Ancient Concepts of the Church

Vol. 2 No. 4 (1958): 197-204

Ancient Concepts of the Church

William M. Green

In the New Testament the word "church" (Greek, ekklesia) is the regular term for the Christian community, whether referring to the whole body of believers or to a local congregation. The significance of the church and its place in God's plan are most fully set forth in Paul's letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. There the church is said to be the body of which Christ is the head (Ephesians 1:22f.; Colossians 1: 18, 24); it is sanctified and cleansed by him that it may be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:26f.). The unity of the body is stressed: "There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:4f.). This statement agrees well with what Paul had written in his earlier letters: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all members. . . are one body, so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body. . . . and were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:12f.). "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, did put on Christ. . . for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27f.)

For that church God provided a ministry: "And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ; till we all attain unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God" (Ephesians 4:11-13). Of the offices named, those of apostles and prophets were recognized as temporary, while the work of pastors and teachers was entrusted to the bishops or elders of local congregations; these also had deacons to assist them. They were not specially designated as "priests," for this title was conferred on the whole Christian community (Revelation 1:6, etc.). They were not to "lord it over" the charge allotted to them, as the rulers of the Gentiles do (1 Peter 5:3; Matthew 20:25), but are to be examples to their flock. In fact, the common word for "ruler" (archon, often used for a ruler of a synagogue, of the Jews, of the Gentiles) is never used of any church official, although Christians are told to "Obey them that have the rule over you" (Hebrews 13: 17; the phrase tois hegoumenois hymon means "your leaders"). The emphasis is upon teaching, concern for the flock, and exemplary life rather than upon rule and authority.

The second century witnessed the change from the church of the apostles and prophets to the church of bishops and synods, sometimes called the "ancient catholic church." The adjective "catholic," [198] meaning "general" or universal," is first appJied to the church by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died for his faith in the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) His letters, written to various churches, show especial concern about schism and heresy. Each church is exhorted to remain united under its bishop and its presbyters. No longer are these terms synonymous, as in the New Testament; a single bishop stands above the presbyters. To the church at Smyrna he writes: "Let no man do anything connected with the church without the bishop. . . . Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church" (ch. 8, translated in Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 89f.). From the meaning "universal," the word "catholic" easily passes over to describe the "right" or "true" church. Thus the letter known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written about 155) is addressed "to all the congregations of the holy and catholic (i.e., universal) church in every place," and in the narrative Polycarp is said to be the bishop of "the catholic (i.e., true) church which is in Smyrna" (ANF, I, 39, 42).

After a bishop had been established in each city to maintain the unity of the church, or churches, under his rule, it remained quite possible for differences to arise between the bishops of different cities. A bishop might even give his support to a heresy. How. then, was the unity of the universal church to be maintained? A partial answer to this question was found in t.he second and third centuries by assemblies of bishops in various regions; these came to be ca1led "provincial synods." The first of these seems to have been held in Asia Minor to deal with the movement launched some time after 150 by a Phrygian, Montanus. He and certain prophetesses were seized with a spirit of ecstasy, in which they proc1aimed the imminent return of the Lord, who was to reign not in Jerusalem, but in a "New Jerusalem" in Phrygia. The movement spread, and gained followers in many places. A concerted resistance was evidently needed. Hence synods met in many regions, and at last the Montanists were driven out of the church and excommunicated (Eusebius, Church History, 5, 16, 10, translated in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, I, 232). Another series of synods was held before the end of the second century at the request of Victor, bishop of Rome, to settJe the question of the date of Easter. This festival, as an annual celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection, had been the custom as early as the time of Polycarp (before 155), but with a difference between the churches of Asia and the church of Rome. The former kept the fourteenth of Nisan (of the Jewish calendar) as the day of the Lord's death, but Rome discarded the Jewish date and kept a Sunday as the anniversary of the resurrection. In the time of Victor (about 189-198) the presence of Asiatics in Rome who insisted on keeping their own customs made the question acute. So Victor summoned a synod of bishops in Rome, requesting Polycrates of Ephesus and others to do the same in their regions. The [199] synods in Gaul, Pontus, Palestine, and Osrhoene were in agreement with Rome, but the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, announced their decision to abide by their ancient customs (Eusebius, Church History, 5, 23 f. NPNF 241 f.). Although Victor announced that all the Asiatic churches were excommunicated, he was rebuked for this by Irenaeus, and the whole question remained unsolved. Evidently the Asiatic bishops were supreme in their own dioceses; provinces might be brought to unity by means of synods, but neither in Rome nor elsewhere was there an authority to enforce conformity upon a reluctant province.

In matters of essential doctrine, however, there was a general agreement among the churches throughout the world. The writings of the apostles and other inspired men of the first century were everywhere read in the churches, along with the Old Testament. Thus a "New Testament" was brought together as a necessary means of guarding the "deposit" of apostolic teaching, and a "canon" or list of inspired books was gradually completed. For the instruction of converts a creed, or summary of Christian belief, was drawn up to be memorized; this gradually took the form later known as the "Apostles' Creed." Thus upon the threefold basis of creed, canon, and episcopate rested the ancient catholic church.

[200] The concept of this church is well defined by Irenaeus. Born in Asia Minor and reared under the instruction of Polycarp, he migrated to Lyons, the chief city of central Gaul. There he was a presbyter before the persecution of 177, and later became bishop. His best known writing is the work Against Heresies. In refuting the Gnostic perversions of Christianity he points to the unity of the church throughout the world, and the unbroken succession of bishops in churches founded by the apostles. These bishops and their presbyters all Christians must obey, fox the apostles gave them their own authority and the certain gift of truth (ANF, I, 330 f., 415, 497).

Tertullian, the African contemporary of Irenaeus, insists on a similar defense of catholic doctrine. He would cut shod the controversy with heretics by pointing to the churches which the apostles founded (such as Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, Rome) as the depositories of the faith; they possess one tradition which is substantially the same everywhere. Each church has the creed, the canon of Scripture, and a succession of bishops; since the heretics have none of these, they do not deserve to be heard (On Prescription against Heretics, 32, 36. ANF, III, 258, 260). It had not as yet occurred to Tettullian that there might be a "falling away" in which the churches founded by apostles would depart from apostolic teaching. Later he came to admit this possibility. A puritan by temperament, Tertullian was alarmed by the worldliness which he saw in the church and turned to Montanism, which had a more rigorous discipline. He then writes in scorn of the Catholics, praising the Montanists as the only "spiritual" men.

[200] The concept of the church which appears in the writings of Iremeus and Tertullian is further developed and clarified in the treatise of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church. Though it fills but nine pages in the translation of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF, V, 421-429), it is commonly recognized as one of the most influential documents in the world. A schism had arisen in Carthage about the restoration of Christians who had denied the faith in the persecution of Decius in 250. The same question had led to a similar schism in Rome. With one, or both, of these questions in mind, Cyprian read his paper to the bishops assembled at the Council of Carthage in 251. More to be feared than persecution, he declares, is the craftiness of Satan, who has invented heresies and schisms by which he snatches men from the church. The unity of the church is established by Christ's words: "I say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." To all the apostles he gives an equal power when he says: "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they sha1l be remitted unto them," yet by beginning with Peter he sets forth the unity of his church. Paul also testifies to this unity by saying: "There is one body and one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism." The unity resides in the office of the bishop; the episcopate is a whole in which each bishop enjoys fu1l possession. Episcopatus unus est, cuius a singulis in solidum pars tenetur; the language is that of a lawyer, indicating a joint ownership. As in a modern partnership, each partner has fu1l capacity to act for all. Thus the unity of the church is secured, and as Cyprian adds, "no one can have God as his Father who does not have the church as his Mother."

Cyprian's theory of unity is clear. It resides in the unity of the bishops, each of whom is a successor of the apostles. Practically, their unity of action was achieved by councils, such as those which Cyprian ca1led at Carthage. But not even the decision of a council impaired the rights of an individual bishop. Cyprian makes this clear in his address to the Seventh Council of Carthage (256), which discussed the rebaptism of heretics. Cyprian opened the council with these words: "It remains that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting anyone from the right of communion if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his co1league to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let us a11 wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ" (ANF, V, 565).

This theory, however, leaves many, problems unsettled. Much might be left to the liberty of individual bishops, but presumably there was a limit to such toleration beyond which a bishop would be marked for heresy and excommunicated. Furthermore, it [201] provides no means by which unity may be achieved on an ecumenical, or worldwide, basis. This problem became acute when Stephen, bishop of Rome 254-257, intervened in opposition to Cyprian's position on rebaptism. Cyprian argued that Stephen can be wrong, even as Peter was when he was rebuked by Paul; Peter, however, did not make any arrogant claims on the basis of his primacy, but yielded to the truth which Paul asserted (Ernst. 71,3. ANF, V, 377). Stephen held his ground, reasserted his claims as Peter's successor, and circulated a letter in which he announced the excommunication of those who practiced rebaptism. This aroused indignation in the East as well as the West. Firmilian of Cresarea in Cappadocia informed Stephen that in excommunicating others he had only excommunicated himself (ANF, V, 396).

We have cited a passage from Cyprian in which he refers to the church as his "Mother." This metaphor first appears in the letter of the churches of Lyons and Vienne, describing the persecution they suffered in 177. There the church is represented as a virgin mother, sorrowing for her children who had denied the faith; then the courage of other martyrs restored the fallen to new courage: "And great joy came to their Virgin Mother: those whom she had brought forth dead through miscarriage, these were restored to her alive" (Eusebius, V, 1, 45; see J. C. Plumpe, Mater Ecclesia, 1943, 36). Tertullian used similar language in several passages, and from him Cyprian adopts and develops the idea. There are deep emotional overtones in the passages where Cyprian speaks of the joy and grief of the Mother Church as some of her children prove steadfast, others fail in the face of torture and death. Only through punitive discipline can the lapsed be gathered again into the bosom of the Mother Church. The church is the bride of Christ, to whom in lawful wedlock she bears her spiritual children. When some of the "confessors" who had suffered for Christ joined the faction of Novatian, Cyprian writes to induce them "to return to their Mother, that is, to the Catholic Church." (See passages cited in Plumpe, op.cit., 81-108).

Another idea of major importance also reached its full development in Cyprian. This is the concept of the Christian ministry asa priesthood. Tertullian (about 200) first used the Latin word for "priest" (sacerdos) for the Christian bishop. At the same time he asserted the universal priesthood of all believers; the minister is a priest because he is the mouthpiece or representative of a priestly race. Cyprian goes further and takes the Old Testament passages which mention priests, as directly applying to the ministers of the church: they are entitled to honor, reverence, and obedience. On this point Lightfoot remarks: "As Cyprian crowned the edifice of episcopal power, so also he was the first to put forward without relief or disguise the sacerdotal assumptions; and so uncompromising was the tone in which he asserted them that nothing was left to his [201] successors but to enforce his principles and reiterate his language" (St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, 258 f.).

With the rise of Constantine to power (306-337) the age of persecutions gave way to the age of the imperial church and the ecumenical councils. Constantine saw that the attempt to suppress Christianity by force had failed, hence reversed the policy of his pagan predecessors and sought to make the church a bulwark for his power. He had scarcely finished the wars which made him sole emperor (324) when he was confronted by a doctrinal controversy which threatened to destroy the unity of the church. Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, had been excommunicated by a synod acting under the presidency of the bishop of that city. He left Egypt, to seek and find support elsewhere for his teaching. He insisted that the Father was prior to the Son, that the Son was not, but was created and made. When both sides called on Constantine to intervene he summoned a council of all the bishops to meet at Nicea in 325. When the bishops assembled, the Emperor took his seat on a throne before them and delivered an oration on peace and unity, then left them to their work. An attempt was made to draw up a formula for unity in simple and Scriptural terms, but at each step the Arians would offer their interpretation of the Scripture as a support of their special views. So it was decided to adopt a creed which should clearly embody the teaching accepted by the majority, along with "anathemas" to condemn the teaching of Arius. When this was done, the creed was signed by all the bishops except two. These, together with Arius, were condemned by the council, then banished to Illyricum by the Emperor. It would seem that the Emperor's purpose was achieved, that the unity of the church was established by the Council and guaranteed by the police power of the State. But the friends of Arius were soon to undermine this achievement by discrediting their opponents, especially Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. A number of councils were held, some amid scenes of great disorder, aiming to undo or to revise the work of Nicea. Only with the accession of Theodosius (379-395), called "the Great" for his services to the Catholic Church, was order reestablished. He deposed the Arian bishop of Constantinople, his capital city, and summoned a second ecumenical council to meet there in 381. To that council is generally ascribed the revised form of the "Nicene Creed" which has ever since been in use in both Eastern and Western Christendom.1 This creed affirms belief "in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church." Thus one finds here what are commonly called the "four notes," or marks of the church: (1) it is one, as against the multitude of heresies; (2) it is holy, since it is the body of Christ; (3) it is Catholic, or universal in its extent; (4) it is apostolic, with a succession of bishops going back to the apostles.

The belief in "one holy Catholic and apostolic Church" was universally accepted, but schisms could still occur. The question then was which party was the Catholic Church, and which the schism, The most famous and prolonged controversy of this sort took place in Africa. There, in the last great persecution (303-312) some of the clergy saved their lives by surrendering copies of the Scriptures, as ordered by the authorities. These were known as traditores, and (according to rigorist thinking) forever disqualified as priests or bishops. When Cecilian was consecrated bishop of Carthage in 311, the rigorists refused to accept him, on the ground that his consecrator had been a traditor. The schism thus begun lasted four centuries, deriving its name from the second and most famous schismatic bishop of Carthage, Donatus. When Augustine became bishop of Hippo in 395, he found himself involved in controversy with the Donatists. They professed to be the "one holy Catholic and apostolic" church, since they alone had a valid ministry, untainted with the sin of traditio. Their position became the more absurd as they themselves divided into factions : one Rogatus was the originator of a tiny schism in one village, yet he and his party made the same claim of catholicity as was made by the main body of Donatists. Nevertheless the Donatist movement spread to become a kind of national African revolt against the imperial church and against the wealthy Romanized population of Africa, and much violence resulted.

In his debates with the Donatists Augustine maintains, first, that the charges of traditio in the first place were unproven, and second, that if they had been true they did not justify the schism, The church can still fulfil its functions, even if its ministers are guilty of sin. The church on earth is a mixed body where tares grow with the wheat until God shall judge all and make the final separation. What, then, of the holiness of this mixed church? Here it was Tyconius, a Donatist, who gave Augustine his clue, He had spoken of a twofold division of the body of Christ, Augustine would correct him, and speak of "the true and the mixed body of the Lord, or the true and the counterfeit; because, not to speak of eternity, hypocrites cannot even now be said to be in him, although they seem to be in his church" (On Christian Doctrine 3, 32, 45. NPNF II, 569). The body of Christ is holy because of its relation to him, and only in that body can individuals attain holiness; yet they are not at present perfectly holy, else why should they pray each day for forgiveness of sins? The church is a mixed body which must await the last day for its perfection in holiness (See G. G. Willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy, 1950, 117).

The true body of the Lord is identical with what Augustine elsewhere calls "the City of God," for whose defense he wrote his greatest work. He explains that the human race is of two parts, "the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God. And these we mystically call the two cities, are the two communities of men, of which the one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil" (City of God, 25, 1. NPNF II, 284). [204] The church that exists in this wicked world cannot be identical with the city of God, for in it there are many reprobate mingled with the good, as good and bad fish are mixed in a drag net, to be separated only in God's final judgment (op.cit., 18, 49. NPNF II, 391). Yet we must not think of Augustine's distinction as equivalent to the modern notion of a visible and "invisible" church. For Augustine the church is a visible body, not yet purged of its unholy members, nor completed in its number, but entrusted with the gospel and the sacraments by which the elect are called to become citizens of the City of God. Angels, too, belong to that city, just as the angels of the Devil belong to his city. When thinking of the present age on earth, Augustine sometimes speaks of the City of God as identical with the church. Often it is afflicted and persecuted, but is still made strong and glorious by hope. It is "a city surpassingly glorious, whether we view it as it still lives by faith in this fleeting course of time, and sojourns as a stranger in the midst of the ungodly, or as it shall dwell in the fixed stability of its eternal seat, which it now with patience waits for, expecting. . . final victory and perfect peace."2



1 See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 1950, 325. Kelly argues that "the council of Constantinople did in fact promulgate and give currency to the(revised Nicene) creed, but in doing so it did not conceive of itself as manufacturing a new creed."

2City of God 1, Preface. NPNF II, 1. For a summary of passages on the "city of God" and the "church" see J. E. C. Welldon's edition (1924), II, 647651 and 686 f.)

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