Insights Within Early Christian Literature

What follows here is an address I gave at an annual preacher’s workshop at Heath Church of Christ on Monday, 3/19/18.

My interest in early Christian literature began by accident. Having not grown up in churches of Christ, I was accustomed to Baptist practice until converting as a pre-teen. As I aged, questions began to arise as to why we did certain things differently than other traditions—we used no instruments, we had no choir, the preacher was not the final authority in the church, and other folks were regarded “different” from us. As I learned more, I was astounded to hear that how we did things was believed to have been among the most ancient. Therefore, it occurred to me that if that were, in fact, true, there must be evidence just outside the New Testament canon that would represent this in some way or another. Otherwise, the likelihood of our being wrong could exist on specific points emphasized about our uniqueness in publications, by preachers, and other mediums of communication.

While in my early twenties and, by this time enrolled in preacher training school, I discovered church historian, Everett Ferguson. His first volume Early Christians Speak led me to a remarkable discovery—the bridge between New Testament Christianity and that of subsequent generations. Ferguson’s book shows a continuity of New Testament practices in early Christian literature as well as notes where in history things began to change. This work solidified a love of early Christian literature in me. Rather than quoting from esteemed brethren who had passed away in the last century (e.g., Foy E. Wallace. B. C. Goodpasture, et. al.), I could quote from Christians just decades, even a few centuries, after the apostles. Their insight into Scripture and our shared faith led me to an understanding of ancient Christianity which has, at times, conflicted with the restored gospel, but which has also given me a greater appreciation for our faith.

Before going forward, I think it wise to define “early Christian literature” for our purposes here. In academia, early Christianity is the timeline of our faith from its inception up to the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, so when referring to early Christian literature, this should be defined as non-canonical writings of Christians during this time period. I, however, tend to be more liberal in my usage of the phrase “early Christian” and often include Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers in that definition despite their having been born after that time. Nevertheless, for our purposes here we shall employ my liberal definition since in a church setting, but I want the appropriate definition to be known by you here today.

As members of the churches of Christ, we hold the Scriptures as the sole and final authority in all matters of faith so one may wonder why to consider Christian literature outside the Bible at all. My point for so doing, though it isn’t required that one does, is 1) many of us consult other writings such as commentaries, dictionaries, and word study books. Early Christian literature, in my opinion, is better than most commentaries available because of the authors’ closeness to the actual time of the biblical writings and the insight they are able to provide. While it is true that a well can become poisoned very near the source, it is also true that the nearer the source, the purer the water. 2) This body of writings helps to clarify some points of interpretation and faith that we may be uncertain about given our distance to the time in which the Bible was written. 3) Piety emerges that is in itself inspiring, and we see how those after the apostolic era did Christianity and lived their faith. While American Christianity as a whole is concerned with partisan politics and stances on certain issues, early Christianity draws a distinct line between the sacred and secular which is seen in how those earliest saints lived. 4) We learn about changes in ecclesiastical matters that bring certain questions to mind as well as eliminating some questions we face altogether. For example, one question that arises is when did church government begin to change and how did that affect Christianity? One question eliminated altogether is that instrumental music in worship at that time was not an issue at all, so those who make it so today neglect that there were weightier matters then, and this was not one of them. Because it was not even a consideration, we must question our motives when the discussion arises. If we have time to focus on such trivial matters, are we really doing Christianity as we should be doing it? I will emphatically state that the Christian is not required to immerse themselves in this material, but for one so inclined, I believe they will find it helpful and most insightful.

Some Caveats

When thinking about such writings, the temptation to automatically dismiss them because they are “Catholic” must be resisted. While it is true that this material is used by Catholics, we ought rather see it as we would even our own publications. Many of us have read such great works as Tom Holland’s The Work of the Preacher is Working, Ira North’s Balance, or perhaps even Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System. These and other of our brethren-works are not meant to ever have been equated with Scripture, but as an aid that leads us to greater devotion to God and faithfulness to Christ. Early Christian literature, while used by many with whom we find disagreements, should be viewed similarly. Because this corpus has been utilized as if it were less than inspired but more than casual reading by some, we must not dismiss it as a whole. However, we must be sure to measure its content against the material contained in Scripture. There will be times that Scripture presents a different truth, and Scripture must always have the final say.

For example, one of the insights from early Christian literature is that the local congregational government began changing somewhere around the early second century. Ignatius of Antioch, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John, noted in his letters the polity of a single bishop, multiple elders (presbyters), and deacons. This is a different view from what we see in the New Testament and pretty much undergirds the whole of this literature, which is something we would not wish to replicate. To go further, Ignatius urged that the church view their bishop as Christ, the presbytery as the Apostles, and the diaconate as ministers. For him, the bishop was responsible for administering the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and these acts were prohibited from others performing them unless so appointed by the bishop. Denominations have adopted this polity in their local churches of a single or body of pastors ruling over elders and deacons. The senior pastor, then, is the final authority on most if not all things about church life.  

Other Christian literature, however, attests to the New Testament structure of church polity. Such sources as Didache 15.1, Clement of Rome’s Corinthians 42, and Polycarp’s Philippians 5 all reflect a structure of multiple elders (presbyters) and deacons. “Bishop” and “presbyter” were interchangeable terms in the New Testament, and Didache appears to have employed that usage. Furthermore, Justin Martyr’s First Apology does not note the bishop as administering the Lord’s Supper, but “the president”—whomever that was—with the deacons serving it in the assembly and, later, taking it to those unable to attend services (65). From Justin Martyr, one might suggest that an issue of whether or not women should serve on the Lord’s Table is not a historical consideration since the deacons did the serving—something not even told us in the New Testament.

Disagreement occurs in early Christian literature, but one admirable point is that despite various disagreements on certain points, Christianity was for all intents and purposes a united faith. Where we are so prone to division over the simplest of matters, we can learn from the early church how to differ but remain one in Christ when possible. Unity is not always possible and should not be maintained for the sake of keeping it, but we learn where the lines were drawn then and can use such as examples for us today.

Specific Insights

Baptism

In today’s pluralistic landscape, one point of contention among other groups and us is baptism. However, Scripture, we feel, is clear about the matter. Those baptized were consenting adults (Mark 16:16Acts 2:418:37). They were not anointed or poured on but immersed as if “buried” (Rom. 6:4Col. 2:12). The clear results of being baptized were not an inward sign of an outward grace, but it was to receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:3822:16), to put the old man to death and renew one’s spiritual self (Rom. 6:3–4Titus 3:5), to sanctify the person (1 Cor. 6:11), and put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). Yes, in the first century, baptism saved (1 Peter 3:21).

Various early Christian passages attest to this same thing. In Epistle to Barnabas (c. AD 70–135), baptism led to remission of sins (11.1). Even the ever-popular Shepherd of Hermas notes the same (2.4.3). Justin Martyr explicitly states, “[We] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, [where] there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe.” As another matter of interest, John 3:3–5 was the most quoted baptismal passage in the second century.

We see in Didache 7.1–7 the first acceptance to immersion. Running water was preferred in baptizing, but stagnant water could be used in the absence of running water. If no water was available, the recipient of baptism could have water poured in their head three times in the name of the Trinity just as we immerse once in the name of such. Nevertheless, this acceptance was only allowed when the preferred conditions were not present. What began as an exception later became the rule.

In the mid-third century, Cyprian of Carthage taught that priests must cleanse the water before conversion so that remission of sins may take place. By the late-fourth century, the bishop was to anoint the head of the one being baptized. Also with Cyprian, we see the mention of infant baptism as if it were something common in his time. History testifies that, at one point, the belief was to delay baptism as long as possible to be all-the-more pure upon death—something even Constantine did—but with the shift towards original sin and the high mortality rate among infants, infant baptism became the standard practice. From the earliest days of Christianity, a conscious faith, the precept of Christ, and obedience were forefront in the exercise of this practice; however, as the tide of theology changed, so did the practice.

Worship

The worship of the early Christians was intimate in its setting. Assemblies typically occurred in the home of more wealthy members (cf. Acts 12:12) who had room to accommodate. Roman dining rooms could rarely contain a group of nine when furniture was present. If the atrium was employed for meetings, a group of forty might comfortably be received. These intimate settings provided for an active fellowship and close union of the early church unlike that of larger facilities today.

The earliest account of Christian worship outside 1 Corinthians 11–16 comes from the Roman Governor Pliny in his letters to Emperor Trajan. In his correspondence with the emperor, he did not make a detailed account of every action of Christian worship. He only recorded what was relevant for Trajan. The content reveals that Christians met before daybreak, sang, and swore oaths (Letters 10.96). The day on which the early Christians met was each Sunday. That they met before daybreak suggests that this was the time to exercise their services safe from persecuting authorities. Sunday was not a day of rest for them as the Sabbath was for the Jews. Those whose industry operated on Sunday, and slaves, had to work. Modern Sabbatarians advocate that Constantine began the practice of Sunday worship; however, earlier sources refute this claim (cf. Didache 14.1, First Apology 67, and Tertullian Ad Nationes 1.13). Magnesians 9, Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 10, and An Answer to the Jews 4 show that keeping the Sabbath was prohibited as a Christian practice. Another element present in Pliny’s work was singing. The singing was directed to Christ in chanting, or antiphonal, fashion that was unaccompanied by any mechanical aid. The content of the singing is thought to have been Psalms as they were then understood to be Christological.

A second, fuller reference to early Christian worship is found in the writings of Justin Martyr (c. 100–65). Here’s what he wrote:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. (First Apology 67)

When Justin spoke of the Eucharist, only those who had been baptized could partake. All other weekly observances revolved around the Eucharist. Those exercises were prayer, scripture reading, a sermon, and offerings. Prayers and Scriptures were associated separately with the sermon and the Eucharist. Early Christian writings testify, not to the uniformity of worship, but to the generality of worship. The generality would be the particular elements in worship as described, but the point at which part of the service each component was observed was a matter of expediency. Aside from the Eucharist, each emblem of worship resembled the synagogue’s practice. When reading about an early worship service, we have good reason to believe from history that our worship services resemble those of early Christianity as well as apostolic Christianity. The simplicity and reverence with which the earliest Christians worshipped ought to give us pause to know that we too continue this tradition of worshipping in spirit and truth—just as our Lord would have it.

Moral Issues

When in Didache attention turned to the sixth commandment, we read, “You shall not murder … you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2). This document understood the sixth commandment as extending to the unborn. The timeline of the document was on par with early (apostolic?) Christian thinking. The reason I included “sorcery” as a part of this understanding is that the Greek term translated “sorcery” is the word from which we get “pharmacy.” Therefore, “sorcery” here likely included taking abortifacients—drugs that induced abortion. Our modern understanding of the sixth commandment was clearly understood as extending to the life of the unborn.

Were a first- or even second-century Christian to attend our worship services, they would likely be baffled by the rhetoric from many pulpits either via preaching or prayer where the servant leading in either extols the virtues and service of soldiers. They would also likely be confused by the amount of honor we seem to bestow upon soldiers and their service. After all, soldiers are trained to kill. Looking to the second-century critic of Christianity, Celsus, we look at one of his criticisms of our beloved faith and then see how Origen, the third-century theologian, answered his charge.

When Jesus said that a person cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), Celsus saw this as a divisive and seditious statement. After all, he reasoned, the gods of the Romans could all be served and should be because they were under the headship of One Supreme God (Against Celsus 8.2, 35; 7.68, 70). Christian theology taught that the gods of the Romans were actually demons believed to have been gods by pagans (1 Corinthians 10:19–21). Yet, paganism and Christianity agreed that there was one God in control of all (1 Corinthians 8:5–6).

Because early Christians wouldn’t swear oaths to Rome—due to the ties to paganism and what all those oaths entailed—Celsus saw them as seditious and horrible citizens. We have to know that public service in Roman civil government entailed participation in religious rites towards the Roman gods, and for the pious Christian who wanted to remain faithful to Jesus Christ as Lord, they could not and would not divide their allegiance. This also included not serving in public office as well as not serving in the Roman military.

I realize that in the New Testament that there are examples of public servants and soldiers who became Christians (e.g., Cornelius, Philippian Jailer), but whether or not they remained in their positions after their conversion is unknown. Nevertheless, I’m not trying to advocate that a Christian should not be a soldier or public servant only because serving in our country in these capacities do not entail participating in pagan rites as they would have then. However, in Celsus’ and Origen’s time, Rome was still very much pagan, and Christianity was still very much persecuted by Roman officials. Celsus had the following to say about Christians’ refusal to serve in civil roles, “If everyone were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent [the emperor] from being abandoned … while earthly things would come into the power of the most lawless and savage barbarians” (Against Celsus 8.68).

Celsus’ argument very much sounds akin to how someone would argue the issue today. There are some Christians whose conscience is so convinced that they would not serve as a soldier or public official. We can only respect the heart they have for the Lord. Conversely, there are other Christians who view public service as a service to God much like how Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah served in pagan governments while remaining faithful to the Lord. We can certainly see their point too. I would suggest that each determine what it is that God would want from him/her without casting judgment on the other (cf. Romans 14).

Origen’s answer to Celsus was, first, that Christ forbade violence and the “taking of human life in any form at all” (Against Celsus 3.7). He went on to say that Christians were “not to defend themselves against their enemies,” and they were not “given the right to make war” (Against Celsus 3.8). Origen offered that Christians could be more effective for any government through prayer because when they “pray with complete agreement they will be able to subdue many more pursuing enemies than those that were destroyed by the prayer of Moses” (Against Celsus 8.69; cf. Exodus 14:14). Origen offered that if Romans became Christians, “They would be superior to their enemies, or would not even fight wars at all since they would be protected by divine power” (Against Celsus 8.70). For Origen, the greater service was not to one’s country in a civil office or as a soldier, but as a shepherd of the church. After all, he reasoned, those who ruled over the churches kept “themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God for the sake of the salvation of men” (Against Celsus 8.75).

The more pious a man is, the more effective he is in helping the emperors—more so than the soldiers who go out into the lines and kill all the enemy troops that they can …. We who by our prayers destroy all daemons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace, are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting …. And though we do not become fellow-soldiers with [the emperor], even if he presses for this, yet we are fighting for him and composing a special army of piety through our intercessions to God. (Against Celsus 8.73)

This makes one reevaluate their position in some ways, but when the historical backdrop is understood, a better decision can be made.

Conclusion

Many other examples could be given, but these are a good start. For example, one would find it interesting to see what ancient Christians had to say about the wearing of veils in 1 Corinthians 11. John Chrysostom’s belief that Phoebe was a deaconess is also fascinating (Romans 16:1–2) as are his views on the laying on of apostolic hands in Acts. To the latter, Chrysostom sees the issue very much how many of us understand it—that the laying on of apostolic hands as a means of conferring the Holy Spirit was a different topic than a Christian being baptized and receiving the Spirit. In an age when Galatians 3:28 has been misused to argue for “gender justice,” the early Christians would not have seen it similarly. Many studies of early Christian literature uncover a mine of treasures and insights, but must always be approached with caution and discernment.  

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.