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Church History

I.  Introduction:

 Brother William finished our study of Church History last week at the close of the New Testament period. One of the major questions facing the young Church was, who would lead after all the apostles had died?  It was the apostles who called a council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 to settle a major controversy.  Once they’re all gone, who’s going to be qualified to do things like that for the constantly expanding Church?  Who would have authority in the Church?  Who would continue the work that the apostles had begun? There was a lot of uncertainty.  These were serious, pressing concerns for the early Church. The responsibility for settling those issues fell on the shoulders of the men we call the Church Fathers. They were the men who would lead the Church for the next 500 years. There are a number of different ways to categorize the leaders from this time period.  Some church historians take that large group and break it into three smaller groups: The Apostolic Fathers (90-150 AD), The Apologists (150-300 AD), and The Theologians (300-600 AD).  That’s the pattern we’re going to follow in our study.

 Tonight we want to look specifically at the Apostolic Fathers.  But before I get to the main focus of our study, I want to follow up on the promise I made this morning to give you some of the historical evidence we have from this time period that Mark and Peter had a very close relationship, which evidently had a major impact on the gospel of Mark.

 An Apostolic Father named Papias, who was bishop of the church at Hierapolis (which was somewhere in Turkey) wrote about something that an older Christian friend had told him.  This is what he wrote: “'The elder said something like this also: "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord, but not however in order." What Papias meant by that was that Mark accurately recorded what Peter told him, but not necessarily in chronological order.  And he also refers to Mark’s relationship with Peter.  He continues: “Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.” 2

Another piece of evidence is a preface to the Gospel of Mark that was written sometime after A.D. 160.  This was kind of funny.  The habit of giving people nicknames has apparently been around a long time.  Part of the preface reads like this: 'Mark . . . who is called 'stump-fingered', because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he [meaning Mark] wrote down this same gospel in the region of Italy.'"  That statement and others have led some historians to believe that Mark's gospel was actually addressed to the Roman Christians who were being persecuted under Nero; other historians, however, believe it was written before that persecution began.

One more… this one is also from about 160 AD.  Another church father, Justin Martyr, refers to Peter’s “memoirs,” and then quotes from them, but what he writes are verses from Mark’s Gospel, which would mean that he viewed Mark as having written Peter's memoirs.  Brother William will probably talk more about Justin Martyr next week. 3

And there’s actually a lot more than that, but those are just a few of the more interesting insights into the gospel of Mark that we glean from this period of church history.

In general, we could say that there were things that seemed to characterize the Apostolic Fathers, based on their own writings: genuine devotion to the Lord; holy living; and pastoral ministry. I want to talk about three of the Apostolic Fathers in particular, and then mention two other documents that were written during this period.

II. The Apostolic Fathers and Writings

 A. The first Father that I want to mention is Clement of Rome. Clement served as the Elder of Rome.  He lived from about 30-100 AD, so he was a younger contemporary of Paul.  He may be the Clement that Paul refers to in Philippians 4:3.  Much of what we know about him comes from a letter that he wrote to the Church in Corinth, apparently to deal with some disturbances in the Church there. In this letter, he uses the Old Testament extensively. But also, he quotes from the letters of Paul, which tells us that Paul’s letters were already in circulation in the early Church. One of the interesting things we see in this letter is the fact that he argues that those who were leaders in the Church at that time had all succeeded directly from the Apostles, who had succeeded from Christ. So you can see in that the beginning of the Roman Catholic idea of Papal succession, even though it took years for that to fully develop.

 B. Next is Ignatius, who was the Bishop of Antioch in Syria. Antioch became the leading center of early Christianity after the fall of Jerusalem, which put Ignatius in a very key position. At some point he was arrested by Roman authorities in Antioch and taken to Rome. As he traveled from Antioch to Rome, he visited many cities and Churches along the way. We know this because later he writes to seven of them (early in the second century). In his letters he encourages the Churches to fight against heresy (possibly Gnosticism). He also encourages the young Churches to labor for unity. He is the first to use the term ‘Catholic Church,’ which at that time simply meant the ‘Universal Church.’  As part of his appeal for unity, Ignatius called for the Churches to submit to their local bishops.  The office of bishop had already grown beyond its original Biblical boundaries; by this time the bishop was a leader responsible for the oversight of several Churches in a certain region. That office would continue to expand throughout Church History.   So we can see, from his writings, the beginning of an Episcopal form of Church government, which will later develop in the Roman Catholic Church. One last thing to mention about Ignatius is that he expressed a strong desire in his letters to die a martyr’s death. Specifically, in his letter to the Church at Rome, he asked the church not to seek his freedom from the Roman officials. Although it’s not certain, it appears that Ignatius did die as a martyr shortly after arriving at Rome.

 C. The last man I want to mention is Polycarp. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. He was a disciple of the Apostle John at Ephesus, and a friend of Papias, who told us that Mark was the interpreter of Peter.  Polycarp wrote to Philippi around 110 AD. In this letter we see the early church’s dependence on the New Testament writings.

 Polycarp is probably best known for his martyrdom. In Smyrna, where he was bishop, many Christians had been persecuted and martyred for their faith. At one point the enraged crowds called for the death of Polycarp. At first, Polycarp hid, but after his second hiding spot had been discovered he simply waited for the authorities to come and capture him. I quote at length from Shelley writing of Polycarp’s trial, as well as from 'The Martyrdom of Polycarp':

‘The authorities brought the highly respected pastor into the crowded arena, prepared to shove him to the lions--but only reluctantly. They much preferred a denial of the charge against him. He was a Christian.
“Simply swear by Caesar,” the governor pled.
“I am a Christian,” said Polycarp. “If you want to know what that is, set a day and listen.”
“Persuade the people,” answered the governor.
Polycarp said, “I would explain to you but not to them.”
“Then I’ll throw you to the beasts.”
“Bring on your beasts,” said Polycarp.
“If you scorn the beasts, I’ll have you burned.”
“You try to frighten me with the fire that burns for an hour, and you forget the fire of hell that never goes out.”
The governor called to the people, “Polycarp says he is a Christian.” Then the mob let loose. “This is the teacher of Asia,” they shouted, “the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.”

 And then I’m going to skip a little of the narrative; they gather wood, tie Polycarp to the stake, and he prays.  His entire prayer is recorded.  Here’s one line from it:

 “I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ”

 And then skipping some more, he concludes his prayer and they light the fire; I want to pick the narrative back up right there.

 “And when the flame flashed forth, we saw a miracle, we to whom it was given to see. And we are preserved in order to relate to the rest what happened. For the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship's sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr.

 At length, when the lawless men saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this a great quantity of blood came forth, so that the fire was quenched and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”

 The full account of his death is absolutely riveting, and I would recommend that you read the whole thing.  The full text is available at ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp.’ He was 86 when he was burned at the stake.  Shelley and other church historians consider this to be an accurate account of Polycarp’s death. 4  At the same time, he cautions us not to think that all martyrdom happened in such a dramatic way.  They didn’t.  He does go on to say that almost every event, whether it was natural or political, seemed to result in the persecution of Christians during this time period.

 D. Two other writings that are important from this period are “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The Didache.”  “The Shepherd of Hermas” is a controversial work that was written by a former slave. It includes 5 visions plus two other sections that stress repentance and holy living. It’s an apocalyptic book, somewhat like Revelation (containing prophetic or symbolic visions, especially of the imminent destruction of the world and the salvation of the righteous.), and the oldest Christian allegory.  One historian described it as a “system of Christian morality in an allegorical dress, and a call to repentance and to renovation of the already somewhat slumbering and secularized church in view of the speedily approaching day of judgment.”  Neither Christ nor the gospel are mentioned in it at all.

 The title of “The Didache” is a Greek word that literally means teaching.  It’s also called “the teaching of the twelve” and it was written early in the second century. Part of it is like an old catechism, and part of reads like an early Church manual. It’s divided into three main sections, and includes discussions about Baptism, the Lord’s supper, Church government, and even Church discipline.  It’s not very long.  You can sit down and read the whole thing in a matter of minutes.

 Both of these works were highly regarded by many of the early Christians, and they give us some insight into the teaching and practices of the early Church.  Again, one of the main things we see is a stress on holy living.

III. What are some of the lessons we learn from this period?

 A. One thing we can learn from this period in history is the importance of understanding authority in the Church. The issue of authority in the Church is a major reason, if not the major reason the Reformation took place. The question is simple: What is the source of authority in the Church? Although it is not clear exactly what the Apostolic Fathers believed about that, we can see from their writings how the Episcopal tradition grew and developed. For us, as Southern Baptists, we’ll see over and again the importance of the principle of Sola Scriptura-by Scripture alone. Scripture alone is our source of authority. There are a lot of other things that could be said about Church government, but my goal for now is simply to stress how critical the issue of authority has always been in the local Church.

 B. Another lesson we learn, which is actually closely related to the first, is to use discernment in our study of church history.  When I was a young Christian I was discouraged by all the division I saw among Christians, and I really thought that studying the teachings of the Church Fathers, from a time when I thought the church was still pure and holy and unified, would help me understand how the church could be pure and holy and unified today.  It took me a while to see it, but eventually I realized that the Church Fathers, even though they were genuinely godly men, were still fallible, just like we are today.  There’s no period in church history that’s ever been free from error.  With the Apostolic Fathers we have the generation that lived closest in time to the apostles, but already there are errors and divisions that would slowly develop into heresies in the centuries that followed. At the same time, most of these men deserve our respect for their devotion to Christ and their service to the early church.

 C. Finally, we can learn from the faith of the martyrs. This is something we’ll see all through Church History. There are so many men and women who have been willing to sacrifice their lives for the faith. It’s a fact that many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted for their faith all over the world right now in much the same way that we see in the early centuries of the Church.  Because we live in a country where Christians aren’t officially persecuted by the government (although that could change), we just don’t even think about that kind of persecution.  I’m thankful that we live in a land of peace, and we should pray for peace. But we should also be firmly resolved to suffer, even to the point of death, if following the Lord will lead us to such an end.  May we imitate the faith of those brave men and women who both lived and gladly died for their Savior!

1 Following James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 17ff.
2 See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vii.ii.vi.html
3 See footnote 390 at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vii.xvi.html

4 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 37.

~ Barry Wallace, based on additions and other edits to a manuscript by William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 July 2007 )

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