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.

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.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

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.