Christianity first emerged not as a new religion, but as a reform and sect of Judaism within Judea and the Mediterranean. Wherever Paul, Peter, and other early missionaries traveled, they formed small communities of believers in “The Way,” a movement that emphasized Jesus’ teachings, death, and resurrection as the path to transformation and salvation. Gradually the movement grew and took on a life of its own, welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, becoming more inclusive and grace-oriented, until it eventually called itself “catholic” (all-embracing) or universal. By 80 CE, there were Christians as far away as India and France. The “Early Church” period (the five hundred or so years following Jesus’ resurrection) was a time of dramatic change in culture, politics, and economy. All these changes affected the development of the fledgling religion, shaping liturgy, rituals, and theology.
During this time, Christianity was not so much about doctrines or eternal salvation, but about how to live a better life here and now, within the “Reign of God.” From the perspective of occupying Roman powers, the Christian sect was radical because it encouraged alternative behaviors that were both attractive to those at the bottom and threatening to the worldview of empire at the top. Rather than acquiring wealth, this new sect shared its possessions equally. Followers of The Way lived together with people of different ethnicities and social classes rather than following the more controllable classist and cultural “norms”.
For some reason, early Christianity is largely unknown and of little interest to most Western Christians. The very things the early Christians emphasized—such as the prayer of quiet, the Trinity, divinization (see discussion below), universal restoration, and the importance of practice—have been neglected, to our own detriment. With the schism between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054 CE, Christians, in effect, excommunicated one another. Every time the church divided, it also divided up Christ, and both sides of the divide were weaker as a result.
We all need to try to reclaim some of the forgotten pieces of the Christian tradition for our wholeness and blessing, hopefully bringing us closer to what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. Not knowing this early heritage will unfortunately allow us to cling to superficial Christian distinctions that emerged much later, and largely as historical accidents. So, let’s try to put those off, and return to “The Way”.
Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp His teaching more readily. Values like non-participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.
Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!”
The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized…everyone had their own… like it is today. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. For example: Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.” By 1096, the Crusades took place with massive Christian violence against the “pagans”.
Within the space of a few decades leading up to 313 AD, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.
When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a new and different religion from itself…used more and more as an instrument of power and control.
divinization (deification, making divine, theopoesis or theosis) is the transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ. Although it literally means to become divine, or to become a god, most Christian denominations do not interpret the doctrine as implying an overcoming of a fundamental metaphysical difference between God and humanity, for example John of the Cross had it: "it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before"
The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.
STEP BACK, and let’s see how all of this evolved. Conditions in the Roman Empire facilitated the spread of new ideas. The empire's well-defined network of roads and waterways allowed easier travel, while the Pax Romana made it safe to travel from one region to another. The government had encouraged inhabitants, especially those in urban areas, to learn Greek, and the common language allowed ideas to be more easily expressed and understood. Jesus's apostles gained converts in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and over 40 Christian communities had been established by 100. Although most of these were in the Roman Empire, notable Christian communities were also established in Armenia, Iran and along the Indian Malabar Coast. The new teaching was most accepted in urban areas, spreading first among slaves and people of low social standing, and then among aristocratic women. At first, Christians continued to worship alongside Jewish believers, which historians refer to as Jewish Christianity, but within twenty years of Jesus's death, Sunday was being regarded as the primary day of worship (not Saturday). Then, as Gentiles started following Paul of Tarsus, Christianity began growing away from Jewish practices to establish itself as a separate Way.
In or around the year 50 (just 20 years after Jesus), the apostles convened the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem to try to resolve differences among the already competing factions in the Church. This council affirmed that Gentiles could become Christians without adopting all of the Mosaic Law. Growing tensions soon led to a starker separation that was virtually complete by the time Christians refused to join in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt of 132, however some groups of Christians retained elements of Jewish practice. A new “religion” was forming.
The Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba's revolt (an attempt to rebuild in Jerusalem) and destroyed the city of Betar, killing about 580,000 Jewish civilians on July 8, 135 CE…the root of the Fast of Ab. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple and the surrounding area, in 135 CE. The second temple had been destroyed in 70AD.
The early Christian Church was very loosely organized, resulting in some diverse interpretations of Christian beliefs. In part to ensure a greater consistency in their teachings, by the end of the 2nd century, Christian communities had evolved a more structured hierarchy, with a central bishop having authority over the clergy in his city, leading to the development of the Metropolitan bishop. The organization of the Church began to mimic that of the Empire; bishops in politically important cities exerted greater authority over bishops in nearby cities. The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome held the highest positions. Beginning in the 2nd century, bishops often congregated in regional synods to resolve doctrinal and policy issues. By the 3rd century, the bishop of Rome began to act as a court of appeals for problems that other bishops could not resolve. Man’s desire for control was in full swing.
Doctrine was further refined by a series of influential theologians and teachers, known collectively as the Church Fathers. From the year 100 onward, proto-orthodox teachers like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus defined Catholic (universal) teaching in stark opposition to other things, such as Gnosticism. In the first few centuries of its existence, the Church formed its teachings and traditions into a systematic whole under the influence of theological apologists such as Pope Clement I, Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. And so it continued, as religion and politics grew closer and more aligned…with various “church councils” meeting through history, Luther’s “rebellion”, and now (I believe) our society is preparing to address the right standing of religion to spread the true Gospel of Jesus.
All of this is why I am constantly teaching a return to the 1st century church experience, and the history of Israel in the Old Testament that lead up to Jesus. I was raised Catholic, and so am perhaps overly sensitive to the evils of religion. We must return to the deeply personal simplicity, freedom, love and mercy of Jesus, and lose the imprint of man’s jealousy, greed and need for control. Which leads us perfectly to the study of the Book of Acts!