AS THE PROCESSION OF THE EARLY CHURCH moves
from the pages of the New Testament and on into the succeeding centuries of her
his-tory, it is helpful to trace her growth and development in terms of
specific categories. Therefore, let us look first at a category important for
all Christian people: doctrine. Did she maintain the truth of God as given by
Christ and His Apostles? Second, what about worship? Is there a discernible way
in which the people of God have offered a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
to Him? Third, we will consider Church government. What sort of government did
the Church have?
1. Doctrine: Not only did the Church
begin under the teaching of the Apostles, but she was also instructed to "stand
fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our
epistle" (II Thessalonians ).
The Apostle Paul insisted that those matters delivered by him and his fellow
Apostles, both in person, and in the writings that would come to be called the
New Testament, be adhered to carefully. Thus followed such appropriate warnings
as "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ... withdraw from every brother
who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from
us" (II Thessalonians 3:6). The doctrines taught by Christ and His
disciples are to be safeguarded by "the Church of the living God, the
pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy ) and are not open for reinterpretation.
Midway through the first century, a dispute
over adherence to Old Testament laws arose in Antioch. The matter could not be settled there, and outside
help was needed. The leaders of the AntiochianChurch, the community which had earlier dispatched Paul and
Barnabas as missionaries, brought the matter to Jerusalem for consideration by the Apostles and elders there.
The matter was discussed, debated, and a written decision was forthcoming.
It was James, the brother of the Lord,
and the first bishop of Jerusalem,
who gave the solution to the problem. This settlement, agreed to by all
concerned, at what is known as the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), set the
pattern for the use of Church councils in the centuries ahead to settle
doctrinal and moral issues that arose (in accordance with Matthew 18:17). Thus,
in the history of the Church we find scores of such councils, and on various
levels, to settle matters of dispute, and to deal with those who do not adhere
to the Apostolic faith.
In addition to this well-known controversy,
the first three hundred years of Christian history were also marked by the appearance
of certain heresies or false teachings such as secret philosophic schemes only
for initiates (Gnosticism), wild prophetic programs (Montanism), and grave
errors regarding the three Persons of the Trinity (Sabellianism).
Then, in the early fourth century, a heresy
with potential for Church-wide disruption appeared and was propagated by Arius,
a presbyter in Alexandria (Egypt). He denied the eternality of the Son of God,
claiming, contrary to the Apostles' doctrine, that the Son was a created being
who came into existence at a point in time and thus was not truly God. This
serious error crept through the Church like a cancer. Turmoil spread almost
everywhere. To solve the problem, the first Church-wide, or ecumenical, council
met in Nicea in A.D. 325 to consider this doctrine. Some 318 bishops, along
with priests and deacons, rejected the new teaching of Arius and his associates
and upheld the Apostles' doctrine of Christ, confirming "there never was a
time when the Son of God was not," and issued a definition of the
Apostolic teaching concerning Christ in what we today call the Nicene Creed.
Between the years 325 and 787, seven such
Church-wide conclaves were held, all dealing first and foremost with some
specific challenge to the Apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ. These are
known as the Seven Ecumenical Councils, meeting in the cities of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon,
For the first thousand years of Christian
history, the entire Church, save for the heretics, embraced and defended the
New Testament Apostolic faith. There was no division. And this one faith,
preserved through all these trials, attacks, and tests, this one Apostolic
faith, was called the Orthodox faith.
2. Worship: Doctrinal purity was
tenaciously maintained. But true Christianity is far more than adherence to a
set of correct beliefs alone. The life of the Church is centrally expressed in
her worship or adoration of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was Jesus
Himself Who told the woman at the well, "the hour is coming, and now
is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for
the Father is seeking such to worship Him" (John 4:23).
At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist,
Communion, when He took bread and wine, blessed them, and said to His
disciples, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in
remembrance of Me" and, "This cup is the new covenant in My
blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:19-21). From New Testament
books such as the Acts and Corinthians we know that the faithful received Holy
Communion each Lord's Day (Acts 20:7-11). And also from such first and second
century sources as the Didache and Saint Justin Martyr, we learn that the
Eucharist was at the very center of Christian worship.
And just as the Law, the Psalms, and the
Prophets were read in the synagogues of the Jews, so the Church also
immediately gave high priority to the public reading of Scripture and to
preaching in her worship, along with the Eucharistic meal.
Even before the middle of the first century,
Christian worship was known by the term liturgy, which means literally
"the common work" or "common service." The early liturgy of
the Church's worship was composed of the two essential parts: (1) the liturgy
of the word, including hymns, Scripture reading, and preaching; and (2) the
liturgy of the faithful, composed of intercessory prayers, the kiss of peace,
and the Eucharist. Virtually from the beginning, the liturgy had a definable
shape or form which continues to this day.
Modern Christians advocating freedom from the
liturgy in worship are usually shocked to learn that such spontaneity was never
the practice in the ancient Church! A basic pattern or shape of Christian
worship was observed from the start. And as the Church grew and matured, that
structure matured as well. Hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers were
intertwined in the basic foundation. A clear, purposeful procession through the
year, honoring in word, song, and praise the birth, ministry, death,
resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, and marking crucial
issues in Christian life and experience, was forthcoming. The Christian life
was lived in reality in the worship of the Church. Far from being routine, the
worship of the historic Church participated in the unfolding drama of the
richness and mystery of the Gospel itself!
Further, specific landmarks in our salvation
and walk with Christ were practiced. Baptism and Chrismation were there from
the first day of the Church. Marriage, Anointing of the sick, Confession of
sins, and Ordination to the ministry of the Gospel were recognized and
practiced. The Christians understood these to be great mysteries in which grace
and power from God were being given to people according to the individual need
of each person. The Church saw these events as holy moments in her life and
called them her mysteries or sacraments.
3. Government: No one seriously
questions whether or not the Apostles led the Church at her beginnings. They
had been given the commission to preach the Gospel (Matthew 28:23) and the
authority to forgive or retain sins (John ).
Theirs was by no means a mission of only preaching. They built the Church
itself under Christ's headship! To govern it, three definite and permanent
offices, as taught in the New Testament, were in evidence.
a. The office of bishop. The Apostles
themselves were the first bishops in the Church. Even before Pentecost, after
Judas had turned traitor, Peter declared in applying Psalm 109:8, "Let
another take his office (bishopric)" (Acts ). The word office or bishopric refers to the
office of a bishop, and its use obviously indicates a role of the Apostles as
bishops. Some have mistakenly argued that the office of bishop was a later,
"human" invention. Quite to the contrary, the Apostles were the New
Testament bishops, and they appointed bishops to succeed them to oversee the
Church in each locality.
Occasionally, the objection is still heard
that the office of bishop and presbyter were originally identical. It is true
that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the New Testament while
the Apostles were present, but it was the understanding of the entire early
Church that, with the death of the Apostles, the offices of bishop and
presbyter were distinct. Ignatius of Antioch, consecrated bishop by A.D. 70 in
the church from which Paul and Barnabas had been sent out, writes just after
the turn of the century that bishops appointed by the Apostles, surrounded by
their presbyters, were everywhere in the Church.
b. The office of presbyter. Elders or
presbyters are mentioned very early in the life of Church in the book of Acts
and in the Epistles. It is evident that in each place a Christian community
developed, elders were appointed by the Apostles to pastor the people.
As time passed, presbyters were referred to
as "priests," in view of the fact that the Old Covenant priesthood
had been fulfilled in Christ and that the Church is corporately a priesthood of
believers. The priest was understood as an intermediary between God and the
people and as a dispenser of grace.
c. The office of deacon. The third
order or office in the government of the New Testament Church was the deacon.
At first the Apostles fulfilled this office themselves. But with the rapid
growth of the Church, seven initial deacons were selected, as reported in Acts
6, to help carry the responsibility of service to those in need. It was one of
these deacons, Saint Stephen, who became the first martyr of the Church.
Through the centuries, the deacons have not
only served the material needs of the Church, but also have held a key role in
the liturgical life of the Church. Often called "the eyes and ears of the
bishop," many deacons have become priests and ultimately entered the
The authority of the bishops, presbyters, and
deacons was not understood in those early centuries as being apart from the
people, but always from among the people. But the people of God were called to
submit to those who ruled over them (Hebrews , I Peter 5:5), and they were also called to give
their agreement to the direction of the leaders for the Church. On a number of
occasions in history, that "Amen" was not forthcoming, and the
bishops of the Church took note and changed course. Later in history, some
Church leaders departed from the ancient model and usurped authority for
themselves. This brought the ancient model into question. However the problem
was not in the model but in the deviation from it.
It should also be mentioned that it was out
of the ministry and life of the Apostles that the people of God, the laity,
were established in the Church. Far from being a herd of observers, the laity
are vital in the effectiveness of the Church. They are the recipients and
active users of the gifts and grace of the Spirit. Each one of the laity has a
role in the life and function of the Church. Each one is to supply something to
the whole (I Corinthians 12:7). And it is the responsibility of the bishops,
the priests, and the deacons to be sure that this is a reality for the laity.
The worship of the Church at the close of its
first 1,000 years had substantially the same shape from place to place. The
doctrine was the same. The whole Church confessed one creed, the same in every
place, and had weathered many attacks. The government of the Church was
recognizably one everywhere. And this One Church was the Orthodox Church.