Christianity is one of the largest single religions on earth, with more than 2.1 billion professing Christians. Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion has 1.5. But Christianity is not one harmonious group of believers. The Christian world is divided into hundreds of denominations, splits, schisms and sects.
What happened? How did Christianity become so divided? Even more important, where is the Church that Jesus Christ founded?
Is the true Church composed of all these groups? Or is it just one of them? As we search through nearly 2,000 years of history, can we find where the true Disciples of Christ were? Can we know what they believed? Can we know who they are today?
Yes, we can, but our search is not an easy one. Large gaps often appear in the historical records. Information is sometimes very sketchy, at other times spurious. The true followers of Jesus Christ of Nazareth were often persecuted. During some periods of history, what we know about them comes only from their adversaries.
So sometimes the line of history is thin and questionable. But there is a line. Our search is based on this truth: Jesus Christ himself clearly said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades (the grave, or death) shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
He also said, “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
God’s true church will be a small Church. An often persecuted Church. But, a church that would always be there. That’s what the Bible prophesied. And that’s what history reveals.
Let’s begin our story in the first century B.C. By the time Jesus Christ was born, the boundaries of the Roman Empire extended from Britain on the north to the Sahara on the south. Roman banners flew over cities from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. The clatter of horses’ hooves, the rumble of war machines and the clamor of marching legions had long since been familiar sounds in the Middle East.
The entire empire was at peace and was prospering. Roman occupation armies now busied themselves with games, tournaments, gambling, talking over valiant battles of the past. In the confines of this great empire, the New Testament Church began.
It was not an accident that God established the New Testament Church at exactly this time. He had set the stage.
Since the days of Moses, the Hebrew prophets had written of the coming Messiah. In 4 B.C. the time came. Later, when the apostle Paul wrote of the momentous appearance of the Son of God on earth, he said, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).
One of the most important preparations for the establishment of the Church was the Jewish dispersion throughout the Western world. Beginning in the Persian period and continuing through the time of the Greek empire, the Jews established settlements in almost every important city in the Western world. It would be in the Jewish synagogues where early New Testament ministers would first proclaim the message Jesus Christ gave them. Gradually, then in increasing numbers, gentiles in the cities where the apostles preached were convicted of God’s way.
They were baptized. Churches grew. Yet for many years the growth of the Christian Church went practically unnoticed by Roman officials. For all outward intents and purposes, Christians appeared little different from other Jewish sects. By the time the Roman world really became aware that Christians were not just another Jewish party, tens of thousands of Christians were scattered from one end of the empire to the other.
Though they didn’t realize it, the Romans had actually prepared the way for the gospel to be taken to the world in the first century of the new era.
Romans were great road builders. Roads that at first were constructed to move troops swiftly to battle could also take Christian ministers to far-flung corners of the empire.
After peace was established a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ, trade routes, sea lanes, business and commerce began to flourish. The apostles of Jesus could travel by sea or land to cities throughout the empire.
An effective mail system also played a role. Most of the readers would recall the epistles, or letters, of Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude.
Another important step preparing the way for the New Testament Church was the Hellenization of the pre-Christian world, or the imparting of Greek culture and language. God had given the Israelite tribe of Judah the responsibility to preserve the sacred Scriptures known as the Old Testament. But when the New Testament was written, it was preserved, not in Hebrew, not even in the Latin of Rome, but mostly in the Greek language.
Greek had become the language of culture and education more than three centuries before Jesus Christ. When the Romans conquered the world, they respected and retained Greek language, literature and architecture.
Into this Roman world, then, when the fullness of times had come, God sent his Son. Jesus was born in the autumn of 4 B.C.,possibly around the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles of that year. When He was about 30 years of age, in the fall of 27 A.D., he began His ministry.
Jesus actively taught a comparatively short time – only three-and-a-half years. During that time perhaps many thousands heard him, but only a few hundred really believed what he said. From among those few hundred, Jesus trained 12 to be apostles.
On the day of the Passover in 31 A.D., Jesus Christ was put to death! It appeared for the moment that the movement was over. But after three days and three nights of His death, the most momentous event in history took place. Jesus was raised from the dead – not back to mortal, human existence. But to spirit, self-contained life.
For 40 days, he appeared to his apostles and to many of his disciples. They were thoroughly convinced he who had been dead was now alive.
He left them with these final instructions: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Ahead lay the Work of the Church to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to all the world. That Work was to continue till Jesus Christ returns to this earth, at the end of the world (this age).
Christ told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem. He promised He would send them help. Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost in 31 A.D., the New Testament Church was brought into existence. The help Jesus promised was the Holy Spirit – a spiritual power sent from God to inspire those God called into his Church.
Much of what we know about the beginning of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, we owe to a man named Luke. He was a physician who became a minister in the first-century Church. Luke wrote that early Church history in “The Acts of the Apostles,” one of the inspired books of the New Testament.
Luke was a frequent traveling companion and fellow-minister with another convert to the Christian Church. That other man was to have more effect on the Church than perhaps any other. He was Saul of Tarsus. His name was later changed to Paul.
The New Testament Scriptures tell us only a little about the work of the original apostles Jesus personally trained. We have the biographies of Jesus compiled by Matthew and John. Later John wrote three letters that became part of the Scriptures. He also penned the final book of the New Testament, call the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation.
Paul made by far the largest single contribution to the New Testament Scriptures, writing 14 letters in all. Paul told the story of his travels and defined doctrines of the Church as he preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.
As we wrote earlier; the growth of the Church went largely unnoticed in the Roman Empire. The Church appeared to be no more than a Jewish sect. The early Church kept the 7th day Sabbath and observed what most people called the Jewish Holy Days. For many years the Church suffered persecution because of complaints by the Jewish community. Sometimes those persecutions were severe. At other times years went by with rapid growth and relatively few major problems.
By the early 60’s Christian congregations existed in most major cities of the Roman Empire. There was even a growing Christian community in the capital city, Rome.
Paul was sent to Rome as a prisoner because of charges filed against him in Jerusalem. After two years in the city of Caesarea, Paul appealed his case to Caesar at Rome. Although a member of a Jewish family, Paul was a free-born Roman citizen. Roman citizens had the right to appeal to Caesar. So Paul, finding he could not obtain justice in Judea, appealed to Rome.
In the year 54 A.D. the teenage, adopted son of the Roman Caesar Claudius, had come to the highest office in the Western world. His name was Nero. Nero’s mother contrived the death of Claudius to bring her son to power. Young Nero was to have a major effect on the now established Christian Church.
When Paul finally arrived in Rome after an arduous Mediterranean voyage, he was placed under house arrest to await trial. It was A.D. 60. Because no charges from Jerusalem were formally filed against him, he was released two years later.
It does not appear there was anything more than casual contact between this dynamic apostle of the Christian Church and the Roman emperor. But things were to change.
When Nero viewed the city of Rome from his balcony, the slums of the city spread below him. Nero envisioned Rome as the world’s premiere city. He planned fabulous buildings, beautiful gardens, impressive statues and fountains. The slums below his palace, where thousands of poor and indigent people lived, had to be replaced.
History is often polluted by legend. But most modern historians feel the account of the fire at Rome in A.D. 64 leads to the conclusion Nero was responsible for the fire. Whether or not Nero was to blame, the fire was a great tragedy. Ten of Rome’s 14 precincts were burned. Thousands were killed. Public and private buildings were ruined.
Who was to blame? Rumors quickly spread that Nero was personally behind the tragedy. Shrewd politicians had to find someone else to point the finger at. These Christians – they could be blamed. “They believe the world will be destroyed by fire,” one noted. “Why, they wouldn’t lift a hand to extinguish it,” another shouted.
“The Christians say this terrible fire was God’s fiery vengeance on us,” yet another exclaimed. So, Christians became the scapegoat.
The horrors of A.D. 64 make up one of the great tragedies of Church history. It was the first of 10 Roman persecutions to afflict the Church for nearly three centuries. But no persecution could stamp out Christ’s Church. Jesus said it would never die (Matt. 16:18).
Two years after the fire at Rome, in the eastern province of Judea, the Jews attempted to overthrow the Roman government. It was A.D. 66. A leading Roman general, Vespasian, was dispatched to Judea to put down the rebellion. A bloody four-year war resulted.
During that time, Paul, the best-known leader of the Christian Church was arrested by Roman officials, although his arrest was not directly related to the Judean war. Paul was taken to Rome for trial. The government found him guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to die. Since Paul was a Roman citizen, his execution was by beheading. It was the spring of A.D. 68 when the untimely and unfortunate death of this great apostle took place.
Ironically, Nero’s political strength had collapsed. Within a few days Nero committed suicide after his military forces revolted. On the eastern front, Vespasian left his son Titus in charge of the armies to continue the fighting in Judea. Vespasian rushed to Rome. He would soon become Caesar.
During the fighting of the hot summer of A.D. 70, the armies of Titus broke through the walls of Jerusalem. The Jewish insurrection was crushed. Jerusalem was ravaged. Even the great temple King Herod had built was torched. Titus carried many temple accoutrements back to Rome. If you travel to Rome today, in the ruins of the ancient city, you can see the conquest of Judah pictured on the arch of Titus.
But what about the Christians? Jesus’ followers were commonly called Nazarenes, after Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 24:5). Christ had warned his Church in the Olivet prophecy of Luke 21: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains: (vs. 20-21).
When Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70, believing Christians (Nazarenes) had already fled the city. On an earlier Feast of Pentecost, God miraculously warned those who would heed to get out before the destruction took place. The Church fled to the northeast – to the town of Pella, beyond the Jordan River.
The Church was being severely tested. Would it survive? Or would persecution end the Church after only 40 years? Remember, Jesus Christ had assured his apostles, “I will build My church, and the gates hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The Church would not die. It would be persecuted. It would be small. But it would not die.
For nearly a hundred years after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, historical evidence of the Church is scanty. The biblical record closes late in the first century A.D. The aging John was the sole survivor of the first apostles. He was left to combat mounting heresies and endure persecution from within and without.
Among the final battles John had to fight was a mounting heresy that had begun many years before. Perhaps as early as A.D. 33, the first great heretic to deceive in the name of the new Christian religion came on the scene. The Bible tells of this important figure in Acts 8. This man’s name was Simon Magus, or Simon the magician.
Simon was the high priest of the Samaritans – the peoples who lived just north of Judea. The bulk of the Samaritans descended from the peoples transplanted by the Assyrians into the region in the 8th century B.C. They had brought their Chaldean religious customs with them.
Over the centuries, living near the Jews, the Samaritans had adopted some Jewish practices while retaining their ancient Chaldean customs. They had also added Greek philosophies and Persian customs. This mixing of religious customs and beliefs is called syncretism.
When Philip, the first Christian minister to preach in Samaria, powerfully proclaimed Christ’s message, the Samaritan high priest believed his preaching – or at least he appeared to.
The apostles at Jerusalem, learning how many Samaritans were becoming believers, sent Peter and John to continue preaching and complete the baptism ceremonies begun by Philip. Miracles accompanied those early conversions.
Soon Simon’s true spirit was revealed. He offered money to Peter and John for the powers of the ministry they had. Peter rebuked Simon for his lustful attitude and bribery. To this day we call an attempt to purchase a church office simony, after Simon Magus.
Simon left without truly being converted. He did not have hands laid on him and did not receive the Holy Spirit. But Simon saw the attraction of this new Christian doctrine and way of life. To his already mixed religious philosophies, Simon added something new – Christian words and practices. Of course those practices were twisted and distorted. They were combined with Jewish ceremony, Babylonian superstitions, Greek mythology and Persian mysteries.
Like the true apostles of Jesus, Simon carried his message from city to city. In time he arrived in the capital city of Rome. He attracted a significant following. So great were Simon’s power and influence that some people honored him as a god. They even erected a statue of him on the Tiber River, an action reserved only for the most important dignitaries.
Then Simon yielded to his great vanity. The traditions about his death vary, but two that are popular involve an attempt to prove his supernatural powers.
One tradition says he asked to be buried alive, promising to reappear in three days just as Jesus had done. Another tradition tells that Simon, to prove his powers, tried to fly off a tall building. In any case, Simon died. His heresies, however, live on today! Many modern religious practices and concepts are nothing more than Simon’s with Christian names added. But the work of Simon was only the beginning of heresies.
From the earliest days of the Church, the truth Jesus’ apostles proclaimed became distorted. One deception was Gnosticism. The Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “to know,” exerted a powerful influence on first-century religion.
A careful study of the New Testament books reveals numerous confrontations with gnostic influence even among members of the true Church of God. You can read the second chapter of Colossians as an example.
Late in the first century, another influential heretic, Cerinthus, confronted the apostle John. The Bible does not name Cerinthus, but concerns John expressed in his three epistles refer, without a doubt, to this man’s teaching and influence.
Late in his ministry, the aging John prepared for the passing of leadership in the Church to a new generation. John probably lived past the turn of the first century. He would have been more than 100 years old when he died.
During the decade of the 90’s the Roman emperor, Domitian, exiled John to the Aegean isle of Patmos. The Bible does not document much of this period, but God did inspire the visions of the Book of Revelation while John was imprisoned there. After his release from prison, John continued his ministry in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the seven-congregation circuit mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. His principal headquarters was at Smyrna. There he took under his special care and tutelage a young man named Polycarp.
As the first century drew to a close, only the aging John remained alive of the original 12 apostles trained by Jesus Christ.
Life was difficult. Even though the Christian Church had spread throughout the Roman Empire, efforts to stamp it out continued. Domitian ruled as Roman emperor from A.D. 81 to 96. He instituted the second great persecution against the Church.
Without a doubt, Domitian had heard of John. Perhaps his greatest concern was the Christian doctrine that Jesus would become king. The Roman emperor could not tolerate another king, so Domitian brought John to Rome. When asked to confirm the rumors of Jesus becoming the Roman king, John’s reply is recorded as this: “You also shall reign for many years given you by God, and after you very many others; and when the times of the things upon earth have been fulfilled, out of heaven shall come a King, eternal, true, Judge of the living and the dead, to whom every nation and tribe shall conform, through whom every earthly power and dominion shall be brought to nothing, and every mouth speaking great things shall be shut” (from Ante-Nicene Fathers, by Roberts and Donaldson, the collection of writings that includes the Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist, John the Theologian, pages 560-562).
One tradition about this confrontation says Domitian asked for proof of these things. At that John asked for a cup of poison which he mixed and drank with no harmful effects. Suspecting a plot, Domitian required a condemned criminal to drink the potion. The criminal died instantly. As the story goes, John later took the dead man by the hand and raised him back to life.
Yet another tradition has Domitian immersing John in a cauldron of boiling oil. When no harm came to John, Domitian banished him to the prison isle of Patmos.
John was on Patmos, as is clear from his own writing: “I, John, both your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:9).
While John was imprisoned on Patmos, Jesus Christ revealed to him the final book of the sacred writings that would complete the Bible – the Book of Revelation. There, through dreams and symbols, Christ laid out the flow of events that would culminate in his return to establish the millennial reign of God’s government on the earth.
After John was released from prison, he not only had to battle the persecution of the Roman government, he had to struggle against false teachers.
One of the most influential heretics of the 1st century was Cerinthus. Another tradition from that time was a chance meeting of Cerinthus with John and his young companion Polycarp at the public baths.
Upon seeing the heretic, John is alleged to have said something like this to Polycarp: “Let us flee the baths, lest the wrath of God consume us all with this son of Satan.” Thus we are introduced to Polycarp. Born sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, Polycarp trained under John till John died shortly after the turn of the 1st century. For more than the next half century, Polycarp struggled to preserve the true faith.
During the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117), Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to the emperor about the growing Christian churches: “The contagion of that superstition (Christianity) has penetrated not only the cities but also the villages and country places.”
Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians. What kind of punishment ought to be inflicted on this group who seemed to be causing local peoples to desert their pagan temples?
In one of his letters to the emperor, Pliny wrote that they “assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as God.”
To find out more about their beliefs, he tortured two ladies who may have been deaconesses and reported, “I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition.”
After reading Pliny’s report, Trajan ordered that Christians who were caught ought to be punished, but they were not to be actively sought out. The government’s tolerance provided opportunity for cautious growth. But the Church was fragmenting. Doctrine became subject to a variety of interpretations.
Gnostic organizations began to use Christian doctrines and terminology. Followers of Simon the Magician, Carpocrates and Cerinthus were sometimes identified with Christianity. A sect known as Ebionites were said to blend customs and ordinances of the Jews with the Christian teachings.
The complexity of knowing who really were the faithful followers of Jesus Christ is shown by this statement from historian Edward Burton: “The fugitives from Jerusalem, while some became true disciples of Jesus Christ, others, as in the case in the spreading of new opinions, may have imperfectly learnt, or ignorantly perverted, the real doctrines of Christianity” (Lectures Upon the Ecclesiastical History of the First Three Centuries, p. 264).
The principal custodians of the faith resided in the churches of Asia Minor. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was the best-known leader.
In the large eastern city of Antioch, Syria, traditions preserve Ignatius as the second successor to Peter in that region. Arrested by the Romans, Ignatius may have paid a visit to Polycarp in Smyrna while on the journey to Rome.
Trajan sentenced Ignatius to die about A.D. 115. Before being thrown to the lions in the arena, Ignatius wrote, “I bid all men know that of my own free will I die for God, only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ.”
By this time, the western Christian churches at Rome were also gaining strength and authority. It would yet take another two centuries, but in the course of time, Rome, capital of the western empire, would also become the seat of what would be called Christianity.
Philosophers and writers associated with the development of the Christian church were also associated with the changing theology. Men like Clement of Rome (died about A.D. 97), Justin Martyr (100-167), Irenaeus (130-200), Tertullian (150-220). Origin (185-254) and Eusebius (260-340) provide us with the bulk of information we have from these first three centuries of Church history.
Most of the prominent names are from the church in the West – the church that ultimately would take the name Roman Catholic.
Through these first centuries Christianity struggled with new theological precepts: What should be the place of Mary in worship? Should Sunday be sanctified as the day of worship to honor the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Should the Church observe the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, or observe an Easter commemoration of Christ’s resurrection? What about “Jewish” practices such as Holy Day and Sabbath worship? What was the true nature of God? Who and what was Jesus – man, God or both?
Basically Christianity divided into two areas of theology. In the West, headquartered at Rome, the Roman bishop (not yet called the Pope) was gaining influence and power. There, special consideration of Mary, Sunday as a day of worship and casting off things “Jewish” grew in popularity.
Polycarp and the churches in the East maintained the traditions of the early Church regarding the 7th day Sabbath, the Holy Days and the laws of clean and unclean meats. In other words, Christians in the East strove to do what Jesus and the early apostles did.
Perhaps the most significant event in Polycarp’s ministry was his struggle to preserve the faith once delivered. When the church in the West established Easter Sunday as a memorial to the resurrection, they discontinued observance of Passover on the 14th of Nisan.
Churches in the East continued the custom of observing the Passover on the same night Jesus instituted the new symbols of bread and wine. The controversy, still with us even all these centuries later, was called the Quartodeciman controversy, its name coming from the Latin words meaning “14.”
Even though he was past 80 years of age, Polycarp undertook a journey to Rome to discuss this matter with the bishop of the Roman church, Anicetus. Neither could persuade the other, Polycarp returned to Smyrna. Even though persecuted by the government and rejected by the growing church at Rome, Polycarp would not yield to the change.
Only a few years after that confrontation, Polycarp, then 86, was arrested at Smyrna. The complete tradition is told by the 4th century writer Eusebius.
On the first Holy Day of the Days of Unleavened Bread, during the night, government officials arrived to arrest him. Rather than attempt an escape, Polycarp arose to meet them. The soldiers were surprised to find an old man, now feeble with years. They had expected a dangerous troublemaker.
To the contrary, Polycarp asked that a meal be prepared for them, then requested an hour of prayer before being taken away. After his prayer, Polycarp was permitted to ride a mule into the city. Upon arrival, officials rode with him in their carriage trying to persuade him to reject his Christian ways and give honor to Caesar as god. “What harm is there in saying ‘Lord Caesar’?” they asked, “Just sacrifice to him and you will be safe.” Polycarp made no reply.
As they persisted, Polycarp finally answered, “I have no intention of taking your advice.” The magistrates angrily turned to threats. He was shoved from the carriage and had to walk to the stadium where a large crowd was gathering for the games.
As they neared the stadium, now filled with roaring fans, a loud clap of thunder rattled the arena. Because of the clamor most did not hear the voice. “Be strong, Polycarp.”
It was announced at the arena, “Polycarp has been arrested.” The proconsul demanded: “Swear by the genius of Caesar. Say, “away with those who deny the gods.’” Of course, the Roman official meant for Polycarp to acknowledge the Roman gods and deny the God of the Bible and his Son, Christ.
With a twist of irony, Polycarp waved his hands toward the roaring crowd and cried, “Away with the godless!” Upon further demands to renounce Christ, Polycarp finally proclaimed: “For 86 years I have served him, and he has never done me wrong. How can I now blaspheme my King who saves me?”
“I have wild beasts,” the proconsul roared. “Call them,” the old man calmly replied. “If you make light of the beasts,” retorted the official, “I’ll have you destroyed by fire.”
Polycarp responded: “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished. In the judgment to come there is a fire of eternal punishment reserved for the wicked.”
The huge crowd called for the lions. But the time allotted for that kind of sport was already past. “Burn him alive,” they shouted. Many rushed from the stadium to gather logs and sticks. A great pyre was built and Polycarp was bound on top. He prayed “O Father I bless you for counting me worthy of this day and hour.”
The men in charge lit the fire. It roared into the air. Those who were there said it took the shape of a great sail. Polycarp’s body seemed protected from the flames. The executioner rushed forward, thrusting a sword into Polycarp’s body. Polycarp’s life came to a dramatic and speedy end.
But what he stood for, the preservation of the original and pure truth of the gospel, would never die. Leadership of the Church passed to a young man about to enter the prime of his ministry – Polycrates. He would also live a long and productive life in Christ’s service.
In nearly a repeat of Polycarp’s trip to Rome, Polycrates also journeyed to the capital do discuss with the bishop of Rome (then Victor I) the matter of Passover versus Easter. Victor held to Easter.
By now the authority of the Roman bishop was sufficient to demand that those in the East give up the 14th day of Nisan memorial and observe Easter. Victor threatened excommunication if they did not.
Polycrates refused to give in. He wrote: “We, for our part, keep the day scrupulously, without addition or subtraction. In Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s advent, when he is coming with glory from heaven and shall search out all his saints. All of these kept the 14th day of the month in accordance with gospel, not deviating in the least but following the rule of the Faith.”
He concluded: “Better people than I have said, ‘We must obey God rather than men. ’Polycrates lived through most of the second century. But great changes were to take place in the coming two centuries.
Watch for a continuation of this series. Learn the truth about God’s True Church! You may want to ask yourself the question, “Am I a part of it?”