The Church from Jesus to Constantine (Church Who, What, How?)
The Vision of Christ for the Church
Jesus referred to the church twice, Matthew 16:18 and 18:17.
Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Matthew 18:17 (ESV)
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
So what exactly did Jesus mean when He said He would build His church?
- Old Testament ancestry - At its core the church is a gathering of God’s people. An important theme in Scripture is the work of God to gather a people for Himself.
- Genesis 12:2-3 - the call of Abraham
- Exodus 6:7, 19 and 20 - In the Exodus story we literally see God “pull out” a group of people who would establish their identity in worship, morality, and in civic life according to His ways. In their days, their moral codes, their ethics, and in their worship habits Israel was to identify themselves with Him.
- The New Testament word for church is the Greek term ekklaesia. The word is used 114x in the New Testament and is translated 109x as the word church. Ekklaesia literally means “the called out ones.” Prefix ekk - means from or out of. Kaleo - means to call.
- Greek context - In Greek life an ekklaesia most often referred to as a civic organization or society of people who had decided to gather around a common cause. They would agree to adhere to a common creed, set of organizing principles, and purpose.
- When Jesus used the word ekklaesia (church) then, He referred to:
- The continuing work of God to call a people unto Himself.
- Those who He would redeem.
- Those who would adhere to His teachings.
- Those who would agree to accomplish His purpose.
- In the Greek sense, a fraternity or society of people defined by Him. The church is literally the Jesus Society - a group of people who subscribe to His teachings and seek to fulfill His purposes. In the historical context in which Jesus is speaking His hearers would have made an immediate connection between the Greek idea of ekklaesia and Jesus’ claiming it as “my” church - my ekklaesia.
- There is no New Testament understanding of the word “church” as it refers to a gathering place or a worship ritual. Whether the term was used in Greek life or the Biblical text, the term church always refers to a distinctive group of people. Church is not where we go or what we do, church is who we are.
The Apostolic Church
Jesus’ reference to the church has an obvious future aspect. So when did the church begin? In His parting talks it is apparent that Jesus is preparing His closest followers, the apostles, for a critical mission. This mission would come through great trial, but it would also come with great help. Jesus told His apostles that the Holy Spirit would become a comforter and a helper to them. John 14 - 17 are critical passages to understanding the role of the Holy Spirit and the task of the apostles after Jesus’ departure.
Other key texts come from Luke; Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:6-11. These texts teach us that the inauguration of the work of the Christ followers and their new relationship to the Holy Spirit was soon coming. Before any work would commence the apostles and disciples were instructed to wait in Jerusalem. Once the Holy Spirit came, their work would begin.
The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit is shared in Acts 2. The church, in its apostolic sense, was born on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. The rest of the New Testament then, particularly the Book of Acts and the epistles, gives us important insight into the development of the church. Some important themes begin to emerge:
- The church would engage in a distinct task of taking the gospel global (Acts 1:8).
- The church would subscribe to a distinct set of doctrines that centered upon the identity of Christ which includes: defense of Him as Messiah to the Jews, proclamation of Him as a global Savior to the Gentiles, defense of His bodily resurrection, and application of His teachings as authoritative in the lives of His followers.
- As the church spread, its people would express shared life in Christ through continuance in the apostle’s teaching, baptism, communion, and distribution of material wealth through offerings and contributions for the purpose of missions, support, and benevolence (Acts 2, 4, 5, Romans 6, 15, 1 Cor. 11, 16, Ephesians 4, Col. 2, 1 Peter 3).
These shared distinctives would not come without great challenge. The three main threats to the purity of the apostolic church were:
- Persecution – Therefore the church had to endure.
- Corruption – Therefore the church had to be faithful to exercise discipline (Acts 5), to preaching/teaching (Titus 2), and to study (1 and 2 Timothy).
- Attrition – Therefore the church had to be committed (Acts 2, 4, Heb. 10:19ff).
It is also important to note that as the church spread and developed it organized. In many people there is resentment towards “organized” religion. This resentment is often expressed along with a romanticized ideal that the apostolic/New Testament church was raw, bohemian and resistant to organization. This is not the New Testament picture. In the Apostolic church, clearly we see:
- Leadership (Acts 6, Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, 1 Peter 2)
- Localization (the address of the epistles themselves, also seen in the movement of the gospel in Acts)
- Accountability both financially and doctrinally (note several episodes in Acts especially in distribution, missions, and in Gentile conversion as well as the closing statements of several epistles).
As a collective witness of the New Testament we see an important theme emerge concerning the church. The major question concerning the church became “who?” Who are the people of God? Who is the church? This question was not only answered by initiation:
- Repentance of sin and faith in Christ as Savior
- Clearly exhibited indwelling of the Holy Spirit
The question was also answered by continuance:
- Devotion to Jesus teaching (kerygma) and apostolic doctrine (didache)
- Continued identity with the church
- Participation in the mission
- Moral purity
Those who did not continue were not considered to have eternal life (1 John 2:19).
The Early Church (@90 AD - 325 AD/451 AD)
Whenever we speak of the Early Church we measure its beginning by its apostolic successors and end the period approximately at the Council of Nicaea 325 A.D. Some would end the period at Chalcedon (451 AD). When we speak of this period then, we are speaking roughly of the church’s first 500 years. This period is also referred to as the Patristic period which is a term that notes the men who led this early period. These men are commonly called the Church Fathers or its patriarchs (latin - pater), hence the term patristic.
Characteristics of the era:
- Succession - This period is led by men who succeeded the apostles. Many of them exhibit a relationship to the apostles such as Polycarp (70-155) who had a relationship to John. Their writings are critical as they exhibit that the early church:
- Saw the teachings of Christ and the writings of the apostles as authoritative as they referred to them often and used them as base texts for their teaching (refer to Papias 60-130, Clement of Rome 30-100, The Didache).
- Continued to organize and especially took the issue of leadership seriously. For the church to succeed it must continue in the authority given to it by Christ through the apostles (refer to Clement of Rome 30-100).
- Heresy - Heresy was an issue even before the death of the apostles. The most notable challenge being the identity of Christ. The most common strain of heresy came through the teachings of the Gnostics. We see their influence greatly upon the writings of John, in both his gospel and epistles, as it is clear in his choice of terms that he is refuting their teachings. In short Gnosticism was a fusion of Greek philosophy with Christian thought. The end result was an understanding of the spiritual and material world that did serious damage to the person of Christ. Gnostics did not see Christ as God in the flesh (as this was impossible due to the evil nature of flesh), but rather Jesus was a human being who achieved “gnosis (the Greek word for knowledge). As a man achieving gnosis he lived as the supreme example of what man is to achieve. In the Gnostic system there is no understanding of the atoning death of Christ, His suffering, or His resurrection. As such the orthodox understanding of salvation, sin, creation, the fall, most all Christian doctrines are distorted heavily or lost altogether.
The Patristic period is noted for the important documents generated during the era. From the Gnostics came a series of psuedographic (false names) writing. During this period it was common to write under the name of an apostle or early follower of Christ so that one’s statements were lent instant credibility. The discovery of Nag Hammadi (@ 50 documents discovered in Egypt 1945) revealed the nature of these early Gnostic writings. In the Nag Hammadi we find documents such as the gospel of Thomas, The Secret Book of John, The Gospel of Mary, etc. Currently one will see documentaries aired on The History Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic reporting these documents as “lost gospels.” The charge is that there was a conspiracy to leave these documents out of the New Testament cannon. Had they been accepted, they would certainly have given us a much different picture of Christ. The Nag Hammadi also serve as the plot of the popular book and film The DaVinci Code. What is important to note here is that these writings were NEVER accepted by the early church and are proven to have appeared at least 200+ years after Christ (compared to the gospels and New Testament epistles which were completed within 60 years after the resurrection). If there is any positive to heresy it inspires orthodoxy to be clarified and recorded. In response to the Gnostics and to other heretical writings of the period, the Patristics generated numerous manuscripts that help us affirm a sense of orthodoxy and practice within the Patristic church.
- Persecution - We see Christian persecution beginning in the New Testament. It certainly increased dramatically under Nero (54-68), who probably killed Paul, Peter and most of the early disciples of Jesus (especially the 70) and reached its greatest intensity under Diocletian (284-305). Christian persecution in the Roman empire did not end until Constantine I (306-337).
- Formation - It is important to note that during the Patristic period the New Testament Canon began to form as the writings of the apostles circulate and gained wide acceptance in the church. The writings of the Patristics are critical here as they quote New Testament texts, reject false texts, and use accepted texts as the basis for their teaching. Each time they did so they gave attestation to many parts of the New Testament that were affirmed early and received by the post-apostolic church as the Word of God.
- Gentilization - In 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed. This not only marked the end of an important era of Jewish history, but also an important era of the migration of the gospel. With the loss of Jerusalem, Rome became the center of the Christian universe. As the gospel moved to Rome the church became decreasingly Jewish and increasingly Gentile in nature. It is here that we begin to see how culture begins to influence the expression of the gospel in the church as it migrates. As the church becomes more Roman we see it take on many of the values of Greco-Roman society as well as its organizations. It is here that the Church “Catholic” or “Universal” (intentional use) is born.
Early on the church established that the people of God would trace themselves back to the teachings of Jesus and those of the apostles. Though the ancestry of Baptists can become cloudy at times throughout the centuries, there is no doubt that a distinctive Baptists hold dear is that they are ever seeking to be nourished from the roots of Christ through God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Baptists may not find succession through a catalogue of great historical names, but it does find lineage in the Word. No matter how far removed we are from first century Jerusalem holding to the Bible as the authoritative text keeps us connected to the teachings of Jesus and the birth of the church in Acts 2.
Ultimately the church is not a chapter within a denominational fold, nor is it an addressed structure on a street. The church is a group of people defined by Christ. Church is not a place one goes nor is it something one does, the church is something we have become because we have been born again by the Spirit of God. People should also not carry a false sense of salvation if they have an affinity for Christ but have no relationship with His people. The church is the Jesus society. On the first Pentecost day after His resurrection Jesus gave His people His Spirit, they gathered together, and by His Spirit He made them His church. The church is His society and as such His people subscribe to His teachings and seek to fulfill the purposes of Christ, the one who defines them.