The Church, Pt. 2: Early Christians, Early Controversies

This is the second portion of an essay I recently wrote on “The Church” for graduate school application. I slightly edited it but have kept the footnotes as italicized numbers. This part of the essay explores some of the earliest Church practices, as well as a major persecution that, I believe, we can learn from:

So, if the Church is this society-forming reality, and the shape of this society is given by the New Testament teachings on the Kingdom of God, then what do these teachings say? I believe that Kingdom of God must be conceived of as a political reality in the broadest sense: “relating to government” (14) While this is an increasingly emphasized truth in evangelical Christianity, particularly those concerned with “social justice”, what is not yet thoroughly discussed is that God’s government is unlike and fundamentally opposed to every worldly government today. It is unlike worldly governments in that its’ rule is exercised through service and love (15), whereas their rule is necessarily maintained through the constant threat of coercion (16). It is opposed to worldly governments both because their violent power is wielded by the enemies of God (17), and because the Kingdom of God’s culmination will be their end (18). The earliest writings of the Church demonstrate an understanding of these same principles.

In the “Apostolic Tradition” and “Didache”, two of the the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the canon, we see a new, society-forming ethic being spelled out for the nascent Church, drawing on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (19). Christians were to cease gaining their income from immoral entertainments like gladiator fights, converted soldiers were not to kill or swear public oaths, military commanders and civic magistrates in the Roman empire were to give up their vocation, and burial for the poor was to be provided by the bishop (20). Rhythms of regularly shared meals were outlined, and economic inter-dependence is assumed by the guidelines which prevented outside guests from taking advantage of the community (21). With regards to being a “visible church”, the earliest Christian communities are exemplary. At the same time, we see in the earliest controversies of the Church, and ensuing history, how challenging it is to visibly reflect our identity as the singular body of Christ. I would like describe two interrelated controversies in depth, but not as a rote exercise! After evaluating them, there will be lessons applicable to the contemporary Church’s pressing challenges of maintaining unity in the face of political, theological, and moral disagreements.

Emperor Decius on a Roman Silver Coin. Click image for source

From the years A.D. 249 until 313 the church under the Roman Empire was torn apart as a result of two sets of intense persecutions, particularly under emperor Decius from 249-25122 and under Diocletian from 303-313 (until 324 in the east) (23). Decius required all citizens to offer a sacrifice to the gods of Rome and partake of the sacrifice. At the threat of an exceedingly cruel death, most Christians complied (24). According to historian Robert Wilken:

Some even brought their own wine or other offerings. In one city a bishop showed up with a lamb under his arms for sacrifice! …This is not surprising. As the number of Christians increased, the boundaries between the Christian community and the larger society were becoming porous (25).

After the Decian persecutions ended, the church was faced with the question of how, or even if, to re-admit people who wanted to return to the Church though they had denied their faith. The Church’s differing responses to this crisis is extremely relevant, especially because these responses set a trajectory leading to the ugliest features of both Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation; features which the Mennonite tradition has historically stood in prophetic witness against.

There were three sets of responses to Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions. The Bishops of Rome advocated re-admission to the Church simply if someone expressed the desire to do so. Novation, a Christian leader in Rome, and his followers believed that there should be no re-admission whatsoever, eventually breaking off from the majority church and setting up Novation as an alternate bishop in Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, arbitrated a mediating position in which significant penance, overseen by a bishop in communion with the majority church, was required to be re-admitted. For some, this penance was severe and would last their entire lives. Cyprian was similar to Novation in upholding “the Church’s holiness as a unique community set apart from the society at large” (27). Yet, Cyprian argued intensely against Novation’s separation from the main church, saying

he can be no Christian who is not inside the Church of Christ…there is but one Church founded by Christ…likewise, there is but one episcopate, but it is spread amongst the harmonious host of all the numerous bishops (28).

Cyprian thus denounced groups like the Novations as not truly being in the body of Christ because they were not united to the Roman church’s network of bishops. He even required re-baptism by anyone who wanted to come into the Roman church but had been baptized in an outside group (29). Of course, this was because of the authority of the “one episcopate” and not because of any Anabaptist-like considerations. While this practice drew serious ire from the Bishop of Rome, who called Cyprian a “false Christ and false apostle”, Cyprian’s position was adopted across all of North Africa and he was a revered teacher in North African Christianity long after his death (30). Cyprian’s positions were important in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecutions, seventy years later.

14 Accessed January 17th 2014
15 Matt. 20:25-28, 1 Pet. 5:3
16 In my estimation, a result of this fact is that enforcing this rule is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ’s teachings of peace. The most difficult teachings to reconcile with the enforcement of worldly government by Christ-followers being primarily found in Matthew 5:33-48
17 Luke 4:5-7, I have never found alternative explanations of this passage to be convincing
18 1 Cor. 15:24
19I list these not as models to be replicated, but as examples, though there are certainly timeless principles being reflected here that should be embodied by the Church at all times The Apostolic Tradition was written by Hippolytus, who separated himself from the established church in Rome as it became, in his opinion, too lax towards its’ members. Thus, the practices he cites are probably closer to the earliest church’s methods; schism is a topic I will address below.
20 Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 17-20. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York. 2004
21 Didache in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 20
22 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Novation Schism in Rome [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes.
23 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Donatist Schism in North Africa [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. portal/
24 Wilken, Robert Louis, The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity. pp 67. New Haven: Yale University Press. Early church father Origen was killed on the rack during the Decian persecutions, as well as Bishops Fabian, Alexander, and Dionysius. The persecution was short, but it was devastating.
25 ibid. 68
26 ibid. 77
27 Wilken, 71
28 Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 55, in Reading in World Christian History, Vol. I. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. 2004. New York: Orbis Books.
29 Fairbairn, The Novation Schism
30 Wilken, 74