What did the early church look like and what did it believe?
This was a time of tremendous transition…the apostles were dead and the canon not yet formed in it’s fullness.
This church had expected the Second Coming before this point…so they are adjusting on the fly without the leadership they had relied on.
There was only one church…no denominational divisions or institutions.
The earliest church was run by democratically elected elders with deacons serving under them. Bishops soon grew out of this structure and by the middle of this century most churches had a bishop, elders, and deacons overseeing the local congregations. It was, if you will, a “senior pastor” model with real direction from congregationally elected elders. At this juncture we do not see one bishop in authority over other bishops.
“Follow, all of you, the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father; and follow the presbytery as the Apostles. Moreover reverence the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no man do aught pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that eucharist be considered valid which is under the bishop or him to whom he commits it. Wheresoever the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast. But whatsoever he approves, that also is well-pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid.” Ignatius: The Epistle to the Smyrnaens
The canon was not fully formed in this century. The church had the Old Testament, the Gospels and some of Pauls letters. Extra biblical writings were also read in the church, particularly The Shepherd of Hermes, The Epistle of Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas.
According to N.R. Needham this was the church service order. The service would have taken place in a private home, or under persecution, the desert.
Part 1: Service of the Word
1. Opening greeting by bishop and response by the congregation. Often, the bishop would say “The Lord be with you” and the congregation would respond, “And with your spirit.”
2. Old Testament Scripture reading. Usually read or chanted by a deacon.
3. Psalm or hymn (I). Chanted or sung.
4. New Testament Scripture reading (I). This first NT reading was from any NT book outside the gospels.
5. Psalm or hymn (II).
6. New Testament Scripture reading (II). From one of the four gospels.
7. Sermon. Delivered by the bishop, while seated.
8. Dismissal of all but baptized believers.
Part 2: The Eucharist
1. Congregational prayers. The prayer leader—the bishop in the West; senior deacon in the East—would announce the first topic. The congregation prayed silently for a while. Then the leader summed up the petitions with his own spoken prayer. Then he would do the same pattern again with a new topic. This was a lengthy part of the service. Early Christian art suggests that a typical posture from praying was standing, looking heavenward, with arms outstretched and palms up.
2. The Lord’s Supper. Here’s the order: (1) the bishop offered a greeting; (2) the congregation responded; (3) there was a “kiss of peace” (men to men, women to women); (4) church members brought their own small loaf of bread and flask of wine from home; the deacons took these and spread them out on the Lord’s table, emptying the flasks of wine into one large silver cup. (5) The bishop and the congregation engaged in a liturgical “dialogue” with the congregation; (6) the bishop led the congregation in prayer; (7) the bishop and the deacons broke the bread and distributed the cup to the congregation. (8) Something would be said to each member as he or she received the elements (e.g., “The bread of heaven in Christ Jesus,” with the response of “Amen.”) Unconsumed bread and wine would be taken home by church members to use for celebrating communion at home during the weekdays.
3. Benediction. E.g., “Depart in peace,” spoken by the deacon.
The service of the Word was open to believers and seekers…the Eucharist to baptized believers only.
Many of the core doctrines of the faith were in development, the primary writings of this century are more exhortational than theological.
There are clear writings that indicate that the church was pre millennial, but as a persecuted church, post tribulational.
There are declarations about the deity of Christ, Christ in true bodily form, and the virgin birth.
The Eucharist is believed to be the body and blood of the Lord.
There is a heavy emphasis in many writings on the importance of works.
There is a strong emphasis on caring for the poor.
Heresies they were fighting
Docetism: The teaching that Jesus did not have a physical body.
Marcionism: The teaching that there were two Gods in Scripture…a bad one in the OT and Jesus in the NT.
Montanism: The first charismatic fanatic.
Gnosticism: the teaching that the physical was sinful and only that which is spirit is pure.
Names you should know
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Rome
Clement of Alexandria