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The church began on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1–2) and spread rather quickly throughout the Roman Empire. The apostle Peter and many others worked to spread the Gospel, mostly to the approximately 4 million Jews who were scattered throughout the empire. The apostle Paul and others worked mainly among gentile converts in Jewish synagogues as well as among Gentiles who did not know Judaism, mostly in the major cities. From there, the Gospel spread to the countryside.
Persecution often followed, but in the early days it was instigated by Jews rather than by the Roman Empire. The Romans had granted freedom to existing religions such as Judaism, and they regarded Christianity as a branch of Judaism, as is shown by Felix, the Roman governor, when he discussed Paul’s case with King Herod Agrippa: “They had some points of dispute with him [Paul] about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19).
Religious tolerance was just one way in which the Roman Empire was suited to the rapid spread of Christianity. There were two common languages, Greek and Latin; nearly everyone knew one or the other in addition to their native tongue, making communication easy. The Roman roads outside Palestine were mostly paved, which facilitated travel by land, and travel by sea was also fairly convenient. Political stability made travel and communication safe, and there was enough food and decent housing for nearly everyone, including travelers. There was a banking system not altogether unlike ours, as well as currency exchanges.
The Organization and Teaching of the Early Church
The structure and organization of the church appears to have developed as needs arose. The basic model for the church was that of the Jewish synagogue.
Early Christians had all things in common (Acts 4:32), but soon there was a growing need for individuals responsible for making sure that food was distributed equally and that the needs of all church members were met. Men were chosen for this purpose, who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).
Thus, within a short time, there were two kinds of church leaders: administrative officials, who were gifted by the Holy Spirit to govern the church, and charismatic officials, who were gifted to exercise spiritual leadership. Those with administrative gifts ministered in the local church as elders or bishops who handled government and discipline and conducted public worship services, or as deacons who dispensed charity and aided the elders with worship. People with charismatic gifts were apostles doing church planting, prophets teaching and strengthening believers, evangelists winning new converts, pastors seeing to the spiritual welfare of believers, and helpers who saw needs and met them.
Christians were to separate themselves from pagan practices, but not from pagans themselves, so long as Christian principles were not compromised and the contact did not result in participation in idolatry. Christians took responsibility for the poor, and they were expected to fulfill their civic obligations, such as paying taxes and obeying those in authority.
Christians met in homes, synagogues, or public buildings on the first day of the week. There were probably two services. In the morning, they sang hymns, prayed, read Scripture, and were taught by elders. In the evening service they usually had communion, based on the Last Supper, according to Jesus’ command (Luke 22:19–20; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25). They practiced baptism as John had baptized Jesus.
Early on, there was a need for succinct statements which summarized the heart of the Christian faith. There are several places in the New Testament that may reflect early forms of such statements: Romans 10:9–10; 1 Corinthians 15:4; and 1 Timothy 3:16. Later, these summaries of the faith developed into more permanent creeds. The earliest of the creeds that have come down to us is known as the Apostles’ Creed. It was not written by the apostles, although it certainly reflects their teachings; its earliest form appeared in Rome about a.d. 340.
Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version., Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).