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But the church also faced internal problems, which began at least as early as A.D. 49 with the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Here, the leaders of the church met to decide the question whether or not gentile Christians had to be circumcised (a religious act practiced by the Jews as evidence of becoming a Jew). Peter argued yes, but Paul’s no carried the day. There were, however, many Christians who did not regard this decision as final and continued to insist on circumcision because they believed Jewish law to be the highest expression of God’s will and therefore applicable to Christians.
Other early controversies had to do with philosophical heresies such as Gnosticism, which taught that the spirit was good, but matter was evil and that if Jesus had a material body He had to be evil. Thus, they insisted that Jesus was only spirit and denied that His crucifixion and bodily resurrection could have occurred. For them, salvation was only for the soul, not for the body. Gnostics also believed that the God of the Old Testament was evil and only the New Testament God was good. This made it easy for Christians deceived by Gnosticism to hate Jews. Interestingly, there were two opposite forms of Gnosticism: some Gnostics believed in strict asceticism to avoid contamination by the desires of the body, while others taught unbridled licentiousness, since what one did in the body had no effect on the soul. Paul, John, and other leaders of the church spent a great deal of time and energy trying to counter this heresy.
Problems also arose when new converts brought some of their old ideas with them into the church, or when Christians tried to make Christianity acceptable to upper-class Roman intellectuals. The persecutions created issues that had to be settled—for example, how to treat Christians who had offered sacrifices or given up Scriptures to be burned.
The burning of Scriptures forced the church to decide what was indeed inspired Scripture, and this led to the formal adoption of the canon of the New Testament (see How the Text of the Bible Was Preserved). Questions regarding the nature of human beings (are we born sinful or do we learn sinful behavior; do we have free will to choose between good and evil?) and concerning how we are saved from our sins developed and were “settled” by church councils, but they persist today and have caused many bitter disputes through the centuries.
- Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version., Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).
- David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992).
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
- Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; With a General Introduction to Church History, trans. Edward D. Yeomans (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859).
- Christopher M. Leighton and Charles Arian, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003).
- Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context: 1. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.