The Church Expands
Following Pentecost when then Spirit empowered the church, the followers of Jesus began to tell others about Jesus. The message went to both Jews and Gentiles. People like Peter, Paul, Silas and countless others helped to plant churches throughout the Roman Empire. These articles tell those stories
The Church Expands
Key Concepts: One of the most interesting aspects of the early Jesus community was that it was dynamic, quickly expanding beyond its initial base of Jewish followers in Jerusalem.
The Story: According to the Book of Acts, following Jesus’ resurrection and prior to his ascension he gave the following command to his followers. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Acts 1:8. This statement became the marching orders if you will for the life and work of the early church. Unlike Judaism which did not usually seek out converts (though there were instances where they did so), the Jesus community understood that its role was to tell people about Jesus; who he was, what he had done and what he could do for them. And it was to do so on an ever widening geographic and cultural scale.
Initially this telling of the Jesus’ story was limited to the Jewish community. This made sense, since Jesus was the Jewish messiah who had come to save the remnant of God’s people and usher them into the coming Kingdom of God. However these geographical and religious boundaries of witnessing (meaning telling people about Jesus) soon began to break down. The Book of Acts offers us two examples of the expansion of this proclamation.
The first story is about the Jesus’ story moving outside of the Jewish faith. It concerns the Apostle Peter and a Roman Centurion named Cornelius which is told in Acts Chapter 10. Cornelius was part of the occupying force in Judea. He was a Roman Centurion (meaning he was a leader of a group of about 80 men). Centurions won their ranks through bravery in battle. . Cornelius was also a God-fearer, meaning he was a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel. An angel appears to Cornelius in a dream and tells him to send for a man named Simon (the Apostle Peter). At the same time Peter has a vision that leads him to believe that the kosher rules that had once set the boundaries of Judaism were no longer necessary. As Peter is trying to comprehend his vision, he is told to go down stairs because there are some people waiting for him. He goes down and accompanies them to meet Cornelius. Once he arrives, Peter tells Cornelius about Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentiles and Peter Baptizes them. With this event, the Jesus community expands beyond the bounds of Judaism.
The second story is about the Jesus’ story moving outside of both the geographic and cultic bounds of Judea and Judaism. This story concerns the Apostle Philip who is led by God to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch. This Ethiopian was again a God-believing foreigner. What sets him apart though is that by being a eunuch he is considered to be unclean within the Jewish culture. He would not have been allowed to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet Phillip is sent by God to tell the eunuch about Jesus. Upon hearing the Good News of who Jesus was and what Jesus had done, the Ethiopian was baptized. Tradition in Ethiopia is that this man then came back to his home nation and founded the first Jesus’ community in his home nation, thus making the Ethiopian church one of the oldest in the world.
These two stories remind us that the earliest growth of the church was driven not by human planning but by the Spirit of God. People were led to tell others about Jesus who then tell others about Jesus…and thus the church expanded.
Paul the Evangelist
Key Concepts: The Apostle Paul (c. 5 CE - c. 67 CE) was one of the most significant evangelists (meaning those who tell people the Good News about Jesus) in the early church. During his travels he founded numerous churches across the Roman Empire.
The Story: When we first meet Paul in the scriptures we know him by his Jewish name Saul. Saul was educated and trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel (d. 50 CE). This meant he not only knew and observed all of the Jewish laws but that he knew philosophy and ethics as well. As the Jesus’ movement was beginning, he saw it as a threat to his understanding of Judaism. He persecuted those who participated in the movement, including the stoning of a believer named Stephen.
Saul’s/Paul’s life was radically changed when on the road to Damascus he had an encounter with Jesus. Paul was blinded and only when he heard the full Jesus’ story and believed, did he regain his sight. At that moment he became as zealous for Jesus as he had been earlier for the Jewish Law. What is interesting is that 3 years after his conversion (c. 36 CE) he met with the Apostles in Jerusalem but then went off the grid for almost 10 years, which are called the “unknown years.”
When Paul returns to the scene he begins a series of three missionary journeys (c. 46 CE – 49 CE). He and a man named Barnabas, who had been critical in Paul’s introduction to the Jesus story, leave from Antioch, which was already a Christian center (near todays Antakya, Turkey), and travel to ten different cities. Along the way they mainly tell Jews about Jesus, describing him as the long awaited Davidic messiah. At the end of the journey Paul makes the decision that his mission would no longer be to the Jews but to the Gentiles.
Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch around 49 CE and then go to Jerusalem for the first church council, which will decide if Gentiles need to become Jews to become part of the Jesus’ community. The council decides that Gentiles do not need to become Jews and this allows Paul to continue his work with Gentiles.
Paul’s second missionary journey begins in Jerusalem and takes him to twelve different cities. In many of these cities and areas including Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus he founds churches. On this journey Paul spent about a year and half (c. 50 CE – 52 CE) in Corinth. He makes friends with Pricilla and Aquila who become believers and fellow evangelists.
Paul’s third missionary journey (c. 53 CE – 58 CE) routes him back through Galatia, where he works with existing churches, then to Ephesus where he will remain for two years. He then travels to numerous other cities before returning home to Jerusalem.
Paul’s work begins to come to an end when he is arrested and imprisoned in Caesarea Marittima (between current day Tel Aviv and Haifa in Israel) for two years. He appeals to Rome for his freedom and so is transported to Rome to make his appeal. Along the way he encounters multiple difficulties. Once in Rome he is allowed to preach and teach while under “house arrest.” Ultimately he dies at the hands of Emperor Nero.
By the end of Paul’s journeys and the work of his co-evangelists, dozens of churches had been founded, thousands of people had become followers of Jesus Christ and the church was spreading throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.
The Power of Story
Key Concepts: One of the things that separated Judaism and later Christianity from all other religions of the First Century was that they were religions of the book. This means that they had scriptures which not only recounted their history but were determinative for their cultic practices and ethics.
Story: At its outset Christianity was guided by what we now refer to as the Old Testament. This consisted of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the Writings and the Prophets. This makes sense, since as we noted in an earlier article, the Jesus’ movement was initially based within Judaism. The earliest Christians continued to worship at the Temple and follow Jewish holiness practices. What is fascinating though is that the church moved fairly quickly to adopt additional writings which would become the basis for all that the church believes and does.
The earliest writings were those of the Apostle Paul. Paul, as we noted in an earlier article, was a well-educated Jew, who was knowledgeable of Jewish scripture as well as Greek philosophy and ethics. Once he became a follower of Jesus the Christ, he embarked on a mission of planting and supporting churches. Along the way, Paul wrote letters to both churches and individuals. These letters almost always addressed particular issues and situations faced by churches as well as questions asked by those with whom he corresponded.
Paul’s letter writing career lasted from approximately 50 CE to 60 CE. He is credited with writing 13 of the 27 New Testament books, though scholars can only agree on seven and wonder about the other six. Paul’s central message was that Jesus was the Son of God who came into the world to die on the cross in order to break the power of sin and death, thus allowing for the creation of a world-wide people of God which welcomes all who have faith in Jesus.
The second set of writings were the Gospels (which means Good News, referring to what God did in and through Jesus). The Gospels consist (in order of appearance) Mark (c. 69 CE), Matthew (c. 70-80 CE), Luke (c. 80 CE) and then John (c. 90-100 CE). These books consist of Jesus’ stories that were gathered from a variety of sources and carefully edited in order to tell the Jesus event from a particular point of view. The first three (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share enough material that they are known as the Synoptic (meaning similar) Gospels. Mark is the common basis for the other two. John is in many ways completely different. It shares virtually none of the stories in the other Gospels and has a different timetable for Jesus’ life. What these stories share in common though is Jesus as messiah, who lives, dies and is raised from the dead.
The third set of writings are an amalgamation of letters from other people (Peter and James) as well as the Letter to the Hebrews and those attributed to John (1,2,3 John and Revelation). These books were slowly gathered into collections which varied by region. It was not until 397 CE that the western church decided on a final list.
Just as the Old Testament was authoritative for the Jewish community, the Gospels and letters soon became authoritative for the church. Unlike Roman “religion” that focused solely on cultic activities (offering sacrifices) the Christian community allowed these new writings to orient its worship, ethics and world-view. They were also central to its ongoing discussions about the nature of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship to God and to the Spirit.
The Church Organizes
Key Concepts: One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the Christian Church is that it did not take long before a movement originally known as “The Way”, became an organization known as the church (in Greek the ecclesia), complete with a leadership structure.
Story: In the earliest days the Jesus’ movement was just that, a movement. The only recognized leaders were the Apostles who had been with Jesus, along with Jesus’ brother James. Even so, as the church spread through the work of the Spirit, multiple congregations were created without any oversight by the Apostles. This was especially true in places like Damascus and Antioch which were early centers of Christian activity.
A nascent church structure began to emerge as Paul, Barnabas and others appointed leaders to oversee churches. These appointments reflected the Jewish nature of the movement because all synagogues had elders who oversaw the work of the community. The language used by the church for these leaders varied. They could be called elders (presbyteroi) or bishops (episcopoi). The terms were interchangeable and referred to servant leaders. Following the deaths of the Apostles, these local leaders were elected by their community and the church in Jerusalem was not involved in their selection. At the same time there began to be a division of labor between some elders/bishops who were teachers and others who were overseers.
The practice of local election of leaders lasted for a considerable period of time. Cyprian (210s-250s) notes that bishops were put in place when all of the local elders and believers came together and agreed upon a candidate. Ignatius (c. 50-117), the Bishop of Antioch, was the first to emphasize the overarching authority of a local bishop. This concept was rejected by the vast majority of Christians across the Roman world. In fact, the people listened more intently to those who had suffered and survived persecution than they did to the bishops. The concept of powerful bishops was opposed by Tertullian (180s) because he did not believe it could be supported by scripture.
The transformation to a more hierarchical church began in the 240s while Gregory was Bishop of Pontus in Asia. He did so by administering justice through the church and not through Roman courts, by asserting that anyone who disagreed with him was in league with Satan and by casting out any church member who disagreed with him.
The consolidation of power in the hands of the bishops was accelerated by several factors. First there was the growth of the church, where bishops were given oversight of multiple churches. This required the person appointed to be of independent means. These positions then began to be handed down within particular families. Second bishops made intentional efforts to remove the people from the election process. Third, bishops claimed that the Holy Spirit operated through them and therefore only they could pass it on to the people. All of these factors led to the bishops of Nicaea, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, Ephesus and Jerusalem gaining control over all of the churches and leaders in their regions.
Over time then the church took on a hierarchical structure in which there was top-down control, culminating in the appointment of priests and bishops without any input from those they served. In the west this eventually led to the Bishop of Rome claiming absolute authority over the church (440); authority which was rejected by the church in the east.
The Central Role of Women in the Early Church
Key Concepts: One of the least discussed aspects of the early church is the central role played by women. There are numerous mentions of them in the scriptures, early church writings and Roman discussions of the church.
Story: It is impossible to fully tell the story of the early church without discussing the significant role of women. Their key role begins with Jesus’ ministry. Women were those who financially supported Jesus and the disciples. As regards Jesus’ death it was his female followers who were at the cross while most of the men had fled. It was probably women who took his body to the tomb. It was also women who went to the tomb and were first told of and then told others about Jesus’ resurrection. In the Gospel of John it is Mary Magdalene who touches Christ and becomes an “apostle to the apostles.”
In the nascent church women were leaders/co-leaders of house churches. We know this because Paul in his letters mentions women such as Chloe, Lydia, Apphia, Pricilla, Nympha, and John Mark’s mother. They were also Apostles and deacons. Paul writes of Junia as being “of note among the Apostles.” Early church writers understood this to mean that Junia was a leading Apostle. Phoebe is mentioned as a deacon, meaning she was probably in a leadership position in a local congregation.
In the book of Acts we read of Philip’s four daughters who were prophetesses. Eusebius (c. 260-c. 340) believed these women to be part of the earliest apostolic succession. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) mentions that the apostles were accompanied by women whose mission was to evangelize other women in order to prevent scandals. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (c. 69- c. 156) mentions Grapte, the sister of Crescens as one who should receive one of the church’s earliest non-Biblical writings in order to share it with others.
The early church also had special places for women deacons. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they should not only be accepted by the church leadership but praised for their work. The deaconesses assisted in baptisms, visited the sick, cared for the ill and looked after the needy. Finally there was an order of leaders called “the widows.” These were women who were supported by benefactors in order to serve the church. They instructed women in the faith and served at the altar alongside men. One document refers to them as “Presbyteresses” which means female elders.
The Romans also point to the fact that women had central leadership roles. Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113) while he was Roman governor in Bithynia, described how he had to interrogate the leaders of the church there, both of which were female slaves. The church also attracted upper-class women. The problem this raised was that these women had to marry within their class and there were not enough available eligible Christian men. Callistus, Bishop of Rome (d. c. 223) allowed women of senatorial rank to marry Christian slaves or freedmen, even though it was in violation of Roman law.
Many women also studied Greek, Hebrew and the scriptures. By the late 300’s Jerome thought nothing of referring church elders to a woman named Marcella when they were not sure how to interpret a Biblical text. Augustine (354-430) declared that Christian women were better educated in Biblical matters than most philosophers.
Persecution by Rome
Key Concepts: For many of us the image we have been offered of Rome’s relationship with the church is that of constant persecution. The reality is that until the late 200s persecution of Christians tended to be a local affair and not a national effort on the part of Rome.
The Story: In order to understand Rome’s persecution of the church we need to understand one key factor about Roman society, and that is, to be a good Roman meant to participate in the rites and rituals of Roman religion. Even though there was little if any sense of “belief” involved in Roman religion (meaning Romans did not believe in their gods, like Jews believed in YHWY) what mattered was that the health of Roman society was understood to be dependent upon its traditional religious practices. This meant that other religions such as Christianity were seen as a danger to society and the Empire. That being said the persecution of the church can be divided into two eras.
The first era began with the persecutions of Nero. During Nero’s reign there was a great fire which destroyed much of Rome. Nero, understanding that much of Rome blamed him for the fire, needed a scapegoat, and so he chose the Christians. Many Christians were rounded up, tortured and horribly executed. Even though this was a local matter, it marked the moment when Christianity began to been seen as an illegal religion. What this meant was that as an illegal religion its adherents could be executed. In Bithynia around 111 there is correspondence in which the governor, having executed Christians, wants to know how to handle the situation of those who had been accused of being Christians, but there was little proof. The Emperor Trajan instructs him not to hunt down believers and if someone is accused of being a Christian, their accusers must appear in court. By the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) the localized persecutions had become more intense. In places like Lyons and Vienne Christians were rounded up and slaughtered in the amphitheaters. In addition Aurelius attacked the theological foundations of the faith, saying it was all superstition.
The second era of persecution began with the reign of Emperor Decius (249-251). Decius wanted to renew the life of the Empire through the renewal of the Roman religion. To this end he ordered that all citizens, on a certain day, should offer a sacrifice to the gods and to the throne. For those who did so a certificate was issued. His desire was not a wholesale killing of Christians but that they should return to being good Romans. Fortunately this edict was not uniformly enforced and many Christians escaped. Emperor Valerian (253-260) continued the persecutions by attacking church leadership and confiscating church property. Following his death there was a short period of peace, which would be lost when Diocletian (284-305) began to reign. Though he was initially friendly to the church, in 303 he issued an edict which called for all churches to be destroyed, scriptures burned, and church leaders imprisoned. This was followed in 304 by another edict which stated that anyone not offering sacrifices to the gods was to be executed. Active persecution continued until 311 when another emperor, Galerius issued an edict of toleration. The formal acceptance of the church occurred in 313 with the signing of the Edict of Milan which stated the Christians could worship freely and that all confiscated church property was to be returned.
The persecutions were difficult for the church. Many Christians denied their faith and lived. Others remained faithful and died. Yet through it all the church continued to grow and by the time of the Edict of Milan, estimates are that 10% or more of all Romans were Christians.