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History of Early Church Organization: Part 1

Oct 05, 2007

The Bar-Cochba revolt severed any remaining ties between Christianity and Judaism. Philip Schaff says that Bar-Cochba "caused all the Christians who would not join him to be most cruelly murdered" (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 37). Jewish authorities attest to this fact as well, though justifying it according to their particular viewpoints.

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. understandably put the Jews into a great state of frustration and despair. They attributed this disaster to the policies of their enemies. The peace party blamed the war party, while the war party blamed the peace party for not having faith in God. Others felt that Jews were not being sufficiently scrupulous in law-keeping, by which they meant their traditions. Still others blamed the Christians and even their own countrymen for not persecuting them vigorously enough. Schaff writes on page 37,

"They caused the death of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem (107); they were particularly active in the burning of Polycarp of Smyrna [155]; and they inflamed the violence of the Gentiles by calumniating the sect of the Nazarenes."

But the twin disasters of 70 and 135 A.D. caused Judaism to withdraw into its protective shell in order to survive. The codification of the Jerusalem Talmud from the end of the second century to the fourth century completed these walls around Judaism, which served to protect and to imprison them at the same time in a rigid, traditional form of religion. Later, the Babylonian Talmud (430-521 A.D.) built the walls even higher.

The violent separation between Judaism and Christianity had another byproduct. While Judaism was pronouncing threats and curses upon Christians, another wall was being built around Christianity to defend against Jewish opposition. The Church as a whole began with a Hebrew thought process, but later adopted the Greek, and finally Latin interpretations. With this transformation, the Hebrew metaphors of the O.T. were given new meanings. The law was viewed as part of Judaism, identified as synonymous with Jewish traditions, and finally marginalized.

Whereas the Mother Church of Christianity had maintained close ties to the temple, Jewish persecution drove it into the Greek world, and it ultimately found a long resting place in Rome with its desire for military government, law and order, and structure. Rome then claimed primacy as Christianity's "mother," when in fact it was neither the first Church nor even the first that Peter established.

The British Church, though vibrant and strong at the time, was too far away at the fringes of the Empire to have any significant influence in Italy, Greece, or Asia. For this reason, its history was largely lost, and the later Roman Church tried to forget its establishment before the Church of Rome.

In fact, if the British Church had had the same desire and ambition as Rome, they could easily have overthrown all Roman pretensions very early. Rev. Morgan writes that when Augustine came in 596 to put the British Church under Rome's authority, the discussion went like this:

"The soldier who interrogated Augustine at the oak of Conference seems, in like manner to treat the question between them as one quite apart from doctrine.

"Does Rome possess all the truth?"

"All."

"And you say we do--our usages only differ. Now of two men, if both have all their limbs and senses complete, both are equal. Because the Romans have noses and we have noses, must we either cut off our noses to be Romans? Must all who have noses be subject to the Romans? Why, then, should all who hold the faith be subject to Rome because she holds the faith?" (St. Paul in Britain, p. 102)

The British Church made no attempt to claim primacy over Rome, believing that they were equals. It was Rome that was then asserting its primacy over all others. Incidentally, this is not the same Augustine whose writings had such great influence in the Latin Church two centuries earlier. It was a later Augustine who was sent on a mission to Britain to bring that Church into subjection to the Roman bishop. When it refused, Britain was pronounced non-Christian, and thus Rome taught that Christianity was brought to Britain at a later date.

At any rate, when Christianity came to be adopted by Greeks outside of the synagogue, they turned to non-Hebrew sources to appeal to their brethren. When the philosopher Justin Martyr (110-165 A.D.) was converted, he used his knowledge of Greek philosophy to show that Moses preceeded the Greek gods, and that the Greek gods were just imperfect relics and imitators of Biblical characters.

Justin's Dialogue with Trypho reconstructs a discussion that he had with Trypho (or Tryphon), who was one of the leaders of the Bar-Cochba revolt who had somehow survived that disaster. Prof. Graetz writes about Trypho in his History of the Jews.

Even as the Greek world was subject to Rome in those days, so also was it perhaps inevitable that the Roman Church would claim primacy over the Greek Churches. This was not without dispute, of course, and in fact it finally came to a head in 1054 when the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church split permanently.

Even as there were three language-steps in the development of the Church (Hebrew to Greek to Latin), so also were there three doctrinal steps to Roman supremacy, represented by three Church fathers: Ignatius of Antioch (30-107 A.D.), Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 A.D.), and Cyprian of North Africa (died 258 A.D.). Each contributed to Roman supremacy in his own way without realizing it.

Ignatius focused upon Church unity and seems to have been the first to set forth a clear doctrine of submission to the local Church Bishop, who stands as a Vicar of Christ. However, he also said that only Christ was the Universal Bishop of all the churches, and made no claim that any particular Bishop had supremacy over the other Bishops. In other words, as Philip Schaff tells us on page 148,

"The Ignatian episcopacy, in short, is congregational, not diocesan; a new and growing institution, not a settled policy of apostolic origin."

A century later, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, was mostly concerned about the rise of Gnosticism. Schaff says on page 149,

"This father represents the institution as a diocesan office . . . He exalts the bishops of the original apostolic churches, above all the Church of Rome, and speaks with great emphasis of an unbroken episcopal succession as a test of apostolic teaching and a bulwark against heresy."

Whereas Ignatius had regarded the episcopate as a center of church unity, Irenaeus establishes it as the depository of apostolic tradition in arguing against the Gnostics. Finally Catholic episcopal thinking reached its maturity under Cyprian. Schaff tells us on page 150,

"Cyprian considers the bishops as the bearers of the Holy Spirit, who passed from Christ to the apostles, from them by ordination to the bishops, propagates himself in an unbroken line of succession, and gives efficacy to all religious exercises. Hence, they are also the pillars of the unity of the church; nay, in a certain sense they are the church itself. 'The bishop,' says he, 'is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.' And this is the same with him as to say, he is no Christian."

These three established the basic structure of denominationalist organization as prophesied in the life of King Saul.


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

History of Early Church Organization


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