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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 1

Oct 26, 2007

As the third century dawned, Rome had just begun to assert its primacy over the rest of the churches. Ambition and the desire for power are usually symptoms of evil motives, though often soothed by high sounding words designed to make power acquisition seem for the good of all. Historical records reveal this to be the case with the Roman Church.

It was not that Rome had produced any distinguished scholars or personalities that would have earned them the right of primacy. In the first four centuries, Rome produced only two who made an impression upon the Church--Callistus and Damasus. When Victor died at the turn of the century, he left the bishopric to Zephyrinus, though Hippolytus would have been the better choice.

Up to this time, the Church had been careful--perhaps overly careful--to screen the converts, so as not to be overwhelmed by those with low morals who desired to be Christians. New coverts had had to undergo a time of teaching (catechism) before their baptism. Meanwhile, they were considered to be "half Christians." It is apparent that they had long lost the distinction between faith and baptism (that is, Passover and the Red Sea).

They had also forgotten the origins of baptism (Leviticus 14), in which the priest was not called to heal the leper, but to inspect him to see if God had already healed him. If the leper had been healed, then the priest was called to bear witness to that divine healing by baptizing him, so that the ex-leper could re-join the congregation ("Church"). This is illustrated in Luke 5:14, where Jesus healed the leper and then told him to show himself to the priest "for a testimony" (i.e., "witness").

This carried into the New Testament, for leprosy speaks of mortality and death. Baptism is a symbolic act of transferring a person from death to life. The priest or minister was not called to do an act of salvation (spiritual healing), but was called only to be a witness to what God had already done in him by faith. Thus, the purpose of baptism was not to bestow salvation, but to bear witness of the faith that had already saved him. Baptism, then, allowed the believer to join the earthlycongregation ("Church"), or community of believers. But the man's prior faith determined his position in the Universal Church, whose names are written in the Book of Life.

This distinction appears to have been lost quite early in the loss of Hebrew influence and when the study of the Apostolic writings largely displaced the study of the law and prophets.

The effect of this was that the bishops--those who performed baptisms--came to have the power to determine a man's right standing with God and their eternal destiny. They could baptize or withhold it at will, and as time passed, there came to be no distinction between the true Church and the earthly organizational church. The bishop determined who was and who was not a true believer. No longer did he bear witness to God, but expected God to bear witness to him. This is probably the underlying usurpation of power that transformed Christianity from a relationship with God to a relationship with the organized church.

But such is the nature of the Church as prophesied in the life of King Saul, who usurped power in his belief that he could do as he willed. He thought God had to bear witness to him since he had been anointed king. This condition of the Church was prophesied also in the fact that the Pentecostal offering was leavened (Lev. 23:17). It was prophesied again in the story of Eli, who refused to correct his sons, thus corrupting the priesthood (1 Sam. 2:22-24).

It was at the close of the second century that these problems were great enough to come to the surface. Victor assumed the power to excommunicate over the date on which people celebrated Passover. The assumption was that he had the power not only to exclude people from the church, but also to exclude them from heaven itself.

When Origen visited Zephyrinus and Hippolytus, he apparently tried to stay out of the conflict. Yet it is said that he all but agreed with Hippolytus. He was later to discover the same problem in his own home church, for Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, was probably worse than the Roman Zephyrinus.

After his visit to Rome (213), Origen went to Arabia at the invitation of Bedouin tribes who had requested Christian teaching. He returned to Alexandria in 216 about the time of another massacre of Christians. Origen then moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where the bishops persuaded him to teach in the church. But now, because Origen had not been formally ordained, Demetrius began to become jealous of Origen's influence. Origen was loved for his character, humility, diligence, and scholarship.

So once again, the denominationalist spirit of Saul began to rise up in the church of Alexandria. Demetrius wrote a letter to Alexander, the bishop of Jerusalem, and to Theocristus, bishop of Caesarea, complaining that they were allowing an unordained minister to teach the people. They replied that this practice had been sanctioned in the past several times. Demetrius was not satisfied and sent a letter to Origen, ordering him to return at once to Alexandria. Origen complied humbly and resumed his position as head of the Theological School.

From this we can see that the bishops were becoming more concerned about their clerical positions than in teaching the people. Jerusalem and Caesarea had not been fully infected yet with this wrong spirit. When they recognized a scholar, they still prized truth more than ordination papers. Not so with Demetrius.

This all took place under the rule of Elagabalus, the Roman Emperor (218-222). Elagabalus was barely 14 when he began to rule, after the assassination of his predecessor. In his four years he married five times, which violated the Roman conscience. Finally, his grandmother, Julia, joined in a plot to have him killed by his cousin, Alexander, who then took his place as emperor.

Alexander's mother, Mammaea, lived in Antioch, and she was a Christian. She heard of Origen and wrote him a letter, inviting him to come and teach. The bishop of Alexandria was no doubt frustrated, but could do nothing about it, for Mammaea sent a military escort to bring Origen to Antioch! When Origen finally left Antioch, he returned via Caesarea, where the bishops ordained him as a presbyter in order to avoid further problem with Demetrius.

But Demetrius was less interested in procedure as he was in jealously maintaining control over Origen. He resented the action of the bishops, but since he could do nothing about the ordination, he simply declared Origen to be unfit for the priesthood on the grounds that he was a eunuch.

The plot thickens. Two decades earlier, in 206, Origen had taken Jesus' words in Matt. 19:12 more literally than he ought to have done. In his zeal, he had emasculated himself. At the time, Demetrius had applauded his actions, for he did not yet perceive Origen to be a threat to his influence. But years later, after the bishops of Palestine bypassed him in ordaining Origen, he used this to condemn Origen as being unfit for the priesthood. Of course, he was speaking of the law found in Leviticus 21:20, where a priest was not to be physically deficient in any way.

That law was to be physically applied to the Levitical priesthood, but spiritually applied to the Melchizedek priesthood. Here, then, is another example of how the Church was reverting to an Old Testament type of priesthood in its misunderstanding of the law. Demetrius made life miserable for Origen until he finally packed up and moved to Palestine permanently in 231. Demetrius then had him excommunicated, but the order was largely ignored.


This is the first part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church


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