History of the Early Church and Its Significance

To learn from the past is to prepare for the future. Learn deeper the history of the early church here.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It grew from a fringe movement in Judaism to a powerful world religion that commands power as much as the monarchy of Europe. But this worldview has a wild, checkered history.

Jesus taught his disciples that salvation does not see gender, race, nation, or culture. He lived, died, and rose to save the whole world. 

As we grow in our faith, we must study the history of the Church. As Jesus did, we should study the past to analyze what needs to be done for present-day issues and future concerns.

Why Should You Read the History of the Early Church?

Reading Christian history is essential to understanding our faith. It instructs us on the good things that Christians before our time did. And it also shows us the imperfections of the humans who make up the Church. God shows us that His people are sinners. But studying the past emboldens us to do better for God and our community.

We get different perspectives of the Word of God through different eras. We open our eyes to what happened before our time to people beyond our community. We see the struggles of each Christian from the early Christian church to modern-day congregations.

Throughout history, we see that our challenges are not unique to us. We learn how the early Christians faced their oppressors, opponents, and naysayers. And the Word of God prevailed over everything else.

Learning what Christians throughout the ages lived through also inspires us. It humbles us. And also it fires up. We marvel at God’s unwavering hand over His people. Even as we fought against each other, God still lives within us.

Studying the History of the Church is a grueling but worthwhile process.

History of the Early Church

Here are the crucial events and people that shaped the Early Church:

Church Beginnings

Life and Death of Jesus Christ

Jesus was born in the Jewish House of Benjamin. By the time of his birth, the Roman Empire held Israel in a tight grip as the Roman Province of Judea. Mary, his mother, and her husband, Joseph, went to his hometown Bethlehem for the census of the Roman Emperor Augustus, formerly Octavian. 

Coincidentally, Octavian styled himself the Honorable Son of God. He was leaning on his adoption by the infamous Roman leader Caesar who Romans worshipped as a god after his death. Judea was a highly crucial territory of the Roman Empire. It was the frontier of the Roman Empire against the Parthian Empire to the east. Having Judea allowed Rome to control the Mediterranean.

Mary was a virgin who God imbued with His essence and spirit and announced the good news through His angel, Gabriel. Jesus’ birth fulfilled the prophecies in the Old Testament about a messiah who will save God’s people.

When he turned 30 years old, Jesus began a ministry of preaching love, peace, justice, and the Kingdom of God. Within three years, he built a movement through his twelve disciples. They were Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Younger, Jude, Simon, and Judas Iscariot.

Jesus spread the Good News through parables. He taught about the equality and justice God will uphold in His kingdom. He fought against the self-righteous ways of the Jewish leaders of His time. 

Before he went to Jerusalem, Jesus established His church with Peter at the helm. Jesus renamed Simon to Peter after he was the first one to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus named Peter as the rock upon which He will build His church. It is also here that Jesus gave Peter the keys to Heaven itself. He gave Peter the power to bind everything on earth as it shall be in heaven. 

According to Father William Saunders, Jesus used the Aramaic word “Kepha” which means rock. Peter also played a leading role in setting up the Christian church from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem to Rome. 

Jesus was always a thorn in the lives of the Jewish authorities and Roman leadership. The ancient Hebrew religious leaders hated his radical beliefs on how a man should follow God. The Roman authorities saw Jesus as just another of the revolutionaries who sought to free the Jews from the Roman empirical rule. At the age of 33, the Jewish leaders condemned Jesus for the crime of heresy. Then they turned Him over to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who sentenced him to death on the cross.

Three days after his death on the cross, Jesus rose and appeared to his disciples. He started with Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John. He reiterated, in numerous instances, that to follow Him is to love one another and evangelize.

The Apostles’ Evangelization

At the end of the Gospels, Jesus appeared to His apostles. He commanded them to spread the Kingdom of God to the whole world. 

The evangelization formally began at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit descended unto the disciples as tongues of fire. They preached, under Peter’s leadership, to the crowds about Jesus’ mission, His death, and resurrection. 

The apostles went to different nations to spread the Good News of Jesus’ salvation.

The first martyred apostle was James, the brother of John. King Herod put him to death by the sword in 44 AD.

The second apostle who bore the name James was James the Younger, the brother of Jesus. He stayed in Jerusalem to lead the Jewish Christians after Pentecost. He led them until his death by stoning in 62 AD. He is buried at the tomb under St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem.

From Jerusalem, Peter went to Antioch. He led them as the first bishop. Then he visited the Corinthian church founded by Paul. His last years were spent in Rome before being martyred with St. Paul at the time of the Roman Emperor Nero. His tomb is believed to be below St. Peter’s Basilica.

His brother, St. Andrew went to Greece. He preached the Gospel until his martyrdom at Patras, Duomo Cathedral in Amalfi, Italy holds his relics.

St. Philip also preached to the Greeks. He died around 80 AD.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the remaining 11 apostles appointed St. Matthias to replace the traitorous Judas Iscariot. St. Matthias preached in the coastal communities of the Caspian Sea. He died beheaded by the pagans in Colchis.

The apostles who brought Christianity in Asia Minor and beyond were St. Thomas, St. Matthew who penned one of the Gospels, St. Jude, and St. Simon. St. Thomas established the Christian church in India. In 72 AD, he died and was buried at Mylapore, India. St. Matthew preached to the Mediterranean communities because he died in Ethiopia. St. Jude, also known as Thaddeus, spread the Gospel to Armenia and other places. Armenians revere him as their patron apostle. St. Simon preached with St. Jude and in Beirut, they suffered a martyr’s death in 65 AD.

St. Bartholomew preached in different countries. But church tradition sets his last place to be in Rome.

The last apostle is St. John. He is the only one who died because of old age. He wrote the metaphysical Gospel and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. He lived his twilight years on the island of Patmos, writing about the end of the world and Jesus’ return. In 100 AD, he died and was buried near Ephesus.

Paul and the Early Church

But Christianity grew to the fullest through the tireless journeys of St. Paul. Formerly known as the Jewish zealot, Saul, he became Paul after receiving a message from Jesus telling him to stop persecutions and to follow Him. He used his Roman citizenship to spread Jesus’ message of hope and eternal life away from sin. He did this through the different roads, trading networks, and letter systems of the Roman empire

Paul built churches all over the Roman Empire and regularly wrote letters to them. Half of the New Testament comes from his different letters to the early churches in Greece, Turkey, Rome, and beyond. He fought hard for the universality of the church. His principles led to the separation of Christianity from Jewish traditions. St. Paul’s passionate evangelization was the seed of Christianity as a world religion. 

Characteristics of the Early Church

The Early Church was intimate and devoted to the entire community. The small communities spread across the Roman Empire. Amid the numerous persecutions, they stayed strong in their faith.

There are many characteristics that the Early Church has. We need to recapture them to make our Church better.

Communal love 

The Church was built upon Jesus’ command: Love one another. So the early Church centered on relationships, on communities. They devoted themselves to the fellowship, to the welfare of the whole community. 

Man and woman, child and adult, freedman and slave. All of them were equal in the eyes of God. They took care of one another. Each Christian shared what he had with his fellow man. It wasn’t easy, as evidenced by the rebukes and consistent reminders Paul wrote in his letters to the various churches he built. But the early Christian communities persisted. They devoted their lives to love each other and God, despite the struggles they faced.

This Christian communal love united the early Church. This unique characteristic primarily ensured the longevity of Christianity from those days to the modern day.

Devoted to Jesus’ Message

The early church was devoted to Jesus’ message. Peter, James, John, Paul, and the other apostles who knew Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, taught the early Christians about Jesus’ mission to save the world from sin. They drew upon the sacred Old Testament texts and how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the root of the New Covenant. They strive to live faithfully to Jesus’ teachings. 

Practice the Lord’s Supper with a thirst for God

The Early Church practiced Communion regularly. They gathered in fellow member’s houses. This practice was mistakenly perverted by the Roman authorities who accused them of cannibalism. But the early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the way Jesus commanded his disciples to. They partook of bread and wine to honor Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. 

The Lord’s Supper celebration back then was also unique. The early Christians devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread with great fervor. They hungered for Christ, for his return to restore the world to its proper order. They ate and drank with vigilance for God’s redemption through the forgiveness of their sins and the defeat of their oppressors.

United in Prayer

Early Christians prayed regularly. They did this both on their own and together. They sought courage in God, telling Him of their worries and yearnings. All around them they faced persecution. But they found solace in their prayerful time with God.

Age of Persecution

Early Christians were misunderstood and looked down on. Both Jewish leaders and Roman authorities accused them of heresy, treason, and sedition. They suffered because they refused to abandon their monotheistic faith. They refused to participate in the Roman communal worship of public blood sacrifice. So the Romans hated them for refusing to follow the Roman way of life.

Roman emperors treated the early Church as an anomaly to the well-oiled machine of the empire. Nero singled out and blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome.

Emperor Trajan protected the early Christians against persecution, as long as they followed Roman conventions. But Trajan also was wary of the Christian’s communal meetings. He didn’t want any group to form within his empire for fear of fermenting rebellion.

Towards the end of the second century, Roman mobs started to attack Christian congregations. In Leonne, south of France, men, women, and children were murdered. This violent attack was just the tip of the Roman aggression against the Christians.

Septimus sought to keep the Roman Empire united by punishing those who stray from the “religio”, the public worship of Roman society. Decius imposed the mandatory observance of the religio through libelli, receipts of participation. Diocletian ordered the Christians to be wiped out while leading over a beleaguered empire. 

Many Christians die as martyrs. Christian communities lived in fear of their neighbors because they could betray them to Roman persecutors. But despite the bloodshed, the early Church persisted and stayed together.

The first notable martyr in those days was Perpetua. Perpetua is a young woman who wrote about her martyrdom. She suffered whipping, torture from animals, and death by the sword. Even if the Roman governor and her own father pushed her, Perpetua refused to give up her Christian faith.

Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers were prominent writers who lived from 100 AD to 800 AD. They led Christian communities by teaching the Christian faith by discussing the teachings of the apostles. 

Here are the notable leaders of the early Church.

1st Century

  1. Clement of Rome – He was bishop of Rome from 85 to 100 AD. 
  2. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch – He was St. John’s student. He coined the term “Catholic”.
  3. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis – He was also John’s student.
  4. Bishop of Polycarp of Smyrna – John also taught him together with Ignatius and Papias.
  5. Cerinthus was an early Gnostic leader.

2nd Century

  1. The early Gnostics were Basilides and Valentinus.
  2. Marcion first compiled the New Testament canon.
  3. Justin Martyr (150–165) was an apologist and intellectual. 
  4. Bishop Melito (150–180) of Sardis – He is the first to call the Jewish texts the Old Testament.
  5. Bishop Irenaeus (150–200) of Lyon – He was one of the key historians who offered us invaluable insight into the Early Church.
  6. Tatian (160–185) – He compiled the Four Gospels into one synthesis document, the Diatessaron.
  7. Clement of Alexandria (180–215) – He is a theologian who teaches with Hellenistic philosophy.

3rd Century

  1. Origen (200–250) – He compiled the Hexapla, the first Bible.
  2. Tertullian (200–240) – He wrote the core of Latin Christian literature.
  3. Cyprian of Carthage (245–260) – Before St. Jerome and St. Augustine, he is the main writer of Latin texts.

After the Great Persecution by Emperor Diocletian, the Early Church persevered until they rose to prominence in Roman society.

The Rise of the Church

Christian Empire

In the 3rd century, the Church broke free from persecution through Emperor Constantine. Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan, released after Constantine defeated his enemy to reign as the head of the Roman Empire. He attributed his victory to Jesus and God after receiving the vision of a burning cross.

Constantine returned important church property confiscated during the Great Persecution. He set free the imprisoned Church leaders. He gave his favored bishops legal power within the empire. They are players in imperial politics. In essence, he built the bureaucracy of the Church.

After Constantine died, Christians had a brief stint of marginalization. Emperor Julian suffered from his family being purged by Constantine’s family. He sought to destroy Constantine’s legacy by trying to restore paganism to the Roman way of life. He cut off state support from the Church for three years until his death in a campaign against the Persians.

In 379 AD, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity as the sole state religion of the Roman Empire. After a bloody massacre in Thessalonica, Theodosius and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, had an encounter that led to the Church becoming a Roman institution. He cemented the Roman Catholic Church with his complete abandonment and persecution of pagan beliefs and institutions starting in 391 AD. 

The Great Schism

As Christianity grew, Jesus’ nature and other spiritual concepts became hotly debated. Christians debated whether Jesus was human, divine, or both. 

The first doctrinal council to settle this debate was the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Constantine organized this after hearing the differing opinions and established the Nicene Creed. 

In the succeeding centuries, the Church gathered for more councils to fight heresies and solidify the theology and church structure. These councils are:

  1. First Council of Constantinople (381 AD), 
  2. Council of Ephesus (431 AD), 
  3. Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), 
  4. Second Council of Constantinople(553 AD),
  5. Third Council of Constantinople (680–681 AD); 
  6.  Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD).

After the Roman Empire fell to the barbarian invasions, the Western and Eastern Churches fell into a long series of conflicts. These conflicts include the religious conflicts about the bread in the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Catholic Church uses unleavened bread, while the Eastern Orthodox do not. They also argued about the celibacy of the priesthood. And then they also fought over the authority of their leaders. Rome wanted the pope to be higher than the patriarch.

This intensive series of religious and political conflicts peaked on July 16, 1054. On this day, Rome excommunicated the then Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius. The Eastern Church excommunicated the entire Roman Catholic Church, with Pope III leading the flock. These ex-communications led to the Great Schism, the eternal divide of Eastern and Western Christianity.

In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church reconciled after Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I revoked the ex-communication decrees of their predecessors. 

Heresies of the Early Church

Here are major heresies that proliferated in the early church:

Adoptionism: This heresy believes that Jesus is a human who was so good that God adopted Him as His Son. 

Apollinarism: The First Control of Constantinople in 381 declared the belief that Jesus was human with a divine mind a heresy. 

Arianism: Arians, under Arius, denied Jesus’ divinity and his consubstantiality with God. 

Docetism: Docetics believe that Jesus didn’t die because his physical body was illusory. Instead, he was a spirit. This heretic belief died out in the first millennium AD. 

Donatists:  Donatists believed that the church must be composed only of saints. They promoted martyr as the ultimate Christian act of sacrifice. 

Ebionites: These were Jews who wanted to promote Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish tradition. But they did not see Him as divine or the Son of God.

Gnosticism: Gnostics are diverse belief systems that stress the need for personal spirituality (gnosis) over the church teachings. They believed in mysticism in which they discuss the Christian life with illusion and enlightenment. One of the Gnostic sects is Valentianism. Irenaeus and Epiphanius of Salamis condemned it as heresy.

Marcionism: Similar to Gnostics, this belief system persisted for more than 300 years. They believe in dualism. Marcion was the first Christian to collate the New Testament but he has declared a heretic because he rejected the Old Testament. He didn’t believe that the Hebrew God is the same as the God who gave His Son to save the whole world.

Montanism: They believed themselves higher than the Apostles and acted as a prophetic sect. They emphasized avoiding sin at all costs because anyone who sinned cannot be redeemed.

Manichaeism: This dualistic sect believed that good and equality in power. This is similar to the principle of yin and yang so they thrived from the 3rd to 16th centuries in southern China.

Nestorianism: This belief believed that Jesus was not the divine Son of God. Instead, He is a human who has a divine spirit. The First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned this belief system.

Relevant Teachings of the Early Church

The Early Church, for its struggles, conflicts, and triumphs, had simple teachings that still hold to this day. Most of these practices are no longer mainstream, replaced by elitism and exclusion. We need to bring back the intimate, spiritually devoted principles of early Christians. We need to capture the joy, hunger, and love for God and His creation.

Strong traditions

The Early Church had strong traditions. They believed in regular communion. They listened intently to the church leaders reading the letters of the Apostles as they found advice, instructions, and reminders on how to live a Christian life.

The power of God

Amid the persecutions and the periods of being outcasts from the places they live in, the early Christs believed in God. They trusted that God was more powerful than any name on Earth. So even under the threat of death, they refused to give in to the pressure to pander to pagan rituals. They also believed in God’s grace that provides them with what they need every day.

Giving generously

The early Christians were about community. They broke bread with each other, shared everything they had with their fellow members. No one was above or below. And in their love for each other, they took care of each other.

Unspeakable joy

To be an early Christian is to find joy in everything in life. Even if they suffered countless trials (i.e. martyrdoms of their members), they found joy in God. They counted their blessings as they came. 

Reaching the lost

The Early Church also was very open. They opened their community to sinners, former persecutors, and slaves. They lived as Jesus commanded them to love all without any judgment. All things said, Christians back then evangelized because they wanted the whole world to find God, regardless of their background.

In Summary

Christianity has a well-storied past. But we must study the past so we can improve the present and prepare for the future. In particular, we need to learn from the Early Church.

The Early Church has a lot of struggles as they grew from a fringe sect of Judaism to the global movement. They persisted amid grueling persecution with the strength and leadership of the Apostles and the Church Fathers. And we need to recapture the hunger and patient persistence of early Christians. To be a Christian means more than following church traditions. It is about following Jesus’ commandments of love and trusting in God’s love.

Alex Shute
AUTHOR
Alex Shute
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow. In his free time, he enjoys perfecting pour-over coffee, smoking meats, and discovering new cycling routes around Southern California.