One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?
But when did ‘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:
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 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. If you need still more persuading, try Ten Reasons to Read About Church History.
The way that the early church became “Catholic” is interesting. There were times when the Bishop of Rome tried to play the trump card, and claim to have primacy over the other bishops, which was generally rebuffed by the Eastern (predominately Greek) bishops. Depending on who the bishop of Rome was, this was emphasizes to a greater or lesser extent. I would argue that Gregory the Great was the first true “pope” in the sense that he acted in the way that popes act today, and I would mark the beginning of Roman Catholicism with him.
There are some important geo-political factors involved, such as the fact that the Latin speaking part of the Roman Empire was generally underdeveloped, except for Rome, which made the Western Empire much more Rome-centric than the Greek speaking East.
And of course, it was all exasperated by the Filioque controversy.
I would largely agree with what you’re saying! My aim here was not to pinpoint a precise date where we could say ‘now it it Catholic’ but rather to assert that the faithful church continued (as promised in NT writings) by clinging to the Gospel in these early centuries. Whilst a lot of Catholic theologians/tradition would suggest a papal succession back to Peter, in fact we see a growing global church that uses these terms in both East and West to found and grow different Christian communities. Rather than getting central authorities like Rome you see several influential places, such as Antioch, Alexandria, etc, and the growth of the church is local and diverse. Despite terminology many conservative evangelical contexts would oppose today I’m suggesting we can learn a lot about living Gospel-centred lives for Christ from the writers and history of the Early Church. Thanks for your thoughts though, very helpful!
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