The Bible Insights Weekly e-letter is freely available upon request.

Yes! Please Subscribe Me

Bible Insights Weekly

Enrich your spiritual thinking.

UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, October 05 2023

What happened to the beliefs of the early church?

The state of the Church dramatically changed in the second century. Historian Jesse Hurlbut comments: “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church…and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33).

What happened to the beliefs of the early church?
Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who legalised a very different form of Christianity in his empire.
Scott Ashley

With John’s writings, the books and letters that would form the New Testament were complete. After he died, reliable eyewitness accounts of events and changes in the Church largely ceased. We are left with confusing and contradictory accounts for the next several centuries.

Charles Guignebert, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Paris, observes: “Contemplate the Christian Church at the beginning of the fourth century… and some difficulty will be experienced in recognizing in her the community of Apostolic times, or rather, we shall not be able to recognize it at all . . .” (The Early History of Christianity, 1927, p. 122).

Part of the lack of information about this time stems from persecution of the Church. Under Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), Christians were blamed for burning the city of Rome, and many were martyred—including the Apostles Paul and Peter. Later all inhabitants of the Roman Empire were required to worship the emperor as a god. Christians and Jews who, in obedience to God’s commandments, refused to comply were vigorously persecuted. For several centuries, waves of persecution engulfed Christianity and Judaism.

From the scanty historical records it appears that, to avoid punishment, a significant number of Christians began to avoid identification with Judaism during this time, and the more visible portion of Christianity began a transition from the teachings of the Apostles to an anti-Jewish religious philosophy. Former practices held in common with Judaism—such as resting and worshiping on the weekly Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) and keeping the God-ordained festivals found in the Bible—rapidly began to wane as new customs crept into the Church.

At the Council of Nicaea (325) the new observation of Easter won out over the biblical Passover. In his letter, the Roman emperor Constantine revealed the depth of his feelings regarding practices he considered “Jewish: “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin…Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Savior a different way…” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).

Constantine’s reign as emperor (306-337) dramatically changed the direction of Christianity Under his rule, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. However the noted British historian Paul Johnson concludes the following regarding Constantine: “He… appears to have been a sun-worshiper…Many Christians did not make a clear distinction between this sun-cult and their own. They referred to Christ ‘driving his chariot across the sky’: they held their services on Sunday, knelt towards the East and had their nativity-feast on 25 December, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice (A History of Christianity, 1976, pp. 67-69).

“In 321 Constantine introduced Sunday as a weekly day of rest. Then as Robin Fox, lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University writes, “In the 430s, the Christian Council of Laodicea ruled in detail against Christian observance of the Jewish Sabbath, their acceptance of unleavened bread from Jews and their keeping of Jewish festivals” (Pagans and Christians, 1987, p. 482).

While the practices of the Apostles were being banned, traditions from other religions were being incorporated and relabeled as Christian: “Similarly, 25 December, now Christ’s birthday, was also the day of Sol Invictus’ [the unconquered sun’s] festival . . . celebrated by cutting green branches and hanging little lights on them, and presents were given out in the god’s name. Sol’s weekly festival Sol-day—Sunday—became the Christian Sabbath . . .” (Testament: The Bible and History, 1988, pp. 230-231).

During these early centuries, Christianity was radically transformed. The leaders of the most highly visible form of Christianity—the Roman Catholic Church, now supported by the power of the state—ignored God’s instruction and substituted one pagan practice after another, even as they persecuted those who still held to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

God’s warning was disregarded: “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them [the pagan nations], after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32). But what is equally regrettable is that, by abandoning the practices of Jesus and the Apostles, so many miss out on a fuller understanding of true Christianity.