Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

10. The Early Church |
The leaven in the bread: steady, silent, relentless

The Early Church is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 260, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Man to man, woman to woman, parent to child, the faith spreads irresistibly–like a disease, says officialdom, moving massively to wipe it out

The Early Church - The leaven in the bread: steady, silent, relentless

The Early Church – The leaven in the bread: steady, silent, relentless
Early Christians used only burial, not cremation, but little is known for certain about the rituals which were followed. No doubt they observed the national customs of those peoples amongst whom they lived–as long as they were not directly idolatrous. In Rome, this meant burial in the catacombs, as shown in this painting.

In the year a.d. 256 or thereabouts, fierce Persian warriors attacked the small Roman garrison town of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates River. During the bloody siege that followed, the city’s doomed defenders piled huge embankments of mud and sand against the inside of the city walls to reinforce them against the onslaught, and in their haste and terror they covered up a number of their own buildings. The Persians had no difficulty overcoming such resistance, however, and Dura-Europos disappeared–sacked by the invaders, and buried in part by its own efforts at self-defense.

More than sixteen centuries later, in the 1920s, British soldiers digging trenches in the region encountered the top of a wall. By 1931, archaeologists had begun excavations at the site, located in what is now Syria, near the border of Iraq. Over the next several years, there emerged from the sand a number of remarkable buildings, much of their contents preserved from the vandals and the weather by the mud that had been heaped upon them as a defensive tactic. Among the uncovered ruins stood temples and shrines to any number of gods–not only to Zeus and Apollo and Artemis, but to a wide variety of deities from such places as Phoenicia and Babylon.

The excavations uncovered two private houses as well, both snug against the city’s southern wall, about two blocks apart. Both had obviously been converted to religious use. One had been developed into an elaborate synagogue, with spectacular paintings on its walls. The other, smaller but also splendidly decorated, had become a Christian church. Painted on its walls are depictions of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Christ walking on the water, Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus healing the paralyzed man. Painted slogans urged worshipers to “keep Christ” in their hearts. One room seems to have been used as a school. Inside the church–capacity about one hundred people–is a stone basin covered by an arch, used as a baptistery. It is one of the oldest Christian churches known to exist, and visitors can still see much of it. The Persian marauders easily conquered Dura-Europos, but the Christians, barely two hundred years after the brutal death of their founder, were on their way to conquering the world.

By the second century, churches had been erected in Rome, Antioch, Edessa, and Alexandria, and even across the imperial border in Persia, or Parthia as it was then called. Indeed, Christian church buildings were so numerous in the third century that persecuting Roman emperors more than once signed edicts ordering their destruction. At the mid-third century, there were thirty thousand or so Christians in Rome, and the faith had made its appearance in Spain and Britain.

The actual number of Christians in the empire at the beginning of the third century is a matter of great uncertainty. The sociologist Rodney Stark in his Rise of Christianity puts it at 217,000, meaning the Christians formed a tiny minority, with an average of one person in about two hundred an adherent. However, says Joseph F. Kelly in The World of the Early Christians, third-century Christianity was largely a city religion, so that in some centers, the Christian concentration was probably much higher.1 When Tertullian spoke of Christianity as “filling the world,” he meant the Roman world. There were Christian communities in all the major centers of his native North Africa, and Christians were common in the legions stationed there. The Christians had become “a vast invisible empire,” writes the historian W. H. C. Frend.

Yet they weren’t all that invisible. “We see them [the Christians] in private houses, as wool-carders, cobblers, fullers, the most uneducated, and peasants, who dare not open their mouths in the presence of their elder and wiser masters,” wrote the anti-Christian writer Celsus. But they did open their mouths, sometimes leading their masters to Christianity, and soon the religion whose early followers had called it “The Way” had strong adherents within the imperial government, helping to shape the law, politics, and culture of the time.

As early as the late first century, for instance, there had been rumors that the emperor Vespasian’s brother was Christian or was certainly influenced by them. People had heard about the stirring confession of Senator Apollonius, the witness of Glabrio and Flavia Domitilla under the emperor Domitian. The emperor Commodus’s mistress was Christian, as was the emperor Caracalla’s physiotherapist. The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius says that the emperor Alexander and his mother had surrounded themselves with Christian counselors.

“We appeared only yesterday,” wrote Tertullian, addressing the pagan world at large, “but now we fill your cities, your homes, your squares, your municipalities, the councils, the tribunes, the decuries, the palace, the Senate, and the Forum. We have left you nothing save your temples. Should we secede from you, you would be terrified by your own loneliness.”

It was a gross exaggeration, of course, but it was too close to the truth for those who despised and distrusted the Christians. “Ill weeds grow apace,” says the pagan character Caecillus in Minucius Felix’s fictional Christian dialogue, The Octavius. “Throughout the wide world, the abominations of this impious conspiracy multiply.”

How did this happen? How could Christianity possibly have succeeded? Why did a tiny sect, an odd offshoot of Judaism, survive and spread despite brutal, official persecution aimed at stamping it out? It happened, of course, precisely as that crucified Jew had said it would happen–as yeast spreads through a baking loaf of bread (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:21), quiet, unseen, but constant, until the whole loaf is leavened. But wasn’t this Jesus dead, people asked? Weren’t his thoughts and sayings, though faithfully preserved by his followers over the years, made ludicrous by the shameful way he met his end?

The Christians said no. For one thing, they said, Jesus wasn’t dead at all. He had come back to life and emerged from the tomb under his own unfathomable power to meet again with his followers and to encourage them to persist. For another, the teachings he imparted, and the doctrines that resulted, were surprisingly powerful in their own right, sweeping the world in a movement unparalleled in all of history.

Such was the Christians’ explanation for the rapid spread of their faith. Historians offer other explanations. The time, they say, could hardly have been more opportune. Even as the Roman Empire sprawled confidently across the map, seemingly irresistible, it was beginning to show signs of age and decay. Despite its bureaucratic efficiencies, its feats of engineering, and its armies, Rome offered most of its subjects a life of unrelieved and unrewarding toil. “The two centuries preceding the Christian era had been a period of uninterrupted misery,” writes the historian Samuel Angus in his book The Mystery Religions and Christianity. After the days of Marcus Aurelius, he notes, “happiness departed from the ancient world. . . . Every persecution only strengthened the church. Its competitors were overtaken by mortal weakness when ancient society was tottering to a fall.”

Chief among those competitors was the official paganism advanced by the imperial authorities. But if the people turned in desperation to those far-off gods, they knew these deities held no affection for humans. The gods answered cries for help erratically, if at all, and sometimes quite sadistically. They played vicious tricks on their subjects, finding human suffering and bewilderment amusing. Moreover, they were so numerous as to be bewildering themselves, offering too many options, not enough answers, and absurdities that Christian apologists like Minucius Felix did not shrink from pointing out. He wrote:

Examine into their attendant rites, how ridiculous, how pitiable they appear! Men running about naked in mid-winter; others marching about in felt caps, or parading old shields; drumming on skins, and dragging their gods to beg from street to street. Some temples may only be entered once a year, some never visited at all. There are rites which a man may not attend, others that may be held only in the absence of women, others where the mere presence of a slave is an outrage needing expiation.–Quoted by W. H. C. Frend from Minucius Felix’s Octavius.

The officially mandated public adoration of the Roman rulers was no better. Except for keeping the executioner at bay, ceremonial worship enforced at the point of the sword offered little consolation. Even Judaism, the ancient and magnificent faith that recognized one God alone and attributed to him a deep concern for his chosen people, had fallen on hard times. Jerusalem, its spiritual center, was toppled into the dust by Roman soldiers in a.d. 70, its Temple destroyed and its people scattered.

Meanwhile, in place of the noble virtues of the old Roman republic, a general moral squalor had become a tedious way of life for the populace. Adultery, prostitution, idolatry, self-seeking, and uncaring cruelty were the order of the day. Unwanted children were abandoned in the open, left exposed to die.2 Criminals and political and religious prisoners were thrown to wild animals in arenas for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds.

Clearly, there was deep hunger for something else, a way out of the pain of despair and oppression, and just as clearly, the Christians offered it. They worshiped a God who, they said, had breached the chasm separating the human from the divine. Jesus, a real man who lived, taught, and performed miracles–dying and miraculously returning to life on specific days in a specific year, in full public view–was nothing short of God himself, come down to humanity to rescue it from its torment. This God of the Christians was the very Creator who had fashioned the heavens and the Earth and all who inhabited his creation, and rather than an aloof prankster, he was a God who loved mankind and intended to heal its wounds, to save it and build it up, and finally to bring it into joyous union with himself.

“Christianity had a unique advantage over all its competitors including even Judaism,” says historian Angus, “in having a historic Person as Founder, whose Person was greater than his teachings. . . . No other religion could placard a real Being in flesh and blood who had lived so near to God and brought men into such intimate soul-satisfying union with the Father.”

Frend adds, “They alone of the great religions had the self-confidence and material power to support a long missionary campaign.”

Yet the precise nature of that campaign is not easily discerned. Little is known about early Christian missions and how they operated, writes Frend, although the New Testament abounds in references to them and so does the very early Syrian pamphlet called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also known as the Didache (see p. 53). After the foundational work of Paul and John, there seems to have been a lull in missionary effort until the early second century. The letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement, and the Book of Revelation lay no particular emphasis on evangelical effort, and, instead, often show a preoccupation with the impending end of the world. As the second century unfolded, however, this appears to change and the missionary zeal of Paul has returned.

“Many of the disciples of that age,” writes Eusebius, “whose hearts had been ravished by the divine Word with a burning love for Christ, first fulfilled the command of the Savior and divided their goods among the needy. Then they set out on long journeys, doing the work of evangelists, eagerly striving to preach Christ to those who had never heard the word of faith and to deliver to them the holy Gospels. In foreign lands, they simply laid the foundations of the faith. That done, they appointed others as shepherds, entrusting them with the care of the new growth, while they themselves proceeded with the grace and cooperation of God to other countries and other peoples.”

The “shepherds” who were left behind were also evangelists, not only instructing and nurturing the local Christian communities but also visiting and preaching in outlying areas. Irenaeus, appointed bishop in Gaul, writes regretfully that he had spent so much time and effort learning the language of the area’s barbarians that his Greek had suffered.

Sometimes Christian apologists like Justin and Irenaeus are portrayed as debating with anti-Christians in the public squares of cities. Open-air preaching was probably another means used to propagate the faith. The author of what are called the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions3 describes a preacher who stood in a public place and declared, “Men of Rome, hearken. The Son of God is come to Judea proclaiming eternal life to all who will, if they shall live according to the will of the Father who has sent him.” He then continued to urge his hearers to change their lives and receive the “unspeakable blessings” of eternal life. Otherwise, “after the dissolution of the body, you shall be thrown to eternal fire.” No one, says the author, appeared to take him seriously.

One street-corner preacher, the Alexandrian philosopher and Christian convert named Pantaenus, traveled from town to town, addressing informal outdoor crowds. He and others faced the constant risk of being arrested by police or being beaten by infuriated listeners. Heckling might rapidly grow into active hatred. The anti-Christian philosopher Celsus describes such traveling evangelists with contempt: “We see that those who display their trickery in the marketplaces and go about begging would never enter a gathering of intelligent men, nor would they dare to reveal their noble beliefs in their presence; but whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools, they push themselves in and show off.” Yet, slaves who were thus converted often carried the message into the households of Roman aristocrats.

Far more effective as a missionary tool were the schools, such as those run by Origen and Justin, often attended not only by their students, but by large public audiences who simply came to hear these evangelists speak. But for the most part, says the historian Michael Green in Evangelism in the Early Church, people heard of Jesus Christ one-on-one from those who already believed. They heard it from Christians who had heard it from other Christians, and who believed they had the obligation to share it with those still lost in a darkened world, and who invited their neighbors to come and see.

The consequence of this was the phenomenon known as “conversion,” a term that would have meant nothing in the ancient world until the Jewish Diaspora had introduced Judaism and the concept of leaving the religion of whatever world you were born into and joining another. This was at some periods forbidden, even in the generally tolerant Roman Empire, because it was considered socially disruptive and, to use a twentieth-century word, “divisive.” But Christianity was founded and developed almost entirely by converts, and these became, as they so often would, the most eloquent and outspoken representatives of the faith.

Their conversions had many different causes. “One person would be brought over by means of the Old Testament,” writes historian Adolf von Harnack in The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, “another by the exorcizing of demons, a third by the purity of Christian life, others by the monotheism of Christianity, above all by the prospect of complete expiation or by the prospect of immortality.” Historian Green cites two principal causes for conversion. Some found in Christianity a rational explanation for life. It came upon these people as the truth, revealed either through the path of Greek philosophy or through the Scriptures, or both. Others found in Christianity a sense of freedom–freedom from the fear of death, freedom from some rapture or magic, freedom from ignorance or from some hitherto unconquerable sin.

“The water of regeneration washed away the stains of my past life,” writes the Christian Cyprian in the mid-third century. “A light from above entered and permeated my heart, now cleansed from its defilement. The Spirit came from heaven and changed me into a new man by the second birth. Almost at once, in a marvelous way, doubt gave way to assurance; what had been shut tight opened; light shone in dark places; and I found what had previously seemed difficult had become easy, and what I had thought impossible came to be done. You know it all well enough; you understand as I do what it is that brought me to this death to sin and this resurrection to godly living. You know it full well; I am not boasting.” This was the “born again” experience, called for by Jesus in his encounter with Nicodemus (John 3:1—9). Down through the ages, from kings to Salvation Army penitents, the testimony of the convert would be the same.

Having found a Christian community, the convert entered another world. It was a world where the inhabitants spoke of love and justice and seemed to practice both, where class and ethnic distinctions were dismissed, where people shared their goods and bore each other’s burdens, where it was taught that Jesus Christ recognized no difference between slaves and masters, and a world where people sometimes went to their execution singing hymns and encouraging one another. “Here were societies,” writes Green, “in which aristocrats and slaves, Roman citizens and provincials, rich and poor, mixed on equal terms and without distinction, societies which possessed a quality of caring and love which was unique. And herein lay its attraction.”

In such communities, the programs for the care of the aged, frail, penniless, and helpless, all duties which Christianity inherited from Judaism, laid the beginnings of social welfare systems that would one day inform the policies of governments all over the Western world. The Epistle of Barnabas, written between a.d. 100 and 130 in the name of, if not by, Paul’s missionary companion, lays upon Christians their duty to care for widows and orphans. The Second Epistle of Clement, a mid-second-century sermon urging self-control and repentance, also stresses the duty of Christians to give alms for needy people. Tertullian emphasizes the duty to provide funerals for the poor, shut-ins, orphans, and those imprisoned for the faith. He urges men to take in widows as “spiritual spouses.” From the earliest days, Christians established hospices for the sick and foundling children.

The newcomer would also notice a difference between the treatment accorded women in the outside world and their treatment in Christian communities. Paul had taught that “in Christ” women and men are equal (Gal. 3:28). In concluding his letter to the Romans, he mentions twenty-six Christian leaders by name; the first of them, and seven others, are women. In the pre-Roman Hellenistic world, however, women were only marginally better off than slaves in the eyes of the law. Rome had greatly improved their legal status; they could inherit property and run businesses. Still, they rarely played a central part in Jewish or pagan worship or ecclesiastical administration. Though in Christian services Paul required their silence in church (1 Cor. 14:34), he assigned high responsibilities to them.

As Christian communities developed, women assumed the duties of deaconesses, an office that went back to the age of the apostles and was greatly developed during the third century. Deaconesses were responsible for the care of the sick and poor, and for the instruction of women converts. They also attended upon women at their baptism. Since the candidate was often naked, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes delicately that “for reasons of propriety, many of the ceremonies could not be performed by deacons.”

It was within these Christian communities that much personal evangelism was accomplished. Interested inquirers and the merely curious were welcomed to meetings held in Christian homes, where they were made comfortable and offered food and drink, and lodgings if needed. They were encouraged to ask questions, to participate in free-wheeling exchanges of views, and to listen to local leaders or visiting teachers. “Nearly every known Christian congregation started by meeting in someone’s house,” writes historian Michael A. Smith, in Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity.

With his decision to give his life to Christ, the convert joined what was called the catechumenate, the Christian community’s beginner contingent, which prepared “the catechumen,” as beginners were called, for baptism. The preparation process was no light matter. Candidates might wait as long as three years while the church observed their character and behavior, their personal relations, their occupation, their fidelity in prayer, and whether they rigorously observed the church’s fasting rules. During this time they were instructed in Christian doctrine, addressed with a series of questions, and required to memorize a statement of Christian beliefs that became known as the “creed,” from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe.” Prior to baptism they were exorcized to drive out demons. If they were martyred before baptism, says Hippolytus, they were considered to have undergone “baptism in blood.”

For many converts, becoming Christian entailed some distinct changes in living habits. Christians refused to attend the idolatrous theatrical presentations of the time because drama had descended into exhibitions of raw depravity. Nor would they willingly go to see the gladiators fight and die. Some wouldn’t sign up for military duty or join the civil service, claiming loyalty to Jesus instead of to those who might give them orders that would compromise their beliefs. Some wouldn’t teach in non-Christian schools because the curriculum would involve them in the support of pagan gods. Many wouldn’t take oaths, and therefore couldn’t enter into business contracts. All this could lead to extreme economic and social hardship.

The Christian attitude to wealth was as ambivalent then as it would remain for centuries to come. To Tertullian, the Christian must abstain from all luxury as a preparation for martyrdom. Almost every gainful employment was spiritually dangerous, even tailoring, because to clothe God’s sheep in costly raiment was the devil’s work. To Clement of Alexandria, however, such severity was absurd. Christians, after all, had to earn a living. Still, many occupations were universally forbidden, such as brothel-keeper, sculptor of idols, actor, gladiator, magician, and astrologer.

Clement, as sternly as Tertullian, vigorously denounced the outright abuse of wealth, particularly the ostentatious luxury of the age–rich gowns, gold-embroidered slippers, and the immoderate gluttony of the wealthy, their fancy meals, and what he called “the empty skill of the pastry cooks.” Infatuation with money as an end in itself was particularly condemned. “Those of us who loved money in the olden days now give away all that we possess,” writes Justin. To the Christians, says historian Henri Daniel-Rops, “the rich man was to be regarded as a kind of administrator, using his property for the superior interest of the community. Moreover, it should never be forgotten that the riches of the earth were perishable, and that the only true wealth was that of paradise, which was eternal.”

A similar ambivalence characterized the Christian attitude towards war and military service. While Christianity for its first three centuries was distinctly pacifist and took literally such injunctions of Jesus as “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), and “Put up your sword” (Matt. 26:52), and while Christians were certainly repelled by the idolatry that seemed such a part of military life, it remained true that Christians were numerous in the army. Moreover, Clement, bishop of Rome, urged Christians to emulate the discipline of the legions, and Christians in the army no doubt observed that almost every occurrence of a centurion in the New Testament left the man in a positive light (Matt. 8:5—10; Mark 15:39; Acts 10:1ff; Acts 27:42—44). Paul, meanwhile, freely used military images to portray the Christian life (Eph. 6:11—17). Finally, whatever their occupation or whereabouts in the empire, observes the historian Joseph F. Kelly in The World of the Early Christians, “most Christians would have been grateful for the security that Roman arms provided and would have recognized the need for a strong military to defend the frontiers.”4

The convert would also encounter sharp distinctions between the Christian and the conventional rules for sexual conduct. While women in the Roman Empire were expected to remain virgins until marriage, men made casual use of prostitutes and their female slaves both before and after marriage. Divorce and remarriage were common for both men and women, the children of divorce usually remaining with the father. Women who cheated on their husbands had a legal claim against their lovers and could demand and get an allowance. This was not regarded as a form of prostitution. Widowers sometimes took a concubine after the death of a wife, though the children of that union would be considered illegitimate. Paul Veyne, in his work A History of Private Life, observes that Roman marriage in the early Christian period assumed a new quality, in that it became more of a lifelong companionship than a merely legal relationship. A happy marriage, that is, became a genuinely respected accomplishment.

Among Christians, however, sexual restraint by all parties was expected. Both men and women were enjoined to remain virginal until marriage, and thereafter any sex outside marriage, including sex with slaves, was regarded as adultery. The widely read Christian book known as The Shepherd of Hermas lays great stress on family unity and warns that children as well as parents can disrupt it. Clement of Alexandria’s powerful defense of legitimate sexuality within marriage was controversial at the time, because celibacy for both men and women was winning intense admiration among Christians. “In striking contrast to the prevailing veneration of celibacy,” writes the historian Joseph Wilson Trigg in Origen: the Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church, “Clement considered marriage the preferred state for the attainment of spiritual perfection.” On one point, however, all were agreed. In an age when abortion was a common method of birth control, the Christians spoke out against it. To abort a child before birth was to commit a murder (Didache 2:1—2, Letter of Barnabas 19, Athenagoras in A Plea for Christians).

The Christian concept of marriage differed fundamentally from that of the Romans generally in other respects. The Christians proclaimed marriage to be more than a means of legalizing and socializing the union of a man and woman, so that children could be taken care of and property accounted for. For Christians, marriage meant that a couple would, in Tertullian’s words, “sustain one another in the way of the Lord . . . pray together . . . go together to God’s table, and . . . face all their ordeals together.” The man and woman were to unite in the spirit of love and purity with which Christ is united to his Church. They became, in Christ’s words, “one flesh.” Among other things, that meant that divorce was permitted only under extreme circumstances and, in the early church especially, remarriage was discouraged or forbidden. (The Athenian Christian apologist Athenagoras called second marriages “adultery made respectable.”)

Rapidly the catechumen would become familiar with the Christian home and begin establishing one himself. Christian homes might serve as the location for prayer meetings, worship, organized instruction, Holy Communion services, and baptisms. The house church that was uncovered at Dura-Europos may well have begun as the home of a wealthy family that converted to Christianity. Archaeologists have uncovered other such homes elsewhere.

Decorations, often subtle and even coded against a raid on house churches by the authorities, provide evidence of their use. Best known of these coded symbols is the “sign of the fish.” (Jesus promised his disciples that he would make them “fishers of men,” and the Greek word for “fish,” ICHTHYS, is an anagram for the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”) Other symbols included the lamb bearing a T or a cross, the anchor, the sailing-ship, and the cross topped by the dove from Noah’s ark.5

Though various forms of prayer were written for all seasons and all actions and hours of the day, the Lord’s Prayer was certainly in common use. Prayers were likely spontaneous, says the historian Daniel-Rops in The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, but were characterized by the language and expression of the Old Testament. The gift of tongues, now called “glossolalia,” was widely evident in the first- and second-century church. It was not viewed as odd, but as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.6

By the year 150, the Christians had established Sunday as the day for a formal, weekly meeting, when they dined together in a common meal to which members contributed, not unlike the potluck suppers held in churches today.7

In the early days, this common meal, known as the agape feast from the Greek word for “love,” served also as the occasion for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.”

However, by the third century, the agape meal and the ceremonial communion service, involving the bread and wine alone, had been separated. The Lord’s Supper service often began on Saturday night with a nightlong “vigil,” concluding at dawn Sunday morning (a work day for most, before it became a public holiday in the fourth century). A fellowship meeting with a heavier meal was held on Sunday evening, when the day’s work was done.

The meetings also included readings, likely with portions of the Old Testament, as apparently occurred in synagogues, though information about such practices in the first century is scanty. It’s certain that Paul’s letters were read–his letter to the Thessalonians carries instructions that it is to be read “to all the brethren” (1 Thess. 5:27), and his letter to the Colossians says it is to be read in Laodicea. There were probably homilies–sermons–as well, though few survive. In The First Urban Christians, Wayne A. Meeks observes that “the rich allusions to and arguments from Scripture that Paul sometimes includes in his letters . . . presuppose some means for learning both text and traditions of interpretation. Regular meetings and homilies in the assemblies are the most plausible.”

As Christian communities developed, women assumed the duties of deaconesses, an office that went back to the age of the apostles and was greatly developed during the third century. Deaconesses were responsible for the care of the sick and poor, and for the instruction of women converts. They also attended upon women at their baptism. Since the candidate was often naked, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes delicately that “for reasons of propriety, many of the ceremonies could not be performed by deacons.”

It was within these Christian communities that much personal evangelism was accomplished. Interested inquirers and the merely curious were welcomed to meetings held in Christian homes, where they were made comfortable and offered food and drink, and lodgings if needed. They were encouraged to ask questions, to participate in free-wheeling exchanges of views, and to listen to local leaders or visiting teachers. “Nearly every known Christian congregation started by meeting in someone’s house,” writes historian Michael A. Smith, in Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity.

With his decision to give his life to Christ, the convert joined what was called the catechumenate, the Christian community’s beginner contingent, which prepared “the catechumen,” as beginners were called, for baptism. The preparation process was no light matter. Candidates might wait as long as three years while the church observed their character and behavior, their personal relations, their occupation, their fidelity in prayer, and whether they rigorously observed the church’s fasting rules. During this time they were instructed in Christian doctrine, addressed with a series of questions, and required to memorize a statement of Christian beliefs that became known as the “creed,” from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe.” Prior to baptism they were exorcized to drive out demons. If they were martyred before baptism, says Hippolytus, they were considered to have undergone “baptism in blood.”

For many converts, becoming Christian entailed some distinct changes in living habits. Christians refused to attend the idolatrous theatrical presentations of the time because drama had descended into exhibitions of raw depravity. Nor would they willingly go to see the gladiators fight and die. Some wouldn’t sign up for military duty or join the civil service, claiming loyalty to Jesus instead of to those who might give them orders that would compromise their beliefs. Some wouldn’t teach in non-Christian schools because the curriculum would involve them in the support of pagan gods. Many wouldn’t take oaths, and therefore couldn’t enter into business contracts. All this could lead to extreme economic and social hardship.

The Christian attitude to wealth was as ambivalent then as it would remain for centuries to come. To Tertullian, the Christian must abstain from all luxury as a preparation for martyrdom. Almost every gainful employment was spiritually dangerous, even tailoring, because to clothe God’s sheep in costly raiment was the devil’s work. To Clement of Alexandria, however, such severity was absurd. Christians, after all, had to earn a living. Still, many occupations were universally forbidden, such as brothel-keeper, sculptor of idols, actor, gladiator, magician, and astrologer.

Clement, as sternly as Tertullian, vigorously denounced the outright abuse of wealth, particularly the ostentatious luxury of the age–rich gowns, gold-embroidered slippers, and the immoderate gluttony of the wealthy, their fancy meals, and what he called “the empty skill of the pastry cooks.” Infatuation with money as an end in itself was particularly condemned. “Those of us who loved money in the olden days now give away all that we possess,” writes Justin. To the Christians, says historian Henri Daniel-Rops, “the rich man was to be regarded as a kind of administrator, using his property for the superior interest of the community. Moreover, it should never be forgotten that the riches of the earth were perishable, and that the only true wealth was that of paradise, which was eternal.”

A similar ambivalence characterized the Christian attitude towards war and military service. While Christianity for its first three centuries was distinctly pacifist and took literally such injunctions of Jesus as “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), and “Put up your sword” (Matt. 26:52), and while Christians were certainly repelled by the idolatry that seemed such a part of military life, it remained true that Christians were numerous in the army. Moreover, Clement, bishop of Rome, urged Christians to emulate the discipline of the legions, and Christians in the army no doubt observed that almost every occurrence of a centurion in the New Testament left the man in a positive light (Matt. 8:5—10; Mark 15:39; Acts 10:1ff; Acts 27:42—44). Paul, meanwhile, freely used military images to portray the Christian life (Eph. 6:11—17). Finally, whatever their occupation or whereabouts in the empire, observes the historian Joseph F. Kelly in The World of the Early Christians, “most Christians would have been grateful for the security that Roman arms provided and would have recognized the need for a strong military to defend the frontiers.”4

The convert would also encounter sharp distinctions between the Christian and the conventional rules for sexual conduct. While women in the Roman Empire were expected to remain virgins until marriage, men made casual use of prostitutes and their female slaves both before and after marriage. Divorce and remarriage were common for both men and women, the children of divorce usually remaining with the father. Women who cheated on their husbands had a legal claim against their lovers and could demand and get an allowance. This was not regarded as a form of prostitution. Widowers sometimes took a concubine after the death of a wife, though the children of that union would be considered illegitimate. Paul Veyne, in his work A History of Private Life, observes that Roman marriage in the early Christian period assumed a new quality, in that it became more of a lifelong companionship than a merely legal relationship. A happy marriage, that is, became a genuinely respected accomplishment.

Among Christians, however, sexual restraint by all parties was expected. Both men and women were enjoined to remain virginal until marriage, and thereafter any sex outside marriage, including sex with slaves, was regarded as adultery. The widely read Christian book known as The Shepherd of Hermas lays great stress on family unity and warns that children as well as parents can disrupt it. Clement of Alexandria’s powerful defense of legitimate sexuality within marriage was controversial at the time, because celibacy for both men and women was winning intense admiration among Christians. “In striking contrast to the prevailing veneration of celibacy,” writes the historian Joseph Wilson Trigg in Origen: the Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church, “Clement considered marriage the preferred state for the attainment of spiritual perfection.” On one point, however, all were agreed. In an age when abortion was a common method of birth control, the Christians spoke out against it. To abort a child before birth was to commit a murder (Didache 2:1—2, Letter of Barnabas 19, Athenagoras in A Plea for Christians).

The Christian concept of marriage differed fundamentally from that of the Romans generally in other respects. The Christians proclaimed marriage to be more than a means of legalizing and socializing the union of a man and woman, so that children could be taken care of and property accounted for. For Christians, marriage meant that a couple would, in Tertullian’s words, “sustain one another in the way of the Lord . . . pray together . . . go together to God’s table, and . . . face all their ordeals together.” The man and woman were to unite in the spirit of love and purity with which Christ is united to his Church. They became, in Christ’s words, “one flesh.” Among other things, that meant that divorce was permitted only under extreme circumstances and, in the early church especially, remarriage was discouraged or forbidden. (The Athenian Christian apologist Athenagoras called second marriages “adultery made respectable.”)

Rapidly the catechumen would become familiar with the Christian home and begin establishing one himself. Christian homes might serve as the location for prayer meetings, worship, organized instruction, Holy Communion services, and baptisms. The house church that was uncovered at Dura-Europos may well have begun as the home of a wealthy family that converted to Christianity. Archaeologists have uncovered other such homes elsewhere.

Decorations, often subtle and even coded against a raid on house churches by the authorities, provide evidence of their use. Best known of these coded symbols is the “sign of the fish.” (Jesus promised his disciples that he would make them “fishers of men,” and the Greek word for “fish,” ICHTHYS, is an anagram for the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”) Other symbols included the lamb bearing a T or a cross, the anchor, the sailing-ship, and the cross topped by the dove from Noah’s ark.5

Though various forms of prayer were written for all seasons and all actions and hours of the day, the Lord’s Prayer was certainly in common use. Prayers were likely spontaneous, says the historian Daniel-Rops in The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, but were characterized by the language and expression of the Old Testament. The gift of tongues, now called “glossolalia,” was widely evident in the first- and second-century church. It was not viewed as odd, but as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.6

By the year 150, the Christians had established Sunday as the day for a formal, weekly meeting, when they dined together in a common meal to which members contributed, not unlike the potluck suppers held in churches today.7

In the early days, this common meal, known as the agape feast from the Greek word for “love,” served also as the occasion for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.”

However, by the third century, the agape meal and the ceremonial communion service, involving the bread and wine alone, had been separated. The Lord’s Supper service often began on Saturday night with a nightlong “vigil,” concluding at dawn Sunday morning (a work day for most, before it became a public holiday in the fourth century). A fellowship meeting with a heavier meal was held on Sunday evening, when the day’s work was done.

The meetings also included readings, likely with portions of the Old Testament, as apparently occurred in synagogues, though information about such practices in the first century is scanty. It’s certain that Paul’s letters were read–his letter to the Thessalonians carries instructions that it is to be read “to all the brethren” (1 Thess. 5:27), and his letter to the Colossians says it is to be read in Laodicea. There were probably homilies–sermons–as well, though few survive. In The First Urban Christians, Wayne A. Meeks observes that “the rich allusions to and arguments from Scripture that Paul sometimes includes in his letters . . . presuppose some means for learning both text and traditions of interpretation. Regular meetings and homilies in the assemblies are the most plausible.”

The Lord’s Supper was one of the two great observances of the first church communities. The other was baptism. Much of what is known of its earliest form is drawn from the Didache. The candidate was “sealed” in the faith by being anointed with oil from the head to the soles of the feet to purge any remaining demons. After formally renouncing sin and pagan ways, he or she went down as “dead” into the water–usually a river, because “running water” was the most honorable of the six Jewish “grades” of water8–was immersed three times, and came up “alive,” to be anointed with oil again and wrapped in a white garment. Tertullian says that the newly cleansed Christian then received the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and a taste of milk and honey, as a foretaste of Heaven.

If there wasn’t enough water available to completely immerse the candidate, the Didache prescribes pouring water three times over the head of the person being baptized. From the third century onward, Christian artworks generally show a church official pouring water over the head of the initiate, who stands in water. The baptismal basin found inside the Dura-Europos church is too small to stand in. Meeks, who admits that the early record is sketchy, nevertheless declares that Christian converts were routinely baptized naked. This he derives from the many descriptions in St. Paul’s letters that refer to taking off and putting on clothing in the context of baptism. Infant baptism became common in the third century, though Tertullian was opposed to it since the infant could not make a personal commitment to Christ.

Those not baptized were not permitted to be present during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They departed and the doors were shut behind them.9

By the second century, the Christian year was already taking shape, and Easter, not Christmas, was the biggest annual feast or holiday. It was to be celebrated on the anniversary of Jesus’ Resurrection, but almost from the beginning there were disputes about the correct date, partly because of problems with the available calendars. As baptisms became a central feature of the Easter celebrations, the period of instruction and preparation for candidates shrank to the period before Easter that is called Lent. Widespread celebration of Christmas did not begin to take hold until the fourth century.

By the third century, the Christians had achieved an astonishing unity across the Roman Empire and even into the great rival empire of Persia. Everywhere he went from Rome to Osrhoene, wrote the Phrygian merchant Aviricius Marcellus, “I found brothers in the faith,” and partook of “the mixed cup with bread.” Not before and never after, says historian Frend, would Christians achieve the degree of unity that they had accomplished by the year 180. Somehow a form of organization, embracing Christian communities thousands of miles apart, had developed–almost, it seemed, by default.

It had been clear from the start that there had to be some way of managing the church’s affairs, administering it, preserving its truths and apportioning out its duties. Jesus established the first such structure himself: twelve disciples, then seventy others. By the time of the book of Acts, Luke wrote of deacons, elders (in Greek, “presbyter”), and bishops.10 By the year 100, an early administrative schema was well established.

Christians sought for metaphors to describe it. They saw Christ as its head. For the rest, Paul favored the metaphor of the body, with each member doing its part. Clement of Rome employed the model of the army, with its chain of command, common goal, and discipline. Exactly how the details came together has provided grist for scholarship and debate over two millennia.

At the top of the organization were the bishops (from the Greek word episkopos, an overseer). Each city had a bishop, and the church was thus divided geographically into bishoprics, generally following the boundary lines of cities, with the bishop selected by the members of the church community over which he held authority. The bishop appears to have had certain main duties. He performed baptisms. He supervised religious instruction. He managed the community’s worldly goods, which by the third century began to include property, usually bequeathed on the death of members and often seized by persecuting emperors. He presided at gatherings, was expected to lead prayers, and to preach homilies or sermons. Finally, the bishop was responsible for the moral and spiritual supervision of all the other believers, whatever their level within the structure.

Beneath the bishop were presbyters or priests, helping and advising the bishop and carrying out the duties that they still carry out today. Below these were deacons and deaconesses, aiding the presbyter with his ceremonial duties, and also carrying out such practical functions as collecting the offerings, administering funds and services for the needy, and generally keeping things in order.

All of that organization, all the prayers, all the faithful observances of religious duty, all the charity, all the instruction, all the discipline and courage they could muster would now become immediately necessary. For at a.d. 250, the Christians were about to face the most severe persecution they had ever confronted, mounted by the powerful new emperor Decius, who intended not only to eradicate every one of them, but to wipe Christianity itself from the face of the earth forever. The question was: Could they stand up to this? They had but one bedrock reason to think they could. For this was the Church, against which, said Jesus Christ, the gates of Hell could not prevail.

This is the end of the The Early Church category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 260, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about The Early Church from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info