Early Church documents

The Foundation,Organization, and Institutionalization of the Christian Church

Jesus Christ founded the Church. This assertion cannot be contested. How the fact came to be, however, has frequently been the subject of debate. This process of founding and organizing has long fascinated both practicing Christians and secular historians. Quite basic concerns lie obscured beneath more obvious traditions and overt acts of establishment. But Christ was primary in the process, in a way that transcended the obvious statements attributed to him.

Jesus’ basic interest seems to have been the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ concern with the transition from a temporal society to an eternal community took precedence over any social consciousness. He was not committed to the perpetuation of the human social order as he found it. For him, the Kingdom of God came first. This was the primary community. It already existed, and it was revealed forthwith in his appearance as God’s herald, He announced and revealed the “constitution” of this eternal society in the name of God the Father, and it at once became mandatory for all the Son’s followers.

Perhaps the most mysterious thing about the Kingdom was that it was at once a secret to the uninitiated and an open fact to those instructed by its special vocation. This was the ministry to divine ends that was already devolving upon those who accepted Christ’s call to discipleship. Jesus taught a doctrine of last things (or last days, in the sense of the old order) and new times (in terms of the new age already being ushered in), in which the final community was held to be both immanent and actual. The Kingdom was historically present in the midst of men, though its full realization was future to their present comprehension and experience.

The Church arose as a community — a koinonia, or communio of penitents. These penitents freely accepted the divine gift of salvation, which they had in no way earned. The very recognition of unworthiness which all Christ’s followers confessed in common conferred upon them a new kind of justness or Tightness. Those alone were justified who had a full sense of their own unrighteousness. They therefore stood ready to accept redemption out of God’s graciousness. Their distinctive society was not esoteric in the sense of its being a privileged clique. They were simply a grateful people no longer blinded by human striving to the magnanimous operation of this divine action.

The community set up by God and revealed by Christ created from the most ordinary people a society that was an outpost of heaven. It was a koinonia, responding to the eternal fellowship. This community became a social reagent in humanity’s midst. It was engendered by,and answerable to, the will of the Kingdom. The new ecclesiastical community came to think of itself as the servant of the eternal Kingdom in the temporal world. This royal society swept through and beyond the time-span. It both transcended and transformed earthly history and the interim universe. These would finally be superseded and reborn into a new heaven and a new earth.

The nascent Church gradually sensed its dual consecration to eternity and time. It recorded, historically, its dedication to final purposes and the earthly genesis that served them. In a world attuned to Greek cycles (i.e., cycles of recurring, self-contained existence), the Church adopted an increasingly linear view of history. That is, the Church on earth, like humanity itself, had a beginning in time as it would have an end to its historical pilgrimage. Those in the Hebraic-Christian tradition moved from historical beginnings to destined religious ends because of such ends. They knew their way by faith only. They journeyed away from their human beginnings without affection for earthly origins. Unlike purely scientific origins that start from whatever has already been, their beginnings were informed with meaning and power by the ends that had preceded them. Christians had fully societal instincts. They knew the meaning of traditio. In living tradition one passed on to another’s hands what had been placed in his own. Hands joined hands from age to age in vital transmission of what hands must not merely hold, but hold out, or offer. The City of God was heavenly and future to their earthly hope. Yet, in its supreme corporateness, it begot social beings on earth. Its foundations were in heaven, but its citizens to be were commingled with all of humanity. This citizenry of the eternal city (civitas) was not deprived, in the interim, of a living bond with the heavenly koinonia. By faith and in love they passed to the Fatherland (patria) in the tradition of hand-to-hand community, or traditio.

Early in the Church’s record there emerged a common preoccupation with the “cure of souls” (cura animarum) and the “school of souls” (schola animarum). Earliest Christian life was a genuine koinonia or communio. It was a collegium in the sense of a close-knit, interpenetrating community. It was a mystical universitas of head and members. Before collegium and universitas meant academic institutions they referred to social vitalities and traditions. These were first pre-Christian, then Christian corporations. At the outset, Christian communities of souls implied associations of teaching and learning, as well as societies of divine worship. Long before Christians were academically self-conscious they were cast in seminars with the Great Teacher. “Master” and “Disciple” were sacred terms. Theirs was the urgency of breathless expectation, of genuinely Christian hope. The Christian collegium of worship and social response to brothers’ needs became also the koinonia of instruction, of teaching and learning. This tutelage of Kingdom men on earth, by the Kingdom’s servant community in time, registered a desperate need. It was imperative that they know the truth where right doctrine meant eternal beatitude, even as error spelled death to the presence of God and of his people.

Christian manuals of instruction were not marks of luxury, but of survival. Such was the teaching handbook, or enchiridion, called Matthew’s Gospel. Other examples were the evolving “Church Orders,” or books of discipline, such as the Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions. The catechetical writings and disciplines of the Christian school at Alexandria were also part of this Didascalia. Preaching and teaching, like pastoral care and indoctrination, were solidly allied, though not identical preoccupations of the Church. Martyrs, confessors, and missionaries were developed only through instruction and catechesis. The Christian community was doomed without tradition or transmission. Augustine contended that Christian associations needed their seals as much as the merchant fraternity. The Christian Credo or Symbol was just such an oral badge or seal. In it the Christians’ confession of faith rose up out of memory and reflection. They registered their hearing and doing of the Word as it was preached, taught, and practiced in the community. The increasing spiritual prestige of the teaching authority was only in part an institutionalizing of the Church’s pneumatic life. Here was also a regularizing of spiritual respiration, a committing to the everyday, orderly routine of the living faith and Gospel. Profound instruction was essential to the preaching and teaching community of Origen. It was equally indispensable to the leveling of heresy and the validating of truth in the apostolic tradition of Irenaeus. The early Christian church was a witnessing to the Kingdom through the unity of worship and social ministry, through preaching and teaching. In it, daily work and fiery prophesying were combined; Kerygma (the proclamation of the gospel) and diaconate (a deacon’s official ministry) were mingled. Martyr suffering and going to school under the Master were part of it, too. For those challenged by the sophisticated world and the eclectic seekers after truth, Christ was the true Gnostic as he was the great Pedagogue.

The vicissitudes of Christian householding on earth were many. To be in the Christian tradition was to respond to the Rule of Faith. It was to minister in the “curacy of souls,” to serve in the “school of souls.” In Ignatius and in Cyprian, the divine hierarchy was held up as the eliciting pattern of Christian polity and ecclesiastical unity on earth. Likewise, in the early Church, the good pastor was the true teacher. The heavenly hierarchy was the solicitous School of Heaven instructing Christians of earth. Borne within it was the model for the analogue of earthly hierarchy. This applied to temporal government, faith, charity, and the hope of life eternal. The centuries themselves could not wholly denature this pristine Christian simplicity. Nothing could quite obliterate the symbols of the Master. Conveyed by them was the iconography of the Saviour, the image writing of his spiritual presence.

The documents of Chapter I confirm the idealistic bent of this early Christian orientation. They also reflect the rough awakening of those who superficially grasped the import of Jesus’ objectives without the full implications of his realistic foresightedness. These later writings, like the canonical literature, show how Christians tried to meet the ultimate demands of their rigorous faith; they also show how they adjusted themselves to daily exigencies among people of quite different views. Following Christ’s admonition to be in the world, but not of it, proved a bruising if exhilarating experience.

The first source reading, though actually anonymous, was early ascribed to one Clement, presumably third bishop of Rome. He was writing to the strife-torn Christians at Corinth. The pneumatic emphasis of early Pauline days was then being challenged by worldly bickerings and the practical demands of common-sense Christians. Already, Roman Christian officialdom was beginning to inject into its fraternal exchanges a tone of commiseration subtly charged with patronizing unction. Perhaps certain ministers had been expelled from their offices. Regularity in worship and the ordered church life so cherished at old Rome had been endangered. As a more sophisticated and well-organized Christian society, the ranking priesthood or hierarchy of the Roman community felt called upon to intervene. They pleaded for the larger Christian unity now being threatened by local schism.

No less impassioned in its plea for unity was the correspondence of Ignatius. This depicted the concern for his flock of a second-century bishop on his way to martyrdom. A brief, violent uprising against Christians in his Episcopal city of Antioch, in Syria, had broken out. He had been condemned to face wild beasts in the Roman arena. He made an expectant martyr’s triumphant tour of certain towns while receiving Christian delegations from others. His coveted crown of martyrdom was about to seal his Christian disciple-ship with sure victory. The unity he was thus about to serve in his death, as in his life, had been customarily aided on the local, congregational level of church organization by placing a bishop at the head. Supporting him was a council of presbyters, or priests, assisted by deacons. This council featured a planned hierarchy, culminating in the so-called monepiscopate. In this hierarchy, or graded priestly rule by earthly officials, the heavenly pattern was to be followed. The bishop, representing God himself, was administrator, liturgical leader, and prophetic teacher. The elders, moreover, represented the apostles. The deacons recalled Christ’s ministry of service. Out of this background Ignatius wrote his moving spiritual will and testament.

Polycarp, later to be encountered in the third section of Chapter II, also placed the daily perplexities of Christian life in relation to ultimate crises and the functions of ordered Christian officialdom. The strange, visionary writings of the “Shepherd” reveal the passionate convictions of one having proved worthy under testing. Fresh trials yet loomed for the Church before Christ’s return to judge mankind at the end of the world. The Church, arrayed as a matron in white, urged the apocalyptist to admonish his own family and all the churches to do penance. Good Christians would be built into that tower which was the Church. Untrue members would be cast aside.

The Didache, traditionally ascribed to the twelve apostles, was in fact a later compilation of pre-Christian and early Christian materials. It preserved the outlines of the Church’s gradual but sure transition from spiritual urgency under minimum organization to a more fixed institutional life of increasing complexity. Portions of the work reflect a time when the monepiscopate was not yet fully established and when gifts of prophecy were still reverenced as the mark of leadership. In the main, this manual of church order seems designed to guide rural churches through the growing perplexities of a more systematized corporate life. The layers of older and newer tradition, in their very syncretizing of disparate times and ideals, witness to the institutionalizing process well under way. The Church’s eschatological passions are forcefully, if not always realistically, coupled with its daily worship, its economic and social pressures, and its ethical demands. Called to mind are the comparably sobering problems and measures of the contemporary “Pastoral Epistles.”

Another work attributed to Clement is actually an early Christian homily, or sermon. The ends and methods of indoctrination are instructively, if not always inspiringly, preserved in it. The need for moral purity and stability in the face of persecution is as marked as the emphasis on the coming Kingdom and the Last Judgment. Primitive enthusiasms had sometimes prompted grave irregularities. These were to be countered with disciplined Christian integrity. All must repent and make ready by means of the true spiritual church for the parousia, the imminent return of Christ.

The purported letter to Diognetus seems to have been an authentic Christian expression. It is basically apologetic in the true, positive sense of stating the case for an unaccepted position or group. The distinctive character of Christians in human society is stressed. Christianity is a mystery of transcendent origin. Through it, the fulfillment of the divine purpose is worked out in history. Those not indoctrinated in this salutary mystery cannot discern the divine operation. Christians alone apprehend the secret force generated by God in heaven and revealed by Christ on earth. Here its working goes forward in and through a commonwealth that is on earth, but not of its genius. Yet, the Church is to the world what soul is to the body. Its ultimate purposes bless temporal society.

Early examples of Christian worship are implicit in all these readings. The accounts of Justin and Tertullian, however, are justly famous. Justin was an apologist worthy of the name. He stated the Christian case and made a plea for its toleration. Even more, he pressed the claims of a converter who was, himself, a confessor of the faith and a martyr, or witness, to the true tradition. His Apology constitutes a valuable manual of Christian thought and life in the second century. A native of ancient Schechem and a Gentile, he was well acquainted with Jewish life and ideology. Greek by cultural background, he had been influenced by Platonism. He bowed before the Old Testament prophets as propounded by the Christian church. Herein was the true philosophy he had formerly sought elsewhere. A Christian teacher who had once worn the philosopher’s cloak and the professor’s toga, he described Christian practices in worship as he had participated in them.

Tertullian was born of a pagan centurion father at Carthage. Educated for the law, he was established in his profession before his conversion in 193. By 213 he had left the “great church” to join the company of ascetic Montanist spiritualizers. Their rigorism and pneumatic propensities rebuked the laxity he found all too current in the Christian profession. He lacked Justin’s penchant for philosophy. Actually he thought it the parent of gnostic error. Church and academy were, for him, enemies rather than the friends Clement and Origen of Alexandria held them to be. He is sometimes termed the father of Latin theology, though he was scarcely a speculative theologian. For him Christianity was a divine foolishness not to be reconciled with philosophical systems. Christianity he conceived to be a new law. He entertained a deep sense of sin and the condign need of grace. It was on grace that salvation was based. Tertullian transposed old Latin terms into new Christian meanings. Such words as sacramentum, substantia, traditio, corona, and satisfactio focused a new divine-human encounter, referring now to these concepts in a new social-eternal context. His Apologeticum is outstanding for its critique of pagan and Christian social antithesis. At the heart of this stood his description of the Christian cultus.

Clement and his student Origen grew out of Greek culture and maintained an irenic regard for it to the last. Where Tertullian was intransigent and harsh, Clement was flexible and mild. Modest regard for truth from all quarters and reverence for Christ as the epitome of all knowledge and true gnosis were characteristic of him. Probably born at Athens, he later went to Alexandria, the center of Hellenistic intellectualism. There, he became head of the catechetical school. This made converts ready, by instruction and examination in the Christian scriptures and tradition, for responsible places in the Christian community. He knew the Scriptures and Christian literature well. He was conversant with philosophical lore and classical letters, though not always at first hand. The Christian revelation was held relatable to all true knowledge and pre-Christian philosophy. The philosophy of the Greeks, like the law of the Jews, might lead to Christ. Contrary to the inflated and provincial wisdom of esoteric gnostics, the privilege of the true Christian gnostic was the free search for universal truth in Christ. In him was the epitome of all genuine gnosis, both in elevated thought and wise conduct.

Clement’s attempted harmonization of Christian faith and current philosophy held real dangers. His eulogies in classroom and via public and private example exalted Christ as the true pedagogue of the world and the only effective instructor of the redeemed. The life of natural man was not to be legalistically indicted and vilified. It was, rather, to be ennobled and enjoyed, with the disciplined Christian liberty properly accorded God’s gifts of creation. The Hymn to Christ is possibly the early doxology of the Alexandrian school. Evicted from Alexandria by the imminent persecution of Severus, Clement is traditionally accorded a martyr’s death.

Origen, whose work is to be represented in greater detail later, combined the scholarly catholicity of his teacher Clement with the exacting consecration, though not the censorious rigorism, of Tertullian. The life of prayer and martyrdom which he incited and elicited was the true  teacher’s confession. Sought in it was the experience of spiritual perfection exemplified by the ever tutoring, patient, redeeming Christ.

The church order of Hippolytus is a precious deposit from early Christian worship. This good bishop was venerated for learning and eloquence. On one occasion he was supposedly deputized to preach before the erudite, dedicated Origen. Actually elevated at one time as a counter-pope to the Roman bishop, he opposed fearlessly what he regarded as a record of lax ineptitude in the Roman hierarchy. It has been said that in a unique sense he imparted to “the laws and the liturgy of the Eastern Church their permanent form.”


By Ray C. Petry (editor)

Excerpts from “Readings in the History of the Church.”

About sooteris kyritsis

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  1. Pingback: When a person looks for or has the need to Choose the Right Church | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

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