Followers of Christ being noticed and standing in the way
It did not take long for the early Christians to be noticed by others. They were people with high principles of morality and integrity. They carried out a disciple-making work with outspokenness and zeal; as a result, literally thousands of persons abandoned false religious systems and became Christians, who refused to get involved in worldly affairs. They would not join in worship of the emperor. It is not surprising, then, that they quickly became the target of vicious persecution instigated by false religious leaders and misinformed political rulers. (Acts 12:1-5; 13:45, 50; 14:1-7; 16:19-24)
The true followers of Christ were in the political and religious leaders their sights to find just the slightest wrong to prosecute them.
The word or news about the Nazarene continued to spread all over the world, from the East to the West, so that across the Byzantine and Roman empires one could find several groups of believers converted to the faith in Jesus Christ. Even prosecution could not stop those who were bitten by the bug of faith. The first-century pupils from the apostles had also received their commission to preach from God through Christ, and they were determined to obey God rather than men. (Acts 4:19, 20, 29; 5:27-32) They relied on Jehovah’s strength, confident that he would reward His loyal witnesses for their endurance. — Matt. 5:10; Rom. 8:35-39; 15:5.
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century C.E. wrote:
“And the tribe of the Christians, so called after [Jesus], has still to this day [about 93 C.E.] not disappeared.”—Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 64 (iii, 3).
Union under one head, threatened by those who wished to be leaders themselves
Both in his letter to the Colossians and in the one to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul likens the group of people that came to follow Jesus to a “body,” of which Christ is the head. (Eph 1:22, 23) According to one reference work, this metaphor
“suggests not only vital union with the Head, but that the will of the Head is exercised through the members. They are His instruments.” Jesus is also the head, or ruler, of the kingdom that Paul calls “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.” — Col 1:13
Jesus Christ is the key figure in fulfilling God’s purpose, and he should occupy the foremost place in the congregation, but people have their own idiosyncrasies and like to be in the forefront or given an important place.
When Jesus was still alive, he had already warned for the possible danger.
“Be on the watch,”
“for the false prophets that come to you in sheep’s covering.” (Matt. 7:15)
Jesus knew that the adversary of God would try to divide and corrupt his followers. So from early in his ministry, he warned them about false teachers. The apostle Paul also recognised the danger. About 56 C.E., when speaking to overseers of Ephesus he warned about those who could come from within the community. This could be seen, that man from within the congregation would
“rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30)
Such self-seeking apostates would not be content to make their own disciples; they would endeavour “to draw away the disciples,” that is, Christ’s disciples.
The apostle Peter (about 64 C.E.) also foretold internal corruption and even described the way such apostates would operate:
Like spies or traitors in an enemy’s camp, the false teachers, though arising from within the congregation, would infiltrate their corrupting views in a secret or camouflaged way.
These warnings of Jesus and his apostles were not in vain. Internal opposition had small beginnings, but it surfaced early in the Christian congregation.
Early emerging weeds
Less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, the apostle Paul indicated that efforts of Satan to cause division and turn men away from the true faith were “already at work.” (2 Thess. 2:7) As early as about 49 C.E., in a letter sent out to the congregations, the governing body noted:
“We have heard that some from among us have caused you trouble with speeches, trying to subvert your souls, although we did not give them any instructions.” (Acts 15:24)
So some within the congregation were vocal about their opposing viewpoint — in this case evidently over the issue of whether Gentile Christians needed to get circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law. — Acts 15:1, 5.
As the first century progressed, divisive thinking spread like gangrene or cancer. (Compare 2 Timothy 2:17.) By about 51 C.E., some in Thessalonica were wrongly predicting that “the presence” of the lord Jesus was imminent, though the apostles knew that the Last Day was still not there. (2 Thess. 2:1, 2) By about 55 C.E., some in Corinth had rejected the clear Christian teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead. (1 Cor. 15:12)Having people who took away the hope of living again on earth (Mt 22:31, 32; Joh 11:23, 24) there were also people from that city of the Peloponnese, in south-central Greece, who found much interest in Greek philosophy and as such started taking over ideas from those Greek philosophers concerning parts in the human being (like ‘the soul‘) that could leave the body after death and would go further to live another life or would go to other places, like a hell as a place of torture by hellfire.
About 65 C.E., others said that the resurrection had already taken place, it being of a symbolic kind that living Christians experience. — 2 Tim. 2:16-18.
By the time the apostle John wrote his letters (about 98 C.E.), there were “many antichrists” — persons who denied that “Jesus is the Christ” and that Jesus is the Son of God who came “in the flesh.” — 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2, 3.
It is from such false teachers who denied the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ and who made Jesus into their god, that the idea began to germinate that Jesus should not only be elevated to God, but that he should be made similar to those Greco-Roman gods who had a multiple form.
For over 60 years, the apostles had ‘acted as a restraint,’ endeavouring to hold back the tide of apostasy. (2 Thess. 2:7; compare 2 John 9, 10.) But as the Christian congregation was about to enter the second century, the last surviving apostle, John, died, about 100 C.E. The apostasy that had slowly begun to creep into the congregation, was now ready to burst forth unrestrained, with devastating organisational and doctrinal repercussions.
Old and new cults
When old cults were being revived and new ones were finding acceptance on all sides. People came to hear more stories about that special preacher who was killed but seemed to be raised from the grave. The news spread of that growing Jewish group, being called The Way, with its one God, and its promise of redemption, giving hope for a better future in a great kingdom and restored paradise.
With the news of glad tidings or gospel and principle of brotherhood, its emphasis upon the equality of all believers in the sight of God, and its preaching of a new social order to be set up at the return of Christ, it appealed strongly to multitudes, particularly of the poorer classes. That it won a permanent success, and finally took possession of the Roman world, was due to its combination of appeals. No one thing about it commended it to all, and to no one thing alone did it owe its victory, but to the fact that it met a greater variety of needs and met them more satisfactorily than any other movement of the age.
Contributing also to the growth of the Church was the zeal of its converts, the great majority of whom regarded themselves as missionaries and did what they could to extend the new faith. Christianity was essentially a proselytising religion, not content to appeal simply to one class or race of people, and to be one among many faiths, but believing in the falsity or insufficiency of all others and eager to convert the whole world. Moreover, the feeling of unity which bound those followers of Christ or Christians everywhere together and made of them one compact whole, and which found expression before many generations had passed in a strong organisation, did much for the spread of the Church.
Identifying himself with the Christian circle from the 2nd century on, a man became a member of a society existing in all quarters of the empire, every part conscious of its oneness with the larger whole and all compactly organized to do the common work. The growth of the Church during the earlier centuries was chiefly in the middle and lower classes, but it was not solely there. No large number of the aristocracy were reached, but in learned and philosophical circles many were won, attracted both by Christianity’s evident ethical power and by its philosophical character (cf. the Apologists of the 2nd century). That it could seem at once a simple way of living for the common man and a profound philosophy of the universe for the speculative thinker meant much for its success.[Albert Heinrich Friedrich Stephan Ernst Louis Hauck]
A separation between overseers and elders
Among the earliest deviations was a separation between the terms “overseer” (Gr., e·piʹsko·pos) and “older man,” or “elder” (Gr., pre·sbyʹte·ros), so that they were no longer used to refer to the same position of responsibility. Just a decade or so after the death of the apostle John, Ignatius, “bishop” of Antioch, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, wrote:
“See that you all follow the bishop [overseer], as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery [body of older men] as if it were the Apostles.”
Ignatius thus advocated that each congregation be supervised by one bishop,* or overseer, who was to be recognised as distinct from, and having greater authority than, the presbyters, or older men.
How the separation came about is told by the German theologian and church historian Augustus Neander, in his book “Allgemeine Geschichte der christlichen Religion und Kirche” (The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries) were he tried to depict the representative tendencies of each age, and also the types of the essential tendencies of human nature generally. He explains what happened:
“In the second century . . . , the standing office of president of the presbyters must have been formed, to whom, inasmuch as he had especially the oversight of every thing, was the name of [e·piʹsko·pos] given, and he was thereby distinguished from the rest of the presbyters.”
We can see that, though Jesus never wanted his disciple to find one greater than the other, later followers of Christ wanted to see such division. In the second century, the groundwork was thus laid for a clergy class gradually to emerge. About a century later, Cyprian, “bishop” of Carthage, North Africa, was a strong advocate of authority of the bishops — as a group separate from the presbyters (later known as priests*), the deacons, and the laity. But he did not favour the primacy of one bishop over the others.*
Within 150 years or so of the death of the last of the apostles, two significant organisational changes found their way into the congregation. As bishops and presbyters ascended the hierarchical ladder, they left below it the rest of the believers in the congregation, resulting in a separation between clergy (those taking the lead) and laity (the passive body of believers). From the third century onward, the term clerus . . . was almost exclusively applied to the ministry to distinguish it from the laity. As the Roman hierarchy was developed, the clergy came to be not merely a distinct order . . . but also to be recognised as the only priesthood.
Instead of all spirit-begotten believers forming “a royal priesthood,” the clergy were now “recognised as the only priesthood.”* —1 Pet. 2:9.
Interestingly, Dr. Neander observes:
“The false conclusion was drawn, that as there had been in the Old Testament a visible priesthood joined to a particular class of men, there must also be the same in the New [Testament] . . . The false comparison of the Christian priesthood with the Jewish furthered again the rise of episcopacy above the office of presbyters.” —The History of the Christian Religion and Church, translated by Henry John Rose, Second Edition, New York, 1848, p. 111.
Next: Religion and believers #10
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