Church history is not generally a popular subject. In his book, From Christ to Constantine, M A Smith says, “The only church history many Christians know ends with the death of the Apostle John in about 100 AD and resumes with Martin Luther and the Reformation in 1517”. Yet A M Renwick says, “The history of the Church is simply an account of its success and its failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature and to teach all nations”. (2)
The historical situation in the Roman Empire at the very beginning of the Christian Church points to the fact that “a supreme mind had been preparing the field and that now all was ready for proclaiming to many nations the good tidings of salvation”. (3) We may mention four factors: (1) The political unity of the Roman Empire, which included much of the known world. As one writer says, “Everywhere, from the banks of the Euphrates to the shores of the Atlantic, from the German Rhine to the Egyptian Nile there was nothing but Rome. There was one sceptre, one law and, more and more, one form of civilisation and of social life”. (4) (2) A long period of peace had fostered commerce and travel. Merchants travelled all over the Roman world on excellent roads, and these same roads were to help in carrying the gospel. (3) The conquests of Alexander the Great spread the Greek language far and wide. It had become the spoken language of the educated classes throughout the Roman Empire, and the translation of the Old Testament into Greek about 200 BC brought many philosophers and thinkers into contact with the Word of God for the first time. (4) By means of their frequent dispersions, the Jews were found in scattered colonies throughout the Roman world. In every considerable city or town of the Empire there was a Jewish synagogue, Jewish worship, and a mixed congregation of Jews and native proselytes. “Everywhere the synagogue was the cradle of the Church.” (5)
For the purposes of this paper, we may regard Christian Church history as beginning with the Day of Pentecost. It is difficult to assess the strength of the Church at the time of the Saviour’s ascension, but it is safe to say that it was still a little flock. We know that on one occasion 500 brethren were assembled around their risen Lord, and it is highly probable that this was the grand total of the body of believers in Israel. To put this into perspective we may quote Burns again: “The whole multitude to whom the departing Saviour bade farewell was probably no larger than a single congregation of Christian worshippers of the present day”. (6) Though written in 1880 in Glasgow, when congregations were much larger than they are today, this statement illustrates the strength of the Church at the beginning. This should make it obvious that the Church was no human organization and that it was not by human power or energy that Christians were so soon afterwards described as “these that have turned the world upside down”. In reaction to the progress and influence of the Church we can only exclaim, “The wonderful works of God”.
I propose to deal with the early Christian Church in its first 300 years under these headings: (1) The era of conquest, (2) The era of conflict, (3) The era of consolidation. These periods are not mutually exclusive, for there was conflict from the beginning, as the Saviour told His disciples while still with them: “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2). Equally, there were conquests at all times insofar as sinners here and there were converted, and so added to the Church, in the midst of conflict and compromise.
The Era of Conquest: The events of the day of Pentecost are set out graphically, but scripturally, in this quotation: “It is ten days since the ascension of the Lord. It is the first day of the week, the second return of that sacred morning since the Saviour’s departure. The disciples were, as usual, assembled for common prayer when suddenly there is a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind filling all the place where they are sitting, and cloven tongues like as of fire descend and rest upon each of them. A new spirit is breathed upon the assembly and stirs and kindles every heart. They open their mouths together and speak as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. The report of a spectacle so strange soon spreads, and a vast concourse is speedily assembled composed both of native Jews and of devout proselytes from every quarter of the civilized world.” (7) It was to this assembly that Peter preached the sermon recorded in Acts 2. The same writer also comments: “Peter rose up and, in a spirit widely different from that which a few days before quailed before the maid in the judgement hall, boldly preached Christ”. (8) He preached “repentance towards God and faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ”. Many were pricked in their hearts and cried out “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” The inspired Scriptures tell us that on this day 3000 believed, confessed and were baptized. The history of the New Testament Church had begun.
The New Testament Church was not the creature of circumstances or of education or of human effort, but of the power and working of the Holy Spirit. It has been noted that the New Testament Church was catholic, or universal, from its beginning. In that gathering on the day of Pentecost, there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia and in Judea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians” (Acts 2:10). This was just the beginning, for, some time after this, we read: “Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed, and the number of the men was about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). And later on, in Acts 5: “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women”. The gospel spread quickly first throughout Judea. But even at this early stage, the enmity of the Sadducees was stirred up by the disciples preaching the resurrection from the dead. This is why Peter and John were imprisoned after the miraculous healing of the lame man.
The first notable persecution followed the martyrdom of Stephen in 36 AD, but what was designed for the ruin of the Church was overruled by God for good. As we read in Acts 8: “At that time there was a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria except the apostles”. But we read also: “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word”. As one writer has remarked: “The movement hitherto confined within the walls of Jerusalem was extended over the whole of Palestine”. (9) The gospel also spread to Samaria, as it is recorded: “The people with one accord gave heed unto the things which Philip spake . . . and there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:6,8). Most of the Acts of the Apostles is about the spread of the gospel. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus was a notable event, but it is so well known that it needs no comment.
At first, most of the converts to Christianity were Jews or proselytes, but when Peter was commanded to go in to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and preach the gospel to him and his household, a new era had dawned. Some regarded this as a departure from the accepted practice, but after Peter had explained his conduct to the brethren at Jerusalem, they “glorified God, saying, Then hath God also granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Shortly afterwards, disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene, “spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them; and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-1). This was the beginning of the Church at Antioch. It has been said that Antioch was the first mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles united together in holy fellowship in Christ, and thus formed the germ of the whole catholic, or universal, Church throughout the world. It is significant that the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. This was at first a term of ridicule, but it was soon adopted by friend and foe alike. Disciples of Jesus were not called brethren or saints – names that seemed to indicate a particular class or sect of the old Jewish religion. They were called Christians – followers of Christ, the anointed Prophet, Priest and King of the human race promised of old and set forth in the fullness of time, not to the glory of Israel alone, but to be for salvation to the ends of the earth.
About four or five years after the establishment of the congregation at Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were called by the Lord, and appointed by the Church, to be missionaries. For the next 20 years, Paul carried on his missionary journeys, first concentrating on Asia Minor (now Turkey). From there he travelled on to Greece and established churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus, so that churches were founded in many of the leading cities of the Roman world, including Rome itself, before his arrest in Jerusalem. It must be borne in mind, however, that Paul came to Rome as a prisoner, following his appeal to Caesar in the court of Festus as recorded in Acts 25. We must not think of the spread of Christianity as solely the work of Paul but, after the end of Luke’s narrative in the Acts of the Apostles, there is very little to give a clear picture of what happened. It would appear from Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (4:12,13) that Laodicea, Hierapolas and Colosse received the gospel from Epaphras, of whom we know little further.
Historians who have studied the period all agree with the statement: “All we know of Peter forbids us to think that he was less active than Paul. His eager, impulsive heart would keep him constantly engaged in his master’s business all his days.” (10) Peter was pre-eminently the Apostle of the Jews, and this would have led him to the great cities of the Empire, where large numbers of his countrymen were to be found. From Peter’s epistles we gather that there were groups of believers in places unvisited by Paul, among whom Peter may have ministered. Some have concluded from Peter’s allusion to the church that is at Babylon that he extended his missionary labours to the Jews of the dispersion eastwards to Babylonia, where we know there were numerous Jewish communities. One writer says, “It is true, however, that, even if he was in Rome, he was not there long. The Romish tradition that he spent a large portion of his life there and occupied its episcopal see is simply a baseless fiction contradicted by every fact we know of his history.” (11) This is not just the testimony of one writer but of all reliable historians, for example: “Apostles were not settled in one place like diocesan bishops. Indeed, at that time and for long afterwards, there were no such bishops. It is therefore incorrect to speak of Rome as the See of Peter, or of the Pope as occupying the chair of Peter”. (12) Many questions must remain unanswered but we would like to know, for instance, how Apollos first heard of Jesus in Alexandria, how Priscilla and Acquila were converted before they left Rome and how, at such an early period, there were believers in Cyrene (now Libya).
It is correct to speak of the first era of the Christian Church as an era of conquest. Though believers were as yet in the minority even in areas where much missionary work had been carried out, there were Christian congregations in many of the main cities of the Roman Empire. It has been asserted that, even at this early stage of the Christian Church, there were believers in Britain. All this had started as the work of a small band of men who had few supporters; they neither had material resources or the help of governments. One can only conclude that their success in spreading the gospel was the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in them, and working also in their hearers to turn them from darkness to light. Burns writes, “A mysterious influence everywhere attended the preaching of the new religion. The hand of the Lord was with them, and great multitudes believed and turned to the Lord. Old systems and superstitions crumbled before it and, more wonderfully still, sinners forsook their sins and turned in repentance and newness of life to God. Before the first generation [of believers] had passed away there was scarcely a nation of the then known world where the joyful sound had not been published and where it had not won its trophies of grace.” (13)
1. The first part of a paper given at last year’s Theological Conference.
2. A M Renwick and A M Harman, The Story of the Church, p 8.
3. Renwick and Harman, p 11.
4. Islay Burns, The First Three Christian Centuries, p 20.
5. Burns, p 21.
6. P 24.
7. Burns, p 25.
8. Burns, p 26.
9. Burns, p 30.
10. Renwick and Harman, p 14.
11. Burns, p 39.
12. Renwick and Harman, p 15.
13. P 48.