What have we got in Common? Hope?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Twitter is particularly good at distilling contemporary issues into a long stream of polarising and pointed (and often very emotional) soundbites. Scrolling down our feeds is, at the moment, a particularly negative past time. Whilst social media can show us at our best, it also shows us at our worst. And so in the midst of a global pandemic, as tensions about race and privilege erupt across the globe, and as one popular author is violently berated across the web for her views on biological sex, it’s easy to feel hopeless.

Our nation is divided, our world is a mess. It can feel like we’re a world at loggerheads. It’s hopeless. What have we got in common any more?

Well for some people, the answer is hope.

Nearly 1900 years ago, in the 140s AD, the writer Ignatius spoke of “the common hope” of all Christians (To the Ephesians 21). In 197 AD the apologist Tertullian mirrored this cry (Apology, 39). “We [Christians] are a body knit together as such by a common religious belief, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”

The first Christians lived in a divided world, where society was split into rich and poor, slave and free, Roman and foreigners. It was a messy world where selfish pleasure and power were pursued above noble ideas of the greater good or the care of the needy. And it was a world where Christians were derided, attacked, scorned and even killed for their beliefs. In a hopeless situation, in a divided world, how could they speak of common hope? What could this common hope possibly be?

This hope was, and is, Jesus. The Early Church clung to this hope, the common hope of all Christians, because they saw that they needed it. In a broken world, where division and suffering was rife, they recognised that their lives were hopeless. Far from escaping such issues, they realised that they themselves were a part of the problem! The Bible calls this sin. That all have sinned, and fall short of the standards of goodness that we so desire in our noblest moments. That we all live selfishly, full of anger, tribalism, malice and vanity. Perhaps we’re reminded of our own times.

But the first Christians could hope in Jesus Christ for a better future. Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ came to Earth to bring us to God. He was the Son of God, and he died that we might live.

John summarised this hope in a single verse.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The common hope of these earliest Christians was not that the trouble of this world would pass them by, but that they knew, with certainty and a deep, deep joy, that they were heading for a wonderful eternity. Their sins had been dealt with, they future was no longer a hopelessness but instead a glorious hope. No longer death but life. No longer their own weak efforts, but Christ.

Our own world is painfully divided, and I have no answers to the enormous problems that we face. Few, if any, do. But I know I have a hope that will carry me through these crises. I know I have a hope that will carry me through every up and down, great or small. It is a hope shared by billions throughout history, from Ignatius, to Tertullian, to Martin Luther King Jr., to me and countless others across the globe today. I have a hope named Jesus, and he will never disappoint me.

In a world where hope seems lost, why not explore the hope that Christians share? Look for Hope is a great place to start doing just that, a website full of articles and content pointing to the hope Christians hold in the midst of the very real and present struggles we all face.

Clement of Alexandria: The intentional Christian Life

Clement is one of my favourite Early Church Fathers, and though I have offered a short profile of him before (which you can find here) – I am going to present a slightly more detailed walk through of his life and work over the following few posts.

Little is known of Clement’s early life. Born in 160 AD to pagan parents, in either Athens of Alexandria itself (Epiphanius in Panarion 32.6.1 reports that some say he was born in Athens, whilst others maintain Alexandria), he was clearly well educated as a young man. His extant writings betray a deep knowledge of both pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, alluding to a diverse and comprehensive education.

His adult career was largely spent in Alexandria. Having rejected paganism as a young man, Clement began to travel widely. He arrived in North Africa in the late second century, seeking further education, and sat under the teachings of Pantaenus in Alexandria, a man Clement affectionately labelled his “Sicilian bee.” Pantaenus, a Christian teacher, was incredibly influential in Clement’s life, and it was under his teaching that Clement accepted the Good News of the Gospel and gave his life to Christ. Clement was a faithful disciple of Pantaenus and likely succeeded him as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria (at least according to Eusebius!) This led Clement to remain in the city for a number of years, and it was from Alexandria that he wrote and taught extensively.

The scholar Eric Osborn (2005, 1) described Clement as “a traveller, always moving on,” both intellectually and physically. This is clearly seen in his both intellectual and spiritual rejection of the pagan ways of his parents and his acceptance of Christ. But this intellectual development is matched by a geographical progression that saw Clement flee Alexandria in response to persecution at the start of the third century, first to Antioch and finally seemingly to Jerusalem.

Clement was a well respected figure in antiquity. Eusebius described him as “a good and proved man… practised in Scriptures” whilst both Cyril and Jerome labelled him an “expert” in Greek history, and a connoisseur of pagan literature. He was clearly a learned teacher, and treated as such. His depth of insight and knowledge shines through in his writings. Of his extant works, On Baptism and Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved? are fragmentary (though well worth a read). His three longest surviving works, however, form a trilogy. The Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, littered with hundreds of references to pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, present an argument for the embrace of an intellectual and reasoned faith. It is this trilogy that I shall explore in my next post on Clement.

These three works, lengthy treatises on the Christian faith, are those for which Clement is best remembered. He was a teacher and biblical exegete, a polymath and an apologist. All of these shine through in his surviving writings, and this trilogy demonstrates Clement’s great passion, that the Christian life is lived out in an informed and engaged way. Clement was concerned that those who did not grow in their faith were cheating themselves, and his works emphasise the need to engage with Scripture and wrestle with the things of God. The Christian faith is rational and rich, it ought to be treated as such.

In 202, Clement fled persecution that was flaring up in Alexandria. A reference in a letter of Alexander of Jerusalem in 211, commending Clement to the church in Antioch, is the last contemporary reference we find to Clement. He likely died in c.215, either in Antioch or Jerusalem.

“If a man chooses to remain in his pleasures, sinning time after time, and values earthly luxury above eternal life, and turns away from the Saviour when He offers forgiveness… his soul will perish… But he who looks for salvation and earnestly desires it and asks for it with steadfast persistence shall receive the true purification and the unchanging life from God the Father who is in Heaven, to whom through His Son Jesus Christ, the lord of living and dead, and through the Holy Spirit be glory, honour, might, and eternal majesty both now and for all generations and ages to come. Amen”

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved?

Tertullian: On Abortion

TWR360 | Blog

Certainly a contentious issue in the political and moral theatres of the modern day, abortion is by no means a new issue.

Tertullian, one of the most well known and prolific of the Early Church writers, had much to say in his many treatises on the Christian faith. Perhaps most well known for his Apology – a fifty chapter defence of the faith addressed to the Emperor himself – Tertullian wrote at length on other issues. His extant corpus includes thirty-one works, with more lost writings known to us. He wrote on a range of issues impacting Christians in the ancient world, from remarriage to persecution and heretical movements. Though he did not write a specific work (that remains for us to read) on abortion, he makes several clear references to the practice. His treatment of the subject is particularly interesting because of his own personal development.

As Tertullian lived and wrote, there is a clear shift in his writings from what we might term an orthodox, Pauline position, to a more ‘Montanist’ perspective. Montanism was a heresy that developed in the second century. What exactly it looked like remains up for debate, but, known as the ‘New Prophesy’ it was famed for its ascetic approach to the Christian life. Whilst Tertullian’s embrace of this heresy is a contentious issue, there is nonetheless a clear progression in his own outlook. The scholar Geoffrey Dunn spoke of “Tertullian’s increasingly Montanist perspective” (2004, 6). My personal view (and one that I would happily discuss) is that Tertullian is, as Christine Trevett has argued “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). By this Trevett means, and I would argue, Tertullian’s rigourist tendencies encouraged him towards the more ascetic, rigorous position of the Montanists.

This background is important. Tertullian’s thinking, whether he moved from a Pauline position to a Montanist one, or whether he simply entrenched further into his own extreme, rigourist tendencies, certainly developed. His stance on the remarriage of widows for example, became increasingly more forceful as his writings progressed. But on abortion? Tertullian maintained a consistent tone and approach. His most famous quote on the topic, from his famous Apology, dates to c.197 AD – early in his career. Other comments, from his treatise On the Soul, date to around 210 AD. Though his thinking on many issues developed from normative to what some may term ‘extreme’, on this (in modern times at least) contentious issue, Tertullian maintained a consistent line. His teaching was in line with a Pauline (and Biblical) outlook, and remained so.

With this background established, let’s briefly look at his words on the subject.

The Apology

Perhaps the most quoted reference to an early, post-Apostolic Christian view on abortion comes from Tertullian’s Apology.

…we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy the foetus in the womb… It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.8

Tertullian is clear here: life is sacred, and the human babe, born or unborn, has as much a right to life as any man or woman. To kill even the foetus in the womb is murder. Tertullian writes these words in the context of defending the Christian faith against allegations of wrongdoing, moral depravity, and coercive evil. Early accusers against the new faith labelled Christians paedophiles, murderers and even cannibals. Tertullian refutes these claims strongly. They are slander, aimed at tarnishing the Church and making them out as worse even than common criminals. So Tertullian is clear on where the Christian stands. And in regards to murder? From the unborn babe to the aged adult, murder is always prohibited – “once and for all.”

On The Soul

Tertullian has a great deal more to say on this issue. He labels the instruments used to perform such procedures as…

“embruosphaktes [meaning] ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive… the doctors all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived…”

Tertullian, On The Soul 25

To His Wife and On Modesty

“Burdens must be sought by us for ourselves which are avoided even by the majority of the Gentiles, who are compelled by laws, who are decimated by abortions; burdens which, finally, are to us most of all unsuitable, as being perilous to faith!”

Tertullian, To His Wife 5

This passing reference to abortion comes in the context of an exhortation to avoid unsuitable practices as a believer. Certain actions, says Tertullian, we must have no part of. His use of abortion as an example illustrates a clear opinion that such a practice is wrong. Likewise, in dealing with the subject of adultery in On Modesty, Tertullian urges his readers to “witness the midwives… how many adulterous conceptions are slaughtered.” In a similar manner, abortion is given a passing and clearly negative reference.

The value of the foetus: The Apology

Tertullian is so wholly negative on this issue because, as mentioned in the earlier quote from his Apology, he considers abortion to be the murder of a human life. This fundamental value of human life is seen in his Apology, continuing from where we left off above…

“To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.” That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.9.

To Tertullian, the foetus in the womb is a human life, and you cannot take a human life. Murder is despicable, and it applies within and without the womb.

Summary

Tertullian is clear and consistent on his messaging around this issue. Abortion, for Tertullian, was the detestable act of taking a human life. The foetus was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) – just as much as he was, or the reader to whom he wrote.

Despite his personal development on other issues, Tertullian never wavered in his opinion on this matter. Abortion was wrong, and ought to be opposed by Christian and non-Christian alike. This is not a modern opinion held by certain groups of evangelical Christians. Nor is the argument for the inherent worth of human life in the womb a modern reinterpretation of Scripture. Tertullian is an example of a Christian believer simply reading and applying the fundemental worth of human life to this issue of abortion.

Who led the first Christians?

The language used to describe the Early Church can often be the biggest barrier to engaging helpfully with it.

Regardless of your theological persuasion, and your own thoughts on the polity (and autonomy) of the local church, the world of the Early Church can seem alien. Who led these first christian communities?

The answer to this is simple, bishops. The name comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος, and literally means overseer or supervisor. Indeed, 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.

“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…”

1 Timothy 3:2

The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not then 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, began to develop significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities. 

Many examples of these early Christian leaders are available for us to study. One of them, bishop Ignatius of Antioch, wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century. In it he wrapped up the idea of the bishop in the local and universal church.

“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.

Ignatius uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, and he is mirrors the Biblical picture of church order. This is not an affirmation of the Catholic tradition. Nor is it an affirmation of a Protestant structure of church polity (or any other denominational setup). It is a simple explanation of the status of each and every local church community. 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. A simple picture of how these Early Churches were led. By faithful men, set apart for ministry, under the law and rule of God.

For more on Ignatius himself: have a read here.

Clement of Rome and the early claim for the Authority of Rome

The question as to the authority of Rome in the history of Christianity has long been a divisive one. Whilst those in the Catholic tradition will claim an authority stretching back to the Apostle Peter, the reality of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church is to be found in the emergence of Roman authority in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The famous and divisive scholar Walter Bauer theorised that the theological tradition that he believed later became orthodox Christianity could find its roots in Rome itself. Bauer suggests that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome support this idea: that Rome held the authority within the orthodox tradition from the late first century.

Whilst I have mentioned elsewhere that the big picture of Roman authority cannot be traced back beyond the fifth and sixth centuries, here I would like to briefly address the question of using Clement in support of an argument of early Roman primacy. I believe it is a suggestion that falls down quickly in face of the evidence, and indeed, exposes the truth of where Christians can look to authority.

1 Clement: Roman authority over Corinth?

The first extant epistle attributed to Clement of Rome dates from approximately 96 AD. 1 Clement is addressed to the Church in Corinth – and sent, in the hands of the messengers Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito and Fortunatus, from the gathered Church in Rome.

Clement has written to the Corinthians because of a dispute that has arisen among them. The church in Corinth had ejected its elders, and installed new leadership, despite the faithful and wise service of their former presbyters. This has led to a bitter division in the church, and 1 Clement is written to encourage a Gospel unity predicated on their shared salvation in Christ.

It is worth noting that the assumption that the leader of the church in Rome commanded authority over the Corinthian church because of this letter is questioned by the first line. The letter is addressed, as mentioned above, not by Clement himself, but from “the [colony] of the church of God at Rome”. It is a letter from one local church, one family of believers, to another.

More so than this: there is a continual and clear tone throughout the letter. There are not stark commands to submission, or indications of pulling rank or setting the standard. Instead there are gentle, and indeed hard, admonitions to love one another in the truth. As I discuss below, this is a letter not grounded in the authority of Rome, but in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, the letter continues in a shared tone of submission not to one another, but to God Himself. The encouragement is clear (9) – “Let us bow then, to that sovereign and glorious will. Let us entreat His mercy and goodness, casting ourselves upon His compassion.” The letter urges the Corinthian church to join with their Roman brothers and sisters in submitting to their Heavenly Father, and ultimately to throw off the quarrels and rivalry that have arisen. There is a clear humility with which this letter is written, and the idea of exaltation above the flock is clearly refuted (16): “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.”

This letter is written in a gracious style; hard and clear yes, but not overbearing or authoritative in and of itself. It is a collegiate missive, from one church to another. It is a partnership across the Empire – “dear friends” are repeatedly addressed, and the language of “we”/”us” is used as Clement encourages his brothers and sisters to strive as one. This is no vertical papal directive to a wandering church, it is a horizontal, loving correction from one church to another.

A Few Recent Scholarly Comments

In his introduction to his 1987 Penguin translation of 1 Clement, Andrew Louth writes (20) “Although Clement does not write like a Pope exercising his extraordinary jurisdiction, maybe a step had already been taken in that direction.” This seems to me, misguided. To suggest that the evidence points away from a papal authority, then question whether, regardless, such authority exists, seems erroneous. And more recent scholars would agree.

In their excellent rebuttal of the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger address the importance of Rome in the early years. “When one compares the tone of 1 Clement to that of other letters from the same time period, it is evident that the letter did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it.” (43-44). They note that there is no authoritative tone, no imposition of Roman will. Louth, in his 1987 introduction, overlooks this point.

The letter came from Rome, but this does not mean it automatically carries with it a Roman authority. To read fifth/sixth century authority back into the first century is to commit the very crimes Bauer accuses those who argue for a consistent orthodox position throughout the Early Church period of embracing. 1 Clement simply does not add to the argument of an early Roman authority.

Clement’s true source of authority: Scripture

Instead 1 Clement clearly shows the reader, both ancient and modern, where the authority for their letter resides. It is found in Scripture.

Continually, Scripture is used to illustrate the points made. Scripture is used to reveal sin, to call the Corinthian Church to repentance, to offer a reminder of the truth of the resurrection, and much more. The divinely inspired pages of Scripture offer the basis of authority in this letter.

(28) “Since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe… so that we may find shelter in His mercy… As it says in the Psalms…” Time and again this letter appeals to God, and His word, not to human authority.

Because this authority is total. The above quote goes on to cite Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It is God’s authority that is total and complete, no Bishop or Pope or Church has authority over God’s people, and there was no sense of papal authority in 1 Clement. Instead, this letter appeals to The Authority, to God Himself. To the God that is sovereign over all, sees all, knows and keeps all. A God worth submitting to. A God worth knowing.

A response to the Francis Chan soundbite: The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church

You may have seen a video of the Christian author and preacher, Francis Chan, doing the rounds in recent days. In it, Francis makes the claim that for the first fifteen hundred years of Church History, people literally believed that the body and blood of Christ were being partaken during the Lord’s Supper. I include the video below in case you’ve missed it.

I’d like to briefly say that this post is not a dig against Francis by any means. I appreciate his books and teaching, and would thoroughly recommend books such as Crazy Love as a great read for young and mature Christians alike. This post is aimed at challenging something I believe to be factually wrong.

This claim, aligning Christian belief for the first 1500 years of Church History with elements of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is in fact incorrect. Whilst Francis has much to say that is helpful, this particular claim is wrong.

Below are extracts from key early church thinkers and writings, that refute Francis’ claims. But behind such claims is, I believe, a bigger problem with the current engagement of evangelical Christians with Early Church history. And so at the end of this post is a short addendum and a link to some earlier posts. Evangelical Christians, such as Francis and myself, all too often lump the Early Church in with the Catholic Church, or assume that after the Apostolic era ended, the Catholic Church simply appeared. We’re often too easily afraid of the difference between catholic and Catholic.

But first, a short reponse to Francis Chan, from the mouths of members of the Early Church themselves.

Early Church understandings of The Bread and The Wine.

Athenagoras (c.133 – 190) says to eat the flesh of man is an abomination:

But if it be unlawful even to speak of this, and if for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act; and if what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish,–then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance”

Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211) says Christ called the wine, wine:

In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’–the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word ‘shed for many, for the remission of sins’–the holy stream of gladness. And that he who drinks ought to observe moderation, He clearly showed by what He taught at feasts. For He did not teach affected by wine. And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again, when He said to His disciples, ‘I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father.’

Clement of Alexander, Paedagogus, 2.2

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) spoke of the bread and wine being shared out as bread and wine:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.

In the Didache (written c.96), the bread and wine are pictures of unity, and there to stir us to give thanks:

First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.. And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through.

Didache, 9.

Tertullian (c.155 – 220) reminds us that Christ told us the bread was a representation:

the bread by which he represents his own proper body…

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 1.14

Finally, Origen (c.184 – 253), in his commentary On Matthew, says that bread is bread, and has no higher substance. But that the Lord’s Supper ought to point us to something greater, to the True Living Bread, to the one we are remembering. Christ.

… it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh, who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.’

Origen, On Matthew, 11.14

Origen points us away from the physical bread and wine, and takes us to the true satisfaction found in Christ. The Early Church clearly taught that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to meet as a church family and remember what it was the Lord has done for us. It clearly taught that we meet to give thanks to our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not eat of Him, nor would they suggest such a thing, but wonderfully, through His death and resurrection, we are now in Him.

Francis Chan has been right on many things, but on this he is wrong. The Early Church drew on truth they gained from Scripture, that the Lord had instituted this meal so that His church would gather and remember what He did for them. I have included the words of Early Church writers here to counter the claims made in the above video, but to see real and lasting truth, simply turn to the Gospel accounts of that Upper Room, and Paul’s thoughts upon what happened there, to read the divinely inspired words of Scripture on this matter. Transubstantiation is not a biblical teaching, and neither is it backed up by the history of the Early Church.

Addendum: why we need to study Church History well.

Francis Chan’s comments show the need to approach Christian history with discernment. He makes two claims in his video that would be refuted by almost every single academic, whether Christian or not. As seen above, the claim that the church believed the bread and wine became the literal body and blood for the first 1500 years is clearly incorrect, but secondly, Francis claimed that for the first 1000 years there was but one church.

This is simply not the case. As I show in my blog on Catholicism, the Catholic Church came to the fore in the sixth century. And both before and after this, Christendom was divided geographically, or by leadership or cannon. Groups such as the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians claimed to be the true church, in the first three centuries of Church History alone!

There has only ever been one true church, God’s elect and redeemed church. But that’s never been shown in one strain, denomination, or label. However hard we might try. Sinful people simply make it too hard to achieve such global unity.

We need a better understanding of Church History, and the Early Church in particular. Find out more below.

Why do we need to bother with the Early Church? Find out here.

What about Catholicism? Check this post out.

Was there one church only? See this post for examples of the heresy and schisms that plagued even the earliest years of Christian history.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

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Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

Language Games. Looking different: sounding the same?

The Early Church was doing something radical in the ancient world. Men and women, slave and free, different ethnicities all gathered together celebrating one God, one Spirit, one faith.

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Ephesus, the site of one of the earliest Christian communities.

Such radical behaviour naturally attracted criticism. The atheist Celsus, a 2nd century opponent of the faith, was particularly aggressive in his criticism of the new faith. One of his major criticisms was that the meetings and rituals of these Christ followers worryingly resembled the ‘secret associations’ of cults and dark religious groups.

The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws. And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the love-feasts of the Christians.

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.1

What was Celsus saying here? Origen (who wrote Against Celsus in response to the atheist) tells us that Celsus was trying to discredit the faith. He does this by suggesting that Christians were merely adherents to these illegal, secretive associations that carried out such debauched practices as ‘love-feasts’. Celsus makes the meetings and meals of the Christians into a dangerous series of illicit meetings…

Why did such an accusation carry weight? Because the ancient world was full of associations, guilds and societies.

Associations, Guilds and Societies

The ancient world was full of social gatherings. Guilds and associations, called collegia in Latin and thiasoi in Greek, abounded. Everyone was a member. Blacksmiths were members of blacksmiths guilds, laywers members of legal guilds. The rich were members of dinner party societies, the poor members of clubs and guilds designed to share simple meals and offer emergency provisions. These guilds were divided among social class and career. These guilds supported their members, organised social events, and even provided funds and materials for the funerals of members.

Guilds and societies were a big and common part of Roman life. These secret associations Celsus mentions were illegal perversions of these guilds. They secretly worshipped one god above all others, members were devoted to their cause, and their actions were often criticised as being illegal or repulsive.

Though all these guilds, secret or ordinary, had defined members lists, it was only these secret ones that would shun all others. Gods and goddesses were so often tied to a particular guild. Patron deities were especially revered. But no self-respecting association would disregard all other gods purely because they happened to prefer one. And no regular association would allow slaves and peasants to mix with officials and elites.

Language Games

The Early Church did both those things. They taught their members that there was only one God, and they accepted into their midst anyone, regardless of their social standing, if they professed faith in this one God.

And so it was easy for opponents of the faith to label them secret, perverted groups.

So the Church had to find a way to explain to the world what it was they were about. Christians began to use words like collegium, or thiasos, to describe how they were meeting together. We even find Early Christian churches described as philosophical schools of learning. The Church had to play language games to interact with the world around them.

The best known label for these Early Christian groups was ekklesia – the term from which we get our English word: church. In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering, an assembly, a meeting. The Early Church began to use words like this to make what it was doing accessible to outsiders. Because that is perhaps the biggest difference between the church and these other groups: anyone could join, everyone could be welcomed in. A profession of faith in Christ is all that was required, and anyone who met the living God could do that.

Our Church

The Early Church faced the challenge of describing what it was they were doing to a world who had never come across them before. In our own world, the terminology: church, has an established and largely understood meaning.** But we must guard against our churches resembling collegia. We must guard against a lack of welcome, a lack of engagement. The Gospel is exclusive, there is a clear in and out. But the church had the job of presenting the Gospel invitation to the world. We can’t do that if our closed up membership is looking inwards, refusing to engage with the world around them. We can do that, when, radically, believers of all ages, stages and backgrounds, gather around the Gospel in love for God’s creation.

Our mission as church is to go out. A clear and defined membership of believers, inviting everyone we meet and engage with to join God’s great salvation plan.

That invitation is just as alien to our modern world as it was to the Roman world of the Early Church. We don’t face the barrier of setting up a whole new way of ‘doing life’, but we do face a similar challenge. Christ still calls us to reject all other gods, to meet with and encourage one another, and to go out on mission to a lost world that will never understand what we are doing until we introduce them to Jesus.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus’s Great Commission is to go. It is to take the Gospel to all nations, leading repentant sinners to a saving faith in Christ. Our Lord commands us to engage with the world around us. Not to dilute the Gospel message or to conform to the ways of the world, but to go, and to take that wonderful Gospel message out to the communities and people who work and live around us.

Because the Early Church was different. And so are we today. We’re different because we aren’t living for ourselves. I’m not in church because it’s powerful or wealthy. I’m there because I’ve been saved by Christ at the Cross, and I want to join my family in praising Him, encouraging one another in the truth, and obeying His command to gather together. Church will always look weird to a world rejecting God. But if we aren’t reaching those outside Church with the Gospel, they’ll never quite understand why that is.

*Membership in the Early Church is an interesting topic: often it seems that those born into Church families were included as members. The Biblical picture is to love and raise children in the faith, but they must still stand on their own two feet. They must decide for themselves whether they will trust and obey Jesus before they can be members of the Church.

**Sometimes that meaning is negative in our world, this places even more of an emphasis on going out with the Gospel message to lost sinners in need of grace! We aren’t going out to advertise ourselves, but to tell the wonderful redeeming truth of an all loving God.

The Tragedy of False Teaching

The Early Church faced a lot of challenges in its formative years. One of the greatest problems came from within the Church itself: heresy. Some of my next few posts will look at a few of the common heresies the Early Church had to contend with. As they fought against the oppressive and liberal Roman world, the creation of heretical and schismatic movements within the Church itself meant that brothers and sisters in the Early Church had to fight for the Gospel both within and without.

Gnostics, Donatists, Arians and many more rose up, and they all taught lies and deception, deceiving people from salvation to damnation. These heresies sprung from and depended on false teaching. Peter spoke of the terrible effect that false teaching could have.

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.

2 Peter 2:1-3 (NIV).

This and other clear teachings on the danger of false teachers in the New Testament illustrate the damaging power such people have. Their false teachings are destructive. Their words deny the Lord they claim to profess, and the “many” who follow them will bring the way of truth into disrepute. The Bible is clear on the end of these teachers. Peter tells us they will be destroyed, he goes on to say their reward will be “[to] be paid back with harm for the harm they have done” (2:13).

The true tragedy of these teachers is their followers. The “many” that Peter tells us will follow such teachers ought to break our hearts. Many led astray from the path of life to that of death. Many seduced by evil, away from what is good. Many who appeared saved now lost. As we look at the schism and sinfulness of the Early Church we must not be anaesthetised to the human reality of what we see. Many men and women doomed to an eternity apart from God because of the actions and teachings of false teachers. That is not to say they are not at fault for their sinful hearts, by no means, Peter reminds us here that there is great sin in denying the truth. But wrapped in this sin of false teaching is great tragedy: men and women bent on destruction operating within the church only a few decades after the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.

We shouldn’t let the historical distance between us and the Early Church steel us against the sadness of men and women destined for destruction. Recognising the tragedy of the schisms and heresies of the Early Church ought to prompt us to more readily engage those around us who we know are far from the truth of God with His Gospel. 

Recently a friend of mine became very seriously ill. In his illness he feared that, perhaps, his time on Earth was up. Thinking he had but days left (I am glad to say that he has since recovered considerably), he decided to write letters to some of his close non-Christian friends. I read one of these letters, addressed to a great university friend of his, and it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to hear so candidly the words of a friend who expected such a letter to be read when he was gone, but it was even more distressing to see the emotion behind his plea with his non-christian friend to explore the Gospel. My friend had a great concern for those who were lost, and this challenged me. Even if it were my darkest hour, am I concerned for the lost as I should be?

Does my heart break or am I cruelly indifferent?

I know I struggle to be truly heartbroken for lost souls. It is something I must repent of, something I need to be challenged on. And I suspect this is the case for many of us. Are we truly grieved by the thought of those we know and love quite literally hell-bent on their own eternal destruction?

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon summed up the tragedy of a lost soul.

Lost! Lost! Lost! Better a whole world on fire than a soul lost! Better every star quenched and the skies a wreck than a single soul to be lost!

Charles Spurgeon.

What a tragedy that the outcome of false teaching in any age is lost souls. May we be challenged by that painful reality, and moved to embrace both solid Bible-based teaching and heartfelt evangelism all the more as we think of the challenge of the schisms and sinfulness of the Early Church.