emphasis on eldership, whereby individual initiative in the Lord’s service was squashed, the value of the average person in the church was devalued, and the emphasis came to be upon following the elders rather than a personal following of Christ. Christianity began as a bunch of guys following a Man, and being focused upon Him… breaking bread in their homes together to remember Him, joyfully telling others about their experience of Him. But over the years, this focus changed. And it can so easily for us, too. Consider the writings of Ignatius, only about 50 years after the first inspired New Testament documents were written:

- “It is therefore necessary… that ye should do nothing without the bishop; but be ye obedient also to the presbytery” (Trallians 2.2,3)

- Ignatius greets only those who “be at one with the bishop and presbyters” (Philadelphians prologue). In his own church, Ignatius insisted that no valid breaking of bread service nor baptism could be held in his absence.

- “Do ye all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles… let no man do aught of things pertaining to the church apart from the Bishop. Let that be held a valid eucharist (bebaia eucharistia) which is under the bishop, or one to whom he shall have committed it. Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Christ may be, there is the universal [katholike] church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God” (Smyrneans 7.2 – 8.2)

- “It becometh men and women when they marry to unite themselves with the consent of the bishop [lest] their marriage be… after concupiscence… I am devoted to those who are under the bishop” [Epistle to Polycarp 5.2; 6.2]

- The church building which the Bishop controlled came to be seen as the house of God: “If anyone be not within the precinct of the altar he lacks the bread of God”- i.e. the breaking of bread could only be held within the specified church premises (Ephesians 5.2)

- “He that doeth aught without the bishop the presbytery and deacons, this man is not clean in his conscience” (Trallians 7.2). 

It’s clear enough what was developing. The spirit of ‘breaking bread from house to house’ with which Christianity started had been lost. The command to all Christ’s followers to preach-and-baptize had been twisted- only the Bishop and his supporters could do this. And you couldn’t just break bread when and where you wanted; it had to be ‘in the church’. Worse still, the private consciences of sincere brethren were judged. And worse yet, the Bishop and his supporters were to be given the same respect as the Father and Son and their apostles. I know of sound, experienced missionaries who have been ‘forbidden to baptize’ by someone who told them that they had not been ‘authorized by the committee’. Others are criticized for breaking bread apart from at ecclesia X; they’re not allowed to break bread with ecclesia Y or with sister Z, for no good reason, simply ‘by the elders’. I even recall breaking bread once on a family holiday, to return home to be told we’d ‘set up another table’ [quite what that means eludes me to this day!]. There is without doubt the sense amongst many that we have to do what the leaders of the church say, even if it is against our personal conscience. And if we dare venture that our conscience before God is different to theirs… the basic answer is that one has to do what is right before men, rather than what our conscience dictates to be right before God. By ‘conscience’ I refer to the impulsion to action which our understanding of Scripture and the Spirit of God gives us. German scholars speak of Ignatius as an example of Fruhkatholisizmus- the beginnings of incipient Catholicism which led to the Roman Catholic church. His attempts to control baptisms, the breaking of bread and serving the Lord according to private conscience, relating directly to Him rather than to Him through a hierarchy of church elders, were all precursors of the collapse of true Christianity. I don’t believe I am going too far in perceiving the same Fruhkatholisizmus going on amongst us today.  

One big word which keeps cropping up in Ignatius is the Greek bebaion, meaning ‘valid’. Ignatius [and others] taught that for service of the Lord to be valid by a believer, it had to be validated through obedience to the church leadership. They gave his or her service its validity. “Whatsoever [the Bishop and presbytery] shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God; that everything which ye do may be sure and valid [bebaion]” (Smyrneans 8.2). Significantly, Paul addresses this very issue, using the very same Greek word, and in precisely this context- of justifying his service to God even though it was not approved / validated by others who thought they were elders: “He who validates us [bebaion], along with you [the ordinary members of the flock]… is God, who also sealed us” (2 Cor. 1:21,22). God has validated and called each of us to His service. We don’t need approval / validation / authorization from anybody on this earth. Of course we should seek to work co-operatively with our brethren, for such is obviously the spirit of Christ; neither Paul nor myself are inciting a spirit of maverick irresponsibility. But he is clearly saying that the idea of needing authorization / validification from any group of elders in order to minister, preach, break bread and baptize [which is the context of his writing to the Corinthians] is totally wrong.  

But before we write Ignatius off as a bad guy, reflect upon one thing. This man was tortured and brutally murdered in a Roman arena for his Christian faith, when he could have taken an easy way out. There must have been some sincerity in the man, to have gone that far. Re-read the above extracts from his letters in that light. Let’s assume that he sincerely believed all that he wrote, even if we disagree with it. By sincerely meaning the best for the Christian community [we shall assume that], he sowed the seeds for its self-destruction. What I’m saying is that it was that basic attitude which led to the major apostacy of later Christianity, no matter how well meaning Ignatius was. And those same Ignatius sentiments I believe are alive and well, and growing, in many parts of our community and indeed in many Protestant groups. When I think about it, I ‘tremble for the ark’, seeing how history is repeating itself. This isn’t to say that any who uphold these views which I submit are faulty are themselves wicked or insincere, in the same way as I can’t judge [especially from this distance] that Ignatius was himself insincere or plain evil. But the end result of these tendencies and this thinking, according to history, will be apostasy and the collapse of true Christianity.

What are we to do about the situation? Surely to promise ourselves to always do what is right before God rather than before men, even if they are the elders of our church; to ever place the huge value upon individual responsibility which the early church and the Lord Himself did; and never to forbid our fellow brethren to follow their Lord’s commands relating to baptizing, breaking bread and using our own initiative to spread the Gospel. Of course- and I almost don’t need to say it- we should follow every Biblical injunction to ‘follow the things that make for peace’ and to serve our Lord in such a way as to ‘live peaceably with all men’, so much as it is our possibility. In all these things we must remember that those called to serve the Lord are called to be slaves of their brethren and not masters. There is but one ultimate Bishop of our souls, one truly good shepherd. Ignatius seems to have overlooked that. Discipleship above all means taking up our difficult personal cross and following the Lord ourselves, without casting our eyes back behind us to ensure that our brethren are falling in line with us personally. Power and the exercise of it are addictive- and the early church became caught up in that addiction. Doubtless they began by thinking they were doing so for the good of others; they would’ve thought that their insistence upon their worldviews and opinions about church life were necessary for the preservation of the church. Yet they ended up acting as if those things were vital dogmatic truths from God, the only permissible views, and excluding all who failed to agree with them from the church. They ended up playing God- acting as if they were speaking directly on God’s behalf, as if their views were His- as you can see from how Ignatius writes. It wasn’t a big step from this to the doctrine of Papal infallibility. And is it such a big step away from Papal infallibility when intelligent brethren reason: ‘I don’t see what is wrong with brother X or sister Z. But if the elders say they’re out, then, they must be. So, be gone X and Z… it’s against my better spiritual judgment, but I accept the authority of the elders’.

Our reaction to these issues is a test from God. We are tested as to whether in the very core of our beings, down absolutely in our gut, we believe that to give is better than to receive; to serve is preferable to being served; that we have a direct, personal accountability to God for our behaviour, and that we follow the Lord Jesus far above any human leader; they are a test as to whether we believe that it really is God’s grace which sanctifies the individual, rather than membership of and submission to any human organization [for this position is what about every false religion believes]. And they are a test of whether we wish to labour for others to receive that pure grace of God, with no expectation of some kind of personal return for us, be it financial, personal loyalty, submission, respect etc. … but rather to serve simply because we want to serve, because we know ourselves to be servants, directly accountable servants, of the supreme Servant of the Lord.

Mistaken Interpretation Of Unity

All this talk of obedience to leadership, of rigid control of the congregation... was justified by the argument that this leads to unity. There arose what was called "the norm of ecclesiastical and Catholic opinion... to be identified with what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (quad ubique, quod semperm quod ab omnibus creditum est) (1). Yet early Christianity was comprised of those who had broken this very world, and come out from families and societies who believed exactly the same- that we must follow the norm, and any break from the norm is seriously wrong. The church's view of unity became that of the world- and their view confuses uniformity with unity. Men like Peter and Paul appealed urgently for individuals to repent and be baptized to receive God's forgiveness in Christ. Later church leaders overlooked this. It all became about power and control and politics and following the bishops- in the name of "unity". The seriousness of sin was de-emphasized, Justin implied that after baptism Christians don't sin, apart from heretics and those who leave the church. Sin became defined in terms of remaining within the church. The 3rd century Didascalia Apostolorum taught that "whoever does evil after baptism, the same is condemned to the Gehenna of fire". The daily, unnoticed sins, the inside of the cup, judgmental attitudes... all rated as major sins in the Lord's manifesto of Christianity. But not in the theology of 3rd Century church leaders. All this is a sober warning for today's church, where church attendance and financial donations to the church have been magnified as if they are the ultimate sign of spirituality. The focus became upon the external, whereas early Christianity was about the internal transformation of individual minds and hearts. "The church" was no longer understood as a community of believers; it became synonymous with the visible outward organization. Cyprian taught that "Whatever and whatsoever kind of man he is, he is not a Christian who is not in Christ's church... he cannot have God for his Father who has not the church for his mother". And Church membership depended upon "submission to the bishop... rebellion against him is rebellion against God... the schismatic, however correct his doctrine or virtuous his life, renounces Christ and bears arms against the church" (2). Individual spirituality and correctness of faith meant nothing; obedience to the leaders was paramount. Cyprian even went so far as to say that "the church is founded on the bishops... held together by the glue of the mutual cohesion of the bishops" (3). This is a glaring contradiction with the Biblical emphasis upon Christ as the only foundation (1 Cor. 3:11), and the body being held together on account of being "in Him", compacted and built up by what "every joint supplies" (Eph. 4:16). This shift from the internal, the spiritual, to the external and visible, the perception of Christianity as a human organization we belong to, has been seen in the lives of many individual Christians, churches, denominations, groups etc. over time. The warning is for us to remain disciples of the Lord Jesus, following Him as it were around Galilee, focused upon Him alone, and finding the unity with others doing the same which will naturally follow.


(1) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A. & C. Black, 1968) p. 50

(2) References in Kelly, ibid., p. 206.