Exploring Church History: A Guide to History, World Reigions, and Ethics
Click on image to enlarge.
by James P Eckman
Description: The Christian faith is certainly complex, but knowledge begins with the essentials. This three-in-one volume explores Christianity's historical roots and development, the distinctiveness of its worldview, and its response to tough cultural and ethical issues, providing an introductory understanding of the richness of the faith and church for you or your small group.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [612 KB]
Reading time: 305-428 min.
THE APOSTOLIC AGE
But when the fullness of the time came,
God sent forth His Son...
PAUL, THE APOSTLE, GALATI A NS 4: 4
IN GALATIANS 4:4 the apostle Paul wrote, "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son." Paul realized that the first century was a unique period of history, the precise time for God's Son to enter human history.
Unlike any previous period, the Mediterranean world was united. Throughout this world, the imperial armies of Rome maintained a forced peace--the famous Pax Romana (30 B.C..D. 180). As the army guarded the empire from robbers and pirates, trade flourished on both land and sea. Prosperity and wealth followed. Rome brought stability and order to its cities, with free food and public games at the taxpayers' expense.
The Roman roads provided an infrastructure that knit the empire together. As a result, the army could be anywhere in the realm within two weeks. Communications from the emperor traveled with a speed unheard of in previous empires. In God's providence, the early church also utilized this communications network to spread the Gospel.
As the imperial army moved with ease through its domain, it carried out the orders of the Caesar with efficiency and discipline. But the Gospel also penetrated the army. For example, Paul speaks of believers in the Praetorian guard, an elite force closest to the emperor (Phil. 1:13). Also, Christianity first came to Britain through Roman soldiers. So significant was the impact of Christianity on the army that one historian called the Roman army the "mouthpiece of the gospel" (Cairns, 37).
The Roman world was also a Greek world. Rome conquered the Greeks militarily, but in many ways the Greeks conquered Rome intellectually. The common language of the day was koine Greek, the language spread throughout the empire by Alexander the Great. In God's sovereignty, this was the language of His revelation, the New Testament. In addition, Greek philosophy heavily influenced the way the Roman world thought. Greek philosophers wanted to know truth and the place of human beings in the universe. Despite the variations within Greek philosophy, most of its philosophers shared the belief that there was a realm beyond the physical world, the domain of the transcendent. Christianity took advantage of this hunger for truth and for transcendent reality. Witness Paul's argument with the philosophers in Acts 17, his presentation of Jesus in Colossians 1, and John's philosophical argument in his Gospel and First Epistle. The Greco-Roman world was intellectually "set up" for the Gospel.
The Roman world also pulsated with religious exhilaration and anticipation. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, told of the Eastern cults, false messiahs, and religious fervor that permeated the empire. Many in Israel envisioned the Messiah coming at any moment. The Zealots wanted a revolution against Rome. The Essenes wanted a prophet of light who would expel the darkness of evil. The Pharisees wanted a nationalist leader who would restore the law and free Israel from Rome's oppression.
Furthermore, after the Jewish exile of earlier centuries and the subsequent Diaspora (the migration of Jews throughout the Roman Empire), the synagogue system represented a Jewish presence in every major city. Each time Paul entered a city, he first took the gospel message to the Jews in the synagogue. Only after that did he move on to the Gentiles.
THE LEADERS OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH
Pentecost (fifty days after the crucifixion and ten days after the ascension of Christ) marks the birth of the church. As the Spirit filled the 120 believers who were waiting and praying, the miracle of tongues caused a sensation. Some observers accused the Christians of drunkenness. At this point, Peter emerged as the spokesperson for the early church.
Peter dominates the first fifteen chapters of Acts. As the first among the Twelve to see the resurrected Christ, he emerged as the leader of the small community of believers before Pentecost (Acts 1:15). He even insisted that Judas Iscariot be replaced.
At Pentecost he preached the Spirit-inspired sermon that produced three thousand converts. He cut through the fog of exclusive Judaism by declaring of Jesus that "there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). He performed miracles, defied the Jerusalem authorities, disciplined Ananias and Sapphira, and set up deacons as helpers so the apostles could study and preach. Despite his slip at Antioch when he withdrew from fellowship with Gentile converts (Gal. 2:14), he championed the Gospel's penetration into the Gentile world.
As the decisive speaker at the Jerusalem Council (A.D. 49) in Acts 15, he brilliantly defended Gentile church membership. After the council, the book of Acts is silent concerning Peter; his activities simply cannot be pinpointed with any certainty. We can, however, be definite about his authorship of 1 and 2 Peter.
Was Peter the founder of the Roman church, its first bishop, and hence its first pope? Incomplete evidence shows he did do missionary work in Antioch and later in Rome, but there is no evidence that he was Rome's bishop or that he stayed long in Rome. In fact, recent scholarship has shown that the church had a presbyterian structure into the second century and was rather decentralized into the fourth. It is difficult to argue that Rome was the ecclesiastical, let alone theological, center of the early Christian church. At best, it was merely a place of honor.
The end of Peter's life is wrapped in tradition. The best evidence establishes that Peter died a martyr's death during Nero's persecutions, about A.D. 68. The apocryphal Acts of Peter contends that he died crucified upside down on a Roman cross. That he was crucified would fit Christ's words of John 21:18-19. Of the rest of the tradition, we simply cannot be sure.
As one of the "pillars" of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9), John, brother of James and son of Zebedee, was Peter's coworker (Acts 1:13; 3:1-4:23; 8:14-25). Together they healed and preached in the name of Jesus the Messiah. When ordered to stop, they obeyed God rather than men. By laying hands on the new Samaritan converts, Peter and John exercised general supervision over the burgeoning church in Samaria. Although he was probably at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, his name does not appear in Acts after his brother James was martyred (Acts 12:1-2). We do not know when he left Jerusalem.
The book of Revelation reveals that John was exiled, probably in the early nineties by Roman Emperor Domitian, to Patmos for preaching the Word of God and for his "testimony of Jesus" (1:9). There John recorded the visions he "saw," which constitute the framework for understanding events surrounding the second coming of Christ. Emperor Nerva apparently released John from exile sometime between A.D. 96 and 98.
After his exile the most reliable evidence places John in Ephesus, where, after living to an old age, he died a natural death. In Ephesus he trained such disciples as Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius--all strategic leaders of the second-century church. Indeed, this mentoring role may give meaning to his self-described title, "the elder," in 2 and 3 John.
John's most significant contribution to the church was his writing. His Gospel is unique. Only 8 percent of it is related in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the remaining 92 percent is original with John. Most exceptional is his instruction regarding the deity of Christ. Jesus is the eternal Logos (1:1-18), the great "I am" (8:58).
John likewise gives emphasis to the Spirit, especially in the Upper Room Discourse (14-16). There Jesus asked the Father to send another Helper who will indwell believers, teach them truth and enable them to recall it, and convict the world of its sin, righteousness, and judgment. It is the Spirit who regenerates (3:6), and it is He who brings satisfaction and fulfillment to those who believe in Jesus (7:37-39).
The other decisive leader of the apostolic church was Paul, in whose life three great ancient traditions intersected. Religiously, he was a Jew, culturally a Greek, and politically a Roman. He was born in Tarsus, a major university town and the principal city of the province of Cilicia. Paul understood his Jewish heritage in terms of the Abrahamic covenant (Phil. 3:5-6). His parents may have named him Saul after Israel's first king, who was also of the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was trained in Pharisaism at the rabbinic school in Jerusalem headed by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:5). His familiarity with Greek authors (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12) and his use of Greek argumentation (Rom. 2:1-:20; Col. 1:15-20) suggests a Greco-Roman influence.
The Pharisees were not particularly tolerant of new religious movements. So when the "people of the Way" spread to Damascus (Acts 9:1 2), Rabbi Saul had no problem receiving a commission from the high priest to extradite Jewish Christians to Jerusalem. On the road to that city, Saul met his resurrected Messiah.
Approximately thirteen years separated Paul's conversion and his first missionary journey (A.D. 48). Paul claimed to be the missionary to the Gentiles. The missionary journeys that Luke documented in Acts bear this out. The first of these probably provoked the most controversy.
During that trip (Acts 13-), Paul and Barnabas evangelized Cyprus and the southern part of Galatia. As Gentile churches flourished, two fundamental questions surfaced: What was the relationship between Christianity and Judaism? How is a person justified? A Judaistic group from Judea insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation--something that contradicted Paul's free-grace Gospel. Hence the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
The council affirmed Paul's doctrine of free grace, adding only that Gentile converts abstain from certain practices. Thus the mother church affirmed Paul's ministry of justification by faith plus nothing! Following the council, Paul embarked on two additional missionary journeys that are recorded in Acts 15:26-:16.
After these journeys he went to Jerusalem to report to James and the elders about his activities in the Gentile churches. There, as a result of trumped-up charges, Roman authorities arrested him. Over the next two years, Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea and stood trial before the Roman procurator Felix, his successor Porcius Festus, and Herod Agrippa II, the titular king of the Jews. Asserting his Roman citizenship, he appealed to Caesar and headed for Rome where officials placed him under house arrest.
Because of the difficulty of determining the exact chronology and place names that appear in the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), it seems best to assume that Paul was subsequently released and ministered for six more years (A.D. 62-). Some scholars even suggest that Paul not only ministered to Asia Minor and Greece but also reached Spain before he was arrested at the height of Nero's persecutions. He was most likely executed by decapitation in the spring of A.D. 68.
SIGNIFICANT WOMEN OF THE
The Scriptures affirm the equality of men and women, both created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and in their position in Christ (Gal. 3:28). While the Bible proclaims equality of the sexes, it also argues for functional differences (role differences) within the home (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19) and within the church (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-36; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 3:1-13; 5:1-25; Titus 1:6-9). Whatever the precise meanings and applications of these crucial Pauline passages may be, church history bears witness to an extraordinary number of women in the early church.
The Gospel was a liberating force in the ancient world, challenging old and established traditions rooted in human prejudice. These gradually died. Contempt, discrimination, and demeaning references often characterized rabbinic teachings about women. Rabbis, for instance, were encouraged not to teach women or even speak to them. According to Jewish tradition, women could never be a part of the count needed to establish a synagogue. But Luke cited both men and women who were baptized and persecuted and who contributed to the growth of the church (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 9:2; 17:4, 12).
Women in Jesus' Day
The challenge to ancient traditions began with Jesus' earthly ministry, in which women played a most significant role. Many women financially supported the ministry of Jesus and His disciples and ministered to Him personally (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:3). The Gospels usually depict Mary, sister of Martha, as seated at Jesus' feet--an honor normally given to men. Several women had the immensely important distinction of bearing the news of Christ's resurrection--a quite remarkable honor in light of strict Jewish teachings on valid testimony.
Not only were women involved in the ministry of Jesus, but they participated in the events at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Since the narrative of events in the Upper Room continues into Acts 2, we must assume that the women present were likewise filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4).
Women in the Early Church
The book of Acts also gives accounts of women who played active roles in ministry in the early church. Dorcas (Tabitha) was the only woman in the New Testament to be called a "disciple" (9:36). Her death caused a major stir in Joppa, prompting the believers to urge Peter to travel from nearby Lydda. Peter prayed, and Dorcas was raised from the dead! Mary of Jerusalem, John Mark's mother (12:12), was a wealthy widow whose house became the vital hub of the Jerusalem church. There the young church found refuge and security during the intense persecutions of Herod Agrippa. Lydia, a wealthy woman of commerce and apparently Paul's first convert in Europe, opened her home to Paul and Silas (16:14-15).
But the early church did not limit women to nonverbal ministry. One of the more remarkable women of the New Testament was Priscilla (Prisca). She and her husband, Aquila, early converts to the faith, were banished from Rome. They became intimate friends with Paul, with whom they shared hospitality and the craft of tent-making (Acts 18:1-3). In some way they had risked their lives for Paul (Rom. 16:3-5), perhaps at the same time heightening his awareness of the growing church in Rome. Most significantly, both Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos, the eloquent preacher from Alexandria, "and explained to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26). Obviously Priscilla knew biblical truth and could explain it with clarity. That the ministry of this couple was well known and widespread is evidenced by the frequent references to them in Paul's writings (Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). Tradition has it that Priscilla was martyred in Rome.
Another woman of New Testament significance was Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2). Because she was probably the bearer of Paul's letter to the Romans, Paul commends her to the Roman church, asking that they "receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints," and "help her in whatever matter she may have need of you." He also says of her that she was a "helper," which clearly implies active and important functions in the church. Was she, therefore, representing Paul in some official capacity, as perhaps a "deaconess" ("servant" of v. 1), as some have argued? From these two verses, we simply cannot be certain she held an authoritative office in the church at Cenchrea. However, it is clear that Phoebe was significant enough for Paul to go out of his way to single her out and ask the Roman church to take care of her.
Two passages indicate that women functioned as prophets in the early church. Acts 21:9 introduces Philip the evangelist as having four daughters who were "prophetesses." From Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:5, it would seem that Philip's daughters were not exceptions, for Paul's instructions about women's head coverings occurs in the context of women "praying or prophesying" in the worship service. Whatever the nature of these ministries, women gifted by the Holy Spirit exercised notable responsibilities in the early church.
Other women of the New Testament fulfilled pivotal ministry roles. Euodias and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) were identified as "fellow workers" with Paul, a remarkable designation when one remembers that Paul also labeled Titus and Timothy "fellow workers." Paul classified Andronicus and Junias [Junia] (Rom. 16:7)--probably a husband and wife--as "outstanding among the apostles," most likely a reference to their role as ones commissioned by the Roman church for special duties, not the New Testament office of apostle. Finally, in the list of "fellow workers" in Romans 16, ten of the twenty-nine people commended by Paul were women.
Women thus played a decisive role in the beginning of Christianity. Their work both complemented the duties of men and involved some leadership responsibilities. Although there are no recorded examples of women evangelists, elders, or formal teachers of biblical truth, their function was both vibrant and vital in the ongoing progress of the Gospel--a clear testimony to the liberating power of Jesus Christ.
With the deaths of Peter, Paul, and John, the mantle of leadership passed to a new generation, the Apostolic Fathers. The Fathers stood on the shoulders of giants, but their theology was often undeveloped. We take up their story in the next chapter.
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION
1.What was the Pax Romana, and what were some of its characteristics?
2. How did the great Roman road system aid the spread of the Gospel?
3. What were some of the important contributions that Greek philosophy made to the setting of the Roman world?
4. Who were some of the groups of first-century Judaism, and what were their expectations?
5. List some of the decisive contributions that Peter, Paul, and John each made to the apostolic church.
6. In what roles were women involved in the early church, according to the New Testament?