Teaching & practice

Why Christians should consider the early church...

  1. The book of Acts discusses the birth of the church and the early apostolic church.
  2. John highlights the late apostolic church.
  3. The early church fathers continued with topics such as: martyrs, bishops, Nicene Creed, Canon of Scripture.

This article starts with overviews of various topics and ends with details and info of many topics.


The Modern Church

Should our modern-day church be based on the teaching and practice of the early church? Well, yes and no...

  1. The early church changed (evolved) over time, sometimes rapidly. Which version should we prefer?
  2. Important details are missing from the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers? How should we fill in the gaps?
  3. It was all tangled-up in early heresies, overbearing bishops, Jewish influences, Roman influence, Greek philosophy, the culture of the day (having obvious errors such as slavery, lack of respect for women, corruption, a violent culture).

Most Christians assume one of the following...

  1. Their church uses the same model with the same teachings as the early church.
  2. It doesn't matter what the early church believed and practiced, we now have the Bible as our infallible guide.
  3. The Bible doesn't say much about church governance and practice so we can do it however we want.

So which church of today has the same belief and practice as the early church? The surprising answer — none at all.


Infallibility of the Church 

The apostles emphasized the faith-life and practice of the early church and so should we; it's the cornerstone of Christianity.

The church passed-down the teachings of the apostles (and, therefore, of Jesus). At least until 200 A.D. the church could be trusted (rejecting the heretics), although the overbearing bishops started before this, and the Nicene Creed and Canon of scripture were long after this.


The Stages of the Early Church

What was the early church really like? Many stages...

  1. First 100 days...

    Thousands of new converts who were baptized right away — no year-long catechesis. High energy, doctrinally simple. Limited to Jerusalem — the apostles were all in Jerusalem. Met in the temple for Jewish devotional practices. Church meetings in homes. Those who didn't live in Jerusalem went back home and were pretty much on their own with no leaders at all. Practiced the Eucharist.

  2. After Stephen's martyrdom...

    The apostles stayed in Jerusalem but other leaders left and established communities elsewhere. The norm seems to be the Eucharist in the context of an agape meal. Year-long catechesis for those desiring to become Christians becomes the norm.

  3. Beyond Jerusalem...

    Leaders who had been taught by the apostles led their small local band of Christians. Many variations of belief and practice. Occasionally an apostle would appear and correct problems. We see from the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation that each local church had its own distinct identity. Some local churches had severe problems.

  4. Bishops...

    The apostles noticed the purity of Christ's teaching was being diluted and lost. They began training, certifying, and ordaining bishops. Bishops were to (1) teach the true gospel, and (2) provide unity for Christians.

  5. Patriarchates...

    Larger cities and cities with an apostle began to have more authority than other areas.

  6. Heretics...

    But alas, bishops began teaching untrue doctrines. Local Christian communities had to choose whether to follow their heretical local bishop or not. Most of the time the Christians at large didn't even know their bishop was a heretic.

  7. Unity...

    The early church was truly an "ecumenical" church. There were no defined dogmas, no scripture, no creeds. Each local church had its own character and practice.

  8. Standards of faith and practice...

    Finally creeds developed. Writings from the apostles were read during the church service. Doctrines were developed.

It seems to me there were many problems with the early church. For Christians who happened to live where there was an orthodox bishop and a devout Christian community, their Christian life must have been awesome.


Revisionism

Sadly, not everything taught about the early church is actually true. Various distortions of the truth...

Revisionism and errors by Catholics...

  1. Apostolic succession
  2. Hierarchical bishops
  3. Sacraments
  4. Priesthood
  5. Papacy
  6. Marriage a sacrament
  7. Confirmation
  8. Holy Orders
  9. Healing via anointing
  10. Confession
  11. Faith Passed-down from the Apostles

Revisionism and errors by Protestants...

  1. The state should control and manage the church
  2. Dictatorial church-states such as Calvin's Geneva
  3. Faith only, with works having no role in salvation
  4. Scripture only
  5. Many others... But note: the Protestant Reformation (revolution) occurred nearly 1,500 years after the birth of the Church. It hardly qualifies for discussion of the early church.

More details about these topics later in this article...


The Early Church

Here's what it really taught about some key topics...

  1. Baptism
  2. Eucharist
  3. Bishops
  4. And many more...

A few obvious points about the early church...


Part 2 — More Info

The remainder of this article highlights what the early church fathers taught and didn't teach about various topics.

I emphasize what the early church taught and believed, discounting doctrines requiring centuries to appear and long times to develop (Catholic examples: Papacy, priesthood, laity vs. clergy, apostolic succession). And we should reject Protestant doctrines requiring novel biblical interpretations that did not appear for centuries (examples: justification/sanctification, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide).


Baptism...

The early church believed, taught, and practiced the following...

Some aspects of baptism appear very early...

Variations...

Conclusion: The Protestant notion that baptism is merely an act done in obedience is false. Baptism is a sacrament and results in the remission of sins for those who are properly disposed.


Eucharist...

The early church believed, taught, and practiced the following...

The modern Catholic teaching of transubstantiation was not taught by the early church fathers. The following factors were present very early...

These factors didn't appear until later...

Conclusion: The Eucharist was passed-down by the apostles and it was more than merely symbolic (as many Protestants teach).


Bishops...

The early church emphasized that Christians should unite around their bishop and obey their bishop. They were not to have church services without the bishop being present.

This implies the bishop was interacting with a small group of people. The church services must have been rather small since they were held in people's homes.

I believe there is an assumption in all of this which is usually never stated, but I will state it. Bishops are only true bishops if they are orthodox in their beliefs and teaching, if they are holy, and if they have a pastor's heart. I can't believe that the various early church fathers who discuss this topic ever intended for Christians to unite around heretical, faithless, or corrupt bishops.

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? (2 Corinthians 13:5)

How can someone who doesn't have Christ in them confect the Eucharist?

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:13)

Therefore, "bad" bishops are not really bishops at all — they should be rejected by Christians as not fit to be their leaders. This is what the Protestant Reformers did.

Some New Testament passages to support this view...

Because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. (Romans 11:20-22)

The vine is the church, the chosen people of God, which includes Old Testament Israel.

Notice that people are members of the church based on their faith. This includes bishops.

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. (Revelation 2:5)

The candlestick refers to a local church, diocese, patriarchate, or metropolitan headed-up by a bishop. If the bishop is a "bad" bishop and does not repent, he is removed — he is no longer a valid bishop. This does not occur necessarily by excommunication.


Apostolic Succession...

The doctrine of apostolic succession is a cornerstone of Catholic teaching. If it's flawed the whole structure collapses.

The Catholic Church teaches that Catholic bishops of today can trace their ordination in an unbroken chain to the apostles, but I have never heard anyone provide any evidence of whether or not this actually occurred — it is merely assumed.

The Old Testament nation of Israel was very concerned with lineage and kept detailed records — some fill pages of scripture. Yet I've never heard of such a list of Catholic ordinations. There is a list of pope succeeding pope (ignoring that many times there were multiple popes simultaneously with no easy way to be certain which was the "true" pope and which the imposter. And for the early popes it seems that the list was created after the fact — historical revisionism.)

Consider these factors...

Certainly the apostle Paul ordained Timothy who ordained a new batch of bishops. But after that we are never sure if the chain was not broken somewhere, likely many times. Once there is a missing ordination in the chain, apostolic succession is broken and can't be repaired.

Another factor. The purpose of ordination in the apostolic era was to designate bishops with these characteristics...

Why would there be any value in ordaining a heretic, or a corrupt person, or a spiritually lukewarm person, or a materialistic aristocrat, or a radical sinner? There is no point at all. Yet the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession includes many such as these as key links in the chain.

In my view, these "bad" bishops should be crossed off the list of valid bishops — a bad bishop is no bishop at all except in name only.

Therefore, I conclude that ordination does not need to be via a chain of apostolic succession. Any person who meets the criteria of a bishop and who dedicates their life to the task is already a valid bishop whether they are ordained or not. It is not the act of ordaining them that makes them a true bishop. There are New Testament examples of people who were great Christian leaders and who were only after the fact recognized as such via ordination.

An example: the Arian heresy. There were so many validly-ordained bishops fully committed to this heresy. Some even executed dissenters when they could get away with it. Was the Christian flock supposed to follow such men as these just as if they were following Christ? Unthinkable. The doctrine of apostolic succession harms Christians and harms the church.

Certainly the church eventually stamped out the Arian heresy but only after many generations of Christians were fooled by it. The whole point of ordination is to guide the flock of Christians into all truth and to advance the kingdom. Ordination by apostolic succession does not do this.

In the first few generations of the church the concept of apostolic succession made some sense. But over time it became less useful and more harmful. Just as the bronze serpent on the pole of Moses became harmful over time, apostolic succession outlived its purpose many, many centuries ago.

Ordination cannot make bad men into valid bishops, they must be virtuous and orthodox.


Sacraments...

The sacramental system with 7 sacraments did not appear early. Certainly the word "sacrament" appears early but seems to merely mean the concept that physical objects in some way can have a role in the way God graces us. Baptism appears very early in the writings of the early church fathers and is clearly a sacrament. The other sacraments are later developments.

I only partially accept the teaching about sacraments of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. God seeks opportunities to bless us and uses our words, gestures, rites, rituals, ceremonies, etc. as occasions for blessing us. In general we must have faith and be living a holy life to receive God's blessings although he can bless anyone any time. Therefore, the sacraments are opportunities to receive God's blessings.

But the sacramental system is not clear from scripture nor from the writings of the early church fathers and, therefore, I reject it.

My views on each sacrament...

One thing is clear. All these doctrines developed over time, some radically so. Many were simply non-existent early. Others were present in an embryonic form early but didn't blossom for centuries.


Priesthood...

The concept of the priesthood developed along with the Eucharist.


Papacy...

The modern Catholic doctrines of the papacy do not appear early. It is true that the Roman church was considered to be a source of orthodoxy, perhaps because Peter and Paul fashioned this church to be orthodox. But at first, only the bishops of Rome insisted that the "pope" (bishop of Rome) had powers beyond other bishops. After this, bishops started to agree (but many didn't). The Orthodox church never agreed.

An early interpretation of the "Peter the rock" passage...

Conclusion: The Catholic view of the papacy developed significantly over time but its seeds appear very early.


Marriage...

There was no sacrament of matrimony in the early church. This developed later. All marriages were considered to be permanent and divorce was not allowed (except in the case of adultery, or a non-Christian spouse who left a new convert to Christianity).

Conclusion: The Catholic Church developed the idea that marriage is a sacrament much later.


Confirmation...

No evidence from the early church fathers.

Conclusion: This doctrine developed slowly. Today there are differences between the Catholic view and the Orthodox view.


Holy Orders...

It is true that ministers were acknowledged as being validly ordained via the laying-on of hands by fellow bishops. However, this was not considered a sacrament until much later. The purpose of acknowledging who was a valid church leader was to preserve sound doctrine. Bishops were ordained by fellow bishops and there was no pope until much later. Bishops were selected by their local congregations. There were bishops who were not ordained until long after they were considered bishops by their congregations.

Conclusion: Much has changed regarding ordination since the times of the early church. These modern teachings of the Catholic Church were not merely handed-down by the apostles. The early flexibility has since become very rigid and formalized.


Healing, anointing of sick...

There was no such sacrament until much later.

Conclusion: The Catholic Church added the idea that anointing of the sick is a sacrament much later.


Confession...

The Catholic sacrament of confession does not appear in the early church. Here is what does appear...

Certainly there was no sacrament of confession (reconciliation) via a private confession to a priest as is now taught by the Catholic Church.


Faith Passed-down from the Apostles...

The Catholic Church claims to have handed-down the teachings of the apostles. Certainly some of the teachings of the Catholic Church are those which were handed-down by the apostles, but many are not. For example, the doctrine of the assumption of Mary was not handed-down from the apostles.

Origen, in 185–254 A.D., specifies which particular doctrines were passed-down by the apostles. His list doesn't contain the various doctrines specific to the Catholic Church. Yet he seems to indicate that all current doctrines of his day were passed-down by the apostles. This implies that all the others were added later. His list contains only those which I consider to be essential doctrines.