Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Early Church I-1: History and Morality

(This is the first part of a presentation given on 4/23/2013. This is the extended version. The shorter, presentation version will be the last piece posted after some time for revision.)

See part I-2 here: Organization of the Early Church
See part I-3 here: Why "Catholic"?

(Part II is now out! Since this is part I, I'll just link to II-1. If you're interested and enjoy this series, please see the next parts.)


The early Church for many Christians is something that receives little attention. Many see the early Church as a people who were persecuted by the Roman empire and eventually rose to prominence after Christianity was legalized in 313 AD. While these persecutions were very real and Christianity really did triumph, the early Church has a rich history while at the same time a very human history. This is not a bad thing, however, for the mission of the Church is the interaction with sinful humanity in hopes of redeeming it. The Church, the Body of Christ, is both human and divine—a great mystery, and one worth entering. 

Throughout our Catholic history there are been great saints and great sinners, both sorts have been at the highest office in our Church. This should not give us reason to believe that the Church is purely man-made, however, but it rather speaks to the whole history and situation of Israel that came before us. God saw fit to use both good and wicked men to effect His designs, both enemies and anointed leaders (e.g., both good: 2 Kings 22:10-13, 18-20; Ruth 3: 13-17. And the bad: Isaiah 10:5-13; 1 Kings 11). Good men and women drew others to God by their example and obedience to both Jesus and Church. Wicked men and women served as an example that drove people away from vice and led to God by different paths. When power becomes addictive men will abuse power. As a result, those who love the Lord will strive to live heroic humility. Great sinners inspire saints to be even greater.

May we all grow to love the Church in a greater capacity for she is the bride of Christ. Christ's promise has been held since he proclaimed it: the powers of hell have not prevailed against the Church. Even in the midst of corruption and sin she has been protected and safeguarded. Pray that one day we might all be one.

Part I: History

I.A Jew and Gentile

The Catholic Church began in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 1:8, 12) which was a part of the Roman Empire. The Apostles, filled with the Spirit at Pentecost then proceeded to preach the name of Jesus to everyone. Their word spread very quickly and they put a fire in a great number of people from Jews to Gentiles. How Christianity spread was unique to both the Jews and the Gentiles.

For the Jews who came to believe, they followed the prophets and the law of Moses faithfully. They recognized that Jesus was the “suffering servant” as proclaimed by Isaiah nearly 700 years before (Is 42 – 43:12). Similarly, the words and actions of Christ were prefigured in many other utterances by the prophets. These Jews joined the Apostles as followers of Christ. The Jews had the benefit of a rich symbolism, culture, understanding of God, and history of their people to aid their understanding and faith. The Gospel of Matthew is the first precisely because it is meant to bridge the history of Israel with the advent of Christ who is a continuation of that history. This is why Paul said salvation came to all who believed, but “for Jew first, then Greek [i.e., Gentile]” (Rom 1:16). The Jews who accepted Christ could accept Him more fully at this time.
Simeon, a sage of Israel, receives the Messiah whom he has long waited for. Many of the greatest first-generation bishops were Jewish-born and expounded beautifully on Scripture when explaining Christ to both Jew and Gentile.

How the Gentiles (that is, everyone else) were converted was a different story. Many did not believe that the Hebrew Scriptures were inspired, nor were they aware of the history of Israel or salvation. This was not a disadvantage, however, because Christians were now to carry on the mission Israel had been given, to be “a light to the Gentiles” (Is 49:6b, Acts 14:47). In order to convince the Gentiles it must be done with deeds. In this manner, the early Christians could not rely on words, but rather the very life they led (or bled) would be the proof behind their words. It echoed James who said “I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:18). Likewise, Peter had told his followers to “always be ready to give an explanation who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pet 3:15). This attitude, showing Christ to the world by our deeds, inspired Ignatius of Antioch when he said, “Whenever Christianity is hated by the world, what counts is not the power of persuasion, but greatness” (Letter to the Romans 3:3).

The Romans at this time had enjoyed a great period of peace and prosperity. As they gathered more gods to their pantheon, which was their practice when they conquered a people or territory, their religion became more convoluted.

The culture, likewise, was one of leisure and experimentation. Since a large portion of the manual labor in the Empire was done by slaves many Romans occupied their times with education and entertainment. Many opted for entertainment in the form of blood sports, drinking, and gambling. As time progressed many began to grow weary of the of local religious practices and sought out exotic practices and cults. For the Roman citizen, then, religion was either an exercise of bland mechanism or dangerous extremism. A large number of Roman men and women believed in gods out of tradition or compulsion. To others still it was just folklore.

Many of these Romans, however, were tired of the indulgent, apathetic, and impulsive culture that surrounded them. Educated and noble Romans sought out “schools” which were philosophical communities that proposed a particular way of life. Some such schools were the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Neo-Platonists. While each had their merits and preached moderation, self-control, and intellectual contemplation none of them were particular concerned with the spiritual. The “spiritual” for them was intellectual and personal. If there were gods, they didn't care about humanity. The gods enjoyed higher things and if they truly were gods they would find pleasure in temporal, human affairs. Many of these schools of thought were concerned with ascending humanity or accepting the human condition with a sort of defeated-resignation.

I.B: Morality

When Christianity entered the scene it was something familiar yet entirely exotic. Christians proclaimed a man who was killed as a criminal-revolutionary as God. They claimed that there was one God, that He was a personal God who lowered Himself for the sake of His people. His son “took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) and gave his flesh to eat. While this sounded like the extremism that Romans were wary of many onlookers took note of the unusual moral strictness of these Christians. They fasted and denied their bodies overindulgence in pleasures, they prayed at regular intervals, they cared for those who were sick, they cared for widows, and they cared for all those who came to them. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century saint, wrote that “Straightaway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable" (Dialogue with Trypho, sec. 8). What attracted Justin and men like him to Christianity was a Christian's perseverance in suffering and the joy they found, even in death.
Justin, like many other educated men of his day, were not looking for an amusing philosophy but for a way of life that led to happiness and allowed one to face trial with courage.

Christianity did not see humanity as wicked, but it also saw humanity as lacking—something experience makes readily apparent to us. They held that “In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and choosing the truth and acting rightly, so that all people are without excuse before God; for they have been born capable of exercising reason and intelligence" (1st Apology, sec. 28). While Christians believed in many strange and mysterious things they also conducted themselves in the world with reason, moderation, and order—something that would pique the interest of someone looking for order and meaning in their life.

One such example of this strange belief was the virtue of loving one's enemy. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop of the 2nd century, instructs others to “pray unceasingly for the rest of men, for they offer ground for hoping that they may be converted and win their way to God. Give them an opportunity therefore, at least by your conduct, of becoming your disciples. Meet their angry outbursts with your own gentleness, their boastfulness with your humility, … [and] their error with your constancy in the faith; beware of trying to match their example" (Letter to the Ephesians, sec. 10). A Christian not only expressed common, everyday virtues that were accepted. They practiced exemplary virtue in the face of injustice, ridicule, and death. This sort of courage, a well-regarded virtue for a Roman, could not come from one who was deluded but from someone who really did possess a sort of divine inspiration.

We have records of what early Christians were taught in the form of handbooks and catechisms. One of the earliest “handbooks” was the Didache, or “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.” A short excerpt of its teaching will suffice: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children; you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide … You shall not hate any one; instead you shall reprove some, and pray for some, and some you shall love more than your own life” (Didache 2:2, 7).

Strengthening this sentiment Christians were further distinguished by living in such a manner that did not destroy a culture but transformed it. This has been a hallmark of Catholic history: maintain what is good and sacred in another culture but order it to God. We may see the wisdom of the Didache echoed in The Epistle to Diognetus, written in the mid-to-late 2nd century, which recounts that the Christians “[inhabit] Greek as well as barbarian cities … and [follow] the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct … they marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed” (cf. Ep. Diognetus 5:1-6)

Socially, the Roman world respected women if they were noble or wealthy, but typically they were considered as property (at least if they were inconvenient). Children were not respected in either Jewish or Gentile communities. In most philosophical and cultural traditions men were the pure embodiment of humanity while women, children, and slaves were weak derivations of humanity. Christians, however, claimed that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). With regard to husbands and wives St. Paul taught “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. … So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph 5:21, 28).

This attracted a large number of women, both noble and common, to the Church. Children also followed because they were instructed as ones with equal dignity to their elders. Many children of this period were exposed to the elements and beasts if the father of a household did not want them. Christians routinely sought out the places where families would abandon their children and rescue them, raising them as their own. Justin Martyr also recounts, “We have been taught that to expose newly born infants is the work of wicked people; firstly because we see that almost all those exposed, not only the girls but also the boys, are growing up in prostitution" (1st Apology, sec. 27). So on top of preserving the lives of children, they also sought to protect them from predators and those who raised these children as sex slaves and sub-human objects. Slaves were accepted as brothers and sisters, whether they were freed or not. That Christians considered man, no matter who, dignified was one of the primary causes of Christianity's favorable reception.

With this foundation in place, namely the word of God coming to many, we will not see what the Church looked like in these circumstances—how was it formed and governed? What is “Tradition” as Catholics describe it, and in what manner do we say we are “universal”? We shall pick up these topics in Part II: Organization of the Church.


This was a presentation given to a group of 40 parishioners as part of a adult-education series on the Early Church. The hope is to generate discussion but more so I hope to inspire others to learn about the zeal of our early faith, to be confident in the history of the Church, to proclaim her with intelligence and patience, and to teach our children and fellow adults the Truth of Christ by understanding the divinity and humanity of our Church.