Ancient Churches of the Second Century
What you are about to read is unedited and not formally organized but is put forth as the records have come down to us today. We stand as observers of the progression of truth and error. In this century seeds of error were planted, which blossomed, and produced the most terrible wretched fruit of man's carnal nature. What was meant to ennoble man was made into an wrecked religion seething with every crime imaginable.
The historian Armitage wrote, “At the close of the First Century, Christianity stands in its ideal beauty, fresh from Christ, full of new life given by the Holy Spirit, and in the pure mold which inspired Apostles had formed, without one defect from the touch of human governments. It looked like a frail craft tossed on a stormy sea, though freighted with all the wealth of heaven, it was the first beam from the Morning Star, making its way out of infinite solitudes as fleetly and softly as the Dove of Jordan. Jesus had come in the Augustan Age, had uttered every word which man needed to hear, and finished every deed needed for his salvation. Yet this new scepter, swayed over the human spirit, was never to be broken. The century opened with the cries of the Bethlehem babe, and closed with the Man of Sorrows on his throne, in the heaven of heavens. To the Far East he had become the Day-spring, to the far West the Rising Sun.” Thus was the beginning of Christianity and the Church.
Armitage also observed: (pgs 118-9, Vol. 1)
"When our Lord appropriated this secular word [ecclesia] to a sacred body, he threw no sacred meaning into the term itself, but retained it in its common application. The popular ‘Ecclesia,’ in a free Greek city, was formed of those who were selected of called out, under the laws of citizenship for the transaction of public business. Those qualified voters were convoked by the common criers, and formed the legal assembly for deliberation and decision in civic affairs, and their solemn decisions were binding. Of all the Greek terms which designated a calm and deliberative convocation, this was the most appropriate to characterize a body of Christians, charged by their Master with concerns of vast moment. Other words would have carried with them the idea of a crowd, of a show, or of a purely governmental assembly, such as the Senate; having other elements than that merely of a properly organized assembly."
"Consequently, when Jesus is called the Founder, the Head, the Redeemer of his ‘Ecclesia,’ it is clearly meant, that what he is to one Christian congregation he is to all such congregations, the same severally and collectively. Exactly the same collective figure is used of a single Christian assembly, which is made up of many individuals. It ‘is one body,’ putting the one for many, because each congregation is ‘the flock,’ the ‘family,’ the ‘household’ of Christ, and what is true of each such assembly is equally true of all. It follows, then, that the New Testament nowhere speaks of the ‘Universal,’ ‘Catholic,’ of ‘Invisible Church,’ as indicating a merely ideal existence, separated from a real and local body. There can be no distinction between the Church and the members who constitute the Church. Such a generalization is mere ideality, incapable of organization under laws, doctrines, ordinances, and discipline. No man can be a member of such a body, because it can assume no responsibility either to God or man; it can have no representation, and no man can be a member of an assembly, which it is impossible to represent. Everywhere, the Scripture ‘Ecclesia’ is a tangible body, numbering so many by count, properly local and organized, and each congregation is as absolutely a Church as if there were not another on earth. But as there are more than one, and each is his ‘body,’ his ‘flock;’ his Church is made up of every congregation, because he is equally the ‘Head,’ and ‘Shepard’ in each."
At the beginning the name Christian was first attached to the Church. Those who knew them called them Christian Assemblies. Soon the term catholic was used as an adjective of the Church. We understand the term as universal, but in what sense did they apply the word? Certainly it was not in the sense which is used today in the Roman Church. It is hardly likely they meant it to indicate a single body of Christ with all the redeemed in it, for there is no indication that they thought of the Church as being anything other than local, independent multiple bodies. Even if they had thought of the Church as a single invisible assembly, why would they feel the need to identify themselves as such? There was in the early centuries no competition of denominations, which would cause an identification to distinguish from others. They were all very much the same. Robinson explains the term catholic in his chapter of the Rome Church. (See Ecclesiastical Researches Rome Church Pg. 123). “There was among primitive Christians an uniform belief that Jesus was the Christ, and a perfect harmony of affection. When congregations multiplied so that they became too numerous to assemble in one place they parted into separate companies, and to again and again, but there was no schism; on the contrary all held a common union, and a member of one company was a member of all. If any person removed from one place to reside at another, he received a letter of attestation, which was given and taken as proof, and this custom very prudently precluded the intrusion of impostors. In this manner was framed a catholic or universal church. One company never pretended to inspect the affairs of another, nor was there any dominion or shadow of dominion over the consciences of any individuals. Overt acts were the only objects of censure, and censure was nothing but voting a man out of the community.” By the time of Novatian in the third century “catholic” was in common usage with the first association of Roman Catholicism.
The first known “body” of churches was called Montanists. However the Montanists called themselves “Spirituals,” to set themselves apart from lax churches, which they denounced as carnal. This occurred at the close of the second century, and into the third century. In the second century two heresies were gaining a strong foothold: baptismal regeneration (salvation by baptism), and the elevation or veneration of the office of Bishop. These new doctrines were gaining more and more acceptance among the churches. Where baptism was once an outward sign of salvation it now became the “seal” of salvation. The making of the sign of the cross was added to baptismal ceremonies, and it became a habit of general use. The increased power of the bishops at this time was limited to the local congregation and not yet over territories. The phrase of ruling by divine right came into usage. A more serious problem was not that of doctrine, but the failure of churches to exercise discipline. Where discipline is kept and correctly applied neither heresies nor usurping bishops would be allowed to continue. Nor would tolerance of misconduct by members be accepted. More and more churches were turning a blind eye to immorality among their members. The love of many waxed cold, and their religion became nominal and corruption began to creep into both doctrine and practice. This toleration of sin led to the unavoidable result of churches falling into impurity. It appears that in pursuit of increasing their influence in the world, and the Roman Empire, they felt that an increase in their numbers would make them a factor to be respected rather than persecuted. Hence the demand for true repentance and loyalty to Christ was eased.
Armitage estimated that at the opening of this century, from two to three hundred churches had been gathered, some of them thousands of miles apart (Armitage, vol. 1, pg. 155). Robinson estimated there were approximately one thousand. These churches were full of missionary energy. By A. D. 180 the gospel had reached all the provinces of the Empire, from Britain to the Tigris, and from the Danube to the Libyan Desert, in many cases including the learned and rich (pg 167).
Toward the close of this century bishops of churches in Greece and Asia began to meet in the Spring and Autumn to frame canons for general observance. They began to speak of the Lord’s Supper as an “offering,” a “sacrifice,” of the Table an “altar,” and the administrator as a “priest.”
The conditions are as follows. At this time every church was independent, free from all interference of external ecclesiastical influences or domination. These churches had fellowship through one bond only, that of mutual love. However, because of heresies and impurity infesting many churches, men such as Montanus and Tertullian took a public stance against them and their adopted errors. There existed a tragic invasion of Paganism, Judaism, superstition, human philosophy, and heretical Christianity into the bodies of Christ. Both Montanus and Tertullian came to reject the baptism of these questionable churches and thus they practice re-baptizing. By this they were the first recorded “Anabaptist.” It seems that initially only two churches were involved, the Church at Carthage and the Church at Phrygia. Other churches rapidly identified with them to varying degrees. Tertullian, and his small group, eventually aligned themselves with the Montanists.
A word of caution needs to be expressed against coming to hasty, unwarranted conclusions. First, it should not be assumed that all churches at that time belonged to either one of these two groups (Montanists or Catholics); they did not. Many stood apart from them, guarding their independence. The second error to avoid is to conclude that all in either camp were in total agreement or there was a uniformity of belief without variance.
Tertullian and a minority of people withdrew from the Church at Carthage. As the corruptions which were steadily undermining the standing of the churches increased, Tertullian denied to them the claim of being true Christian Churches. He pleaded for equality among presbyters or elders against the growing arrogance of the metropolitan pastors. He pleads for the purity of the church, and the rejection of all un-regenerated persons. He joined the now numerous sect of the Montanists, and finally proclaimed with them that the one immersion “can relate only to us who know and call on the true God and Christ. The heretics have not this God and Christ. These words, therefore, can not be applied to them, and as they do not rightly administer the ordinance, their baptism is the same as none.” [-S. F. Ford, pgs 90, 91]
There were problems with Montanus and his immediate followers. Around the year 170, he (Montanus) began to proclaim to his fellow believers that he was a prophet – that, indeed, he was the mouthpiece of that Spirit which the Lord had promised to the church as the one who would “Teach . . . all things” and “guide you into all truth.” He pushed the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so far, as to claim that men and women are as directly under special inspiration of the Spirit as were the Apostles themselves. For this reason women as well as men were pastors in the Montanist Churches.
Others have given opinion that these charges are probably overstatements based on misinterpreted facts. Montanus never claimed to be the Holy Spirit but rather a proclaimer of the truth. However, the substance of the charge of ecstasy, of women teachers and pastors, and apostolic prophesying is a matter of record.
Even though there were these irregularities with Montanus it does not hold that all the churches, which identified with his name, accepted them. This can be seen by the addition of Tertullian to the Montanists. He held none of the faults of Montanus. The joining was not with Montanus but rather with what he opposed and stood in favor of. At no time has it been thought that either Montanus or Tertullian was creating a New Church, but they took their position to keep pure what had been received from the Apostolic Church.
The reasons for the movement are described as follows:
“The enthusiasm for a life of holiness and separation from the world no longer swayed the minds. The issue before the church was should the church take the decisive step into the world; conform to its customs, and acknowledge as far as possible its authorities? Or ought she, on the other hand, to remain a society of religious devotees, separated and shut out from the world? Many churches opted for the world. But believers of the old school protested in the name of the Gospel against such secular (anti-spiritual) Churches. There in Phrygia, the cry for a strict Christian life was reinforced by the belief in a new and final outpouring of the Spirit . . . Such is, in brief, the position occupied by Montanism in the history of the ancient church.” [Clover 173,174]
The cry from the Montanists was that sinners must be excluded from the church that, as the pure bride of Christ, she might prepare to receive the bridegroom. They held that the pure local Church, to the exclusion of all others, was the bride of Christ. They saw neither a universal church nor a universal bride.
The Montanist churches were widely scattered, and some say they lasted until the eighth century. Further, it is believed that they eventually came into contact with the Paulicians. Moreover, it is believed that the Novatians and Donatists churches had Montanists churches within their ranks.
Thus is seen the reason and the need for the first major split in the church. In truth, the split was away from the doctrines and principles of the New Testament, rather than from any group; it was the secularly inclined churches departing from Godly principles, which caused the rift (Clover 174). These liberal churches were the splinter group away from the mainstream orthodox churches.
The membership of the “Secular Church” increased dramatically and within a few centuries she was in the majority of Christianity. This is not unexpected since demands for moral conduct was eased and sin becoming ever more accepted. This led to the infiltration of unconverted and uncommitted men, who were exposed in their hypocrisy in the following Pagan persecutions. Consider the attractiveness of such a church. For to gain membership only a token confession of faith was asked, with little evidence of repentance, and lo, baptism was granted by which eternal life was given. No serious demand was made of holiness and only the grossest of sins would exclude one from the church. Not even the insistence of abandoning of paganism and loyalty to Christ was made. The sinner could now have his cake and eat too. It can be seen, that to such un-regenerated men, they had all religious bases covered.
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