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Apostolic Age. Period of growth and development in the early church associated with the leadership of the 12 apostles. The apostolic age began with the death and resurrection of Christ and ended with a persevering church at the end of the 1st century A.D. It was a dynamic age, encompassing not only the writing of the NT canon but also the development of a philosophy to guide the church in its complex relationships with both external forces (governments, other religions) and internal problems (false teachers, church discipline).
Much is still unknown about the apostolic age. Most of our knowledge comes from comments in the NT epistles and the history of the church recorded in the Book of Acts, which traces only one line of development among many during that time. For example, the ministries of most of the 12 apostles and the growth of the church in areas such as North Africa or Parthia (ancient country southeast of the Caspian Sea) are not described. From the NT materials, however, a valuable picture of the apostolic age can be obtained.
Founding of the Church. Scholars have debated whether the church was founded (1) at the confession of Peter (Mt 16:18; cf. Mt 18:17, the only other place in the Gospels where Jesus used the term “church”); (2) at the resurrection (viewed as the inaugural event of the new age); or (3) at Pentecost (the public empowering of the church by the Holy Spirit). Although arguments can be made for each view, the NT itself shows no interest in the issue. The apostles probably saw the origin of the church in a complex interplay between Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection as God’s vindication of that ministry, and Pentecost as a public manifestation of continuity between Jesus’ ministry and the church’s proclamation.
Jesus’ Ministry. Jesus’ choice of 12 disciples, his reference to them as the “little flock” (Lk 12:32), and his constant teaching on the “poor” and “afflicted” in the kingdom of God are reminiscent of the “remnant theology” of the OT prophets. The remnant was a group called by God out of the apostate nation of Israel, identified with the name of God, and ordained both to call the nation back to repentance and to suffer persecution in God’s name. Therefore Jesus had already conceived of the separation between his band of followers and mainstream Judaism when he spoke of the church.
The term “church” (i.e., the Greek word ecclesia) is found over 100 times in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT. That term, linked with the Jewish concept of the “people of God,” refers to the messianic community of “the last days,” an aspect of God’s plan for which Jesus definitely prepared his disciples.
The Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the climax of his earthly ministry and the starting point of the “church age.” Luke tied the two together in his theological portrayals of the ascension in his Gospel and Acts. The different narratives in his two books related different aspects of the same event. In Luke 24:51–53 the ascension is seen as the conclusion to Jesus’ earthly ministry. That account thus stresses Jesus’ priestly blessing of the disciples and their response in worship. In Acts 1:6–11 Luke showed that the ascension was also the beginning of the church age. There he stressed the empowering, commissioning, and preparing of the disciples for the development of the church.
Those who argue that the resurrection never really occurred have a difficult time explaining the powerful surge of faith in the disciples. For the NT writers the resurrection was the primary cause of the disciples’ faith. The disciples themselves had failed. Matthew used the term “fall away” (also translated “take offense,” 26:31) to describe what the disciples did after the crucifixion; normally he reserved that term for the apostate Pharisees (cf. 11:6; 13:21; 15:12; and elsewhere). The disciples could hardly have come to their later victorious proclamation on their own. In fact, they were transformed from a defeated band of stragglers into heralds of a messianic community filled with joy and enthusiasm.
The Gospels themselves indicate the relationship between Jesus’ ministry, his resurrection, and the founding of the church. Mark wrote of a “messianic secret” whereby Jesus refused to allow his messianic office to be proclaimed until after the resurrection (Mk 8:30; 9:9). The disciples were told the secret but did not understand it until the resurrection (Mk 4:13; 6:52; 7:17, 18; 9:10). The teaching of Jesus was both the basis of the church (Mt 28:19, 20) and the content of the church’s message. That message had been understandable all along but became discernible only in the light of the resurrection. Luke presented an even more complete picture, showing the continuity between Jesus’ earthly ministry, which inaugurated the “messianic age of salvation,” and the church’s proclamation of the message of salvation. The resurrection was the connecting link between the two.
Finally, John showed that the resurrection “glory” had been visible in Jesus all along to the “eye of faith.” Both salvation (Jn 20) and the church (ch 21), however, could be fully understood only through the resurrection as the key to Jesus’ teaching and person. Thus all four Evangelists declared, each in his own distinctive way, that Jesus’ ministry prepared for the postresurrection message of the church. The essential link was the resurrection, which pointed to the presence of the risen Christ in God’s messianic community, the church.
Author Kirsopp Lake
Pentecost. The inauguration of the church age was sealed by introducing the age of the Spirit at Pentecost. John’s Gospel shows that Pentecost should not be isolated from the resurrection. In what has been called the Johannine pentecost (Jn 20:22), Christ appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, “breathed” on them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That was a private, personal strengthening of the disciples, whereas the Pentecost experience was a public empowering and vindication of the church, the remnant of Israel.
During the time of Jesus’ appearances or shortly thereafter, the disciples moved from Galilee and made Jerusalem their permanent home, perhaps expecting the fulfillment of the prophetic promises regarding Jerusalem (Is 2:2–4; 40:1, 2, 9–11). During the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the church experienced the coming of the Spirit. The first Christian Pentecost had a threefold meaning: (1) It signified the outpouring of praise to God on behalf of the new messianic community (seen in the ecstatic utterances, Acts 2:4, 11). (2) It began the time of universal proclamation (seen in the “nations” that understood it, Acts 2:9–11). (3) It demonstrated the power available to the church for accomplishing its task (seen in the wind and fire, Acts 2:2, 3).
Author J. B. Lightfoot
The Palestinian Period
The Early Church’s View of Itself. Did the primitive church view itself as “true Israel” or simply as a part of the Jewish nation? Scholars of the 19th century argued for the second option, but many scholars have begun to see a growing “church consciousness” at the earliest stages. The early church actually saw itself as both separate from and a part of Israel itself. The church was the new Israel, hence distinct from the old, but it was also the remnant of the OT hope. As the remnant, it called the Jewish nation to the new “congregation of Jesus,” to the fulfillment of its messianic hopes.
When Christians worshiped in the temple and took part in Jewish feasts, they did so in the belief that they were participating in the fulfillment of the OT promise and not merely as members of another Jewish sect. In fact, the temple and synagogue became the focus of the church’s evangelistic outreach. The early church’s message was one of promise-fulfillment; that is, it pointed to the OT promises of redemption and then showed how those promises were fulfilled in Christ. The earliest recorded creed (1 Cor 15:3–5) followed the promise-fulfillment pattern in stressing that the death and resurrection of Christ took place “according to the Scriptures.” Every NT book except James echoes the same theme, but the early speeches in Acts especially abound with appeals to OT Scripture. The apostles sought to prove to the Jews that Jesus was indeed the Christ prophesied in the OT.
Church Leadership. Early church leadership centered around the 12 apostles, and especially Peter as the “rock” of the church (stressed in Acts 1–15). The importance of the number 12 is seen in Acts 1:21–26 when the disciples chose a replacement for Judas, and in Acts 12:2 when they did not choose a successor to James the brother of John. The two events suggest that at the outset of the church’s existence the apostles felt it was crucial for the sake of its witness that they be 12 in number. When the church was fully established, however, it was no longer necessary to maintain that number. The original significance of the 12 apostles was again connected with the “remnant” motif, the 12 apostles corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. The apostleship of the chosen 12 was based on their presence with the Lord in his earthly ministry and their experience of his resurrection appearances and commission (Acts 1:21, 22).
The complexity of life in the growing Jerusalem church soon proved to be too much for the 12 apostles to handle by themselves. In Acts 6:1–6, the Hellenistic Jewish faction (Jewish Christians who were from Greek territories outside Palestine) complained that the native “Hebrews” (the Palestinian believers) were favored in the distribution of the common funds given to needy widows. The apostles, realizing that they could not handle both evangelistic and domestic duties, chose deacons to handle internal matters. The term “deacon” (meaning one who “waits tables” or “serves”) was uncommon both in Judaism and Hellenism; it originated in Jesus’ concept of servanthood (cf. Mk 10:44).
The Scattering of the Church. Beginning with the stoning of Stephen (one of the first deacons), a wave of persecution hit the Jerusalem church, inspired by Stephen’s witness before the Jewish council and by the Jewish authorities’ growing realization that the Christians were not a mere splinter group within Judaism. The persecution resulted in a scattering of the church’s Hellenistic Jews into outlying regions and brought about several changes.
First, the internal leadership changed from Hellenistic deacons to Jewish elders. Though it is not known precisely when the concept of “elder” originated, it was in use by the time of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:23) and his visit to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2).
Second, the main leadership narrowed further from the apostles to the “pillars” (Gal 2:9), with James the brother of the Lord taking the place of the martyred James (John’s brother) in the inner circle with Peter and John. James’s leadership of the church’s Jewish branch is evident at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
Finally, an emphasis on the “charismatic” (“spiritual”) gifts began to appear. The list of gifts in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor–teachers), as well as the other lists (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12), probably go back to that early period. Many scholars have argued for a purely Spirit-led church government in the early period, but the evidence points to the presence of both institutional and charismatic elements from the beginning.
Most important, the scattering of the church became the God-ordained first step to the universal mission of the church. All the evidence suggests that in the first years the early church interpreted the Great Commission in light of proselyte theology; that is, the church sought to reach Jews with the gospel, believing that Gentiles would come to the church by first becoming Jewish proselytes. However, the dispersion forced the church out of Jerusalem and into the Jewish communities of the diaspora. There Christians came into contact with the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who followed Judaism but who had not been circumcised. There also they first faced the difficult question: Did Gentiles have to be circumcised in order to become Christians? The question plagued the church for the next few decades.
The Development of Creeds. During the earliest period the “traditions” or creeds (official doctrinal statements) of the church began to develop. At the outset the sayings of Jesus formed the core of the didache (“teaching”) of the 12 apostles. Those sayings were not written down but were preserved through oral tradition, passed from teachers to converts in much the same way as the rabbis taught their disciples. At the same time, the apostles and teachers began to formulate creeds (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3–5), catechisms (teachings for new converts, e.g., Rom 1:3, 4), confessions (liturgies for worship, e.g., Rom 10:9, 10), and hymns (e.g., Phil 2:6–11), plus formulae for ethical instruction derived from Judaism through Christ’s ethical teachings. Such ethical teachings quickly took on overtones of tradition as the church began to recognize the ethical limits of the new “freedom” found in Christ.
By developing traditions, the apostles and teachers sought to interpret the teaching and ministry of Jesus for later church situations. Quite early in the church’s history the traditions assumed canonical status alongside the sayings of Jesus, as can be seen in the large number of traditional sayings in the NT letters. (In fact, 1 Peter has been called a “compendium” of tradition.)
The Early Church and the Law. The religious practice of the early church also began to take form. Jewish Christians were faithful to the Law and obeyed the Sabbath commandments. In fact, as Matthew showed, the Law still had validity even though it was “fulfilled” by Christ; Jesus seemingly annulled the Law in both teaching and action, yet commanded that it be obeyed to the last detail (Mt 5:17–20). The paradox was only apparent. Before Jesus, the Law had served as a mediator between a righteous God and sinful humanity. Jesus fulfilled the Law by becoming the one true mediator between God and humanity. In so doing he called for the same basic response as the Law: repentance. Yet he also made it possible to stop hiding behind the Law from the wrath of God and to enter into true fellowship with him. Thus the Law, still valid in one respect, was transformed by the work of Christ.
So it seemed essential both to recognize the original validity of the Law and to announce its fulfillment by the Law of Christ. Yet the church ran into tremendous problems because it forgot to maintain that tension between adherence to and negation of the Law. The details are clearly spelled out in Acts, as God step-by-step led the church to the gentile mission. First, Philip was led to the Samaritans—an Israelite community that had broken from Jerusalem, established its own center of worship, and was therefore despised by Judeans. That evangelistic enterprise, at first unacceptable to the Jerusalem church, had to be confirmed by the apostles Peter and John and then by the Samaritan Pentecost (Acts 8:5–25). Evidence that the Holy Spirit worked among the Samaritans helped to wean the early church away from a purely Jewish orientation.
The next step was Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9–16) related to the Jewish food laws as well as to laws about eating with Gentiles. Cornelius, a gentile God-fearer, was converted without being circumcised (vv 17–43). His conversion also had to be confirmed by a Pentecost experience (vv 44–48).
Finally, when Paul’s gentile mission intensified the debate, Jewish Christianity split into opposing camps. Paul’s opponents (the Judaizers) attacked his right to be called an apostle (Gal 1:1) as well as his motives (vv 10–12). They demanded that the new converts be circumcised before being admitted to the church. Paul saw such demands as an attack on the gospel and took the problem to Jerusalem (Acts 15). There the Jerusalem Council, after two influential speeches by Peter and James, endorsed the gentile mission, effectively ending the Palestinian period. At the same time, they requested that gentile believers respect Jewish legal sensitivities (see the “letter,” Acts 15:23–29).
Early Church Discipline. Despite the pronouncement of the Jerusalem Council regarding Gentiles, the Judaizers did not suspend their opposition to Paul but rather intensified it. Jesus had given the disciples a method of dealing with unfaithful church members. If the members did not respond to personal correction, they were to be banned from the church (Mt 18:15–18; cf. Gal 6:1). Thus the Judaizers probably were banned from the church and became a cultic sect. The difference of tone between the Letter to the Galatians, where they are merely opponents, and later epistles (2 Cor 11:13–15; Phil 3:18, 19), where they are called “false prophets” and servants of Satan headed for destruction, illustrates the change.
Worship. The choice of the Greek term for “church” (“called out ones”) and its connection with special verbs for “gathering together” suggest that the heart of the early church was corporate worship and that worship was to characterize every aspect of the life of a believer. The practice of meeting on the first day of the week, celebrating the new creation brought about by the resurrection, probably began during the Palestinian period (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Sunday is first called “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1:10, though the term was probably in use before then.
At first Christians worshiped in the synagogue on Shabbat (“Saturday”) and with other believers in homes on the following day (Acts 2:46). Acts 2:42 describes the essentials of the worship: apostolic teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In the Jewish setting, teaching was more than doctrine; it included practical application of the traditions to everyday situations. Also, teaching was not the duty merely of the leaders but of every individual. An ordinary Jew would give the synagogue sermon, and the head of each household was obligated to teach his wife, children, and servants. In the context of worship Christian teaching took on catechetical forms similar to those in 1 Peter and Hebrews. Teaching occurred in the service in connection with the sacred meal, again following Jewish precedent. “Fellowship” could refer to gifts and offerings (both giving and receiving, Acts 6:1, 2; Rom 15:26), or it could refer to “table fellowship” (again the sacred meal). “Fellowship” may also have referred in a more general way to the special unity and sharing between fellow believers (note its connection with teaching in Acts 2:42). The “prayers” mentioned were probably corporate, referring to participation in the temple and synagogue prayers as well as the community prayers in the Christian service.
The “breaking of bread” was at the center of the worship. There were two aspects: table fellowship in a meal, also called the “agape (love) feast,” and the actual eucharistic celebration (Communion, the Lord’s Supper) centering on the Lord’s own words (1 Cor 11:23–26). At the earliest stage, the table fellowship followed a Jewish pattern. As in the actual last supper (which was a Jewish Passover celebration), Christ’s words of institution and the elements of teaching and praise were all part of the meal. The fellowship of the corporate body in sharing the meal itself was integral with the spiritual aspects of the service. The two were not separated until later, when the meal was misused in the Hellenistic branch of the church. Not understanding its significance, they tended to celebrate it like a pagan feast, replacing the sacred meaning with gluttony, and replacing the agape (love) with self-seeking (cf. 1 Cor 11:20–22).
Baptism early became a Christian counterpart to Jewish circumcision (cf. Col 2:11, 12). The practice originated in Jesus’ resurrection command, which reinstated the baptism of John the Baptist but infused it with new meaning, namely, the entrance of the believer into the kingdom of God. At the beginning, the baptismal event occurred immediately upon conversion (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 13; 9:18; etc.); only later did it take on a formal, institutional aspect.
Period of Expansion
Paul’s Ministry. The apostle to the Gentiles was instrumental in bringing to a close the Palestinian period, but Paul also set the tone for the universal expansion of the church. The birthplace of the gentile mission was Antioch (Syria), a city of 300,000 with 10 percent Jews. The scattered Hellenists of Acts 8 began reaching out to the Greeks and in Antioch established a congregation that did not require circumcision for new converts; they neglected the oral tradition of the Law and other legal requirements (Acts 11:19–21; Gal 2:3–14). That group earned the name which has become the primary designation for the church, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The Antioch church was the setting in which Paul received his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles (13:1, 2).
Jewish and Hellenistic Relations. The Jewish and Hellenistic wings of the church existed in a dynamic tension but also with definite interaction, especially in the Jewish communities of the diaspora. By the 1st century ad, Hellenistic thinking had permeated Jewish thought, and the church worked creatively within both spheres. The two styles of thought mingled freely and, as their contributions were reflected in church tradition, infused each other with deeper meaning (e.g., in the concepts of meekness and love).
Further, both Hellenism and Judaism were reinterpreted on the basis of Jesus’ teachings, so the valid traditions of each were maintained in the developing churches. All the NT letters exhibit the process of interpreting local situations in the light of Jesus’ teachings. It seems remarkable that Paul quoted Christ so seldom until one realizes that Paul often alluded to church traditions, which themselves stemmed from the teaching and impact of Jesus. Thus the ultimate authority of Jesus’ teaching provided the control for the Hellenistic (as well as Jewish) views of Christianity.
The problem of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles did not cease with the Jerusalem Council. Scrupulous Jews felt that social interaction, especially at meals, made them unclean (cf. Acts 10:10–16; Gal 2:11–14). The Jerusalem decree (Acts 15:28, 29; 21:25) was revolutionary, not only in asking the Gentiles to honor the food laws of the Jews, but even more revolutionary in thereby sanctioning table fellowship between Jewish and gentile believers. In the Pauline churches the issue was discussed in terms of the weak and the strong. The “strong” were those spiritually mature enough to free themselves of legal restrictions, such as abstaining from meat offered to idols (1 Cor 8–10) or eating only vegetables (Rom 15) without violating their consciences. Paul commanded his readers to honor the scruples of the “weak” and so to promote harmony.
The Apostolic Preaching. During the period of development, the apostles’ preaching (kerygma) also underwent revision. Although the Jewish mission centered on proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, the gentile mission emphasized the good news that “Jesus is Lord.” Pagans had no basis for understanding Jesus as the Christ, for they had no messianic expectation. In the gentile mission, “Christ” eventually became a surname rather than a title. The stress on the kingdom of God and on Jesus as king also had to be curtailed, because it caused misunderstanding and seemed to the Romans to be treason (Acts 17:7; cf. 16:21). New concepts were added, too, such as the “adoption” of a convert as a “child of God” (a metaphor well known to pagan society but not part of Jewish domestic life) and the cosmic concepts in the hymn recorded in Colossians 1:15–20.
The Jewish kerygma took on a stable form, but the gentile proclamation was expressed in great variety because of the many different outlooks represented in the pagan world. The speeches of Paul to the intelligentsia at Athens (Acts 17:22–31) and to the common people in Lystra (14:15–17) illustrate that variety. In both places, Paul’s starting point was natural revelation (rather than the fulfillment of prophecy, as in the Jewish mission); his speech at Athens was full of quotes and allusions to Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, whereas his speech at Lystra centered on the folly of idolatry.
Nevertheless, there was a unified approach to preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. Attack on idolatry plus proclamation of the one true God became the core of the gentile mission throughout the next few centuries. An appeal to natural revelation was not stressed by the church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries in their strong polemic against idolatry. It fit in well in the formative period, however, when believers took a conciliatory rather than a strongly polemical approach in gentile evangelism. Another uniting theme was Christ’s resurrection and his coming return as judge (Acts 17:31; cf. 1 Thes 1:10); this theme was used to stress the saving activity of the one God in the world. Finally, the message included a demand for repentance before the triune God. Thus the gentile mission featured a unity of approach but a variety of methods that depended on each audience’s background.
Missionary strategy emerged as well. Following the pattern of congregations in the diaspora that tended to settle in the urban centers, the church concentrated on populated areas, first focusing on the metropolis and then sending converts into surrounding areas. The best example of such a pattern is Ephesus, where Paul settled for two years, lecturing in the school of Tyrannus (note the further development of Paul using a Greek philosophical school to proclaim the gospel). From Ephesus the church sent out converts, such as Epaphras (Col 1:7; 4:12), to take the message into nearby regions. Paul concentrated on Corinth and Ephesus, the capitals of Achaia and Asia Minor respectively, and longed to get to Rome, the hub of the world.
Social Breadth in the Church. The appeal of Christianity in the gentile world was very broad. Writers have commonly stressed the predominance of the lower classes in the early church but have often failed to realize what Jesus and Paul meant by the “poor” and “weak.” For the most part those terms referred to spiritual attitude and status rather than the economic level of a believer. Jewish monotheism held great appeal for intelligent pagans because their polytheism left a spiritual vacuum when they could no longer believe in the gods. That attraction increased with Christianity, which had all of Judaism’s religious and moral advantages without its disadvantages (such as circumcision and a detailed legal code). From the outset, prominent individuals joined the church, including members of the Jewish priestly aristocracy (Acts 6:7), the wife of Herod’s steward (Lk 8:3), and the proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7, 12).
The freedom proclaimed by the church was especially attractive but led to many problems. Luke’s stress on the disadvantaged (the lowly, women, children) in his Gospel shows that the later message of the church had its basis in Jesus’ ministry. The fact that all believers have the same standing before God (Gal 3:28) must have seemed an astounding thing to slaves (“there is neither slave nor free man”) and to women in cultures where women had little social status (“there is neither male nor female”).
If Paul’s passages on women in the church show that the assertion of freedom brought disrepute on the church among the pagans, Philippians 4:3 shows that women like Euodias and Syntyche could be considered coworkers with Paul, and Philemon 10–13 shows that Onesimus, a slave, was accepted by Paul in the same way. The social freedoms brought by Christianity were unprecedented in the pagan world.
Early Heresy. The appeal of Christianity to pagans led to the early church’s greatest internal problem: false teaching or heresy. It was natural that, just as the Judaizers had tried to conform Christianity to Judaism, so pagan converts would seek to recast the traditions in Hellenistic thought-forms. A classic example was Simon Magus (Acts 8:9–13), considered by the church fathers to be the propagator of gnosticism, a philosophical school of thought that claimed special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual reality. Simon’s authority lay in Samaria, where he was regarded as a direct emanation from God. His attempt to buy from the apostles the authority to bestow the gifts of the Holy Spirit resulted from his claim to spiritual superiority. Simon was only one among many who plagued the church. Several NT books—1 Corinthians, the pastoral letters (1-2 Tm; Ti), John’s Gospel, 1 John, Revelation, and possibly Colossians—dealt directly with the heresy of an incipient Christian gnosticism. To the later gnostics, Jesus, seen as the highest emanation from God, was a spiritual being, not a true man; salvation was acquired through esoteric knowledge centering on Jesus.
Another heresy arose in Corinth, where Paul’s proclamation of liberty led to “libertinism” (1 Cor 6:12, 13; 10:21–24). The Hellenistic disregard for the physical body led to asceticism (7:1, 2) and even a repudiation of the physical resurrection (ch 15).
Jewish Christianity was also moving in the direction of Hellenistic philosophical thought. As Colossians and the pastoral letters show, Jewish ordinances such as food laws and the feasts were reinterpreted along ascetic lines and given a proto-gnostic stamp. “Teachers” were being exalted for their esoteric knowledge.
Changes in Leadership. Authority in the early church underwent considerable change. With the acceptance of James and then Paul as valid apostles, the central church leadership expanded beyond the original 12. Paul’s apostleship was based on two factors: his vision of the risen Lord (1 Cor 9:1, 2) and his divine commission to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; 1 Tm 2:7). It is difficult to know how widely the apostolic office was distributed, because the term “apostle” also had a semitechnical use for appointed church emissaries (translated “messenger” in 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). Paul’s enigmatic use of the plural “apostles” for his fellow workers (Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 4:9; 1 Thes 2:6) could fit either meaning, or perhaps be an even more general term used of itinerant missionaries, a meaning it came to have in the second century.
A balance between charismatic and institutional church government continued. Ephesians 4:11 shows that the offices themselves were based on spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:28–30, which combines offices and gifts without differentiating the categories). The terms used for church offices in the pastoral letters are vague. Most scholars believe that the offices of bishop and elder were still synonymous at that late time. The three letters show, however, that at the close of the period of expansion, the institutional movement was well on its way toward the established form it took in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Changes in Worship. Patterns of worship in the church also underwent significant development during the period of expansion. The gentile church did not feel constrained to observe the Jewish Sabbath or feasts (Gal 4:10; Col 2:16). There is some debate concerning the development of a service devoted solely to preaching and prayer. Some scholars believe that in both Jewish and Hellenistic churches there were two basic services: the sacred meal, which included liturgy and teaching; and a missionary service, which took place in the temple or synagogue (Jewish) or a lecture hall (Hellenistic). The NT letters, however, only mention the fact that a service was held without specifying what form it took.
Two early 2nd-century works—the Didache (a book of instructions on morals and church order) and the letter of a Roman provincial governor, Pliny, to the Emperor Trajan—help solve the dilemma. Both allude to a separate worship service in which the preaching and teaching were paramount. Such meetings may have preceded the eucharistic celebration and prepared believers for it.
Thus, 1 Corinthians 14:23 (the presence of unbelievers in the assembly, unlikely at the sacred meal) and 14:26 (showing that the elements of the service were psalms, teaching, revelations, and speaking in tongues) may refer to a separate worship service. That service may have been followed by the agape meal and eucharistic celebration. As already stated, the meal and the Eucharist were celebrated concurrently in the Palestinian era, but with Hellenistic abuse the two began to diverge; by the early 2nd century at the latest (according to the Didache), the Eucharist was celebrated separately following the meal. Hence the order of worship in the early church was: (1) gathering for prayer and teaching, (2) the agape meal, and (3) the eucharistic celebration.
Baptism was also institutionalized and at some stage, probably during the same period, became a formal ceremony. A probable reason for such formalizing was the growing complexity of the community in the later church. No description of such a service was written until the 2nd century, but the service probably centered on a confession of faith similar to Romans 10:9, 10; the confession became a dialogue regarding the candidate’s doctrine and conduct, as well as a time of instruction on the implications of baptism.
The First Persecution. The period of expansion closed with the first great persecution of the church—under the Roman emperor, Nero. Paul was imprisoned from ad 58 to 60—but there is considerable debate regarding his release and a second imprisonment. Acts does not mention a release and may contain a possible allusion to his subsequent execution (Acts 20:25). The pastoral letters, however, definitely presuppose Paul’s release and further ministry in Asia Minor and Macedonia.
Paul’s death, and probably Peter’s as well, marked the end of the period of expansion. Open evangelism became difficult and Christianity went underground. Nero’s decree against the Christians was not so much the cause as the result of the persecution. Popular feeling against Christians, who were seen as exclusive and individualistic, allowed Nero to use them as a scapegoat to cover up his own misdeeds.
Period of Consolidation
Transition. The next phase of church history was a time of great transition between the dynamic growth of the church under the apostles’ leadership and the catholic church of succeeding centuries. A major feature of that era was the death of the eyewitnesses, which removed the prime apologetic strength of the early church (cf. 1 Cor 15:6). Jesus had stressed belief apart from eyewitness proof (Jn 20:29), and John’s Gospel should have prepared the church for John’s death (21:18–23). With the apostles’ passing, the church became ever more dependent on tradition and second-generation leadership.
The Fall of Jerusalem. An important event in the final period of the apostolic age was the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. Shortly before that event, many Palestinian Christians had left the Holy City and fled to Pella. The church was cut off from its place of origin, a factor causing it to seek new moorings. The church was left with no center of leadership, and until mid-2nd century the church separated into regional groups such as Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria. Rome, because of its position in the empire and because it naturally attracted leaders like Peter and Paul, assumed leadership in the West, while Alexandria became the center of the eastern church.
Heresy and Growing Institutionalism. The Jewish Christians who had stayed within the church had changed from the days of the Judaizers. They no longer made salvation dependent on the Law, but they did follow Jewish customs and ways of thinking. However, the clash between the organized church and Jewish “Christians” who withdrew from the church intensified, so that by the start of the 2nd century there was only sporadic contact.
Gnosticism, however, grew in both influence and power. The reasons are primarily historical; its strength in pagan society also grew and continued to grow until its peak in the 3rd century. Some later NT works dealt with gnostic tendencies in the church. Gnosticism became especially strong in Egypt and Syria. In Syria, it flourished under the influence of Simon Magus and his pupils, who virtually changed Christianity into another Greek mystery religion. The struggles of Ignatius and other 2nd-century writers against gnosticism added to the development of the distinctive doctrines of the patristic era, such as the unity between flesh and spirit, the early emphasis on Christology (the doctrine of Christ), and the importance of the resurrection of the body.
In the Hellenistic world, the problem was not only doctrinal but also ethical. The growth of docetism (a heresy that separated the divine Christ from the human Jesus, maintaining that Christ did not truly die on the cross but left his body before death) was paralleled by a libertinism that differed little from pagan orgies (cf. Rv 2:14, 20).
Two different reactions to heresy took place: one sought to answer it through the historical proclamation in the church traditions (represented in 1 Jn); the other fought gnostic thought by developing institutionalism and mystical interpretations of the church and sacraments. The pastoral letters laid the basis for the second approach, instructing the church to use excommunication procedures against false teachers (1 Tm 1:20; Ti 3:10; cf. 2 Thes 3:6, 14, 15). Though historical proclamation continued to be a valuable defense against heresy, the defense through institutionalism grew through the efforts of the church fathers, preparing the way for later catholicism.
Finally, the institutional approach to church discipline as a whole was growing. In the apostolic period, discipline was a corporate responsibility that centered on the daily life of each member. Principles such as confrontation, confession, repentance, and forgiveness were individualized and practiced in the fellowship of the church’s life. At the end of the apostolic age, especially with the absence of apostolic leadership, such individual spiritual experiences were “institutionalized,” that is, they were made the function of church officers in the context of the organization. The Didache shows that confession and repentance were incorporated into the church service. Also, responsibility for maintaining the purity and unity of the church was increasingly delegated to bishops rather than to individual church members.
Church Leadership. Development of the leadership continued, perhaps because of the absence of the charismatic authority of the apostles. Left without the undeniable leadership of the apostles, the church focused its attention on the remaining offices and functions. The terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “presbyter” (priest or pastor) often had been used interchangeably by the early church. Gradually they became distinct offices, first in the churches of Asia Minor and later in the West. For example, Clement of Rome, a church father and bishop writing around ad 97, equated bishops and presbyters (or elders). On the other hand, Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch writing in the first decade of the 2nd century, made a clear distinction between bishops, who were the highest church officials, and presbyters and deacons, who assisted the bishops. Ignatius’s three-level division of church offices, known as the monarchical episcopate, gradually became the model followed by all churches. It was well established by the mid-2nd century. In that system the bishop in effect became the successor to the apostles and was alone responsible for administering the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (Communion).
Therefore the charismatic approach to church government gradually ceased, being replaced by the episcopacy. The lists of offices in several postapostolic writings fail to mention prophets and teachers and mention apostles primarily in a past sense. All those writers accepted the continuing validity of the prophetic or teaching functions, but for the most part they believed that the ecclesiastical officers filled those functions. At the start of the 2nd century, there were still authoritative teachers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, but the office was disappearing. Increasingly, teaching was no longer viewed as an independent, creative act but as a recitation of the church’s authoritative writings. An interest in an authoritative NT canon (i.e., officially recognized sacred books) was developing.
Formation of the NT Canon. The process of “canonization” actually began early in the apostolic period. The sayings of Jesus were given canonical status quite early, and the creedal traditions had achieved authoritative status by the time the NT letters were written. It is difficult to know how early the Pauline letters were canonized. From the beginning they were read in the churches, with the stamp of apostolic authority (cf. Col 4:16; 1 Thes 5:27; 1 Tm 4:13). The absence of “to the Ephesians” in early manuscripts of Ephesians possibly indicates that the letter was intended for general distribution. Most scholars agree that Paul’s letters replaced the sermon but not the Scripture reading in the worship service. In 2 Peter 3:15, 16 the canonicity of the Pauline letters seems to be recognized. The Gospels probably attained canonical status almost immediately; the 4 were already being collected together at the end of the 1st century (according to Eusebius, a 4th-century church historian). Later attempts to collect all the canonical works developed largely in answer to heresies such as Marcionism. Marcion devised an “authoritative” canon about ad 140 in an attempt to justify his rejection of the OT. In reaction to him and others, the first true canon, the Muratorian canon, appeared about ad 180.
Worship. The worship and sacramental life of the church also became increasingly institutionalized. Both the Eucharist and baptism were seen as a celebrative part of the process of salvation and not as a memorial celebration of previously received, saving grace. At the same time, the liturgical approach to both sacraments continued to develop and was totally formalized, as was the entire worship service. The charismatic approach to worship (seen in 1 Cor 14:26) was increasingly replaced by a formal structure of readings. The free prayers of the congregation were replaced by liturgical prayers recited by the worship leader.
Conclusion. The church survived many internal struggles and seemingly irresistible external pressures in its earliest years. Its preservation and growth seem almost miraculous to Christian students of history. The church that emerged from the apostolic age became a strong and growing organized movement, scattered throughout the Roman empire.
Grant R. Osborne
Bibliography. J.V. Bartlett, The Apostolic Age; F.F. Bruce, New Testament History; H. Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church, 4 vols.; T. W. Manson, R. N. Moore, G. B. Laird, A Primer of Christianity; E. F. Scott, The First Age of Christianity; J. Weiss, The History of Primitive Christianity, 2 vols.
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