Early Christian History

Foundations of the Christian Church

In another essay, I covered the ultimate origins of Christianity as a belief system. In this one, I wish to go over the way in which the Christian Church was formed. Keep in mind that Christianity, the religion, is not the same thing as Christianity, the Church.

Diversity In Early Christianity

In the oldest extant Christian documents, the “genuine” Pauline epistles, we see, even then, that Christians hold a diversity of views. Paul’s epistles represented his effort to unify the various localized doctrines, and set standards for all the various churches to look up to.

In the first and second century, the basic unit of Christianity was the localized church, usually in a Hellenized eastern city. Each of these churches appears to have had its own collection of sacred writings, and its own concept of Christianity. By the turn of the second century, all of them believed in Jesus Christ as a savior. Beyond this, however, there were some differences, even after the various movements had begun to influence each other.

At any rate, the main authority of each individual church lay in its assembly of elders. Collectively, they determined the teachings of that church, and ensured that they were distributed to the members. This was no easy task, for Christianity was an “underground” movement, and many Christians did not go to assemblies or services, for fear of being discovered. Also, outlying or suburban members often did not have churches in their own communities — they had to travel to the district’s main city to meet other Christians.

Another factor to be remembered is that Christian doctrine was not only indefinite, in this period, but not all of the questions raised by Christian beliefs were even understood. Many Christians, for example, accepted that Jesus was God and Son at the same time, but they didn’ think to ask themselves how this could be the case. Thus, the Trinity doctrine wasn’ developed until the middle of the 4th century, only after a good deal of theological debate and consideration. (Even then, it’s currently a contested doctrine in some denominations.)

“Keepers of the Faith”

This situation required a solution, and that turned out to be the “deacon,” or a caretaker of the doctrine of a church. It was the deacon’s job to catalog the elders' decisions, and distribute information to the membership. In those cities which acquired large Christian populations, such as Antioch, this became a very big job indeed. Antioch had a large number of suburban or remote members; eventually these suburban groups became large enough to establish their own congregations, subordinate to the “church” in Antioch itself. The same occurred in other large cities.

Thus, the job of these “keepers of the faith” evolved beyond what one person could do. Subordinates were called upon to assist, and organized themselves into a sensible structure which helped them get the job done.

The hierarchy of the Church, was born.

At first, there were but few layers to the organization, and it could hardly be called a “hierarchy.” There were deacons, who headed up congregations, with bishops, or overseers, guiding the deacons of a district. Individual congregations, of course, retained their bodies of elders, but these became increasingly the tools of the deacons and bishops.

Of course, this organization cropped up spontaneously in many locations, very likely guided by communications that took place among the bishops of several locations, as they consulted each other in what should be done.

This structure took some time to develop — several decades, in fact, beginning around 110 CE, very likely in Antioch. Many churches resisted this organization, though, usually in remote places which did not have the problem of large congregations to deal with. It took another century for the “overseer” or bishop level to come into place, throughout Christianity.

Furthermore, teaching new Christians became an issue. Incoming believers had to be instructed in the faith, and new ways of explaining it had to be developed. Also, since congregations grew and broke into smaller, more easily-managed parts, new deacons were needed; these, too, needed to be instructed in how to be deacons.

All of these things were to be handled by the overseers and deacons.

Organized Christianity — Growth of a Hierarchy

By the latter half of the second century, then, the seeds of the hierarchy had been planted. Until then, the job of running a congregation had been a purely part-time job; the elders, deacons and even early bishops all had other professions, aside from their ecclesiastical positions. There was no such thing as “clergy,” as a profession.

With the introduction of a three-level structure, however, as well as the growing responsibilities of the overseers or bishops, it became a full-time job, to keep up with it all. Moreover, the bishops frequently had to travel to the various congregations in their districts, in order to deliver texts, and to instruct deacons. They also met together, in synods, to discuss their own activities, and to get advice or assistance. They also corresponded as frequently as they could, often debating, or clarifying, doctrinal issues.

Eventually, the overseers had assistants, who were commonly elders or deacons in their “home” churches. The deacons, in turn, looked to their elders to assist them. While the elders usually worked for the church only part-time, the deacons, and the bishops' assistants, became full-time workers for Christianity. As such, members had to pony up funds to pay their expenses. In some places these funds became substantial.

Eventually, too, a higher level was added to the hierarchy. Early Christian centers such as Antioch and Alexandria were considered to have been “special", and the bishops of these cities were treated with greater honor than the rest. They acquired the title patriarch, as a sign of their importance to the faith. Only the pre-eminent bishops of a region could become the patriarchs of that area.

The Hierarchy Unites

Up to this point, the bishops were, essentially, “free agents,” acting in concert with other bishops at times, but only as they wished. There was little cohesiveness among the organizations of the many districts. In regions which were close to patriarchal cities, nearby bishops theoretically answered to their patriarch, but effectively, they were still fairly independent.

As previously noted, the bishops of an area might meet occasionally in a synod, but more commonly, they corresponded by letter. Over time, these communications became rather frequent and substantial. Bishops traded good ideas, which were implemented in many places. Slowly, over the course of the second and third centuries, a unified idea of how the overall Church should be structured, was put into place, throughout all Christianity. The ranks of the clergy, and their duties, were standardized. Bishops' districts were demarked, roughly corresponding to Roman administrative provinces (they were a handy guideline).

Doctrinal Warfare

Doctrinal differences had separated Christian congregations, from the very beginning; but by the middle of the third century, they became substantial. Partly this was due to the fact that the bishops began to take their jobs seriously, judging that it was their task to unify the doctrines taught within their congregations.

After all ... what good was it to be the overseer of a district, if not all the churches in that district, taught the same thing? Moreover, what good was it to have all of these district overseers, if they didn’ encourage the same teachings throughout their churches?

Inevitably, therefore, a push to ensure that a uniform doctrine was observed, got underway. It was accompanied by an effort to integrate the many churches into one lone, overarching Church.

Individualized teachings were discouraged, and members enjoined to avoid them. Acceptable teachings were collected and cataloged, as best they could. Particularly eloquent writers among the clergy, wrote treatises explaining what was acceptable, and why, as well as what was unacceptable. Of course, there was no unity in this; some of these writers and proponents of a “single doctrine” were at odds with one another concerning what that doctrine should be. Their correspondences evolved into ongoing debates, which sometimes continued for decades, with their respective successors keeping it going.

Heresy & Orthodoxy

The debates going on were numerous, especially in the east, where Christianity had attracted many scholars, who were educated in Greco-Roman philosophy and who therefore had examined Christian doctrine using classical Greek analytical methods. In some instances, the debate continued for centuries.

Among the issues that took centuries to resolve, was “the Biblical canon,” or the choice of which writings to accept as sacred and authoritative. Many different scholars and Church Fathers contributed their ideas to the Biblical canon. Among the remarkable things to come out of this multi-century debate, were: The inclusion of Revelation, whose authority many scholars questioned; the rejection of the most-often-quoted early Christian document, the Gospel of the Hebrews; the inclusion of four gospels, one of which (John) has points of disagreement with the others; and a failure to include any liturgical (i.e. for use in rituals and ceremonies) documents, in spite of the fact that liturgies far exceeded other writings.

Church leaders of the time noted the various problems with the Biblical canon and pointed out many objections to certain documents, and promoted others, all coming up with numerous justifications — some of them mutually exclusive!

As the debates went on, certain issues became “decided,” usually by a synod in one region, which was ratified elsewhere and taken as a Church-wide decision. Even then, however, not all the decisions of synods were accepted.

The earliest problematic doctrine, that we know of, is Montanism, a system set up by an Anatolian Christian named Montanus. He taught a number of things which put him at odds with what other Christians had generally accepted. Montanism was targeted for oppression by other Christians, and several authors wrote treatises against it, trying to discourage other Christians from adopting similar ideas. Tertullian wrote against Montanism, however, he subsequently joined this Christian sect!

Another doctrine which became troubling, starting in the early third century, was originally known as the Samosatene doctrine. Paul, bishop of Samosata in eastern Anatolia, taught that Jesus was not fully God; he was, rather, a created being, and therefore less than God, even if he possessed the “spirit of God.” Paul set forth his ideas in all piety; he felt it inappropriate to elevate to Godhood, someone who was not really God, and could not have been God. Paul did not, however, contradict the idea that Jesus was, indeed, the Savior; his sacrifice was supreme and divine in inspiration.

Other Christians found this troubling. To say that Jesus is less than God, not only does Him an injustice, but furthermore, makes His sacrifice of lesser quality, and prevents Him from being the Savior.

Paul of Samosata was eventually driven out of office, and his doctrine relegated to bookshelves, something of a novelty, until it was championed once more, at the turn of the 4th century, by an Alexandrian deacon. (More on that later, and in my essay on the Council of Nicaea.)

Yet another troubling doctrine was not really a single, coherent doctrine, but rather, a different approach to Christianity. That was Gnosticism, a strongly mystical movement, which by the end of the second century had set itself apart from the rest of Christianity (though, at the same time, it claimed to be the only “genuine” Christianity). Gnosticism was very popular among the most-educated Christians, depriving them of the “cream of the crop,” as it were. Gnostics lay entirely outside of the early Church hierarchy, as they saw no need for spiritual leaders; once a believer had achieved personal, profound knowledge of the Divine (γνωσις, or gnósis), one no longer needed any guidance other than one’s own γνωσις.

Over time, many Church Fathers described various divergent doctrines, which eventually became known as “heresies,” often railing bitterly against them. The passion with which they attacked heretics is unmistakable. They invoked in their followers some equally strong passions; heretics were commonly ostracized, attacked, or even killed. Heretics could get by only by gathering into communities, in sufficient numbers to discourage mistreatment.

The strife between Christians became palpable. By the beginning of the 4th century, pagan writers found it amusing that the Christians attacked each other with so much gusto. But, by this time, enough synods had met, and established standards of doctrine, that a number of these divergent beliefs had not only been blazoned “heresy,” but they'd been wiped out.

The First Ecumenical Council

In 313, Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be an acceptable religion, and imperial persecution ended. But the conflict among Christians themselves remained. He sought to end that, by calling a general council of all the bishops, to be held in Nicaea, across the Bosporus from his capital of Constantinople, in 325.

There, Constantine hoped, the bishops would organize the Church and put an end to the conflict. But as I pointed out in my essay on Nicaea, this is not what happened. Divisions in the Church deepened, rather than being healed.

However, Nicaea had one unmistakable effect: The majority of the Church adopted a single body of doctrine, and declared everything else to be heresy. Nicaea set the precedent for “one Church, one doctrine.” From this time forward, the Church would continue on, believing itself to be unified.

The Biblical Canon

The debate over the canon had only just begun, in the 4th century. It heated up during the late 5th century. By the 6th century it had been virtually settled — that being the Vulgate which had been translated by St Jerome.

Ever since then, people have wondered at the choice of documents to be included in the Bible. Actually, it’s not that hard to understand, at least as far as the New Testament is concerned.

The four Gospels tell the life story of Jesus Christ — as did many documents, of course. These four, however, are backed by presumed apostolic tradition. The first and fourth were said to have been authored by apostles (Matthew and John); the second was said to have been related to Mark by Peter; and the third was said to have been related to Luke by Paul. Acts tells about several of the apostles, especially showing how they took control of the new movement.

The epistles are more problematic, however, almost all of them contain instructions to the believer to stay in line behind their leaders, be they elders, deacons, overseers, etc. They also encourage accepting ideas on faith above all else. In any event, all of the canonical epistles were said to have been written by apostles (Paul, Peter, Jude, John, and James).

Revelation, believed to have been authored by the apostle John, therefore also has an apostolic pedigree. It also opens with a list of instructions to each of the early churches in “Asia” (i.e. Anatolia), describing both acceptable and unacceptable teachings and practices. It also reinforces the idea of Jesus’s eventual return and victory.

The common threads through all of this are: Apostolic authority, with the Church hierarchy as successors of the apostles; and respect for spiritual authority, above all else.

Yes, the Biblical canon was specifically chosen so as to justify the unity of the Church under its young hierarchy!


The consequences of the forging of a supposedly unified Christian Church, are many. This hierarchy has lived on, today, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Church of England. It also lives on in evangelical Christianity, which teaches that all must believe in Jesus Christ and that all must believe in the same doctrine about Him.

That Gnostics in particular refused to participate in any sort of hierarchy or organized Church, made them its first and primary targets. Classical Gnosticism thus died out, almost completely, by the 6th century. (It survived, of course, in the form of small enclaves and movements in secluded places, such as that of the Paulicians, which the Byzantines repressed and destroyed in the 9th century.)

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