An Evangelical Christian once told a friend of mine that he had left the Catholic Church to join the Evangelicals because the Evangelicals are practicing early Christianity — that is, they are simply getting down to the business of being Christian without all the complicated stuff that goes on in the Catholic Church.
The only authority they have is the Bible, and the only requirements they place on their members is that they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and live accordingly. Baptism is done, but only as a symbol, not as a sacrament. Thus, they have gotten back to the essentials, and they believe this bare-bones type of Christianity is the very same Christianity that was practiced by the earliest Christians who received the faith directly from the apostles.
In a world where every little church down the road, and some large ones also, is hanging out a shingle that reads “Christians R Us,” the Evangelicals’ spin on this message in that they match the original article, the early Christian faith. Catholicism, in accordance with this theory, is wrong because it abandoned early Christianity and represents a later, altered form of the faith that resulted when Christians got involved with the Roman empire and incorporated pagan practices into Christian worship.
This is thought to be true especially from the time when Roman Emperors began to dabble in Church business in the fourth century, with Constantine presiding over the Council of Nicaea in 325, and the Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the state religion toward the end of that same century. As I told my friend at the time, there are a few things that come to mind immediately upon hearing such an assertion.
The first is that the Evangelical claim to have resurrected early Christianity probably stems more from a defensive than an offensive posture. Unlike the Catholic Church, which can name its bishops and popes from present days all the way back to the days of the apostles, the Evangelicals cannot trace their form of Christianity back more than a few hundred years. If they are to avoid the charge that they are a deviation from historical Christianity, they almost have to claim that they are practicing early Christianity.
The second thing to note is that, even if one accepts the claim that Evangelicals are practicing early Christianity, this does not explain why there is no history of Evangelical Christians in the first 1,500 years that followed apostolic times. They say Evangelical Christians were submerged or subsumed by Roman Catholicism. They were always present, though, and now in the modern world they have resurfaced.
The problems with hypothesizing that the real Christians were virtually invisible for a millennium and a half, while millions of Christians who called themselves Catholic lived and died for the faith and spread the gospel throughout the world, is beyond the scope of this article. One cannot prove that Evangelical Christians did not exist during the Middle Ages, any more than one cannot prove the Phoenicians were not the first sailors to sail their ships to America, but, everyone should at least admit that such theories require a lot of believing.
Finally, there is another, more decisive response to the Evangelical claim to be practicing early Christianity, which is that such a claim can be tested against what is known about early Christianity. Long before the Roman Empire came under the rule of Christian emperors, back in the days when the Empire was persecuting Christians, the Christian pastors who were left in charge of the churches founded by the apostles wrote letters which have been preserved to this day.
These documents serve as a direct source of what early Christianity was like. They are particularly insightful on how the Church was run because they were written not by missionaries who were off spreading the gospel to new areas, but by men who were the first to stay put and run the Church on a day-to-day basis. These men were the first- full time working pastors. Their letters describe church structure, authority, and forms of worship.
The men who wrote these letters lived during the first, second, and third centuries, but, since the issue at hand is to discover the earliest forms of Christianity based directly on the teaching of the apostles, we will focus on two of the earliest writers, both of whom lived in apostolic times. Each of these men knew at least one the apostles personally, and each was a pastor of one of the churches founded by the apostles.
Before going on, it should be noted that these men were precisely the types of Christians whom Evangelicals assumed were later submerged under the structure of Catholicism. They lived and died for Christ. As will be seen, they were not submerged at all, but were out front in the establishment of Christianity.
The first, Clement, was ordained by Peter. I would caution the reader not to think that the existence of Clement is a piece of Catholic myth inserted into history at a latter date. His letter as the pastor of the Church of Rome (he would call himself a bishop), written to the Corinthians, has been historically authenticated as a first-century document, and his ordination by Peter was a fact accepted by other early Christians long centuries before there was any controversy between Protestants and Catholics.
In the letter that comes down to us from Clement, he is writing around the year 96 as the bishop of the Church of Rome to restore peace in the Corinthian community. The Corinthians were involved in another row that scandalized even their pagan neighbors. Some of the Corinthian Christians, through “jealousy and envy,” took it upon themselves to dispose of some of the Church officials in defiance of Church authority.
Clement writes with firm authority, but also with gentleness and love: “We are writing this, beloved, not merely for your admonition, but also to serve as a reminder to ourselves, for we are in the same arena and face the same conflict. Let us, then, give up those empty and futile.aspirations, and turn to the glorious and venerable rule of our tradition.”
He calls on them to remember that is was through jealousy that death entered the world with Cain and Abel and that jealousy “caused Jacob’s flight from his brother Esau .. . Joseph to be persecuted . . . Moses to flee . . . when he heard his fellow tribesman say: ‘Who has appointed you to be ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?'”
He calls them back to peace and order and reminds them that “each of us, brethren, must in his own place endeavor to please God with a good conscience, reverently taking care not to deviate from the established rule of service.” He reminds them that “the head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head . . . the smallest organs of the body are necessary and valuable to the whole body.”
In all this Clement is reminding them of the structure of the Church, and his description of that structure is worth repeating in its entirety:
“The apostles preached to us the gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God’s ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate from the will of God.
“And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached, and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers. And this was no innovation.”
He goes on to say, “Our apostles, too, were given to understand by our Lord Jesus Christ that the office of bishop would give rise to intrigues. For this reason, equipped as they were with perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the men mentioned before and afterwards laid down a rule once for all to this effect: When these men die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry.”
Clement holds his belief in a hierarchical Church as a tradition, which means that it predates the time in which he writing. Furthermore, he assumes that this tradition is intended to continue through time for all future Christians.
When he talks about the liturgy of the Eucharist, again, we find ordered structure and a traditional rule: “We are obliged to carry out in fullest detail what the Master has commanded us to do at stated times. He has ordered the sacrifices to be offered and the services to be held, and this not in a random and irregular fashion, but at definite times and season. He has, moreover by his sovereign will determined where and by whom he wants them to be carried out.”
This liturgy is inextricably bound to the hierarchy of the Church: “Special functions are assigned to the high priest; a special office is imposed upon the priests, and special ministrations fall to the Levites. The layman is bound by the rules laid down for the laity.”
So we find out from a man who learned his faith from the apostles themselves, who was ordained by Peter, that the early Church recognized as a rule of tradition the existence bishops, deacons, and laymen and that the authority of the Church descends from God through Christ by way of the apostles to the bishops. It is a sacramental Church that adheres to a strict liturgy for the “sacrifices to be offered and the services to be held.”
It is a scriptural Church, and Clement cites Scripture as a source of truth on almost every page, but it is also a Church of Tradition. Clement sees no conflict between Scripture and Tradition, but rather appeals to both as sources of truth. He puts into practice Paul’s admonition, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
This is the earliest written description of the Church in the West. The next earliest letters come, perhaps providentially, from the East, written by Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, in Syria sometime around the year 110. Here too is a man whose life overlapped the lives of the apostles, who is believed to have personally known the apostle John. He is the bishop of a church founded by the apostles, a church where Barnabas, Peter, and Paul preached.
Seven of his letters have been authenticated by both Protestant and Catholic scholars. They are not letters of admonition, as was Clement’s, but letters of farewell to friends and Christian communities. Ignatius wrote his letters while he was being taken as an old man in chains to Rome for execution.
The letters are not sad, or maudlin, or fearful. They are full of joy and apostolic zeal. He is a true athlete for Christ, and he considers it a great honor “to be crunched by the teeth of wild beasts” for sake of the faith. He writes to strengthen his fellow Christians in sticking to the one true faith. His primary aim is to keep intact the teachings of historical Christianity as handed down by the apostles, who themselves had received them from Christ.
He tells his fellow Christians “not to yield to the bait of false doctrine, but to believe most steadfastly in the birth, the Passion, the Resurrection, which took place during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate.” He calls for unity. “Let there be nothing among you tending to divide you,” but always be “united with the bishop and those who preside.”
Like Clement, he sees that truth resides in the apostolic succession, from Christ to the apostles and from the apostles to the bishops, and he writes of this to each community, not as something new, but as a reminder that this is the mark of the Church in harmony with God.
To the Magnesians he says, “Just as the Lord, therefore, being one with the Father, did nothing without him, either by himself or through the apostles, so neither must you undertake anything without the bishop and the presbyters.”
In his letter to the Trallians he says, “It is needful, then– and such is your practice–that you do nothing without your bishop; but be subject also to the presbytery as representing the apostles of Jesus Christ.”
A little later in the same letter he says, “Likewise, let all respect the deacons as representing Jesus Christ, the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s high council and as the apostolic college. Apart from these, no church deserves the name.”
To the Smyrnaeans he says, “You must follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment. Let no one do anything touching the Church apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
All this is written by a man who lived in the days of the apostles and who knew John. He was no bureaucrat, but a man on fire for Christ who would tell you in no uncertain terms that you “must either believe in the Blood of Christ or else face damnation ” For him it is the facts of Christianity that count: that Christ is “really of the line of David,” that he “was really born of a virgin . . . really nailed to the cross in the flesh for our sake . . . and he suffered really, as he also really raised himself from the dead.”
Among these facts of Christianity, Ignatius includes the fact that the body of Christ is really in the Eucharist. He says that heretics withhold themselves from the Eucharist because “they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
So the Church as described by Ignatius in letters to seven Christian communities is the same hierarchical, sacramental Church as described by Clement. There is one noteworthy difference between the letters of Ignatius and that of Clement, and that is that Clement, as the bishop of the Rome, clearly feels he has the authority to intervene in the affairs of a sister church.
His letter was sent not to negotiate in the dispute, but to resolve it. The delegation which delivers it will wait for an immediate reply, and Clement tells the ones who are causing the schism “to submit to the presbyters, and, bending the knees of your hearts, accept correction and change your minds . . . But should any disobey what has been said by him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgression and no small danger.”
Catholics see this as the first action of the bishop of Rome taken to resolve a dispute in another community. This is a pattern which will be repeated again and again through history and will result in the saying that resolved disputes in the coming centuries: “Rome has spoken.”
So what does this mean for Evangelicals today? It means that what they are doing, believing in Jesus and following his teaching, sharing fellowship and spreading the gospel without liturgical, sacramental, and hierarchical structures, no matter how wonderful, no matter how good, is simply not early Christianity.
Neither is it Bible Christianity, because all these offices of authority are found in Scripture, as are the early creeds and hymns of the liturgy and the belief that the Eucharist is the very body of Christ. For those who may be incredulous, a good start for rediscovering these facts is to reread the entire first letter to Timothy, then Acts, then the Gospel of John, and then all the rest of Paul’s letters.
The next thin g that Evangelicals should do, if they really want to know how the early Christians operated, is to read the letters of Clement and Ignatius. If the goal is know what the early Christians were like, then these letters should be read without prejudice. I think if Evangelicals took the time to do this they would be in for a pleasant surprise at how much they have in common with these early Christians.
In fact, one can imagine that if a first century Christian such as Ignatius were brought back to earth and set down in the midst of an Evangelical gathering, he would like the Evangelicals immediately, and they in turn would love him. They could share their knowledge of Scripture, their experiences in evangelization, and their love for Jesus Christ. and Ignatius would recognize in them a true zeal for Christ, not unlike his own.
The Evangelicals would press him to tell them what his life was like — what it was like to know John, and what it was like to be arrested by Roman soldiers. What was it like, they would want to know, when he stepped into the great Colosseum, feeling the grit of the sand under his sandals and hearing the shouts of the crowd as he went to be martyred for his Savior?
The conversation would be lively and long, with much love and mutual admiration. But, as the evening and the words would eventually ebb, one can imagine also that this venerable old man, who was a child at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, who had grown to maturity when the apostles were preaching, who had dedicated his life to Jesus, who had seen the very beginnings of the Church, would eventually look at the bright, shinning faces of his newly-found Evangelical friends and ask, “So, where is your bishop?” In the ensuing silence, at least the lapsed Catholics among them would know the answer.