Being a Christian in the Early Centuries
I. Being a Christian in the Early Centuries First to Third
To be a Christian is to accept the Good News of Jesus Christ and let your lives be transformed by it. A Christian is not an isolated individual but belongs to a community of God, His people, the Church. Jesus, nor the disciples worked out every detail on how a community was to go on living, but the people who followed began the task. Meeting places were needed; new converts had to be brought into the fold; the rules of eucharist had to be established. The Church was coming into being and the bonds and the tensions came with it.
A. Liturgy and Prayer
1. From private houses to places of worship.–In the early days Christians met in one another’s homes which leads us to believe that at least some early Christians were well to do. In the East, they used the upper room high up under the roof. In the West it was probably in the dining room of a well to do Roman. The bathroom, piscina, was used for baptisms. From the second century on Christians began donating their houses to be used solely as places of worship. Actual churches were not built until the middle of the third century. The oldest known Christian building is the house-church of Dura Europus on the Euphrates River (about 250 A.D.).
2. Christian initiation–Christian initiation is baptism, confirmation, and first communion joined together with a period of instruction. Jesus’ disciples used a bath of water for baptism, a practice inherited from Judaism. But for Christians baptism meant rebirth through the Spirit. Christians had to experience the death and resurrection of Christ. (Rom. 6:2-11; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2 – I I – 13). Anyone who wanted to become Christian had to repent of their sins, observe the commandments, receive the Good News and proclaim their faith in Christ the Savior. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, gives us some knowledge of the rituals which took place in Rome at the end of the third century. At this time the preparation and catechumenate could last up to three years. Candidates had to have Christian sponsors (godparents) that would testify to their good behavior. Preparation for baptism meant teaching the doctrine and morality of Christianity–catechesis–‘to help to remember’. This was done by either a ‘doctor’ of the church who could be a cleric or lay person. Each period of instruction was followed by prayer and the laying on of hands. At the end of each session the catechumenate would be examined on their progress in the faith. On Good Friday before their baptism they would fast. On Saturday, the last preparatory day, the Bishop would lay his hands on them, absolve them, breathe on their faces and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, ears and nostrils. They remained awake all night long listening to lectures and being instructed. On Easter Sunday came the baptismal rites itself, the final laying on of hands and final unction from the bishop. This is what gave rise to confirmation. The newly baptized took part in eucharist and this concluded the initiation rites. The newly baptized wore white garments and drank milk and honey because they had just entered into the Promised Land of the church. Baptismal rites were given to adults primarily, but children could be baptized at the same time as their parents or later if their parents were already Christians. However, many were opposed to child baptisms. Tertullian of Carthage wrote: ‘One is not born a Christian, one becomes one.’
3. The eucharist, or the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection.– Christians celebrated the Lord’s resurrection every Sunday. It was the first day of the week, whereas, the Sabbath was the last day of the week. On Sunday Christ made creation anew and it was also considered to be the eighth day, the fulfillment of time and the sign of Christ’s second coming.
a. Easter Day–This was the day of the year for celebration. By the end of the second century all Christians celebrated Easter, but the East and West could not agree on the precise date. In the Eastern provinces Christians celebrated it on a Jewish date. Everywhere else they chose the Sunday following the Jewish festival.
b. The eucharist–The heart of Christian Sunday was eucharist (to give thanks) and thus allowed Christians to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The homily was a new form of teaching to back up the catechesis. Communion was received in the hands. To each the bishop said ‘the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ,’ and all replied ‘amen’. Christians took the consecrated host back to their homes and took it before meals. They considered it to have healing powers.
4. Penance–In the New Testament the baptism that God gives is for the forgiveness of sins: (Acts 2:38). But in a much wider way, Jesus gave the twelve and the church community the power to remit sins and to exclude sinners (John 20:22-23; Matt. 16:18-19-; 18:1518). Paul called for the expulsion from the community in Corinth of an incestuous man (I Cor. 5). In the second century the Didache (4:14; 14: 1) invited Christians to ‘confess their sins’ before praying and taking eucharist, specifically the shortcomings in their lives, as had been called for in the letter of James (5:6). During the second century it was generally admitted that with reluctance the serious sins of apostasy, murder, adultery, could only be forgiven once. Tertullian thought that adultery was such a serious sin that it could never be forgiven. The Decian persecutions of 250 A.D. led to the argument on whether apostates (those who rejected Christianity) could be forgiven and reconciled with the church. This led to schisms within the communities of Africa, Carthage and Rome.
5. Some other aspects of prayer and worship–Prayer should extend throughout the day. On rising the Christian faces the East ‘whence comes the true light’. They pray at 9 am, midday, 3pm and at sunset when the lamp is blessed. Prayer was usually done standing with arms outstretched and palms opened outwards. That was the attitude of the suppliant. The hands were not joined together. Prayer was an important part of the early Christian’s life that marked out their lives from birth to death. But there was not a ritual for every aspect of life. Christian marriage was done in the same way as everyone else’s, but they endowed it with a special meaning; i.e., no abortions and no infanticide. Pauline texts provided a spirituality for husbands and wives. (Eph.5) The community leaders were encouraged to visit the sick and anoint them with consecrated oil. Christians have always venerated their dead and martyrs had a special place in this ritual. Their death dates became their birth dates in Christ. From the third century onward burial grounds for Christians became the norm and in Rome the catacombs.
6. Christian art–burial grounds became the expression of Christian art in the form of paintings from the scenes of the Gospel and the Bible, Christian symbols; i.e., anchor, fish (the letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthys, which correspond to the initials in Greek of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Iesous Christos Theou Uios Soter
II. Setting up Ministries
Ministries took several centuries to become fixed. Their development is obscure. The terms used are varied and do not always mean the same thing depending on the time and place.
A. The Palestinian community–the primitive community was composed of two groups: (1) the group of Twelve at the time of Jesus (Mark 3:16-19), including the replacement of Judas Iscariot. They spoke Hebrew and Aramaic; (2) The group of Seven inspired by Stephen (Acts 6:1-6) that looked after the Hellenistic Christians who spoke Greek.
B. The beginnings of mission–With Stephen’s martyrdom the Hellenistic Jews were dispersed and became missionaries. The community in Jerusalem modeled themselves after the Jewish community. They were elders or presbyters (Greek=older). James was the head of this community.
Traveling missionaries practiced a charismatic ministry. These were the apostles, not necessarily of the original twelve; i.e., Paul and Barnabas. They were evangelists. Then there were the prophets, who expounded the word of God in congregations, and finally doctors, like a Christian rabbi, who specialized in scriptures.
In the course of their travels they set up local communities and appointed responsible people to oversee it; i.e., overseers (episkopoi); and deacons. The letter of Titus calls them either episkopoi or presbyters. They preached, baptized and presided over eucharist. All were appointed by laying on of hands accompanied by prayer and fasting.
C. Development in the second and third centuries. Clement of Rome and the Didache spoke of communities having presbyter (episkopoi) and deacons. Eventually a president emerged and he alone was given the title (episkopoi) with priests and deacons subordinate to him. This led to the three orders of ministry in the church today; i.e., bishop, priest, deacon. This is called the monarchial episcopate, with the bishop being clearly separated from the priests and deacons. In the year 250 A.D. Eusebius reported that the Bishop of Rome described his church in this way: “there are forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, more than fifteen hundred widows and beggars…”
Early in this period only the bishop presided at eucharist, preached, baptized and gave absolution. Priests and deacons merely helped him out at eucharist. As the communities began to grow in Rome and Alexandria several centers of worship were needed for the vast numbers of people and priests were appointed to take on some of the bishop’s responsibilities.
Ordination procedure from the very beginning was the laying on of hands. For the ordination of a bishop, the other bishops laid on hands; for priests, it was the bishop and other priests; and for a deacon, the bishop alone. For other ministries they were just given the article through which they served the community; i.e., book, keys to the door etc…
D. Ministry and Priesthood-– priests were charged with a sacred function in worship. Bishops like Cyprian chose to remain celibate, but it was not obligatory for ministers in the early church.
E. The ministry of Women–in the New Testament there were women followers of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3) who took part in proclaiming the gospel and in prophecy (Romans 16:1-3; 1 Cor. 11:4-5; Acts 21:9), but it is difficult to find exact parallels with male ministers. There were reservations about the active role of women in congregations (1 Cor 14:34ff); Timothy 2:11-14). An order of widows emerged in the community (1 Timothy 5:3-16) who were dedicated to prayer and visiting the sick. Deaconesses were in existence in Syria and they were the equivalent to deacons in ministry and received the laying on of hands dedicated to ministering to women. Virgins were a distinct group in the community and though their ministry was not clear, there was some overlapping of roles for widows, deaconesses and virgins.
III. Division and Unity between the Churches
A. The church spread throughout the world–a common factor recognized by several early writers was that the church was indeed universal. It was everywhere in the known kingdom. In the East they were most numerous; i.e., Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. In the West they were in Italy, southern Spain, Africa, Yugoslavia, northern Italy and Gaul.
B. The church threatened by unrest and division. The unity of the church was the same throughout the world, but this unity was always threatened. Arguments were over liturgy, forgiveness of apostates and personal rivalries over the episcopal office. Much more serious threats to the church were during the second century a great many doctrines gave rise to rival groups. Were these groups still part of the church? How was the true faith measured? The Jewish Christians wanted to keep at all costs the old special rituals and theologies; i.e., circumcision and food restrictions. Dedicated to monotheism, they wanted Jesus to be no more than a man whom God adopted on the day of his baptism. They were soon treated as heretics.
C. The diversification of groups and sects-Those Christians from the Greek tradition presented the fact of dualism, spirit and body separation, obsessed with the problem of evil, reinterpreted the Old and New Testament in a radically different way. They denied the incarnation and appealed to the knowledge (gnosticism) of God handed down to a special select group. This group had the only knowledge of salvation. This heresy was probably influenced by other pagan religions.
Marcian eliminated from the Bible everything that pertained to God as creator and the incarnation because he believed that matter and the body were evil. Marcian (216-277 A. D.) brought together the absolute dualism of doctrines from Iran and Christianity. The world was a battle ground between God of Goodness (Light) and the God of Evil (Darkness.) These doctrines found fertile ground in people and answered some deep anguish felt by them.
D. The rule of faith-Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in his work Against the Heresies, at the end of the second century described a number of doctrines he thought were in error. He considered the true church the one that followed the path of the apostles and those traditions handed down in the churches through the succession of bishops. He takes great pains to trace the lineage of bishops back to Peter and Paul. Irenaeus, himself, traces his own succession from Polycarp, who spoke to John who had seen the Lord, thus linking him with Jesus.
E. Christian Scriptures–Irenaeus decreed that only those writings handed down through the apostolic succession were to be considered valid. That was tough to distinguish! Until the second century Christians had not stressed what writings were important and which ones were not. For them the Old Testament was a book of writings predicting the coming of Jesus. They sought Jesus from it rather than a history of the Jewish people. The original stories were all oral. If the text were to be considered authentically from the apostles then it had to be attributed to them. Each group had its own Gospel; i.e., Thomas, James, Paul and Peter. Irenaeus said there were only four authentic Gospels; i.e., Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Though there were many other writings around that spoke to Christianity; i.e. Didache; Shepherd of Hermes etc… Only the books considered to be inspired works of God were finally admitted into Canon (criterion) scriptures of the New Testament.
F. The birth of theology–faced with hundreds of doctrines floating around the leaders of the church tried to enlighten Christians as to what the true faith was all about. The accepted writings showed how Christ was the fulfillment of biblical revelation. As they tried to teach orally, so they turned to writing their thoughts down and thus theology is born. In Ignatius’, bishop of Antioch, in the seven letters that we have, he defends the fact that Jesus was a real man, not just the likeness of a man, but truly an historical person of flesh and blood as we. He had all of the trials and temptations of life as did any other man.
1. Origen (185-253 A. D.) dedicated his life to teaching and preaching. He had been assigned to the first catechetical school. He traveled a lot. He was a priest and set up a Christian library in Palestine. He was later martyred by Decian. Much of his writings were destroyed two centuries later because of heresy charges brought against him. But for him Christ was present throughout the Old Testament scripture, as were the church and sacraments. Scripture has three interpretations: a literal one (historical), a moral one and a mystical one (spiritual).
2. Tertullian’s famous phrase “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”. In Latin he first started using words like “Trinity” and “Person ‘in connection with God.
3. Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) was a pagan convert, later a bishop of Carthage. He was in conflict with the Bishop of Rome over the re-admittance of Christians that deserted the faith during the persecutions and he insisted that they be re-baptized. Rome considered their first baptism was the only one that they ever needed. Died a martyr, he left behind a legacy on Christian life; i.e., prayer, alms, clothing… The unity of the church is a sign that it has indeed encountered Christ through the agreement of its bishops amongst themselves.