A historical backdrop
The Christian church began around AD 33 with the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Jesus called his disciples to go out and change the world through the power of the Holy Spirit and His love. It is significant that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit; we are not doing this alone. God is ever-present with us and has promised to guide his people.
What we know about the ministry of Jesus and the early disciples comes not only from biblical accounts such as the Gospels and Acts, but also from other early Christian writings. Just as Jesus had disciples, so too all of the apostles – including Paul – had disciples. These disciples of the apostles make up the second generation of Christians.
This second generation, like the first, suffered persecution. And also like their predecessors, several of them wrote letters to their brethren and Christian communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. We still possess letters from Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp. Other letters from this period of time (or earlier) have survived and include: the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. These letters were written by people who knew the apostles – they give us key insights into the life, beliefs, and structure of the early church during the apostolic age.
Early Christian Literature
One comforting discovery for me in the writings of the early church was that the theology of those who came after the apostles concurs with New Testament theology. The church did not suddenly become pagan. Most of these letters read just as easily and seem as relevant as the literature in the New Testament, which is not surprising considering these people were disciples of Paul and the apostles.
However, there are some shockers. For one, church authority was absolutely critical to the New Testament age Christians. There were elders and deacons who were the head of individual congregations. Each region had a bishop, or episkopos in Greek. Episkopos is often translated as “overseer” or “bishop” in English Bibles. The apostles, in some sense, were the original bishops.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians that bishops exist by the will of Jesus Christ. About bishops, he writes, “We should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself,” and “Wherever the bishop is, there is Christ.” Rebelling against spiritual authority or “doing your own thing” was not only frowned upon, but was looked upon as rebelling against God himself. There was no such thing as a spiritual loner in the early church.
Why the authority?
Were these guys just power tripping? I don’t believe so. Most of the teachings of the apostles were passed on orally. In order to even begin to understand the Christian faith, one needed to become a part of their local church. There were no Bibles floating around. In fact, most churches probably only had a few copies of some of the gospels and letters of the apostles. So how did they maintain the faith without Bibles for hundreds of years? See Part III for the next installment.