Home / Early Christianity and Byzantium 6 B. C. - 1453 A. D. / The Growing Church A. D. 100-500

The Growing Church A. D. 100-500

AT THE beginning of the second century, the Christian Church was a loosely organized group of independent local churches. There had been no strong leadership since the days of the apostles, no recognized authority to whom they could turn to settle their differences concerning the faith. Paul’s epistles had cleared up many points for them, but new questions were constantly arising.

The Roman church had been taking a leading role for some time. There were a number of reasons for this. According to tradition, both Paul and Peter had died in Rome. It was the only church in the western half of the empire associated with any of the apostles. The fact that it was located in the capital city of Rome naturally added to its standing. The churches of Asia Minor had lost strength as a result of false teachings and disagreements within the churches themselves. Jerusalem, having been destroyed in the Second Jewish War in the year 133, had practically ceased to exist. Furthermore, it was in Rome that the Apostles’ Creed was written and the New Testament authorized. Antioch was still an important centre, but no outstanding leaders came from it during the second century. By the end of that century, therefore, Rome was recognized as the church with the greatest influence in the Christian world.

The church continued to grow in spite of the great general persecutions that began in the middle of the third century. These persecutions came in waves for a period of over fifty years. During the worst of them, Christians of Rome held their meetings in the catacombs, or underground cemeteries, where hundreds of tunnel and chambers offered them safety.


New questions of interpretation were constantly coming up to threaten the traditional faith. These questions usually had to do with the identity of Christ. Who was he? Was he man? Was he God? To a small sect called the Ebonites he was a man who had been adopted by God because of his sinless life. Most Gnostics looked upon him not as a man but as a ghostly spirit. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, had a different view. He said Christ was created and therefore he was a creature. He had a beginning, but God had no beginning. Therefore Christ was not fully God and not fully man. When Arius presented his view to the bishop of Alexandria, a bitter argument arose between them. Before long, the argument was raging in most of the churches of the East and threatened to divide all Christendom.


This was the situation when Constantine became the Roman emperor. He sympathized with the Christians and had earlier used his influence to have Christianity accepted as a legal religion. The Roman Empire had been divided for a time, with one ruler for the East and one for the West. Constantine had united the empire again under one head and he thought the empire should have one religion, that of the Christian church.


To prevent the Arian quarrel from dividing the church, Constantine called all the bishops of the empire together for a council at Nicaea. The council met in May of 325, and about three hundred bishops attended. The position of Rome and the other traditional churches was that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross could have no meaning unless he was both God and man. They held that Christ was not a created being. Like the Father, he had always existed. This traditional view was confirmed by the council, which drafted the Nicene Creed. It was much like the Apostles’ Creed, but it went into detail about the identity of Christ so that the matter would be settled for all time.

Constantine urged all the bishops to sign the new creed. Two refused. These two and Arius were sent into exile. Thus out of the council came a creed that could be accepted by all churches, a creed that clarified the traditional interpretation of the Trinity. Constantine’s interest in the churches resulted in many advantages, but it was a mixed blessing, for politics of the empire had now entered into the field of the Christian religion. It was politics that kept the Arian issue alive for another fifty years. Political meddling was to keep the church in a constant state of confusion for the next three hundred years.


The churches of the East and those of the West were drifting further and further apart. The West held firmly to the traditional faith, while the East became involved in each new question of faith. To make matters worse, the empire was again ruled by two emperors. The emperors in the East took a hand in religious matters and weakened the authority of the churches. The emperors in the West also meddled in religion, but the influence of the church in Rome had become so great that its views had to be given consideration.


The heads of the local churches, the bishops, answered these questions as well as they could. But there was much confusion. There were no clearly defined rules to guide them.

The churches were seriously troubled by a number of new ideas and new interpretations during the second century. Among these was Gnosticism. This was a complicated mixture of beliefs based on various religions and philosophies. Gnosticism appeared in many forms and many sects and was older than Christianity. Gnostics took many of the ideas of the Christian faith and used them to support their own beliefs.

One such Gnostic was a man named Marcion. When his teachings were not accepted by the Christian churches he started a sect of his own. Marcion taught that there were two Gods, a lesser God of the Old Testament and a greater God of goodness and love, who revealed himself through Christ. The God of love swept away the laws of the Old Testament and salvation came through him. Marcion established his own church and collected in a book the sacred writings which supported his views. This seems to have been the first attempt at making a collection of New Testament writings.

Marcion’s movement, among others, led to a great deal of argument and division within the Christian churches. The churches began to realize that they needed each other and that they needed to be well organized to defend the Christian faith. But it was difficult to defend a faith that had so many differences and shades of meaning.

One of the most able defenders of the faith was Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. He wrote a five-volume work in which he pointed out all the errors of false teachings, which were called heresies. He said Christians would not easily be led astray by false teachings if more importance were placed on tradition. The first churches were founded by the apostles and their teachings were passed on in each church from one bishop to the next. Each bishop served as the guardian of the traditional teachings and therefore all members of the churches should be guided by their bishops. Irenaeus believed that the traditional teachings of the apostles had been faithfully followed by the Church in Rome and therefore recommended that Rome serve as a guide to the others.

The views of Irenaeus were generally accepted and as a result bishops had more influence and power than ever before. The churches founded by the apostles, particularly the one in Rome, were recognized as having special dignity and authority.

As the churches became better organized, more thought was given to the Christian beliefs. A short summary of the faith was needed for various rites of the church. Out of the summary used in connection with baptism of adults a creed was developed. It took the form of three questions. The three questions were:

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was born of Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?”

“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?”

These three questions were later put in the form of a statement, because it was a summary of the Christian faith as taught by the Apostles, it was called the Apostles’ Creed and may have been used as early as the year 400. Both the questions and the creed recognized the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is the name for the idea that God is three persons in one; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This idea was first set forth in the Bible.


Following Marcion’s example, the Christian church collected all the writings on Christianity that could be considered sacred. The church had always regarded the Old Testament as Scripture, but the gospels and letters of Paul were not so regarded until the middle of the second century. Before any particular writing was accepted, it had to be recognized as being faithful to the Christian traditions of all the churches. The writings also had to represent the teaching of the apostles‚ which meant that they had to be written by one of the apostles, or by a disciple who had been personally instructed by one of the apostles.


The books accepted were believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit and were therefore published by the church as Scripture. By the end of the second century the churches of the West had a version of the New Testament which was almost like the one now in use. Work on it was not completed until about the year 400. The churches of the East were even slower in completing their versions.

Out of the struggles with Gnosticism and other heretical teachings came a strengthened church which called itself “Catholic.” The word “Catholic” was first used to mean “universal,” since the gospel was to be preached to all peoples and to all nations. Slowly, however, “Catholic” came to be used in a more technical sense, suggesting “orthodox” or “traditional.”

In the fifth century the churches of the East and the West were at war with each other again. First the Nestorians argued that since Christ’s mother was human, she could not be given the title Mother of God. This view was voted down at the Council of Ephesus in 431, but it provoked an angry reaction from the Monophysites, who again brought up the question of Christ’s identity. The traditional faith said that Christ had two identities, as God and as man. The Monophysites said that God and man were united in one as spirit. There could be only one Christ, not two.

Late in the fifth century, the disagreement became so bitter the church in Rome broke relations with the churches of the East. A number of attempts were made by emperors to unite all the churches again, but none were very successful. Monophysite churches became firmly established in Syria, Egypt, Abyssinia and Armenia, these churches, though few, still exist today.


There were also changes in the organization of the Christian Church itself. Churches had first been established in the cities, following the empire’s pattern of city-states. Over the Christian community of each city was a bishop‚ the religious leader of the traditional faith. Each bishop had his own staff of priests and deacons. The priests served as advisers, preached and administered the sacraments. The deacons were the bishop’s assistants. They helped him care for the poor and look after money matters and aided in the church during worship. In larger churches there were also minor orders. These included subdeacons, acolytes, readers, janitors and exorcists whose business it was to drive out evil spirits.

As the Christian community grew larger, the congregation was split up. More churches were built and a priest was placed in charge of each new parish. Priests also carried out missionary work in the surrounding countryside, establishing churches there. In time the city bishop became the religious leader of a great number of parishes scattered over a wide area. This area over which he had charge was called a “diocese.”

Each bishop had his own diocese and to that extent was the equal of every other bishop. In practice, the bishops in the capital cities had greater influence than those in less important centers. The bishops with the highest standing were those who headed the churches founded by the apostles. Those of Carthage, Ephesus, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were all large churches of great influence.

The Roman church had greatly strengthened its position as the leading church of the West. It had firmly defended the traditional faith during the long battle with Arianism. It had always resisted meddling in religion by the emperor. When Italy was overrun during the Germanic invasions of the fifth century, the Roman church survived with greater dignity than ever. It seemed to be the one great institution of the ancient world that nothing could overthrow.


Some bishops of Rome were strong leaders and advanced the idea that the bishop of Rome was the religious leader of the entire church. They took a special title, “pope,” from the Greek word “father.” Innocent I was a leading champion of this idea. It was plain to him that Peter, the leading apostle, had founded the church of Rome. Peter had passed on his religious leadership to the bishops of Rome who came after him and therefore each bishop in turn became the pope, or leader of all Christendom. Supreme leadership within the church was based upon the gospel story itself, for Jesus had said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church . . .”

In 445, another bishop of Rome was able to persuade the western emperor Valentinian III to issue an edict ordering all churches to obey the bishop of Rome, who had the “primacy of Saint Peter.” Later, Pope Gelasius wrote a letter to the eastern emperor Anastasius, during the struggle with Monophysitism, in which he declared that “there are . . . two by whom principally this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power. Of these the importance of the priests is so much greater as even for Kings of men they will have to give an account in the divine judgment.”

The idea of a superior Roman church with a pope as its head had been fairly well developed by the beginning of the sixth century. There would be centuries of struggle and uncertainty before the idea would be fully realized.

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