Whither the Early Church?


Why did the early Christian Church fall into apostasy?

Immediately after the Savior’s resurrection, thousands of Jews and later tens of thousands of Gentiles converted to Christianity. The church that the Lord had established started strong and thereafter flourished. At the same time, however, a great many early Christian writers pointed to the fact that the Church would not survive.

Growth of the Early Church

From the early chapters of Acts, we learn much about the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost, when the Apostles had been filled with the Holy Ghost, Peter preached to the assembled Judaeans, and about three thousand were baptized. (See Acts 2:4, 14, 41.) The success from proselyting Jews was astounding; Luke later wrote that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” (Acts 5:14.)

Even the persecution that arose, scattering the disciples throughout Judaea and Samaria (see Acts 8:1) seemed to increase success. For instance, when Philip went to the city of Samaria, “the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake.” (Acts 8:5–6.) Acts, chapters 8, 9, and 11, record the phenomenal growth of the Church among Jews in the Middle East.

Then the book gradually shifts its focus to the history of gentile Christians in the area. Cornelius was the most notable of the gentile converts (see Acts 10), but he was probably not the first. Nicolas of Antioch, one of the seven who was chosen to manage the temporal affairs of Christians in Jerusalem, may have been the first. (See Acts 6:2–6.) In Acts 6:5, he is called “a proselyte,” meaning that he had been a gentile convert to Judaism before he became a Christian.

It was in Nicolas’s hometown, the capital of the province of Syria, that Gentiles first joined the Church in large numbers. Acts 11:19 tells us that missionaries in Antioch initially preached only to Jews. A short time later, Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching there, speaking “unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.

“And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” (Acts 11:20–21.)

Subsequently, Barnabas and Paul preached at Antioch for a year, the year in which Church members there first became known as Christians. (See Acts 11:26.) Proselyting success among Antioch’s Gentiles led in part to the Jerusalem conference, which was called to discuss whether gentile converts needed to live the law of Moses. Peter, James, Paul, and Barnabas figured prominently in the decision that Gentiles could become members without having to obey the Mosaic law. At that time, the assignment was given to Paul to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. (See Acts 15:1–29; Gal. 2:1–10.)

Because of this call, many have wondered about Paul’s habit of preaching in Jewish synagogues when he first arrived in a city. There is no question about Paul’s ability to teach Jews—he was a leader among the Pharisees in Jerusalem before his conversion (see Acts 8: 1–3; Acts 9:1–2) and was well-versed in the law and the scriptures. But the decision of the conference was to send Paul to the Gentiles.

The answer may partly be related to territory: Paul was to preach in localities that had few Jewish inhabitants, whereas Peter and certain others of the Twelve were assigned areas with large Jewish communities. Paul would have preached to all who gave him an audience in the gentile cities he visited, including the synagogues, which allowed Jews from the congregation, like Paul, to speak during services.

Even though we have to rely principally on apocryphal writings to learn where some of the Apostles preached, we know that Peter and John overlapped the territory assigned to Paul. Peter spent some time in Antioch and later in Rome, while John worked out of Ephesus during the last half of the first century, after Paul’s death. (See Ensign, Aug. 1975, pp. 9–10.)

Unfortunately, we lack information about the first-century church in places like Egypt, Spain, and North Africa. Only apocryphal traditions sketch the Church’s portrait in these areas. Paul supposedly spent time in Spain after his first imprisonment in Rome, and, according to a tradition repeated by Eusebius, the gospel writer Mark established the first church in Egypt at Alexandria. (Ecclesiastical History, 2.16.1.)

Persecution of the Early Church

Peter wrote his first New Testament epistle “at Babylon” (1 Pet. 5:13) in A.D. 63 or 64, near the time of the persecution of Christians under Nero. Babylon was a name that Christian writers often used for Rome, so Peter’s phrase likely refers to that city. We know from 1 Peter 1:1 that the document was written to Church members in central and northern Asia Minor. [1 Pet. 1:1]

Peter mentions no serious defections or schisms in that area, but clearly the Christians there were enduring local persecution, which Peter encourages them to bear. (See 1 Pet. 1:6–7; 1 Pet. 3:14; 1 Pet. 4:12–14.)

The persecution various congregations had to bear is evident in a number of places in the New Testament. In addition to the persecutions that Jews heaped upon Christians in Judaea (see Acts 8:1–3; 1 Thes. 2:14), Jewish opponents of Paul hounded his footsteps during much of his ministry (see Acts 14:19; Acts 17:13; 2 Cor. 11:24–26). Paul also suffered at the hands of Gentiles. (See Acts 16:19–23; 2 Cor. 11:26.)

When the Lord instructed John to write the book of Revelation, he had already been exiled to Patmos, an island about fifty miles southwest of Ephesus. (See Rev. 1:9–19.) This fact suggests that members of the Church in western Asia Minor had already suffered serious persecution, and evidence from the seven letters included at the beginning of the book supports this. (See Rev. 1:9; Rev. 2:3, 9–10, 13; Rev. 3:9–10.)

The first serious governmental persecution of the Christians occurred in Rome in A.D. 64. Though attacks on the Christians were limited to that city, its effects were felt throughout the entire Church.

The outbreak of torture and murder under Nero stemmed from a fire that broke out in some shops in the southern part of the city. The fire burned out of control for six days and seven nights, sweeping generally northward, then broke out afresh on the estate of Tigellinus, Nero’s close friend. Because of this suspicious new fire and because Nero was reportedly delighted over the conflagration, Tacitus and Suetonius, two later Roman historians, accused Nero of starting the fire so that he could rebuild the crowded city according to a grander, more organized scheme. Nero himself placed the blame for the fire on the city’s Christians, a hated and misunderstood sect whom many considered to be apostate Jews.

Tacitus condemned Nero for this injustice. He, along with the Christian writer Clement of Rome, described what they had learned of the Christians’ horrible suffering. Clement, writing some thirty years after Nero’s death, attributes the martyrdom of Peter and Paul to Nero’s persecution. (1 Clement 5–6.)

From the scriptures, we know relatively little about the unfortunate Christian community at Rome. The first mention occurs in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, written about A.D. 58 or 59. By that time, there was a substantial group of Christians in the city. Although we possess no account of the first missionaries who preached there, we can infer from the way Paul arranges his greetings that at least five separate congregations or branches met in the homes of various members of the Church. (See Rom. 16:3–5, 10–11, 14–15.) Since no Christian meetinghouses were built until long after the first century, it would have been natural for branches to meet in private homes for worship.

We realize from Paul’s letter that the branch of the Church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. We can safely say that the Church would not have been firmly established there until after A.D. 54 when Jews, who had been banned from the capital by an imperial edict in A.D. 49, were allowed to return. For the next ten years, the Church grew in size and importance until Nero took grim notice of it.

Thereafter, the sources fall silent about the Christians in Rome until about A.D. 96, when Clement wrote to the church at Corinth. In the letter, called 1 Clement, he hints that the Roman members had gone through sporadic persecutions in recent years but that they had increased in numbers and devotion. (1 Clement 1.)

In short, persecution was the frequent lot of Christians from the time of Jesus to the last great empire-wide pogrom begun under Diocletian in A.D. 303. Christians often met resistance as soon as they joined the Church. For example, Paul reminds the Jews that many, as soon as they joined the Church, were made a public spectacle, or “gazingstock,” through public harassment:

“Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;

“Partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used.” (Heb. 10:32–33.)

Apostasy in the Early Church

Paul is perhaps the best witness of the eroding forces washing away the foundation of the Church. One impression that his letters give is that he and his companions spent considerable energy trying to smother the flames of apostasy.

In one letter we read that, within two or three years after his mission to central Asia Minor, many Christians there had perverted the gospel. (See Gal. 1:6–12; Gal. 3:1–5.) Paul’s epistles to Church members at Corinth illustrate how unstable some of the Christians there were. When we read his letters to members in Colossae, Thessalonica, and Ephesus, we sense that the struggle over points of doctrine and policy continually persisted and festered. Moreover, much of Hebrews 2 and 4 [Heb. 2, 4] is devoted to warning Jewish Christians against losing what they had received from the Savior’s atonement.

In 1 Timothy, Paul lays down straightforward instructions to his longtime friend, recently called as an ecclesiastical authority in Ephesus. But in 2 Timothy, which Paul wrote near the end of his ministry, we sense that Timothy had become discouraged because of the severe problems he had had to face, including droves of members turning away from the true path. Paul wrote that “all they which are in Asia” had turned away. (2 Tim. 1:15.)

The information in Revelation 2 and 3 was addressed about A.D. 90 to specific congregations in cities near the west coast of Asia Minor. The Lord even accused some of the branches of the Church of having fallen headlong into apostasy. Of the seven that John addressed, five had serious problems with dissension and apostasy. (See Rev. 2:4–5, 14–16, 20; Rev. 3:1–2, 15–16.)

During the first several centuries of apostasy, the major doctrinal disputes centered on the Savior’s resurrection and the exact nature of his mission—the very points on which the Apostles were charged to testify. (See Acts 1:8, 21–22.) We can see how serious the absence of the Apostles became, since such issues continued as centers of controversy among Christians until the fifth century A.D.

Most of the difficulties arose from within the Church, as Paul had said they would. (See Acts 20:29–30.) One misunderstanding of the resurrection had occurred early in Ephesus. Paul wrote to Timothy concerning two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, “who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.” (2 Tim. 2:17–18.) Rather than denying the physical resurrection, as did later Corinthians, these two men taught that Christians had already experienced the renewal of life, presumably through baptism, and need not look forward to the resurrection.

The Corinthians seemed to have had long-term problems with accepting the resurrection. Paul’s first letter to members in Corinth centers on the reality of a physical resurrection, and his second letter bears fervent testimony of that doctrine. (See 2 Cor. 4:11–14.) Much later, Clement says that he and other Roman leaders had been consulted about a serious schism in the Corinthian congregation. Clement claims that the division among Christians in Corinth arose because of the jealousy and envy of apostates. (See 1 Clement 1–4.) In another passage, however, Clement identifies the resurrection as a central issue: some were denying bodily resurrection. (See 1 Clement 24–27.)

Much of the misunderstandings about the resurrection must be attributed to the notion of docetism, which came to be more and more influential during the second century. The term derives from the Greek verb dokeo, which means “to seem.” Docetics maintained that Jesus had only seemed to live among men, to suffer, and to die. In reality, they said, the heavenly Christ did not come into contact with the world of matter, for that would have defiled his divine nature.

Such a view of the Messiah denies that salvation comes as a result of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. In fact, the doctrine of salvation was subverted into the idea that Christ was a special messenger who brought to earth secret knowledge that would allow the elect to escape this corrupt world and to make their way back to the presence of the Father. This special knowledge was called gnosis, and those who held such a view of the Messiah were known as gnostics.

Several places in the New Testament indicate that the Apostles were already trying to combat these false conceptions of the Savior. Both 1 and 2 John were written to warn of and correct such ideas:

“Many false prophets are gone out into the world.

“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

“And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:1–3.)

In the second epistle, John repeats, “Many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” (2 Jn. 1:7.)

In addition, we should note that modern interpreters of John’s gospel have felt that the sentence, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), was directed against those who denied that Jesus had possessed a mortal body and that it had undergone a physical resurrection. John’s gospel and letters demonstrate that docetism had made deep inroads in Christian thought before the end of the first century.

In its earliest forms, gnosticism had crept in even before Paul’s death. Paul employs many terms familiar to gnostics in his letters to Ephesus and Colossae, trying to correct their misunderstanding of the Savior’s mission and of the nature of the Church. Following are two examples of Paul’s use of gnostic language to correct early gnostic belief:

“Whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. …

“Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:

“To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:16, 26–27.)

Paul’s first letter to Timothy also contains an explicit attack on gnosticism, which nevertheless developed a powerful influence during the second century A.D.

“O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge [gnosis], for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:20–21, Revised Standard version.)

What we see at the end of the first century is a church full of dissensions. All the Apostles were gone, save John, and no one could appeal to the voice of God that comes through his appointed servants. In fact, Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, knew of only one person by the mid-second century who possessed the gift of prophecy—a man named Quadratus. (Ecclesiastical History, 3.37.1.)

Persecution against the Christians must have had some effect as well. A letter written to the emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger, when the latter was proconsul of Bithynia and Pontus in A.D. 111–12, says that many Christians turned against the Church when they were threatened with death. But as the Church slipped irrevocably into apostasy as a body, the record of martyrs also tells us that many others remained firm in their testimonies of the resurrected Lord.

The New Testament writers not only prophesied of persecution and complete apostasy to come, but also attested to the disabling presence of the two during the first half of the first century A.D., less than fifteen years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The crippling difficulties in the Church did not cease. For after the deaths of its leaders, the Church was left to wander, making its way haltingly until its original form and authority were lost.

[illustration] “The Day of Pentecost,” by W. R. Margetson

[illustration] “The Arrest of Paul,” by Simon Harmon Vedders

S. Kent Brown, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, is bishop of the Orem sixty-fourth Ward, Orem Utah South Central Stake.