The Early Church

By Elder Louis Holder

Most modern churches today operate under what is called “The Principal of Development”, which means that Jesus laid only the barest of foundations for the church and meant for future generations to change, add to, or take away from anything that they thought would help or “improve” the church. Primitive Baptists have always believed that Jesus did a perfect and complete work and that the doctrine and practice He left us never needed any “tweaking”. As error can easily creep in if we have no standard to compare to, I thought a brief review of early church history might be helpful.

The very first church, the one in Jerusalem, was Jewish. The Jewish converts apparently thought that believing in Jesus as the Messiah was the only change they had to make as they still believed that they had to keep the law of Moses (Acts 21:20). At first, all gentiles who joined had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses also (Acts 15: 1-29). If not for Paul, there would be no gentile Christian church. It took a very dramatic event (the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish nation-66 to 73 A.D.) to finally separate Christianity from Judaism.

Perhaps the earliest document describing the early worship service is Governor Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan, written between 111 and 113 A.D.

They asserted, however, that the amount of their error was this: that they had been accustomed to assemble on a fixed day before daylight and sing by turns (I.e. antiphonally) a hymn to Christ as a God; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but to commit neither theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, not to break their word and not to deny a deposit when demanded; after these things were done, it was their custom to depart and meet together again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food, and they said that even this had ceased after my edict was issued, by which, according to your commands, I had forbidden the existence of clubs. (See note 1)

The next to appear was a document called “The Didache”, Greek meaning “The Teaching”. It is believed to have been written between 100 and 125 A.D. and was kind of like a first grade primer. It is a fairly long document, but part of it is interesting enough to copy here to show what new converts were being taught how they were expected to behave if they joined the church. The gentile world had no moral law, (kinda like now) every kind of depravity was practiced and guiltless. ( 1 Cor. 6: 9-11) All of the sins listed below were commonplace, but any sin that you can quit and leave outside the church can be forgiven. It is a matter of jurisdiction. The laws of any governmental entity extend only to the borders of that entity. The laws of the U.S. do not apply in Canada or in Mexico. The laws of the Kingdom of God do not apply out in the world.

And this is the second commandment of the teaching. Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued; for the double tongue is a snare of death. Thy word shall not be false or empty, but followed by action. Thou shalt not be avaricious nor a plunderer nor a hypocrite nor ill-tempered nor proud. Thou shalt not entertain an evil design against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not hate any man, but some thou shalt reprove, and for others thou shalt pray, and others thou shalt love more than thy life. ( See note 2)

The early church baptized by immersion, though the Didache allowed for affusion (pouring) if a pool of water wasn’t available (a lot of desert country around there). Tertullian gave a description of how he practiced it.

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the church and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we renounce the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children) we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey; and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. ( See note 1)

The church spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire. Remember those “devout men, out of every nation under heaven”? (Acts 2:5) After the holy days they went back home. Don’t you suppose that they took their new belief with them?

God’s people, in general, have never liked God’s word. Too restrictive for most people. In an example from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 6: 16) the people are told to walk in “the old ways” and their response is “We will not walk therein”. From the New Testament (Galatians 1: 6-7) “I marvel that ye are so soon removed…unto another gospel.” Even as the Bible was being written, men were going about trying to change Jesus’ teachings. (1st John 2: 18-19. 4: 1)

Probably shortly before 150 A.D., a man named Hermas claimed to have had a revelation from God in which he got to ask God if an adulterous wife could be forgiven, and of course he got the answer he wanted. The fact that ( as he stated in his question to God) he had been taught otherwise tells us what the teaching of the church was at that time. “ I have heard Sir, from some teachers, that there is no other repentance than that when we descend into the water and receive remission of our former sins.” (See note 1)

There was the idea current that sins after baptism admitted of no pardon and involved permanent exclusion from the church (cf. Heb. 10: 26). A distinction was also made as to sins whereby some were regarded as “sins unto death” and not admitting of pardon (cf. 1st John 5: 16). In principle, the exclusion from the Church of those who had committed gross sins was recognized, but as the Church grew it soon became a serious question as to the extent to which this strict discipline could be enforced. We find, therefore, a well defined movement toward relaxing this rigor of the law. The beginning appears in Hermas, who admits the possibility of one repentance after baptism. (See note 1)

The desire to change Church discipline may have first become public with Hermas supposed revelation, but it certainly did not stop there. Kallistus (Callistus), was the most aggressive of the Roman Bishops so far. He issued an edict that by his own authority he would forgive the deadly sins of adultery and fornication (a general word meaning any sexual sin-LH) upon evidence of repentance. This upset Tertullian considerably.

Callistus, to whom reference is made in the first chapter, was bishop of Rome 217-222. The work, therefore, belongs to the latest period of Tertullian’s life.
Ch.1 I hear that there has been an edict set forth, and, indeed, a peremptory one; namely, that the Pontifex Maximus, the bishop of bishops, issues an edict: “I remit to such as have performed penance, the sins both of adultery and fornication.”
Ch. 21 “But” you say, “the Church has the power of forgiving sins.” This I acknowledge and adjudge more, I, who have the Paraclete himself in the person of the new prophets, saying: “The Church has the power to forgive sins, but I will not do it, lest they commit still others.”… I now inquire into your opinion, to discover from what source you usurp this power to the Church.
(See note 1)

Perhaps it is time to mention what the “sins unto death” were that were the bone of contention then. Maybe you have heard of the “Seven Deadly Sins”? Likely what you have heard is the Catholic Church’s version, which is: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy, and Gluttony. These were added to Catholic doctrine by Pope Gregory in 590 A.D. 339 years after Cornelius declared the original Seven Deadly Sins null and void. Below, in a letter from Tertullian, is a list of the original Seven Deadly Sins that Hermas and others were trying to change. It seems to me, allowing for differences in translations, (Jesus spoke Aramaic, the early scriptures were written in Greek, Tertullian wrote in Latin and we translated that into English), that he got his list from Matt.15: 19, plus he added idolatry which is spoken of in the harshest possible terms in both the old and new testaments. (Deut. 13, 1st Cor. 10: 14-21)

We our selves do not forget the distinction between sins, which was the starting point of our discussion. And this, too, for John has sanctioned it (cf. 1st John 5: 16), for there are some sins of daily committal to which we are all liable; for who is free from the accident of being angry unjustly and after sunset; or even of using bodily violence; or easily speaking evil; or rashly swearing; or forfeiting his plighted word; or lying from bashfulness or necessity? In business, in official duties, in trade, in food, in sight, in hearing, by how great temptations are we assailed! So that if there were no pardon for such simple sins as these, salvation would be unattainable by any. Of these, then, there will be pardon through the successful Intercessor with the Father, Christ. But there are other sins wholly different from these, graver and more destructive, such as are incapable of pardon— murder, idolatry, fraud, apostasy, blasphemy, and, of course, adultery and fornication and whatever other violation of the temple of God there may be. For these Christ will no more be the successful Intercessor; these will not at all be committed by any one who has been born of God, for he will cease to be the son of God if he commit them. (See note 1)

There are two things I wish to comment on here. First, the statement about being a son of God, or losing that high honor by committing one of those sins. In John 1: 12-13, the only ones who can become the sons of God are those that were born of God. In other words, a born again child of God, can, by honoring God in obedience to his instructions, show themselves to be His own. To disobey His instructions makes it seem that they would rather work for God’s enemy. (John 8: 44)

Second, Is the comment about violating the temple of God. When a child of God decides to dedicate his body and soul to God’s service and submits to the symbolic death, burial and resurrection of baptism (Rom. 6: 2-6) that child becomes a “New Creature” (2nd Cor. 5: 17) and Jesus and His Father will make their abode with him (John 14: 23), that is, their body becomes the temple of the Holy Ghost ( 1st Cor. 6: 19, 2nd Cor. 6: 16). To then defile that holy temple with one or more of the sins that Jesus says defiles a man (Matt. 15: 19-20) is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, the one unforgivable sin. (Matt. 12: 31-32)

In Revelation, in John’s allegorical description of the new testament church, he says that “there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth” ( Rev. 21: 27) He also describes the church as having a wall around it (Rev. 21: 12), not to keep people in who want out, but to keep people out who want in. Most modern churches have demolished that wall and let in anyone, no matter their lifestyle.

In my time in the Primitive Baptist church, one of the most disputed subjects among the brethren is whether the man in 1st Cor. 5: 1-5 is the same man in 2nd Cor. 2: 1-10. Some believe that Paul insisted on expelling the man in 1st Cor. for fornication, then advocated his restoration in 2nd Cor. Others believe that is an inconsistency in the Bible’s teaching and think that it must be a different man.

We have two letters to Corinth in our Bibles entitled “The first epistle to the Corinthians” and “The second epistle…” and so on, and yet in 1st Cor. 5: 9 we have reference to a previous epistle that Paul wrote to Corinth that did not make it down through time to us, so we know that there were at least three letters to the Corinthians. The scholars believe that there were four. The following is the opinion of James L. Price of Duke University.

We have seen that anyone wishing to reconstruct the course of events between the writing of 1st and 2nd Corinthians must adopt some questionable assumptions. But certain points are clear. Timothy’s return from Corinth brought news of no improvement in the church. Soon afterwards, Paul went directly to Corinth by sea, abandoning his plan to visit Macedonia first. (1st Cor. 16: 5) This journey is commonly called “the painful visit”. It was a complete fiasco. One member of the Corinthian church rebelled against Paul’s authority, and the congregation as a whole acted defiantly. Upon Paul’s return to Ephesus he wrote a third time to the Corinthians. It is probable that this so called “severe letter” has not been preserved. Did the letter contain an ultimatum from the Apostle? It is certain that he demanded the punishment of the rebel. It seems that Titus was the bearer of this letter. While awaiting the return of his fellow worker, Paul suffered deep anxieties. Had he dealt too harshly with his converts? External threats to his life in Ephesus were accompanied by these and other misgivings. Paul left Ephesus sooner than he had planned. While at Troas Paul was not able to go on with his work, although opportunities were given him to preach. (2nd Cor. 2: 12-13) After taking leave of friends at Troas, Paul journeyed along the Egnatian Way, hoping to meet Titus with news from Corinth.

When Titus joined Paul, the Apostle learned that the worst was over. The Corinthians had been moved to grief and repentance by Paul’s severe letter. The offender had been punished by the congregation, although this action had caused some disagreement. Paul found such great relief from his depression that as soon as possible he began a fourth letter to the Corinthians. (See note 3)

The order of the Corinthian letters then would be:
1st letter- referred to in 1st Cor. 5: 9
2nd letter- what we call 1st Cor.
3rd letter- the lost “severe letter”
4th letter- what we call 2nd Cor.

In 250 A.D. the Emperor Decius issued an empire wide edict beginning an effort to exterminate Christianity. He believed that Rome had attained her glory by worshiping the old Roman gods. He could see that glory slipping away and he blamed the Christians for turning some of the people away from those gods. The penalty for professing Christianity was death. Many Christians, when brought before the magistrates, cursed Christ and worshiped the Emperor’s image as a god; their churches promptly excluded them for apostasy. In the common opinion denial of the faith was the absolute worst of the deadly sins. (Matt. 10: 33)

Below is a copy of one of the official documents given to a suspected Christian to keep, so he could prove to any future accusers that he was no Christian.

This is the actual certificate which a man suspected of being a Christian obtained from the commission appointed to carry out the edict of persecution. It has been preserved these many centuries in the dry Egyptian climate, and is with some others, which are less perfect, among the most interesting relics of the ancient Church.

Presented to the Commission for the Sacrifices in the village of Alexander Island, by Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the village of Alexander Island, about seventy two years of age, with a scar on the right eyebrow. I have at other times always offered to the gods as well as also now in your presence, and according to the regulations have offered, sacrificed, and partaken of the sacrificial meal; and I pray you to attest this. Farewell, I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this.
(In a second hand)
I, Aurelius Syrus, testify as being present that Diogenes sacrificed with us.
(First hand)
First year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius, pious, happy, Augustus, 2nd day of Epiphus. (June 15th 250)
(See note 1)

Many thousands of church members denied the faith under this persecution, and the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Cornelius, in collaboration with the Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, (and probably others), decided that it was time to do away with the “Deadly Sins” once and for all, so that the “Lapsed” could be brought back into the church. He therefore issued an edict that all sins, committed by baptized church members, were now forgivable after penance.

This assumption of authority by Cornelius did not go unchallenged. One of the other ministers in the church at Rome, Novation, claimed that he, Cornelius, could not change the doctrine of the church (enter the principle of development), but the majority supported Cornelius, so Novation and others withdrew fellowship from them.

There was no difference in point of doctrine between the Novatianists and other Christians. Novatian had seen evils result from readmitting apostates; he consequently refused communion to all those who had fallen after baptism. The terms of admission in those churches were, “If you wish to join any of our churches, you may be admitted among us by baptism; but observe, that if you fall away into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our communion, and on no account can you be readmitted among us. We shall never attempt to injure you , in your person, property, or character; we do not presume to judge the sincerity of your repentance, or your future state; but you can never be readmitted to the fellowship of our churches, without our giving up the securest guardian we have for the purity of our communion.” “They considered,” says Mosheim, “the Christian church, as a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally, and none of whose members, from their entrance into it, had defiled themselves with any enormous crimes, and, of consequence, they looked upon every society which readmitted heinous offenders to its communion, as unworthy of the title of a true Christian church. On account of the church’s severity of discipline, the example was followed by many, and churches of this order flourished in the greatest part of those provinces which had received the gospel.” Many advenient rites had been appointed, and interwoven with baptism, with a threefold administration of the ordinance, in the old interests, which obscured the original simplicity and design of the institutor. To remove all human appendages, the Novationists said to candidates, “If you be a virtuous believer, and will accede to our confederacy against sin, you may be admitted among us by baptism, or if any Catholic has baptized you before, by rebaptism.” They were at later periods called Anabaptists. The churches thus formed upon a plan of strict communion and ridged discipline, obtained the reproach of Puritans; they were the oldest body of Christian churches, of which we have any account, and a succession of them, we shall prove, has continued to the present day. (See note 4)

The only difference in doctrine that separated the Novationists and Catholics was church discipline, not baptism, not predestination not music or anything else, all of which came later. The Bishop of Rome, Cornelius, took it upon himself to change church doctrine by doing away with the “Deadly Sins”, Novation and his followers continued in the original doctrine. If the Catholics were right, and all sins are forgivable, then the Novationists were in fact the heretics the Catholics said they were, and we, modern day Novationists, are descended from a long line of heretical churches.

The Catholics tried to get the Novationists to come back to “the winning side”, and some did, but most did not. The Catholics, now supported by the Emperor Constantine, held a council in Nicaea, 325 A.D. Part of their deliberations is called “Canon 8, On the Novations.”

Canon 8. Concerning those who call themselves Cathari, (the pure ones) who come over to the Catholic and Apostolic church, the great and holy synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are among the clergy. But before all things it is necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the teachings of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; that is, that they will communicate with those that have been twice married and with those who have lapsed during the persecution, and upon whom a period of penance has been laid and a time for restoration fixed; so that in all things they will follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. Whosoever, then, whether in villages or in cities, only these are found who have been ordained, let them remain as found among the clergy and in the same rank. But if any come over where there is a bishop or presbyter of the Catholic Church, it is manifest that the bishop of the Church must have the dignity of a bishop, and he who was named bishop by those who are called Cathari shall have the honor of a presbyter, unless it seem fit to the bishop to share with him the honor of the title. But if this should not seem good to him, then shall the bishop provide for him a place as chorepiscopus, or as presbyter, in order that he may be evidently seen to be of the clergy, and that in one city there may not be two bishops. (See note 1)

Small comment: I was told by a preacher who wanted us to “roll over” our membership into his church, that I would have to stand up before his congregation and state that I no longer believed in “that non-forgiveness doctrine”. He did not, however, require it in writing as his predecessors in Canon 8 did.

Note 1: Copied from: A Source Book for Ancient Church History
By J. C. Ayer Jr.
Internet version from Project Gutenberg

Note 2: The Didache can be accessed from the internet
Internet version from

Note 3: Copied from: Interpreting the New Testament
By James L. Price, Duke University

Note 4: Copied from: A Concise History of Baptists
By G. H. Orchard
Internet version from The Sovereign Grace Baptist Library


One Response to The Early Church

  1. Horace Glenn says:

    Very deep and powerfull, Your writings sounds a lot like you preaching.

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