The Early Church and the NEED for Authority
Imagine this. You are in the year 100, living in Corinth. You go to the Church in Corinth, and you have heard the letters of Paul read. Maybe you have heard one of the Gospels read, and a few of the other writings of the apostles. But, at this point in history, the New Testament has yet to be compiled into a canon. There is no accepted set of books that is the “New Testament.” It just doesn’t exist yet. Keep in mind also that in the Roman empire, Christians are being killed for believing in Jesus and not worshiping the pagan gods. Christians are just not walking around freely, carrying bibles and going to Church. The main way you are learning about the faith are from disciples who have been given the teachings from the Apostles themselves.
In addition to the writings from the Apostles, other writings start appearing. There was one writing written in 90AD called that Shepherd of Hermas. It was considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus. The Shepherd was very popular amongst Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. “The Pastor of Hermas was one of the most popular books, if not the most popular book, in the Christian Church during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries.
However, as more and more writings appeared on the scene, it was becoming important to have someway to know which writings were Truth and which were not. Heresies started appearing very early. Way before there was a accepted “New Testament” several heresies appeared. How was the Church supposed to deal with this?
If each Church at this time was just several autonomous communities and many protestants claim they were, then how would it be possible to fight against heresy? If there was no central Church authority, and since there was yet a universally accepted canon of scripture, what was to prevent many churches from popping up and claiming to be the Truth with no one to challenge them? Think about it. Someone starts a church up, starts teaching that our physical bodies are bad, that we are just trapped in them and that all the really matters is our soul. That Jesus was really just an avatar on earth and He really didn’t have a physical body. How would separate autonomous churches fight against this? Say, someone in your church in Corinth was teaching this. So, the elders in the church could kick him out, but there would be absolutely nothing to stop him from going down the road and joining another church. Or, he could even start his own next door to yours. Would your elders have any authority to stop him? Not, if the early church lived by the modern day protestant model of autonomous churches bound together by invisible body were true. They would have no authority whatsoever. On top of that, there would be no way to prove them wrong because there was not accepted canon of the New Testament. Do you see how this would have been catastrophic for the early church had the modern day protestant model were true? Bible Alone? Impossible!
We can actually see though, in the writings of the Early Church that the modern day protestant model of church was non-existent and unknown. They had a central authority and it was absolutely necessary for the Church to thrive and fight against heresies from taking hold in those early years.
Ignatius of Antioch, was a disciple of Peter. He was taught the faith by Peter! He was made the Bishop of Antioch by Peter. He wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans who lived in what is modern day Turkey about 300 miles southwest of Antioch. In his letter he wrote about the authority of the Church, the Catholic Church and how it had the ability to fight against heresies that were already being established by AD 100.
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. ~Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans (c. AD 103)
So, in AD 103, Ignatius shows that the Church has hierarchy and that he is the representative of Jesus on Earth, oh, and that the Church is Catholic! He continues to talk of this authority and hierarchy…
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. ~Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans (c. AD 103)
In other words, the Bishop has the authority of Christ and they should not do anything that is contrary to the Bishop. He also wrote a letter to the Ephesians, a little further south of Smyrna, telling them to obey the bishop and to avoid all teachings that are not sanctioned by the bishop.
…so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which means] that we should live forever in Jesus Christ. ~ Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians (c. AD 103)
In fact, he even writes to the Philadelphians, a city south of Antioch that God does not dwell in any community that is not in union with the bishop.
For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop. ~ Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians (c. AD 103)
So, here we see, as early as c. AD 103, a Christian leader, already dealing with issues with authority and heresy in the Church. He makes no mention that the Scripture is the final authority, but that the Bishop is. That the bishop has been given the Authority of Christ. What to know more about Ignatius of Antioch? Read this very informative article on Restless Pilgrim. “Who’s Your Daddy? St. Ignatius of Antioch”
What does that mean? Well, let me give you an example. I just returned from Summer Camp as Scoutmaster for our Boy Scout Troop. We had 21 young men present ranging in ages from 11 to 17. Fortunately I had good parental help, however we also had youth leadership. They were probably the most important part of the leadership structure. As you may or may not know, Boy Scout Troops are supposed to be boy led. I would instruct the Senior Patrol Leader and Assistant Senior Patrol Leader to have the boys take care of various responsibilities. At one point, the younger boys were giving the SPL and ASPL resistance. I had to step in and tell the Troop, that the SPL and ASPL had been given my authority. Whatever they told them to do they were to follow as if I had asked them. These two young men, were to wield my authority, as if I were present and giving the instruction myself.
This is exactly the role of the Bishop. They have been given the Authority of Christ thereby, when we hear the Bishop, we hear Christ. Fortunately, we also have the assurance from Jesus that His Holy Spirit would prevent the Church from teaching error, when it comes to doctrine concerning the faith and morals.
Eighty years later, we see another very important figure appear on the scene. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was originally from Smyrna and later moved to Lugdunum in Gaul to be established as Bishop there. Interestingly, Irenaeus was taught the faith by Saint Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, yes that John, John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple.
Heresies were gaining speed, they were cropping up everywhere, fortunately the Church, who had an authoritative structure that had been handed down to them from Christ through the apostles were doing their due diligence to fight these heresies.
Irenaeus wrote a document titled “Against Heresies” which once again shows that Church was not following a modern day protestant model of autonomous churches bound together by invisible body. NO, the Church had a centralize authority and there still wasn’t a canon of New Testament established yet. In fact Irenaeus talks about how it is absolutely necessary that Jesus established a teaching Church with authority and sacred tradition.
Suppose there arises a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear regarding the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the Tradition that they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches? ~Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (c. AD 180)
According to Irenaeus, we are to answer heresies and division in the Church with the authority of Sacred Tradition, the teaching structure of the Church in union with the teachings from the very beginning. Only 150 years after the resurrection and we see that this is the teaching of the Church. He also continues by showing that Apostolic Succession was necessary to make this authority true.
…that tradition derived from the apostles, of the…universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul… which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority…
He even lists the Bishops of Rome from Peter to the current one of his time.
…The blessed apostles… committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate [of Rome]… To him succeeded Anacletus… Clement… Evaristus… Alexander… Sixtus… Telephorus… Hyginus… Anicetus… Soter…[and] Eleutherius does now…hold the inheritance of the episcopate.
Notice he lists, Clement. The same Clement I mentioned in Part 4.
… this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. ~ Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (c. AD 180)
There it is. The Truth of the Faith is preserved in the Church and is handed down from generation to generation.
Something that would eventually become clear in the centuries to follow would be a need to determine what books and letters would be recognized as “scripture.” More and more writings were showing up, and the flood of heresies was continuing. Just as the Church put down one, another would pop up. Also, as brutal persecution of the Church continued in those first centuries, clarity about Christian writings became important. After all, Christians were being martyred routinely, and it was necessary to know which books were worth dying for. Not to mention, with the writings of more and more letters and gospels claiming to be true kept appearing, it was going to be more and more difficult to maintain a solid teaching of the Truth passed down from Christ.
Coming up next: Part 6 – Finally, The Development of the New Testament