The scene selected by the first known church historian as the starting-point of the story which under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost he had to tell was that which took place on the Mount of Olives, when the disciples saw their Lord with the eyes of flesh for the last time. Scripture history and Scripture imagery are full of mountains. Moriah, Sinai, Carmel, all have their story to tell. The central act of all, itself deepest tragedy and most glorious of victories, took place on Mount Calvary. The Gospels are full of scenes that were enacted on the Mount of Olives. But this was the climax of all the strange history of Olivet. It was itself and end and a beginning. It was the end of the Saviour's work on earth. But it was the beginning also of the continuation of His ministry by those whom He left to represent Him on earth.
The Lord Jesus Christ had died and risen. There was a Gospel to preach, resting upon facts which could not seriously be disputed. He did not stay to preach it. He returned to the Father, and there sat down because His work was finished. He left in the world a little band of men to tell what He had done for its salvation, and this task He definitely committed to them at the moment when He was to be taken from them for the last time. "Go ye into all the world. and preach the Gospel to every creature" "Go ye and teach all nations." That is the commission of the church. That is the key to the conflict of the Christian age. To carry out that commission and for no other purpose the church is in the world. Not that the church is in being for no other purpose. The church is in being to be the dwelling-place of the Father's love and the very expression of His glory in Christ through eternity. But the church is in the world in order to carry out this commission. Its members are perfect in their standing before God in Christ. They are "made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light" They could at any moment be translated to the divine presence away from the world and its evil. But they are left on earth. "He leadeth the ninety-and-nine in the wilderness that He may seek and find the one. "God is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness, but is long-suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." "This gospel of the Kingdom must first be preached among all nations for a witness against them, and then shall the end come."
The Gospel commission is the key to all problems of church history, large or small. It is the key to the success or failure of the many organizations built up to form the channels of witness to the world. Churches, societies, individuals, as we shall see, have concerned themselves with this or that theological problem. They have made worship central instead of the Gospel commission. They have concerned themselves with their relations with the state. They have concentrated on philanthropy and social service. Wherever they have done this and have forgotten the purpose for which the Master has placed them in the world, wherever they have lost the Master's vision of a perishing humanity, wherever they have become inattentive to the cry of spiritual anguish, the Spirit has passed them by, and when they have persisted He has extinguished the light of their witness. And the pages of church history are strewn with their wreckage. They may have shouted their loyalty to Christ, they may even have suffered for Him. But if once they have forgotten that our Lord combined in a single phrase, "for my sake and the gospel's, "devotion to Himself and loyalty to His commission, they have lost their influence and sunk into spiritual death.
The departure of the Lord was associated not only with the commission. It provided the moment for a clear promise of His personal return. The disciples were still gazing after Him as He was taken up from them and disappeared into the clouds, when angelic messengers declared in plain tones the promise of His personal, bodily return. This was no new message. He had spoken of it when He had been on earth. He had told them that He would come again and receive them to Himself. But the association of the promise with the great commission and with the ascension emphasized to the disciples the goal of their labours and the hope that lay before them as they carried out the commission. And so they returned to the city, conscious that they were entrusted with the Gospel message which was the salvation of the world, and that at the end of their task they would again meet face to face the Lord Who had committed it to them. From that day to this, these two themes have been inseparable from health in the church. The church that is truly representing the Lord on earth is a church that is burdened with it's indebtedness to proclaim the Gospel over the whole world, and a church in whose heart the hope of His personal return in glory burns with a fervent brightness. In the Apostle's words, "Ye turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven."
The disciples who had watched the ascension of the Lord, who had received the commission and been given the promise of His return, went back to Jerusalem to tarry, and there they waited for ten days. What a lesson this is, both to them and to us. Souls were perishing around them by the thousand. Their hearts were full of the Gospel commission. Yet they had to tarry. They were powerless in themselves. They had to await God's time, but above all God's power, with which they were mightily equipped when God the Holy Spirit filled them on the day of Pentecost. Here, then, is a third secret. The commission is not carried out by the church, but by the Spirit through the church. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come." The individuals who compose the church must lend themselves to the Spirit without reserve, if they are to be effective instruments for Christ and the Gospel, and effective channels of living water to a dying world.
On the day of Pentecost the Spirit came and the church's baptism of power took place, making this Holy Spirit in all His fulness once and for all available to every individual believer who asks for and appropriates him. The disciples stepped out into the streets of Jerusalem, and there preached the Gospel of the risen Christ to the crowds assembled for the feast. The great conflict with the devil for the souls of men had begun and in this chapter we are to follow its course for the first two hundred and seventy years.
For about the first thirty years of this period we have the Spirit's own inspired picture in the Acts of the Apostles. The Lord had told the disciples that they were to be His witnesses in an ever-widening circle which was to comprise Jerusalem; Judea, Samaria the uttermost parts of the earth. The Book of the Acts shows us this circle widening. It may be divided roughly into two sections, the first being concerned with the activities of the Apostle Peter, the second with those of the Apostle Paul. Though Peter was the first to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles and to receive them into the church, his main work lay among the Jews, while Paul was the chosen missionary to the Gentiles. The Book of the Acts shows us the organisation of the church, the Apostles attending to its spiritual needs, and deacons being appointed to look after the social and practical activities. Numbers were reached by open-air preaching, while house-to-house visitation went on constantly; and the first day of the week, the day of the Lord's resurrection, began from the first to be regarded as that one of the seven upon which believers assembled and partook of the Lord's Supper.
The early days were days of miracle and supernatural gifts. These were prevalent in the days of the Apostles, but continued during all or most of the first two hundred and eighty years, according to the testimony of the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who lived in the third and fourth centuries. Special miraculous powers possessed by the Apostles probably disappeared with them, but the gifts of healing and of tongues remained among the early Christians. Certain believers had gifts of healing and could recover the sick by laying their hands upon them accompanied by prevailing prayer, while others could speak, as the Apostles did on the day of Pentecost, so that listeners heard in their own language and not in that of the speaker. Faced by emergencies, the early church rushed to prayer. There are accounts of prayer meetings in the Book of the Acts which show the frequency with which they took place and the reliance that believers placed upon them. The control of the Spirit over the activities of the church is made abundantly clear in the Acts. The outbreak of persecution at Jerusalem, which must have appeared to be a calamity and which scattered the church, proved to be the means by which the Gospel was spread abroad. The hindrance to the Apostle Paul's plans for evangelising Bithynia was the means of bringing the Gospel to Europe. The weariness which caused the young man Eutychus to go to sleep and fall to his death gave birth to a great miracle which manifested the glory of God. The arrest and imprisonment of the Apostle brought him to Rome, which it had been his fervent desire to reach for years.
Throughout the Book of Acts there runs an impression of ceaseless enthusiastic activity, not the wasted activity of the flesh, but the practical devotion of men filled with and controlled by the Spirit, doing "all things by prayer."
The energy of the Apostle Paul was prodigious. In the space of less than thirty years he had founded churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and on the Adriatic coast. He had visited Rome and possibly reached Spain. He had paid two or three visits to Jerusalem, and kept up a correspondence with his converts. During part of this time he supported himself by working at a trade, and during the whole time he never ceased to bear up the churches he had founded and their individual members in prevailing prayer before God. A11 this was accomplished in days when there was no regulation of the hours of labour, and when there were no swifter means of travel than the pack-horse and the sailing-ship.
When the Book of Acts closes, a curtain descends upon the activity of the church, but we may conjecture its extent from its results. The evidence that we have of the early church is small and disjointed. It comes from the writings of Christian authors, known as the "Fathers", and from one or two glimpses through the eyes of heathen Roman governors and historians of the growing Christian church. For the period immediately following the apostolic period there is less of it than for the second and third centuries. Such as it is, it is concerned with the doctrine and worship of the church more than with its activities. We know nothing, except what we may conjecture, of the methods by which the Gospel was spread. We hear of organization for the relief of the poor, but of nothing approaching the missionary societies of our own day. We know nothing of preaching in the market places, except what we read in the Acts, nothing of personal work or house-to-house visitation. Yet we may be certain that early Christians were in essentials like ourselves. They faced the same drawbacks, and their difficulties were greater than ours.
Although we know practically nothing from evidence of the way the church extended, we know that in two hundred and eighty years the Roman Empire fell before it. It seems probable that by the year 300 a proportion approaching one twentieth of the inhabitants of the great cities were Christian. In Rome there were fifty thousand believers. The churches in Africa were large, those in Gaul quite small. But Christian churches existed from Britain and Spain on the one side to the Euphrates on the other, and beyond it throughout the Parthian kingdom which bounded the empire on the east. All this was brought about by the Holy Spirit of God working through men and women who regarded themselves as at war for Christ, who, in the light of the hope that lay before them, refused to spare themselves, but lived, worked and planned with the supreme object in view of witnessing for the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of consequences.
The organization of the great Roman Empire in which the Christian church was founded greatly assisted the spread of the Gospel. From Britain to Africa, from Spain to Armenia, the world was under one government. The various provinces of this great empire were connected with the centre in Italy by a system of roads superbly constructed and adequate, it seems, for the traffic that passed over them. Communication was easy. The existence of this great empire was not only the subject of Old Testament prophecy, but was undoubtedly part of the divine purpose for the spread of the Gospel. At the opening of the second century B.C. the city of Rome had emerged as a great Mediterranean power as a result of her conquest of Carthage. Her empire had spread eastwards, embracing Greece in the second century, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt in the first. Shortly before the birth of our Lord the supreme government of the empire had been concentrated in the hands of one man, and the republican constitution came in practice to an end. Already the language problem within the empire was becoming simplified. Greek came to be used as the common language of the eastern part, and Latin as that of the west. Greek was understood in Rome and normally spoken by many of its inhabitants, slaves and tradesmen from the east. A New Testament in Greek was therefore understood over a large section of the known world.
There was only one direction in which the Gospel spread in these early days outside the Roman Empire. This was the east. Over the Roman frontier by the river Euphrates was the Parthian or Persian kingdom. The Parthians had been the enemies of Rome ever since they came in contact in the first century B.C. They had inflicted one irrevocable defeat on the Roman armies, and remained too strong to be subdued. A large number of Jews were settled in this region, many being the descendants of those who had been carried away from Palestine at the time of the Babylonian captivity or earlier. Numbers of these were present at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and many of them were converted and carried the Gospel back to their homes when they returned. The same enthusiasm and activity which characterized the church within the Roman Empire was a feature of the eastern churches as well. Christian congregations spread all over the Persian kingdom, and it appears that there was missionary activity beyond. The phenomenal activity in the far east of the Syrian church belongs to a later period, but it may well be that in these very early days the Gospel was carried farther than has been generally supposed. A Christian writer of the third century says that evangelisation had taken place in India and China. This may be an exaggeration, but it is not an impossibility. There were regular trade routes to the far east, which later, owing to climatic changes, became closed. Of one thing we may be certain. The devotion, enthusiasm and practical self-sacrifice of the Christians of the first two hundred and fifty years remain a standing example and challenge to our own generation. Without state support, without swift transport, without facilities for advertising, without comfort in travel, without a printed Bible, at first probably without a New Testament that was bound up together, they carried the Gospel and won thousands of souls from a godless, heathen background over an area stretching from Spain to Central Asia and from Ireland to the Upper Nile.
An important method of witness was open to the early Christians, which in our own country today is comparatively speaking unknown, but which is already manifesting itself elsewhere. If we search the New Testament on the subject of witness we shall find four methods revealed. The first of them is that of suffering. If the organization of the Roman Empire assisted the spread of the Gospel, its government provided from time to time the opportunity for witness by martyrdom and suffering For over two hundred years there was no deliberate policy of persecution against the Christians, and it is not possible to determine on the evidence at our disposal to what extent a Christian put himself outside the law by the simple fact of his profession of faith. Persecution was sporadic, and arose from two main causes.
The first was the unwavering refusal of the Christians to conform in the slightest degree to the state religion. The mass of the population of the Roman Empire cared little for the heathen gods. Exotic cults from the east attracted worshippers, the most notable being Mithraism, which seemed in numbers and influence as if it might rival Christianity. The government did not care what religions the various subject peoples favoured, but its policy was to gather and head up, as it were, the various cults and the various deities into the supreme, if vague, worship of Rome and of the Emperor. Each Emperor on his death took his place among the gods. To offer incense before the statue of an Emperor, to sacrifice on any public occasion to the appropriate deity, was a necessary part of good citizenship. To refuse was disloyalty to the Emperor and to the state. This vague cult of Rome, this adoration of the Emperor, was a valuable instrument in the hands of the central government for binding together the very diverse peoples over which it ruled. To stand outside it was tantamount to an act of rebellion.
The central government was often puzzled as to how to deal with Christians. There is extant a letter written in the first half of the second century by Pliny, the governor of Bithynia to the Emperor Trajan, asking for instructions as to what to do with the Christians in his province. He emphasizes their obstinacy and the dangerous nature of their beliefs. The Emperor replied that Christians were not to be sought for, but that if they made themselves a nuisance by stubborn refusal to recognise the state religion they were to be punished. To the honour of the early church as a whole be it said, that so far as heathenism was concerned they surpassed in exclusiveness any of the most exclusive denominations of the present day. Christians preferred death and torture to compromise and contamination. If our own generation of compromise were only to realise what it owes to the stand taken by the early saints and martyrs it might have a chance of regaining a little backbone.
The second reason for outbreaks of persecution against the Christians lay in the misunderstanding of their position by the people at large, and the exasperation which their witness, both negative and positive, produced among them. The people's anger was often fanned by the heathen priests, who felt that their status and livelihood were endangered by the spread of Christianity. There was scarcely a domestic occasion upon which a Christian true to his principles did not find himself in collision with others. If he was asked out to dinner with heathen acquaintances, the meal began with a libation poured out to the heathen gods. He was not only unable to take part in this, conduct which was considered strange and rude, but generally made use of the opportunity to protest against the recognition of the false gods and to bear witness to the truth. If an acquaintance sneezed in his presence and used the expression customary to the occasion, "Jupiter protect us," the Christian again seized his chance to witness for the true God against the false.
The position and attitude of the early Christians can be understood with sympathy by their spiritual descendants, the Evangelicals of today. We all know the misunderstanding and the sneers that sometimes arise when we keep aloof from worldly amusements, or the anger aroused when we refuse to recognise a compromise with religious error. These things are of the same kind, but small in degree compared with the issues raised by the early Christian stand for the faith, a stand prompted by their firm and definite doctrinal belief, rich spiritual experience, deep sense of the holiness and majesty of God, and earnest desire to save their neighbours from sin and to bring them to salvation.
The hostility and anger of the populace occasionally found vent in mob attacks on Christians, for which the Christians themselves were usually held responsible by the magistrates. Until the middle of the third century persecution was not systematic or universal. It broke out here and there at various times, and the church enjoyed periods of freedom and rest. The earliest government persecution on a large scale took place in Rome itself, under the Emperor Nero, not forty years after the Lord's resurrection. The city caught fire, and a large section of it was burnt. The populace suspected the Emperor, whose character was thought capable of such an action, of setting it on fire to make a dramatic background to a musical performance. Their anger was dangerous enough to cause the Emperor to look about for a scapegoat. The Jews, who might have been selected, were protected by high influence at court. The Christians, drawn almost entirely from the lowest classes, suspected and despised if not hated, possessing no interests to protect them, provided what was needed. Nero accused them of burning the city, and the fury of government and populace was let loose upon them. It is improbable that Christians beyond Rome itself were touched, but within the city a fiery trial took place. The Christians were herded in the arenas of the public theatres and thrown to the wild beasts. Others were covered with pitch and set alight to illuminate the Emperor's gardens at an evening party.
One of the best known of the early martyrdoms is that of Polycarp, who was burnt alive at Smyrna during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was over eighty years old at the time. When the people demanded his death, he at first fled into the country, but was found and arrested. The usual test was offered him of sacrificing, and he stoutly refused. He declared his faithfulness to the Saviour Whom he had served all his life, and courageously faced the ordeal. He must have been one of the last of those who had come into personal touch with the Apostles: he had been instructed by the Apostle John. His death is typical of that of many others. It may well be true that the number of Christians who suffered death was not in the aggregate large. Even so, the manner of their death was usually agonizing. Many who were not called upon to give their lives, suffered imprisonment, banishment or confiscation. Many Christians were slaves, and for them at any rate judicial examination was normally by torture. In spite of good government and comparative tolerance, human life was cheap, and human suffering was too often a matter of indifference. Pliny, to whom we referred above, thought nothing of submitting two Christian women to torture simply in order to discover from them what he could about Christian beliefs and practices. Though the majority of Christians, before the great persecutions of the third and early fourth centuries, escaped death, and there were always some who escaped any form of official persecution, the possibility of it was never absent. This was the cost of the stand for Christ in those days. How long would the Christian Unions in our Universities continue to function, if the fact of their existence placed their members beyond the pale of the law? Though complacent authorities might tolerate them, at any time there might be a policeman at the door to take the names of those who were attending a meeting. For the names on the list there would be the end of a University career, perhaps imprisonment; for the leaders, burning alive in the market place. Would a man allow himself under such circumstances to be elected president of a Christian Union? Would the membership be less than it is today?
The early church welcomed these fierce trials as its opportunity for giving witness to the Master. Its members believed simply the statements of the New Testament that persecution was inevitable, and was, in fact, part of God's purpose for His people in order to refine their characters. Above all the endurance of suffering was itself a valuable opportunity for witness. One of the problems that they felt acutely was that of the position of those who had failed in these fierce tests. There were at all times many who could not face the ordeal, who sacrificed when ordered to do so by the magistrate. Later there arose the subterfuge of the purchase from the authorities of tickets vouching that sacrifice had been offered. This transaction was made not only by those who had once given way but also by many who had not sacrificed and did not intend to, but sought an easy way to escape the difficulty without facing the test. When the persecution was over, many of those who had failed sought recognition again as Christians. So great was the atmosphere of reality in which the early Christians lived that the problem, to which no definite or universally accepted solution was found, was whether those who had thus failed should never again be admitted to church membership or whether they might be readmitted once.
This spirit of exalted devotion and defiance sometimes led believers into exaggerations. They went halfway to meet martyrdom. There was the non-commissioned officer, who at a mess gathering tore off his uniform with its heathen religious ornaments, declaring that he would no longer serve a heathen master seeing that he served the Lord Christ. Naturally he was condemned to death. Sometimes devotion to the Lord led to a wonderful triumph over the highest earthly affections. This was so in the case of the young mother who was arrested with her boy of three or four years old. The mother watched the child flogged to death, encouraging him the whole time not to give way, and comforting him with the hope of the reward awaiting him in heaven.
There was one factor in the life of the early church which brings it very close to the circumstances of our own spiritual life today. It contended not only with the heathen world without, but with varying grades of heresy and error within. The grasp of the early Christians upon the fundamental doctrines of the faith was firm and unwavering. One of the earliest heathen testimonies to the Christian faith is the letter of Pliny, the governor of the province of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan in the year 112. In this he asserts that the Christians sing hymns to Christ as God. Various attempts have been made to prove that the conception of the nature and person of Christ was in a state of flux in the early days and later became crystallized into a definite form. This is true in two senses only. First, it is quite obvious that converts from heathenism must have had incomplete notions of Christology until they had studied their Bibles and entered into deeper experience. In this sense the conception of Christ is in flux among converted people today. Secondly, almost our only evidence of the belief of the early church after the apostolic age (when it is clear as crystal) is derived from the few Christians who wrote treatises of apology or exhortation. These may have been less representative of the whole than is usually thought. In any case they were mostly scholars with philosophic or other training in the secular schools. They therefore made various attempts to explain intellectually the mystery of the God-head, attempts which can never reach a satisfactory conclusion and never have. None of these things altered the conviction of the early believers that Christ was God, or disturbed their faith in the statements of Scripture which told them definitely that this was so.
The facts of the incarnation and redemption were clearly held by the early Christians, and what may perhaps be from our point of view of special interest and importance, they had a living practical hope in the personal return in glory of the Lord, the day of Judgment and the end of the world. They were keen students of prophecy. Their view of the Scriptures was exactly that of conservative Evangelicals today. They inherited from the Jews the conception of inspired, authoritative and inerrant Scriptures, a conception confirmed by the Lord and the Apostles, and shown to attach rightly to the three sections that composed the Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. It was natural that the apostolic writings should be placed in the same category. Statements that the canon of Scripture was not decided or recognised till the fourth century, so often made nowadays, arise from two reasons. The first is that in quite early times the whole New Testament was probably seldom contained within the same binding, and certainly never in a single roll. A substantial portion of the New Testament has quite recently been discovered in a single codex (book of the form we use now: as opposed to roll), dating from the second century. It is not likely that this was common. The various Epistles, and no doubt the Gospels also, were at first sent to single churches. Some may have remained for some time known only in the vicinity of the church to which they were first sent. Again, early doubts or disputes as to the acceptance of such and such a book, of which we have very little evidence, arose from the care of the church not to admit what was uninspired. This care arose, of course, from the recognition that there was a canon to be carefully guarded, and not from indifference or ignorance. In quite early days some churches may not have had more than a portion of the Bible, just as today many churches on the mission-field are in a similar position awaiting its translation. But this fact does not make any difference to the belief of those churches in the inspiration of the whole Bible.
Although the grasp of the early church upon the fundamentals of the faith was clear, there was no slavery of thought as arose afterwards in the middle ages and as exists in Romanism today. There were differences of view on inessential matters, and freedom of interpretation was rightly recognised as God's will. We have for example the evidence of Justin Martyr from the second century that different views existed among Christians on the matter of the millennial reign of Christ, or upon the state of the dead. So they do today. Recognition of, and respect for, the interpretation of others kept the church free from bitterness and sectarianism.
She was, however, far from being free from the necessity of contention with heresy and error. No student of the New Testament can be ignorant of the difficulties with which the Apostle to the Gentiles found himself confronted when he taught that the Gentile Christians were free from the observance of the Jewish Law. It seemed difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish believers to realise that all the old observances and the old bondage were swept away in Christ. Sects of professing Jewish Christians, who would not entirely break away from Judaism, existed till the third century at least. Some were the descendants of the apostolic church at Jerusalem which fled across the Jordan to Pella before the destruction of the city. The more moderate seem to have been true believers and to have been recognised as such at the time, but to have clung to Jewish ritual observances. Some of their weaknesses may be referred to in the fourteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Others had the loosest connection with Christianity. One of their sects, the Ebionites, not only denied the Virgin Birth, but based their teaching upon a medley of semi-heathen philosophical ideas, and their worship upon Jewish tradition and ritual. Later others arose known as Elkesaites. So far as we know, these communities were never recognised by any of the Christian churches as being truly Christian. They were the ritualists of the day, and against them the church maintained her witness to a spiritual, scriptural faith whose worship was what might nowadays be called Puritanical and whose external witness was to be found, not in religious observance, not even in organization, but in the changed spiritual and moral lives of believers. This Jewish legalism was the only ritualism professedly within or partially within her ranks with which the early church was faced. The heathen idolatrous system, contact with which she regarded as pollution, had not yet been assimilated into the church. No Christian doubted that the heathen sacrifices were offered to devils, nor that the erection and worship of heathen statues constituted a loathsome and defiling sin. Later generations were to be faced with all these things carried on in the Name of Christ, just as we are still faced with them in Romanism and Anglo-Romanism today.
One of the most remarkable attacks upon the faith and spirituality of the early church was made through the system of Gnosticism. This corresponded to the "modernism" of today, and in a few respects resembled it in a surprisingly close way. Within the loosely constructed Gnostic system there were as many opinions as there are among critics today. If we can conceive of a vague religion, combining the higher criticism, pantheism, doctrines of evolution and cults such as "Christian Science," we have an idea of what Gnosticism was. It professed to be a gnosis, that is to say, a knowledge, a higher means of contact with God, in contrast with which scriptural belief was crude. On a par with this are the pretensions of present day Liberalism, expressed in such phrases as, "No educated man now believes in the inerrancy of Scriptures. These pretensions today rest upon "science," which is only the Latin word for "gnosis." Identical with the critical outlook upon the Old Testament, held by the last two generations, was the teaching of the Gnostic Marcion in the second century. He called the God of the Old Testament crude and capricious, and refused to regard Him as the Father revealed by Christ. He sharply separated the morality of the Old Testament from that of the New. Christ was an emanation from the Divine which came upon the man Jesus at the time of His baptism.
The Gnostics attacked Scripture throughout. Marcion rejected finally all but some of the Pauline Epistles. They denied the scriptural doctrine of creation, as today it is so widely denied. They held instead various theories of what is now called evolution - that is to say, they rejected the Christian doctrine and went back to the pagan theories around them. They denied the visible personal return of Christ and the resurrection of the body, since they regarded what is material as essentially evil, and changed the moral antithesis of good and evil into a physical antithesis of spirit and matter. Their hope for the future was moral improvement and the shaking off of the shackles of materialism. They dispensed with any definite belief as being necessary to salvation and recognised as Christians all who professed a regard for Christ and gave evidence of following a moral standard. The force of Gnosticism seems to have been spent by the close of the second century, but the harm it did remained for two or three generations more. Gnostic ideas were still being expressed in writing during the third century. What a joy and encouragement it is to realise that the theories that trouble so many of us today were met by our spiritual forefathers and triumphantly overcome, though in many respects they were weaker than we are. Gnosticlsm died. It disappeared so completely that its present advocates do not realise that they have revived notions of the past, but regard themselves as "modernists." The Truth has gone triumphantly on.
Not only were the early believers hampered in their witness by the necessity of contending with heresies professed within their own ranks. They were faced with another phenomenon which is still familiar to us. This was the existence of what, if the term is permitted, we may call "stunts." Among believers today there arise here and there certain sections, which do not necessarily form themselves into separate communities, characterized by undue emphasis upon a single, or a single set of, scriptural truths. In some way or other these companies claim to have an extra measure of the gift of the Spirit, in comparison with which the Christian life of the ordinary believer is more or less of a failure. They generally exhibit an unbalanced enthusiasm and an ill-defined, half-conscious sense of superiority. They were represented in the second century by the Montanists, followers of Montanus, a Phrygian. The Montanists constituted partially a reaction against the growing slackness and worldliness of the church. They had prophets who had visions and revelations of their own, and they regarded the Lord's promises of the coming of the Comforter as being finally fulfilled in themselves. Their zeal and fanaticism also carried them in the direction of asceticism and celibacy. They preached that the end of the world was close at hand, and that the new Jerusalem would come down on to a mountain in Phrygia. Tertullian, a Christian leader and writer at the close of the second century, became entangled in Montanism. The Montanists after some seventy years separated themselves, or were half driven out, into a distinct sect, and the movement soon died out.
We have seen something of the devoted activity of the early Christians, of their witness by suffering, and of the heresies with which they had to contend. There remains to be considered one feature of early church life which, unfortunately, is familiar to ourselves as well as to the first generations of believers. It may be summed up in the word worldliness. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles we can watch the formation of the local churches, each with its apostle, which simply means the missionary who founded it, and its regular ministry. These local churches, while realising, of course, their unity in Christ, were independent of each other as regards organization. As we see from the opening verse of the Epistle to the Philippians, there might be at least two bishops in a single local church. The bishop was simply one who superintended the activities of the church and probably presided at and led the weekly worship. Groups of communities would naturally come to be associated, either by reason of geographical proximity, or because they owed their foundation to the same missionary, or for other similar reasons. An able bishop with a strong personality, or even for some purely spiritual reason, might find that his advice was sought by neighbouring churches, in addition to his own. However it happened, groups of churches came to be associated together under the direction of a single man. As the Gospel usually reached the towns first, and spread from the larger centres over the surrounding country districts, the presiding bishop naturally resided in the city. As soon as authority had been concentrated in each district in the hands of a single man, further steps were obvious and inevitable. A metropolitan was appointed over the various bishops of a district, and these presiding bishops met together to represent the churches under their care when it was necessary to confer. Conferences of this sort, later technically named synods, naturally became more and more necessary, as the churches increased in number and membership. This concentration of power, probably unprovided for in the primitive pattern, proved too great a strain on human nature. Individuals began to seek bishoprics as desirable positions in which to exercise power. Mutual jealousy naturally followed, and the very thing which the Lord had so clearly forbidden (Matt. xxiii. 8-12) began everywhere to take place.
There was a second fact that added to the temptation with which those who strove for high positions were faced. The self-sacrifice of the early converts concentrated large sums of money in the hands of the ministers of the various churches. We have seen something of the spirit of reality which the early Christians possessed. As they were converted from heathenism, their hearts and their treasure were transferred to heaven. They often took literally the Lord's command to sell what they had and devote the proceeds to the relief of the poor. They regarded their money and property as belonging to the Lord to an extent little known in our own generation. There seem to have been few, if any, instances of communism in the Gentile churches such as existed in the apostolic church at Jerusalem. But Christians, if they did not quite impoverish themselves, gave largely and freely for the spread of the Gospel, the support of apostles and evangelists, or the maintenance of the elderly, helpless and poor. Naturally the bishops had the first word in the administration of these sums, and as soon as they proved unable to resist a lust for power, they found themselves more and more in the grip of a lust for wealth also. Too often the funds of the church were spent on ostentation. At times they were grievously misappropriated. This was the case with Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, 260-270. This man exercised wide political influence as an unofficial agent. of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who governed Antioch at the time. His income amounted to what would be between £1,500 and £2,000 a year in our money, and he spent it on luxurious living not untainted with vice.
This development, which does not seem to have taken place in the eastern churches outside the Roman Empire until a rather later date, produced two evil effects, one immediate and the other cumulative. It accentuated the suspicion with which the Roman government regarded the rapidly growing numbers and influence of the church. Displays of worldliness like that of Paul of Samosata could only take place during intervals of freedom from persecution. These intervals were frequent and sometimes of appreciable length. But the Roman Emperors saw growing up in the midst of their dominion a separate community with rulers, organization and funds of its own. It stood aloof from the state religion, which it regarded with detestation, and numbers of its members refused some of the normal duties of citizenship. The wonder is that persecution was not more continuous and more nearly universal. In the early days at least it seems that humanly speaking the Roman Empire could have swept Christianity out of existence in a sea of anguish and blood. But the One Who had sent His people forth as sheep in the midst of wolves was with them with them. And that One is Sovereign of the universe.
The second effect produced by the church’s giving way to worldliness is seen in the Emperor's establishment of Christianity in the fourth century. But this belongs to our next section. Before then, the history of the true church was more or less the history of the visible church: Catholic in the true and original sense of the word; Scriptural in the sense that the faith she held was the faith she derived from the Scriptures; Protestant in her tenacity for that faith and her rigid exclusiveness towards error, as in her undying witness to the truths committed to her; Evangelical in the emphasis that she placed upon personal salvation. No one can read the story of the early church with unbiased mind without recognizing that her spiritual counterpart is seen in the Evangelical missionary societies of today; in the stand for the truths of Scripture and the fundamental doctrines made by the Evangelical bodies today against medievalism on the one hand and Liberalism on the other ; and in the simple worship free from the sensuous appeal of art and ostentation, worship that depends upon nothing external whatever, worship in spirit and in truth such as the Father looks for, reintroduced to so many in Christendom by the work and martyrdom of the Reformers.
Gibbon (E.): The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chaps. xv, xvi.
Gwatkin (H. M.): Early Church History to A.D. 313.
Foakes-Jackson (F. J.): The History of the Christian Church from the Earliest Times to A.D. 461.