Why we survey the church in history
1- We believe the Holy Spirit has been active in illuminating the Scriptures for God’s people for over twenty centuries.
2- History is a warning and safeguard for us, teaching us lessons that mold and shape our interpretations of Scripture today.
3- History is necessary to understand our situation today. Hindsight is 20/20, they say.
4- Unless we think ourselves the sum of all human wisdom and understanding for all time, then what our spiritual forbears in the past knew and experienced is valuable to us.
The Patristic Church (A.D. 100-312)
The distinctively different quality of life of Christians was a powerful witness to unbelievers in the early church. In the Letter to Diognetus (2nd Century) says of Christians: “They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. To put it simply, what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world.”
THE CATECHUMENATE was one way that new believers were trained in discipleship and walked through a period of renunciation of idolatry and deliverance ministry. This all happened before baptism. Sometimes the training lasted up to three years, teaching doctrine, spiritual and moral formation, grounding in Scripture, and spiritual warfare. Notice that this practice promotes believers’ baptism and not infant baptism. The catechumenate began to decline as infant baptism became normal in the Church.
THEIR WORSHIP: Justin (c. 150) describes Christian worship in the early church. He said that baptism was the prerequisite for inclusion in the body of Christ and partaking of Communion: “of which no one is allowed to partake except one believes that the things we teach are true and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us.” The Lord’s Supper was central to worship, and Justin writes that on Sundays preaching took place: “the memoirs of the apostles or the writing of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things.” Justin also mentions congregational prayer and the taking of an offering.
THE BISHOP: The growing importance of the bishop was the most important development in the early church that affected the following centuries. Ignatius, an early bishop at Antioch, was the first to divide between the office of bishop and elder/pastor. Thus in the church there came to be the bishop, the priest, and the deacon. The bishop was elevated as the most important and the key to the church’s unity. Nothing could go on, especially the Lord’s Supper, without his presence. We, however, know that Christ is the one to be elevated, not any man. In the battle with the heresy of Gnosticism,Irenaeus in the mid-second century found that the heretics appealed to Scripture just like those churches of right doctrine. He claimed then, that right doctrine and right interpretation of Scripture was found in churches founded by the apostles. The bishops, he said, guaranteed unity in doctrine because they taught the traditional interpretation of Scripture given by the apostles.
Because of the stress put on the church through the persecutions of the Roman Empire, the bishop continued to gain centrality in the church. When one Roman emperor (Decius) demanded that everyone sacrifice to idols, some refused. Some did it. Some made up fake certificates to show they had done it when they hadn’t. Even bishops and elders/pastors/priests did these things. What do you do when these people want to worship together after the persecution is over? The bishop Cyprian (c. 250) said that the key to unity was communion with the bishops. He said that submission to the bishops was the key to a proper relationship to the church. He said, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your Mother.”
In the fourth century, a similar controversy occurred called the Donatist controversy. During persecution, the Romans demanded that Christians turn over their holy books. Some of them, bishops and priests/pastors handed over their copies of Scriptures and were called traditores (traitors). After the persecution was over, they wanted readmitted to the church, but the Donatists said, “No!” Here Augustine stepped in and said that splitting the church was worse than lapsing under persecution. At the end of the day, the church accepted Augustine’s idea that the validity of baptism or communion lies in Christ, not in the person doing it. Under these circumstances, the church was becoming a corpus permixtum, a mixed body of saints and sinners. This doctrine has come down in mainline churches, but Baptist churches were later a reaction to this doctrine and called for a regenerate church membership.
Lessons from the Patristic Church (A.D. 100-312)
1. Believer’s baptism was the norm in the early church.
2. The early church was pro-life and believed in traditional marriage.
3. The separation and rise of the new office of bishop was itself unfortunate and unbiblical, but the stresses of heresy, persecution, and lack of sufficient numbers and distribution of Biblical manuscripts led the churches to a growing reliance on these men.
4. Jesus Christ, and no church leader including a bishop, is the key to unity in the church.
5. Making disciples and growth in Christlikeness were high values in the early church.