Was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?

It was only a few months ago that I realised: I’d never stopped and thought about the point in time when ‘the Church’ became ‘the Catholic Church’.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself claims its ordination of papal authority in Christ’s designation of Peter as “the rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16:18). This blog doesn’t want to engage with the ideas of Catholic theology predicated on this verse – if that’s a question for you may I recommend one of the blogs below:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-did-the-pope-come-from


https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-dont-protestants-have-a-pope/

Rather, this blog is asking: was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the Pope’s titles is the Bishop of Rome. He is seen in Catholic belief as the one man with supreme authority over the Earthly Church. Such authority, however, only arose in the fifth century. Up until then, the Bishop of Rome was merely another high ranking Church official writing and speaking into Church debates of the day. Other notable episcopal sees included Antioch and Alexandria, indeed, the Coptic Church places its papal authority in the Alexandrian see in a manner not dissimilar from those of the Roman Catholic tradition. (See my recent blog on Clement for an example of how Alexandria was a major centre of Christian teaching and learning.)

For the first few centuries of its existence then, the Church was not Catholic. But it was catholic. Or at least, it strove to be. Groups of Christ followers meeting together as small parts of the universal body of Christ here on earth. It’s why we still use ‘catholic’ in our creeds today and why we can partner with Christians all over the world in prayer and mission.

Often we approach the Early Church with the fear that we are really studying the Catholic Church, and the possibility of learning in a conservative evangelical context is simply impossible. We musn’t let the terminology of ‘catholic’ put us off for the wrong reasons. Many of the so-called Church Fathers ( such as Justin or Polycarp), who are claimed as Catholic saints and teachers, were writing simple Gospel truth for their peers.

Whilst many later teachings of the Catholic Church are hinged on an interaction with and interpretation of the writings of these Early Church Fathers, the reality is there was no Catholic Church when they were writing. Rome was not the authoritorial centre of the Christian world. In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian faith, but even after this it took over a century for Rome to come to the fore. We must not fear these formative years of the Church. Because there is so much we can learn from godly men and women who lived out their faith under the Roman Empire. Nor must we surrender the writers and writings of this period because of the terminology with which we discuss them in the twenty-first century.

The word ‘bishop’ is another that can confuse us. But this again is a simple matter of language and terminology. The word comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος; which literally means overseer or supervisor. We find that Paul uses the word many times, notably in his description of the overseers Timothy ought to select to help lead the church in 1 Timothy 3:2. The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not the lofty ceremonial positions we have today in many denominations. They were pastors, elders and church leaders. Some, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, had significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century, in it he wrapped up the ideas of bishops, ‘catholic’-ness and the church in one another.

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

Whilst he uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, he is mirroring the picture of Biblical church order. An overseer (or overseers), leading a body of believers, under the authority of Christ, as a local part of the wider Church of Christ. A beautiful picture of the church as ordained by Scripture.

This is the terminology we use to discuss the Early Church.

So we shouldn’t be scared of the Early Church. We should recognise their sinfulness and their error. But there is also a lot we can learn from reflecting on the Early Church as they sought to live for the Gospel in the Roman world.

Find out more on why we should bother with the Early Church.

‘Food sacrificed to idols.’ 1 Corinthians 8 in Context.

This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).

The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.

Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!

But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.

Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.

And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.

Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.

So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!

Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?

Paul says yes.

But should they?

Paul says maybe.

If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?

Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.


Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.

We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!

In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Clement of Alexandria was a Christian apologist, polymath and biblical exegete. He was a key figure in the Early Church at the turn of the second and third centuries, and his extant works are some of the most detailed to have survived from the first few centuries of the global church.

Clement was born around AD 160, most likely to pagan parents. Though the location of his birth is not known exactly, the church historian Epiphanius writes in the fourth century that some say Alexandria, some Athens. What is known is that he was richly educated, and moved to Alexandria in search of continued learning.

There he met a Christian teacher named Pantaenus, who led a Catechetical school in the city. Clement studied under this man, eventually converting to Christianity and later leading the school himself. He stayed in Alexandria until a flare up of persecution led him to flee the city just after the turn of the century. He fled to Antioch and then to Jerusalem, before dying in that city in around AD 215.

Not much can be securely pieced together about his life, but his writings are a different matter. His most famous works form a trilogy. His Protrepticus (Exhortation), Paedagogus (Teacher) and Stromateis (Miscellanies, literally: patchwork quilt) form a corpus of texts that guides the reader from pagan unbelief (Protrepticus) through to enlightened and considered faith in Christ (Stromateis). These works show the ethos of Clement’s writings. Through his work he wants to challenge unbelievers to faith, and new believers to a considered faith, where their mind is as engaged as their heart.

One of his other surviving works is a short fragment from a document Clement wrote To the Newly Baptised. In this short work Clement encouraged new Christians, fresh from believers baptism, to live lives worthy of the God they had publicly professed to trust in.

Let everything you do be done for God, both deeds and words; and refer all that is yours to Christ.”

Clement of Alexandria, To The Newly Baptised.

Clement writes to encourage the new Christian to live a life worthy of their calling (Eph 4:1). He wants the newly baptised to hold fast to Christ, to die to sin and to live for Him.

The fragment ends with the encouragement:

For God will grant grace to His friend when he asks, and will provide assistance for those in distress, wishing to make His power known to men, in the hope that, when they have come to full knowledge, they may return to God and may enjoy eternal blessedness when the Son of God shall appear and restore all good things to His own.”

Clement of Alexandria, To the Newly Baptised.

Clement’s style of writing and appeal was intellectual. He used poetry, drama, philosophy and history to challenge his readers. But as these closing words remind us, he did so with the Gospel in mind. At the end of it all, says Clement, I write so that you may hold fast to Christ until the day He returns in glory.

Here is the message of this short work, and all of Clement’s writings. Engage with your faith, work through it, wrestle with it, but in all that, grow in it as you cling to Christ until the day He returns. Christ is coming back: live for His glory today, looking to His glory in eternity.

Trouble from the start?

False teaching. Heresy. Harmful doctrines robbing people of their salvation. There’s nothing new under the sun.

The New Testament warns us of the dangers, but also the reality of false teachers. Scripture tells us that they will rise up, that the Evil One will attack through preachers and teachers deceiving people and leading them astray.

At that time many will fall away and will betray and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and mislead many.

Matthew 24: 10-11.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3-4.

These are just a few of the many New Testament warnings that in the time between Christ’s first and second comings, many will try to lead God’s people astray.

The Early Church faced the reality of these false teachings. As the faith began to establish itself in the Roman empire, false teachers spread with the true faith. Orthodox Christians were soon writing documents called Adversus Haereses, literally ‘Against Heresies.’ These documents preserve many of the heresies that arose during the early years, and Tertullian’s work of this name had this to say of these false teachings:

Some men prefer wondering at heresies, which bring with them eternal death and the heat of a stronger fire… but heresies would have no power…

Tertullian, Against the Heretics, 2.


Tertullian knew that many people came under the sway of these teachings, but he also knew they had no power. They had no true promise of eternal life, their end was destruction.

One of the earliest and most famous heretics to arise in the church was Marcion. This man taught that there was a god split into two parts: a higher being ruling a lower, creating god. This teaching rejected the commandments of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the wonder of the Gospel. Yet many believed this man and his false teachings. Many were led astray. And he was not alone in teachings lies and falsehoods. Heretics arose throughout the Roman world. Some, like the Emperor Elagabalus, incorporated Jesus into the Roman pantheon of gods. Some, like Marcion, led hundreds astray. Others, like the leaders of the Arian or Donatist movements, beguiled thousands. In contrast others merely corrupted the local church, twisting Scripture in order to line their own pockets and feed their own bellies.

But all of these men and women had one thing in common. Their teachings were untrue, their spirituality a fraud, and their end was in the promised destruction of all who corrupt the truth of the Gospel.

False teaching was a serious problem as the Church established itself in the ancient world, but it was not unexpected. And in confidence, the Church could proclaim the Gospel, clinging faithfully to Scripture in the knowledge that their God was faithful to keep them, redeem them, and do away with the false teachers. Just as He had promised.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

2 Peter 2:1-10.

The Birth of Apologetics

Christian Apologetics are big business. Books, conferences, televised debates: speakers and evangelists can live their whole lives devoted to a career of apologetics in defence of the Christian faith.

But when did all that start? It wasn’t in the twentieth century with the careers of C S Lewis or John Lennox. Nor did it come from the great revival preachers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Apologetics was born in the Early Church. The genre of Apologetic writing, literal defences of the faith, was born in the second century as the fledgling Christian faith stood up to the might of the Roman world. Because the Church was facing a hostile world where the powers of Rome; political, religious and social, all hated what these new Christians stood for. Justin Martyr, introduced in my last blog (see it here), wrote one of the first Apologies. His work is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “on behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”

Justin was addressing the Emperor because this abuse was found throughout the nations, and the faith needed to be defended, because the accusations that these Christians faced were simply unfounded.

Tertullian wrote his famous Apology about fifty years after Justin. It too, was addressed to political rulers, to “The Rulers of the Roman Empire,” and it was a work that sought to force these rulers to “openly inquire into and sift before the world the real truth in regard to the charges made against the Christians”

Both these works, some of the earliest examples of apologetics to survive to us address the culture of the day and provide a defence of the faith in light of the challenge of the zeitgeist of the day.

The amazing thing about these apologies is that they were written with two real goals in mind. To defend the faith against the attacks of the day, and to defend the faith with the truths of the Gospel. Tertullian’s Apology includes a brilliant explanation of the Gospel. He grounds it in the history of the empire, freely admitting Christ lived recently “no further back indeed than the reign of Tiberius,” before turning to discuss Christ’s divinity.

He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illuminate man’s nature was pre-announced by God— I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s own Son, was announced among us, born…

Tertullian, Apology, 21.

Tertullian addresses the accusations of the Roman government of the day by pointing it back to the Jesus these Christians believed in. By showing His divinity, lordship and salvation work on the cross, Tertullian answers the accusations of these enemies of the Gospel, by pointing them to the Gospel.

These days, rightly, apologetics often manifests itself in answering questions about science, ethics and historical authenticity. But a brief glance back to the writings of the Early Church reminds us that at the heart of good apologetics lies a radical call to faith in Christ, and an emphasis on the Gospel that drives all the defences we make.

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr.

If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.

Justin lived and died in the second century, and was a hugely influential figure in the history of the church in Rome, just a generation or two after the teachings and imprisonment of Paul in the city.

Manuscripts that either describe Justin or record his writings, always give him the epithets ‘martyr’ or ‘philosopher’. This sums up what the man is best known for; as leader of a ‘school-church’ in Rome he was a philosopher, theologian and thinker, but in his death under the emperor Marcus Aurelius, we see the martyr.

Justin was born in AD 100, to a pagan family in the city of Flavia Neapolis. He was well educated, but describes in his own writings how he found the philosophies of the world to be hollow, unsatisfying, and inconclusive.

He tells readers in his Dialogue that he tried first the Stoic school of philosophy, then the Peripatetic, the Pythagorean and finally the Platonic. Having settled on Platonic thought, he waited for the revelation of God that was sure to come.

I supposed that I had become wise…I expected soon to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

Having chased down all these philosophers, Justin settled on the one that made the most sense, gave him the best answers. And he waited for this school of thought to make everything add up.

Whilst he waited, Justin came upon an old man, possibly a Christian from ancient Syria, who began to talk to him about God. Quite literally, this man shared the Gospel with Justin. He soon saw that the only philosophy or school of thought that contained any truth was the truth that pointed to Christ. Justin tells us that as he looked at the prophets and preachers of the Christian faith, he saw real life in their words.

A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.

After travelling around telling people about this truth he had learnt, he came to Rome, where he settled in the city, and begun to teach Christian doctrine. He continued a life of academic debate, philosophical conversations and scholarly discussion. It was this that got him killed. Having engaged in a dispute with the cynic philosopher Crescens, his opponent denounced him to the authorities and Justin, alongside six companions, faced the Roman courts. The Urban Prefect, a high ranking Roman official in the city, heard the case, and sentenced them to death.

It was in this trial, facing death, that Justin gave the answer quoted at the top of this post. As Justin faced his accusers and the charges were read out, he replied “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”

Justin knew the truth that Paul teached in Philippians 1.

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed.

Philippians 1:21, 23b.

Life was good, academic debate and philosophical musings were all well and good, but far better is to be with Christ. There is nothing that can be done to a Christian, good or bad, that can separate the Christian from the love of God, and from our promised eternity with Him.

Justin was beheaded in the 160s and although the exact date is unknown, what is sure is that his confidence was in Christ, his heart and mind won to the Gospel, and his life and death a testament to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Justin Martyr has a lot to teach us. A man who sacrificed his life for the Gospel. A man who gave up his background, his worldview, his sinful identity to assume the identity of Christ. And someone who shared that with those he met. Justin presents us with a challenge, a life of sharing the Gospel, whether that is in academic debate or the chat in the pub, or the work break catch up. The Gospel is convincing, the Gospel is true, and the Gospel is there to be shared by the Christian. Even to the end.

The Power of Storytelling

People love stories. We always have, we always will.

Here’s some famous first lines, the starts of stories that have captivated generations over the last hundred years or so… (Titles below!)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”*

Know it? What about:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”**

Or finally, a bit trickier…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”***

Stories transport us to another world. Childlike escapism is the wonder of the play, the book, the film or the TV series. Through the ‘Once upon a time’s of a good story, we live the lives of others, we experience their highs or lows, we love their loves and hate their hates.

Stories are amazing ways to captivate an audience, to engage a crowd, to tell someone something exciting, important, incredible.


The Early Church knew their world loved stories. Whether it was the epic poems of gods and heroes that had survived for millenia, or the comic dramas of men like Plautus, slapstick comedies that had whole theatres full of Roman men and women in stitches. So the Early Church used storytelling to tell the Gospel.

Clement of Alexandria wrote a document called the Exhortation to the Greeks. It’s essentially a twelve book letter to the pagans of Roman Greece, in which he describes their gods, and the lies that they are, before encouraging them to come to Jesus. About poetry (meaning for Clement: drama and epic poetry – the stories of Greece!):

Let poetry also approach – poetry, which is occupied entirely with what is false – to bear witness now at last to truth, or rather to confess before God its deviation into legend

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation, 7.

Clement thinks he should use the stories of ancient Greece to tell them about their gods, and to describe to these pagan readers his true God. Clement describes Zeus “exposed and put to shame,” or the “raving Dionysus.” Clement uses storytelling to tell his audience that they are living out fantasies in a made up world. These gods are no good, says Clement, but there is One who is.

At one point Clement accuses the Greeks of “turning Heaven into a stage!” They have made the gods a subject for drama, comedy, poetry and mockery. But he says he has a story to share with them that is written into the very pages of history. After six whole books on these false gods, Clement turns to the Old Testament, and begins to spell out the wonderful, true story of Jesus Christ.

Because Clement, and the Early Church, had a better story to tell in a world full of stories. Clement uses the second half of his work to tell this story, the story of the Divine Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-4, 14.

The story Clement had to tell was the story of a Creator God come down to Earth. Not a fake Greek deity, but the real, living God. And it was the story of this God living among us, loving us, and ultimately, dying for us. And as John 1:14 shows us, people saw this story unfold. It was a true story.

The Early Church loved to use storytelling to reach the world around them. Today the idea of storytelling is so often used in evangelism because everyone has a story, everyone has something that makes them who they were and are. But in the person of Jesus the church has a story for the ages, a true story of love, rescue, drama and victory. The Early Church loved this story, and they told it.

The greatest story ever told. Told for nearly 2000 years. Still just as true, still just as powerful to change lives all over the world.

If it’s the right story, then storytelling can be a powerful thing to do.

*Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s stone for our American friends!)

** Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

*** Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

The agora of Smyrna, where the charge against Polycarp was read out.

My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.

The  Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.

So what happened?

Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.

Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.

Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.

Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.

His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp.

After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.

Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The  Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.

The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.

The First Atheists

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens that day was typical in the Roman Empire of the time. As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the statues, veneration and worship of countless gods and goddesses. The ancient world was certainly “very religious”.

The scholar Keith Hopkins chose to title his book on the religion of the ancient world “A World Full of Gods.” This is no exaggeration. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in a small shrine in every Roman home. Even the Emperor was the object of divine worship, imperial cults were found across the empire venerating Emperors past and present.

This is the world in which Paul found himself walking as he journeyed through ancient Athens, and it is the world that the Early Church continued to operate in for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 300s that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal faith of the Empire, and even then it took hundreds of years for the stronger pagan cults to disappear.

So what does this make the Early Church? In a world busy with gods and divines of every kind, the Early Church was radically countercultural. Accepting only one, true God. Rejecting all others.

Early Christians were Atheists.

Didn’t see that one coming? Odd though it may sound to us, the charge of atheism was a popular one levied against the Early Church. Why so? Because when Paul promised to make known to the people of Athens their unknown god, he wasn’t asking them to make space for another deity in their pantheon. He was arguing for the existence of a God who utterly disproved and removed any claim of divinity that every other being had. Christianity was radical because it was monotheistic.

The third century Christian thinker, Tertullian, had this to say in response to unbelievers challenging the atheism of the Church.

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

The Early Church were atheists because their worship was directed not at traditional gods, but at the God of the Bible.

The Early Church rejected the sin, error and misdirected worship of these pagan religions because they knew there was only one God worthy of worship.

Our own world is full of gods. In the same way the pagan Romans worshipped a god of every occasion, our own culture is obsessed with money, fame, sex and popularity. Our culture is obsessed with self-promotion in these areas. Our culture is obsessed with worshipping things that make us feel good.

The Early Church faced a backlash for denying worship directed at the wrong things. When we aim our worship at God alone, we are denying people and things the praise they think they deserve. But Scripture is clear on what worship is, and who deserves it.

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you”

Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (NIV).

Only God deserves our worship. False gods don’t. Celebrities don’t. The gods of the people around us may have changed from those surrounding the Early Church, but the truth of Scripture hasn’t. Because of who He is and what He has done, our God deserves our worship, undividedly so. In the first few centuries the Church looked ridiculous denying the might of Rome for the praise of their God, but they knew what we do too, that only He is truly worthy of worship. These early atheists were not ignorant of the one God that truly deserves their respect, honour and worship.

Taking the First Steps

The remains of ancient Philippi

Huge amounts of writing survives from the Early Church. A lot of it is unhelpful, some of it downright false. But some of it displays a Gospel-centered church keeping on at the mission of the New Testament: to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in God’s name and teaching them in the truths of the Gospel.

But how was the church to do this as it took its first steps without the Apostles at the helm? By the end of the first century the disciples of Jesus were dead or dying and the church faced the question: how do we keep on, how do we take our first steps by ourselves?

Well the wonderful truth is that they weren’t by themselves. And the historical record shows that their faithful God kept them faithful to the Gospel.

Not Alone

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

John 14:15-17

Thought the first generation of human leadership had passed away, the Early Church could take confidence in knowing they were not alone. Unlike any other religion, cult or sect in the Roman world, the church had something so much more. In the verses from John’s Gospel above, Jesus promises that those who trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will live inside the believer, transforming them from the inside, helping and equipping them to live for Christ in a hostile world.

Their human leadership was dead, but their God was far from it. Their God was as with them as he had ever been. The Spirit is promised to every believer, then and now, and not only is he with us, but as Jesus reminds us above, he advocates for us.

The Spirit advocates for the believer, he fights the case of the believer, he intercedes for us. When we pray, it is through the Spirit, our advocate, that we can be confident that God hears and receives our prayers.

The Early Church knew this. So they were not alone. As they took their first steps in the hostile and powerful pagan world, their God was with them and their God was for them.

Faithful Steps

So what happened? The great disappointment in studying the first few centuries of the church is that so much of it is lost. We know so little about so many faithful brothers and sisters who held out the word of life in a hostile Roman world. But the wonderful encouragement of studying Early Church history, is that from what survives to us, we can see the Gospel going out and going on.

As the church continued and as history moved further away from the ministry of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles, the church continued in the Gospel.

The quote below is from the first letter by a man named Clement of Rome, to the church in Corinth. Written around 96 AD and imaginatively known as  ‘1 Clement’ today, this letter is one of the first examples of post-canonical Christian writing. And in it? The Gospel is spoken.

“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”

Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32:4.

The great rediscovery of the sixteenth century reformation was that we are justified by faith alone. Works cannot help us. Religious devotion and holy deeds have no saving power. But here is that truth, clear as day, in the writings of this Early Church leader.

Or how about this, an extract from the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesian church, written in the first decades of the second century.

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5.

Here is Ignatius, reminding his readers that the Gospel they believe in is one of grace. Glorious grace. They have no merit before God themselves, it is only through the saving work of Christ on the cross that the Christian can have the hope of Heaven. And this is something that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and famous for his well-recorded martyrdom, writes in a letter to the church at Philippi.

…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ”

Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1:3 (c.140 AD)

This is the church taking its first steps. With the end of the Apostolic Era comes the need to move forward after the deaths of this first generation of Christian leaders. And how is it the church does this? By looking back. By looking to the cross. By clinging to the truth of the Gospel, in the knowledge that God is with them, and in the Spirit he works for them. The Early Church were God’s representatives here on earth, and their first steps were taken by clinging on to, and teaching, the Gospel they were saved by.