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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 7

Nov 07, 2007

The first half of the third century, while the mighty Origen was humbly distinguishing himself in the East, a continuing line of non-entity bishops of Rome briefly bubbled to the surface and then were forgotten in history, having contributed little that was original to the history of the Church.

It is clear, however, that this was the beginning of corruption in Rome. Since its bishops were elected by the people in a rather democratic way, the relaxed morality of the bishops and the easing of the more rigid standards of the past established bishops that the people wanted. Like people, like priest (Hos. 4:9). Perhaps it was a reaction against the Holiness movement that had prevailed in the Church for the previous 150 years. But it is plain that Rome was skewered on the other horn of the bull.

When men fell into sin or denied Christ during a state persecution, the bishops had imposed heavy judgment upon the lapsed. If the Christ-deniers had been of the clergy, they were considered to be unworthy of the position, and if they continued to baptize, their baptism was not recognized by other bishops. If ordinary Christians fell into one of the "seven deadly sins," listed by Tertullian, they were no longer recognized as Christians at all. After all, once baptized, their sins were said to be washed away just once, and the rule was that they could not be baptized a second time. Post-baptism sins were only washed away by penance, but certain sins were "unpardonable."

With such a doctrine, it is no wonder so many postponed their baptisms until their death beds, taking a chance on losing their salvation (so they thought). The rigor of the Church in those days encouraged people to engage in death-bed conversions. In practical terms, it is obvious that such a law of baptism was flawed as much as modern laws that result in the opposite effect intended by the law.

Compare, for example, the practice of giving a dowry before marriage. In the Bible, the husband (or his family) gave a dowry to the wife (i.e., her guardian), who was to use it as an kind of Investment Trust. Over the years it would grow. The longer the wife was married, and the more children she might have, the more financial security she had in case her husband died. The dowry (50 shekels of silver, or 100 days of common labor) served also as alimony in case of divorce.

But in many countries today, such as in India, the dowry is paid in reverse. The woman's father pays a dowry to the husband--in essence, paying the man to marry her. Since the money is his, the wife has no security in case of disaster. Often, the man demands more money after the marriage, and if the woman's family does not pay, she often encounters an "accident," such as being burned by hot water. Essentially, the dowry is often used as blackmail to extract more money from the woman's family.

Having a baby girl can be very expensive to a family in India, and so today there are entire villages with 50 boys to one girl. The girls are either aborted, left to die, or given to orphanages that are packed with girls. This is an example of how a law (or even a custom) can be unjust. If unjust, it is certainly not something that came from the heart of God. God's true laws bring justice, prosperity, and life, not death (Deut. 30:19).

And so, as a general rule, if we see that a law brings injustice and death, it is a sure sign that it has come from the mind of man, rather than the mind of God--or it has been understood and applied incorrectly because man has not known or understood the mind of the Divine Legislator.

In the early Church, the rejection of the rigid standards seems to have begun with Zephyrinus in Rome (198-217 A.D.), and his policy was strengthened by his advisor and successor, Callistus (217-222). Schaff tells us of him, "In short, he considered no sin to be too great to be loosed by the power of the keys in the church. And this continued to be the view of his successors."

Thus, the Roman bishops were reacting to the rigid moral standards of the day by which the Church measured its true believers. It was a classic case of the clash between Holiness and Grace. Should the Church determine the salvation of Christians by their holiness or consider the blood of the cross to be sufficient for ALL sins--even those of lapsed Christians?

Rome chose Grace, and thus became vulnerable to lawlessness. The rest of the Church continued to choose Holiness, and thus remained vulnerable to legalism. The Church has struggled with these two horns of the bull in every generation since that day to find the balance between the two paths. Is there such a thing as Lawful Grace? Is there a Non-legalistic Holiness? I believe so, but it cannot be achieved by submission to men in an organization usurping the title of "The Church." The moment an organization begins to usurp the place of Christ, it will put away the law of God in favor of its own traditions, creating lawlessness. And since those traditions are man's interpretation of the mind of Christ, they can never truly reflect the holiness of God, so lawfulness is replaced by legalism.

Lawfulness is obedience to the law of God with an understanding of the mind of Christ, the Author of the Law. Legalism is obedience to men who have usurped the place of Christ and substituted their own traditions, their flawed interpretations of the law.

Callistus' bishopric in Rome nearly perfectly coincided with the Emperor Elagabalus, who had a great reputation for debauchery. Callistus' bishopric extended slightly into the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus, who allowed Callistus to build a "temple" (separate building devoted to gathering for worship) for the first time. Up until then, the people appear to have met in homes, which accounts for the great number of clergy under the authority of the bishop.

Recall that Mammea, the mother of Alexander Severus, was a Christian. Alexander protected not only Christians, but also Jews and Nazarenes. He was one of the first to enforce religious freedom. In later history, the Church claimed Callistus to have been a martyr in order to list him among the saints, but the fact is, there was no persecution of Christians under Alexander Severus, under whose reign Callistus died.

The relaxed standards of morality in Rome made it easier for people to become Christians, and so the Church membership grew by leaps and bounds. The side effect of this was that soon the more rigid members were swamped and outvoted when it came to electing their bishops. Thus, Zephyrinus was elected in 198, and the Holiness Party left the Church to follow Hippolytus, the first "Anti-Pope." Thereafter, they excommunicated each other, as is usual, and the Church remained split until 235. The two rival bishops (Hippolytus and Pontian) were exiled together to work in a Sardinian mine. From that vantage point, old doctrinal issues did not seem so important any more, and they reconciled.

Even a temporary split, of course, ensured that the Grace Party took firm control of the official Church of Rome. Grace was extended to the great sinners who would have been excommunicated earlier with no possibility of salvation extended to them. But Grace was established at the expense of moral integrity.

The Roman Church split again in 251 when it elected Cornelius as bishop. Though he had no ambitious desire for the office and was not a man of any great learning, he was elected by 16 bishops who happened to be in Rome at the time. In doing so, they bypassed the learned Novatian, who had served during the vacancy in the previous year after the martyrdom of Bishop Fabian. Novatian then broke away and became the second "Anti-Pope."


This is the seventh 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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